36One Race Report

I flew into George the morning of the start. I arrived at 10h00, the race started at 18h00. It worked out well. I had enough time to do registration, put my needed items into the 3 check point boxes, have lunch and catch an afternoon nap before we rode over to the start at Kleinplaas. It was good to bump into many familiar faces, all of them tough as nails, with endurance pedigree and firmly in the hard core category. I was amongst a very special crowd and no-one around me was guaranteed a finish.

I made my riding strategy clear to Willem up front. I knew how to get myself to the finish and I was going to ride my own pace, he had no obligation to stay with me and I felt none to stay with him. We had ridden many ultra rides together and both of us had the ability to reach the finish, Willem had completed 36One before. He is a stronger rider than me but we have always found common ground in pace and companionship over such a long distance is a significant advantage. As it turned out, we rode together all the way to the finish. Yes, we finished :-).

The start was, as expected a fast affair and my heart rate monitor was playing up, showing me at 115% of max HR, it had done so before. I ignored it and settled into a sustainable rhythm. I wasn’t paying very good attention to the times and splits but have the detail, I had decided beforehand to pretty much ride it as it happens no matter what time or distance. I had 4x 6 hour legs in my head and wanted to finish before sunset on Saturday. Very unprecise but it was how I had decided to manage the mental part of the race. We reached CP 1 at 81km just after 10pm which was a reasonable but not very fast pace, our position for this split was in the 250s, around midfield. The first leg up to 81km had a few good hills in but I had spun them out in easy gears to protect my legs. I am also used to riding at night and my lights had been tested many times so had no issues in this regard throughout the race. The locals around Dysselsdorp provided wonderful spectator support late at night to encourage the riders, a few special moments as the race is largely rather isolated and lonely. One girl shouted as we rode past “Vat my naam en vat my saam”, among many other very sharp chirps from others. Biggest incident of the leg was when Willem discovered he had by accident swapped his CP 1 and CP 3 boxes, meaning he had suntan lotion packed for the midnight shift and his cold weather gear was waiting in Calitzdorp, 200km down the route. He had to endure a few very cold sections up to CP 2 at halfway. I felt sorry for him on occasion but he’s a tough nut, never complained once.

So after eating a few boeries, filling up water bottles and adding a wind shell, we were off for the graveyard shift. It was pretty much 100kms of rolling hills, some more steep than others with the only interesting visual stimulants the very bright stars and the red lights of a tower on our right that we somehow never reached. I stuck to my pace albeit very frustrating at times as other groups came past, resisting the temptation to jump onto their wheels was difficult but proved smart in the end. The most difficult part of the race mentally for me was between 100 and 150km. It felt like it was never going to pass and my head was playing all kind of games with me about why riding this far was a really silly idea and stopping at 180km was not a bad idea. My mind playing tough and weak with me. Somehow once we passed 150km and only had 30km to CP2 at 180km these mind games settled and we rode comfortably to halfway. Here I bumped into an old friend Guy Pitman. He is a superb bike rider and we had raced against one another at X-Berg a few years ago (May 2015 on the blogs). Guy is a much better cyclist than me but his sense of adventure probably lured him into this race with very little preparation, hence we shared the same space. It was nice seeing some familiar faces, it brought energy. We did the support station thing and headed off into the night around 4h30, I knew by then that we were going to make it to the finish, it was just a matter of hanging in there and with the sunrise looming, new and free energy was about to engulf us. Our position split for the second leg was around the 170s, we had ridden better than over the first leg, a trend that was to continue.

It wasn’t long till the horizon started coloring, my favorite time of day, it always lifts my spirits. The drag and climb away from halfway keeps one in check even though the spirits are lifted, it was to become a pattern of this race. One is never in control of this race, it humbles you around every corner and after every down hill, you never feel like you have it nailed but yet I remained confident of my ability to see it through. I had great difficulty staying awake the hour around sunrise and gulped down a few cups of coffee and sandwiches at the first water point after halfway, first light had just arrived. It did the trick. The scenery had become visible for the first time since the previous night and it lit up our amazing surroundings, I was in awe of the landscape, it was a combination of moon crater (not that I’ve been there) meets desert meets cowboy movie canyons, rather spectacular yet devastated. It brought new energy and food to feed a tired mind and I embraced its welcome distraction, my mind was in a good place and my body was still comfortable with the pace. Interestingly we had started catching up to other riders and passing them. Before we knew it the much feared climb of Rooiberg was upon us. I settled into a pace that I would in the end maintain all the way to the top, it wasn’t very fast but it left me with usable legs for the remaining 100kms after Rooiberg. The descent down the Calitzdorp side was horrible, the road surface was fine but very rocky and my problem back (bulged disc) does not enjoy rough descents. Quickly the familiar pain in my back made itself felt, it feels like a hot iron poked into my lower back, its excruciating! I groaned my way down to the bottom where Willem was waiting for me. The back pain fortunately goes away soon after the rough shaking stops but it leaves a mental scar every time. I was very happy that was over. We settled into a rolling rhythm through the ostrich infested farm lands and soon rode into CP3 at Calitzdorp. I felt good for the last 80km, I was tired but had something left in the tank and mentally I was fine. We had 80km with 1200m of ascent left, that baffled me a bit as the route was pretty much downhill from 40km to go which meant that the 1200m climbing had to be done over the first 40km of the last leg, I quietly hoped the ascent was incorrect. We took our time a bit at this check point, Willem for the first time looked a bit worn, maybe it was the sight of his warm clothing when he opened his CP1 box at CP3. The food at all the stops are superb but the Ostrich sosaties and pancakes at CP3 were a winner. Soon enough we were on the bikes again and rolled off, extra sunscreen applied, earphones loaded with seventies music and my spare bottle filed with cold water to cool me down. With the bad memory of my 42C day at Race to Willowmore only three weeks earlier still fresh in my memory, I needed to keep myself cool. Our position split for leg 3 was around the 90s, we had ridden a bit faster than most in leg 3. For the record, we off course only knew this afterwards when looking at the results.

We met up with a few riders who we shared the road with for the next 40km, not that we ever spoke a word, we were all too tired but the quiet companionship filled a social and mental hole. Funny dynamic that. I remained a bit nerved about the 1200m ascent that remained as we were only doing some rolling hills and no real big climbs. The road out of Calitzdorp is stunning, it snakes along a river with some spectacular scenery and some very remote little villages, I remembered sections of this from Cape Epic 2006 I think, except this time the drag was uphill. I kept wondering where the ascent was going to be made up until one corner when the road tilts upwards and the eye catches a glimpse of a road way up in the mountain. Its probably around the 300km mark and I guess no-one particularly enjoys the series of steep climbs that follows. There were several of them, they kept coming, one after the other, the one as steep as the next. I had some legs left so enjoyed the challenge of keeping the wheels going but it was a belabored effort. Our little silent group maintained proximity with the elastic snapping every know and then and then restoring itself. At some point, with another climb road showing itself in the distance a marshal with a flag appears like an angel from heaven and directs the route away from the looming climb and onto a road that signals the start of the last 40km, which is tilted mostly downwards. It a huge relief and almost overwhelming. The remaining 40km all of a sudden feels like the last kilometer to ones house on a weekend ride. Off course by this time one knows one will finish the race, the fear of not finishing had settled by this time. It now becomes a matter of getting the last 2 hours of “admin pedaling” done and give the wary body some relief. The road from here to the last water point at 20km to go is very pretty, very fast and much fun as it winds its way through various kloofs and farms and the time passes conveniently quickly.

With about an hour to go  I highlighted to Willem that we could still make a sub-22 hour finish if we rode strongly, not necessarily hard. He had picked this up as well. So we quietly turned the dial up and tightened the chains. I had started feeling nauseousness from around the 310km mark and wasn’t feeling great so suggested we tap down and just ride through to the finish gently and so we started the last 20 km gently. Our best intentions unfortunately didn’t last long, there were 2 riders in the distance who didn’t play to the script, they didn’t allow us to catch them easily and as everyone knows, the race for positions really only starts in the final moments of a race and it was no different. Position 127 was up for grabs and a sub-22 hour was calling. I really don’t understand this dynamic but I have quite frankly given up trying to understand it so I just go with the flow. The flow in this instance had us pick up the pace ever so gently to catch the non-script-adhering riders. As everyone knows catching is just one half of the game, the other half starts once you pass and have to stay ahead. Turning onto the last section of tar leading into Oudtshoorn town I was already riding way too hard for almost 22 hours of effort and Willem took his turn at the front, I couldn’t help at first. In the mean time we had just about secured our gap and at some point i looked down and saw 21:53 on my Garmin, sub-22 was still a possibility. So I went to the front and started pushing the pace up the hill past the lonely tree, we flew past another rider in a flash and before we knew it we were onto the last 2km to the finish, I looked down, 21:57. I got out the saddle and punched! WTF! Who in his right mind punches after 22 hours and 360km of riding? Willem was off my wheel (never happens) so I waited up and then we klapped it again, pretty much sprinting over the finish line with my HR bordering on 90% of max. I looked down and saw 22:00:07, Willem had us just under 22 hours The official results had us at 21:52. Our split position on the final legs was in the 70s. We had rode a sensible pace and whilst frustratingly moderate at times had paid us back dividends on the final leg.

It had been a very hard day out, I had just ridden 361km on my mountain bike in 22 hours with 5100m of ascent over some big mountains and over very rough gravel roads. Its a hard day out by any measure and whilst I felt a sense of accomplishment, I was also very humbled and grateful. Anyone that finishes this race is pretty special. Respect to all!

An unexpected 36One

Two weeks before 36One I told 3 people that the 361km/5100m ascent race just isn’t my kind of thing and I meant what I had said. It had after all only been a week since I had completed Race to Willowmore, a 550km race on the Freedom Trail from Cradock to Willowmore which just feels more like an adventure than a long 361km boring old slog on district roads. I had not ridden my bike for a week and didn’t have much intention to, my body and mind was still in recovery mode. You can tell by this opening that there’s a story brewing and you are right.

On an innocent Saturday evening after a braai with a few mountain biking friends, Willem very innocently asked why I don’t come down for 36One, he had a lift for me and accommodation. I repeated my line “It’s not really my kind of thing”. The next morning I harmlessly browsed the interwebs and came across and available solo entry. One SMS later and it was still available. I checked flights and low and behold there weer flights available at the right time a price to suit my likely schedule. Within a morning all the logistical pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place.

I had done no specific training for the hilly challenges of the tough 361 route but my physical condition was sufficient to get me to the finish. I had done a few 10-15 hour days on the bike recently so my base was solid. My biggest challenge may end up being getting my mind prepared. Riding 361km on gravel roads could be compared to doing 5-6 laps of the Cycle Tour of Cycle Challenge in 24 hours. Its a very long day out. I studied the route as I like to be know what to expect. It was daunting to say the least.

I made the call, pulled the trigger and 36One was a on! I honestly never saw this coming but I knew it was doable and I had 2 weeks to get my head in the game.

36One here we come!

36One Route