Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Freedom Challenge - Hadley to Willowmore

As explained by a commenter on the previous blog post, the section from Hadley to Cambria, while short, is one of the hardest and most rewarding of the race. Jill and Liehann only got to Cambria late in the day. The section was even more difficult to navigate than anticipated as there was flooding that had moved trees and debris across the trail which was at times impossible to find. They got very lucky as a faster racer caught up with them and guided them through the section. He deliberately stuck with them as he apparently had, in a previous year, left someone behind who ended up spending the night in this section, about which he had felt quite bad.
Steve and Di, the couple with which Jill and Liehann rode for quite a while earlier, also caught up with them.
The way from Cambria to Willowmore was on good roads with very clear navigation which, despite being a long day with over 100 miles, according to Jill felt "easy". The views must have been spectacular as we got this message:
Baviaanskloof one of the most beautiful places i have ridden a bike.
 They got to Willowmore a bit late, but have another long day tomorrow ahead. Steve and Di stopped at the checkpoint before Willowmore for the night (or at least that was their plan).

Otherwise everything is working well, and there seem to be no issues, physical or mechanical.
Monday, June 23, 2014

Freedom Challenge - Hadley

Just got off the phone with Jill. They had a few pretty good days, mostly through game reserves with some pretty cool views. After Jill had turned her ankle somewhat badly when a concrete step broke off at a lunch stop(!), it seems that they are doing physically better with both Jill's ankle and Liehann's shin improving (presumably due to more riding). They've also put in a few shorter days, mostly because the sections they are at right now don't really lend themselves to navigating at night. They pulled ahead of Steve and Di a few days back, though they anticipate they might catch back up, which would provide some good company anyways.
Lots of the past trail has been through game reserves and farms, with many10ft fences to climb. Jill is reporting improved upper body strength after some harrowing days. On the other hand, she said the terrain now really feels like "Africa" and doesn't resemble anything she knows from over here, with sightings of Giraffes, Wildebeest, Kudu. The weather has gotten significantly warmer, with daytime temps in the "hot" territory by now. So far they were extremely lucky with the weather having had no rain whatsoever (which is great because Jill was able to use her good non-waterproof camera to take pictures!).
Navigation continues to be the major challenge. Between ensuring being on the right path and some very rough rocky trails (Jill even got a saddle sore, which she was fortunately able to treat) they average only about 5.5-6mph. Looking at the satellite views though it seems better roads are coming up (along with longer distances between checkpoints).
They took a very short day today, as the coming section has a very difficult to navigate river gorge at the end, with the trail meandering for ~2 miles along a river (which might have some Alligators in it!) in jungle terrain - the race director advised against attempting it at night.
Other than that they are in great spirits.
Liehann's girlfriend Trang should by now be in South Africa herself (along with a friend). Liehann feels a bit pressed to make up the lost day, though we'll see if this is possible. I will keep checking the route via satellite view to see if night navigation is possible (it's amazing how much detail you get). The absolute limit for them is 25 days, because that's when they fly back!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tiny Freedom Challenge Update

Jill did not have cell reception for most of the day, so all I got were two satellite messages. The were able to put in a double day as planned, though they were still struggling with navigation (I could see they got lost early in the day, costing them 20-30 minutes). The race plan calls for another double day tomorrow. The course seems to be mostly on well defined dirt roads and even a fair amount of pavement, with only one cross-country looking section, and one section with lots of forest/farm dirt roads intersecting. Other than that the elevation profile looks promising for some good mileage.

Here are the messages (hearty smileys removed:):

Hi love. Mildly sprained ankle when step broke at lunch stop. Other than that day was good. Liehanns shins bad.
and, after I asked more about the anke:
Sore hiking and a little wobbly but not too bad. Beautiful long climb today . Nav still main source of stress. 
And that's all I know. But they were back on the road a bit after 6am, indicating plans for another ambitious day!
Thursday, June 19, 2014

Freedom Challenge - Slaapkranz to Elandsberg

Things have been moving along reasonably well for Jill and Liehann for the past three days. Communication was pretty spotty, so another short update. 
Jill seems to have a lot of fun despite challenging conditions with headwinds, temperatures of 14F, long days, and dead arms. The group has picked up another racer, so they are five cyclists now. 
Liehann seems a little more unlucky. Not only were they unable to get a replacement fork, but he has shin splints from walking, some knee pains, can't open his hand for some odd reason (which doesn't seem to concern him) and, to top it off, a failing rear brake. I think he should pick up some sport where he can't break stuff, like bridge maybe? Those cards are awfully sharp though ...

The original plan was to double up on the next two checkpoints which aren't too far apart and seem to be easy enough to navigate. So far they're moving very well.

For reference, some messages Jill posted:

-10C this morning . Arms are dead. Wish i weight trained
Gorgeous sunrise. Making arraingements for liehanns broken fork. Long day ahead
Portage killed the arms. Hoping they come back. afternoon pedal through high desert was lovely. Shift from native villages to farm country
Yesterday 137Km. Two portages. Harsh headwind. Fun 15Km on sandstone rollers. Still worried about dead arms.
Rugged descent from stormberg mountains into karoo desert. Icy headwind and stunning winter light. Tricky night nav has left me mentally drained

And some exchanges I had with Liehann:

Rear brake is soft
Need to pump it before it engages
Will ship bleed kit somewhere
Left leg shin splint and knee tweek
Otherwise good
Jill seems perfect :-)
Tue, 3:28 AM
So much tougher
Tue, 3:32 AM
Oh man! Be careful. Check that the caliper isnt leaking!!!
Tue, 8:36 AM
Whats the latest bike drama?
Wed, 12:58 PM
Nothing for now. :-)
Will get bleed kit in two days. Ride fork to cape Town
Hard work on the hands
Have some numbness in left hand. Oh well
Wed, 8:53 PM

Monday, June 16, 2014

Freedom Challenge - Days 5-7

Just a quick recap as I was out at Bryce:

Day 5 of the FC would bring Jill, Liehann and her fellow travellers Steve and Di to Vuvu. Due to a cross-country section, they pushed the pace hard to avoid having to attempt night navigation. They managed that goal, though Jill was pushed to her limits and bonked towards the end. I'm amazed that Liehann is able to ride this with his busted fork. They call his bike the "rigid lowrider". I presume it's at least aerodynamic!
On Day 6 the group went to Rhodes, where Liehann's replacement shock was waiting. The section turned out to be very technical and challenging, with a very steep off-trail pass crossing. Jill texted that they encountered 50-60mph winds, and she was unable to pick up both wheels of her bike without it being picked up by the wind! As if that wasn't enough, it turned out that we had actually not ordered the correct fork! The specs we had found mentioned a tapered steerer, but his bike ended up with a straight one. Liehann seemed unfazed by the mishap though and is trying to arrange for the correct fork to be sent to a later checkpoint. I actually managed to call Jill just as I was on the last 10 miles of the Bryce 100 (a race which we ran last year together, I missed her a lot). We both had a solid adventure that day!
Day 7 brought them to Slaapkranz.  She was in a great mood as they had a day of perfect navigation, beautiful sandstone canyons and mountains and generally a good day of riding.  Gone were the creeping doubts about the route after the hard and arduous days.  She did report brisk temperatures of just 21F in the morning, but they both seem well equipped for that. They are already back on the bike now, on the way to Kranskop.
Friday, June 13, 2014

Freedom Challenge, Day 4

Short day. Spent more time bumbling around and looking at maps than riding bikes. Frustrated but what a beautiful spot to stop.

Trang here, blogging for Beat since he's gone off for the weekend to run the Bryce 100. I spoke to Liehann this morning shortly after they finished day 4. While it was a short day, it was probably not as short as they would have hoped. Liehann and Jill are now riding with Di and Steve, who have done Freedom Challenge twice before and also started on this year's race on the same day as Jill and Liehann. (We ought to give them a team name.) All of the other folks who started with them but who were only going to Rhodes are now long gone - those riders seemed pretty familiar with the route and also didn't sleep much.

There's been a lot of walking in the past two days and that's taking a physical toll on Liehann and the others, but Jill is a machine and still going strong. I think Jill's running fitness is a distinct advantage in this case. Navigation continues to be a challenge, as the cue sheet sometimes contradicts the map and cattle trails are hard to spot when you're as little as 10ft away from them. In light of the navigation challenges and the added difficulties of navigating at night, J/L are giving second thoughts to their race plan and may not double up on as many days as originally planned. But, the riding should get easier after they get past Rhodes, so they'll play it by ear.

Liehann continues to have a plethora of gear issues out there. The recent casualties being a winter sock that was melted when it was being dried too close to the fire. It was his warmest pair, so he's a little bummed, but will hopefully manage with the other 3 pairs he has left. He's also blown out one of his bike light chargers. Fortunately he had two, so for now he can still charge his lights - he just has to do it one at a time. This may pose a problem if they have to ride longer nights, but for now it's ok.

Tomorrow should be a tough day - distance-wise it's not so bad, but navigation will be tough and it'll be more climby than today. J/L are trying to pack it in early tonight to catch up on some sleep.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Freedom Challenge, Day 3

Day 3 took Jill and Liehann from Ntsikeni to Masakala, through a nature preserve via lengthy stretches of off-trail cross-country bike-hiking. They had a rough start (Liehann got very brief cell reception and confirmed some specs for his shock (which is now leaking oil, but is still rideable) with me, and added
F*d morning. Tough nav
Throughout the day they seemed to move somewhat slowly, and partially off the path, as it turns out they indeed missed some jeep roads and hiked in parallel cross-country. But they made it in the dark. Jill reported seeing wildebeest and antelopes and having to track around another gorge. They had to race the daylight to get at least off the cross-country section. Weather seems good, though cold, with mornings below freezing. Jill is also enjoying the atmosphere of the checkpoints, farmer's houses and village community centers - it actually sounds a bit like the Iditarod!

Tomorrow should be a short day, only 60km. While it would be tempting to skip a checkpoint, the section right before the following checkpoint involves some more very tricky navigation, and in the darkness it would be very difficult. So far though they still move according to the original race plan.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Freedom Challenge, Day 2

"Tough nav day. Stumble through morning. Beats device awesome through forest road maze. Brilliant sunset moon. Big gate climb"
"Nav still tough and some hard terrain but beautiful"  
"This is not easy but i love it."
No cell reception at today's overnight stop, so only a little information is available via our sat texting messenger. Looking at the maze of trails/forest roads early on I worried about their navigation, but everything seemed to go ok, including crossing one of the infamous high (as in higher than a person) fences. Trang and I anxiously watched them stop at a house after 3 hours - maybe they got a brunch offered, we won't know until later. Turns out watching such an event is more exhausting than riding it!
After some technical issues with my little turn-reminder device (it occasionally gets into a funky state) it seems to have been quite useful and worked well today.

Unfortunately Liehann's shock isn't doing great apparently, as Trang, Liehann's dad and I scrambled this morning to get specifications for a replacement shock for Liehann's bike, after Liehann asked his Dad to look into that. It looks like that will be possible as we had the relevant specs, and a Freedom Challenge organizer will be driving down and deliver the shock in Rhodes if I'm not mistaken, which is still quite far away.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Freedom Challenge, Day 1

Trang (Liehanns girlfriend) and I will try to give updates on this blog every once in a while. 

Day one was ~114km, taking them around 10-11 hours to complete, with a rest stop in the middle. The terrain was tough with two major climbs and a long and somewhat sketchy hike-a-bike section along a river gorge, but both Jill and Liehann are in great spirits. It's pretty cold, but they feel good and are happy so far with the progress. Jill had a kid-in-the-candy-store glee in her voice on the phone as she told me how great the route was, so far so great. She was also excited because they didn't get lost so far!

Liehann had a broken chain early on (after just 6km) but of course that was quickly fixed. His front shock seems to be sticking a bit leading to a 15% sag without him being on the bike, a problem he had before the race that the PA bike shop apparently was not able to properly repair ... but it's rideable. Let's hope it holds up.

They already started day 2 again, and expect this to be a long and difficult stage. 
Friday, June 06, 2014

Freedom Challenge-bound

The weather finally cleared so I took the bike, kit, and gadgets out for a spin this afternoon. Loaded bikes are always a bit of a downer in the beginning, but after a few days you get used to extra weight and the heft becomes your new normal — or so I keep telling myself.

This week has been unseasonably cold in Cape Town — there was a dusting of snow on the mountains this morning, and reports of 6 below (Celsius) just a little farther inland. I managed to get everything but water, electronics, and a select few items of clothing in my bike bags, and Liehann's friends marveled at how we might possibly stay warm with whatever was located in these seemingly small bags. There's actually a fair amount of winter layers and spare bike parts, as well as two bivy sacks that I can double up — as I also am genuinely concerned about becoming so lost that I have to spend a night out in -10C.

When we tell others about the Freedom Challenge, most inevitably ask about the training, and whether we feel fit for this journey that will involve anywhere from twelve to eighteen hours of riding per day. I've been fretting about everything else for so long now that the question catches me off guard. Fitness? Who cares? If I were to rank my concerns, the list would look like this:

1. Navigation
2. Mechanicals
3. Water availability
4. Nutrition/food availability
5. Weather
6. Crime
7. Fitness

Not that riding and pushing bikes all day on muddy doubletracks and eroded cattle trails is going to be easy in the least. I have a nervous pit in my gut, and these pre-race days are always the least fun of all the days. Liehann and I are setting out on Saturday morning to drive across the country to Pietermaritzburg.  As such, my blogging opportunities beyond this point will be slim to nonexistent. I wanted to post some links for tracking our progress, if friends or readers are interested:

Beat has been refining his "Slogtastic" software to create a tracking page for the Freedom Challenge. He even went through and drew in the route from an old GPS track and maps. I'm jealous because Beat  (and anyone else who clicks on the page) will have a better idea where I am than I will. The page is currently still in progress but should be posted soon at this link:

If that doesn't work, my direct location page is here:

I likely will have no opportunities to update my blog during the journey, but I will post occasional text updates via my Delorme InReach to my Twitter page:

Official Freedom Challenge site:
Thursday, June 05, 2014

Small adventures before the big one

This is one of those weeks where I thought I'd get a lot done: All of my regular work, finish a manuscript, finish my Iditarod race report, tour around the region, try local cuisine, get all of my prep done for the Freedom Challenge, go for satisfying shake-down bike rides on famous mountain bike trails in the Cape Town region, and post blogs for Beat back home in California. 

Well, you know how it goes. 

I actually didn't expect to do much touristing this week; both time and mobility are limited, and I'm not in Cape Town proper — I'm about 50 kilometers southeast. The weather has been marginal — rain and wind every day, and temperatures ranging from 6 to 12 degrees Celsius, so not terribly warm. I went with Liehann to his office (technically his brother's office) to work on Tuesday and we got out for a lunch ride on a network of banked singletrack and rocky doubletrack through a recently logged forest. The trails were swoopy down and steep up, and the ride probably would have been a lot more fun if it hadn't been raining sideways intermittently. I realize cold sideways rain and mud are going to be a major part of the Freedom Challenge, and I might as well get used to this. But California has spoiled my once-deep all-weather resolve. When it rains in California, I'm one-hundred-percent runner; I don't think I've ridden a bike in the rain since my early days there. And wow, have I fallen out of both practice and patience with the mud barrage. Funny how attitudes can change so drastically. 

On Wednesday Liehann's parents took me on a tour of wine country in Malmesbury, and we attended some olive tastings. Much of the local olive oil has a strong musky taste compared to what I'm used to, but it was fun to try the different olives. I can't say I've tried much in the way of traditional South African cuisine yet, but I'll have plenty of chances to stuff whatever is available into my face during the Freedom Challenge. From what I understand, most of the available cuisine is quite provincial (in both good and bad ways.)

 Twice this week I went out for runs on the Helderberg, which is the nature preserve and mountain range next door to Liehann's parents' house. Weather prevented me from becoming too ambitious, and I often stepped out the door far too late, so I had to time my run with sunset and set a hard deadline to turn around.

 I was thrilled to get out for these runs, though. I developed a weird quad tinge after the long plane trip, and the runs actually helped me work it out. Tonight was the first night I didn't notice it. A series of fierce thunderstorms meant I was the only person in the park. I showed up at the gate clutching my 15 Rand, and the Indian guy manning the entrance chided me, exclaiming, "Where are you going? What will you do in this rain?" What I was going to do was run up this mountain, as far as I could. Steep doubletrack gave way to a rocky footpath carved in rough switchbacks up the brushy slope, and then a scramble along a cliffy ridge. I was crawling toward a saddle between two peaks at 3,000 feet elevation when my watched buzzed, informing me that mile five had taken 47 minutes. What? 47 minutes? That can't be right. But sure enough, I checked the time. 4:45. Oh no.

I scrambled down the slippery ridge as fast as I could coax my fearful feet to move, terrified that any misstep was going to send me tumbling into the ravine, or at best spraining my ankle in such a way that I wouldn't be able to ride the Freedom Challenge. Wind howled, rain picked up strength, and a barrage of hail followed. I tightened my hood and continued to negotiate the scramble inside a green tunnel, shivering with the deepening chill. Once I hit the doubletrack, a torrent of water was rushing over already slippery clay dirt, and I also couldn't justify running too fast on these unpredictable surfaces. When I finally reached the reserve entrance, it was 5:40 and the gate was locked shut. The Indian guy was gone, there was no one around, barb-wire fences lined the boundary as far as I could discern, and this gate was ten feet high with sharp pointing ends and no easy footholds. Damn. Liehann's mom warned me that they locked this gate at 5:30, so I had only myself to blame.

I paced around for a few minutes, searching for any other way out. I tried to pry the gate open, and then placed my foot on a wet rod, where it slid of instantly. I thought about the contents of my pack and whether they'd enable me to survive a night out if I really couldn't get out of there. But of course I knew I wasn't going to sit there and freeze; I was going to climb that gate even if it meant impaling a limb to escape. Finally, I placed one of my Hokas on the sharp tip of one of the fence rods; the point actually dug into the shoe but stopped short of stabbing my foot. Thank you Hoka! That was just enough height off the ground to swing my other leg between two sharp points higher up, and leverage a flying leap to freedom on the other side. Actually, the shoe did not pull away from the point easily, and I nearly twisted my ankle upon landing, but freedom!

And now there's still so much to do. How did this week get away from me? 
Sunday, June 01, 2014

Into Cape Town

I consider myself the kind of person who can adapt quickly and well to all kinds of uncomfortable conditions, but I am abnormally afraid of jet lag. Between that, more time to ensure the safe arrival and assembly of the bicycle, and the likelihood of picking up some kind of gastro distress (which I'm also highly sensitive to in new regions), I convinced myself it made sense to join Liehann in flying out to Cape Town a week early.

Oh, jet lag. I don't sleep on planes. Doze for five minutes here and there, but that's the extent of it. I drugged myself once, and that just made it worse: I was air sick, awake, and out of it. (I do take Dramamine for the motion sickness. It causes sleepiness but not actual sleep.) This flight was nearly thirty hours — eleven-plus hours overnight from SFO to London, a six-hour, vaguely mid-day layover at Heathrow, and another eleven-plus-hour flight through nighttime darkness to yet the other side of the world. I frequently glanced out the window at the yawning blackness speckled with infrequent lights below, "Wow, that's Africa down there."

By morning my mind was a scramble. I spent the flight making progress on an Iditarod race report I've been writing; when the battery on my computer died, I continued to write in a reporter's notebook, amusing myself with how bad my handwriting really is (one forgets such things.) It's probably mostly incomprehensible anyway; awake for two nights and trapped in small crowded spaces, I was approaching the cognitive state of a small child. I stuck in the earbuds to listen to Lord Huron and pressed my throbbing forehead against the cold window. The sun started to come up as we approached Cape Town over the Atlantic Ocean, and I watched a thread of deep crimson light slowly disperse into a pink wash over a rolling plain of clouds.

The jet descended as the sun continued to climb, stretching fingers of orange light through massive mounds of cumulonimbus clouds. The plane descended into these ethereal mountains just as sunlight broke open, casting the clouds in rich gold. It was intensely beautiful, a Grand Canyon of clouds, and the plane skimmed the billowing walls with intimate proximity that would never be possible in a canyon made of rock. Goosebumps prickled on my arms and my lower lip quivered, and I felt embarrassed because I was so tired that I was crying over clouds viewed from the stuffy seat of a plane. But why shouldn't I embrace that kind of beauty? Just because it's not made of rock, which on a long enough geological scale is every bit as impermanent as a cloud?

 My camera was stuffed in the overhead compartment, which is just as well, because it's not the kind of thing one can photograph. Instead I indulged in letting a few tears roll down my cheek, and Lord Huron contributed the perfect accompaniment: "To the ends of the Earth would you follow me? There's a world that was meant for us to see."

Before we landed there was an oh-so-brief glimpse of Cape Town through what at that elevation was a thick fog, but by sea level it had developed into a roiling storm with downpours and howling winds. Jet lag ensured that I was useless for the remainder of my first day in South Africa. I contemplated putting my bike together but lost focus. I laid down for a quick nap that turned into a three-hour blackout. I had tea with Liehann's childhood friends and dinner with his parents. I tried to sleep and was back awake at 2:30 a.m. The wind continued to howl and I thought about how I miss Beat. I felt a little bummed that I planned this much time away. I wish Liehann and I could start biking tomorrow rather than wait for the June 10 start, but I'm also glad I don't have to in the state I'm in now. There is much to do this week, hopefully a few bike rides to be had, and then a two-day drive across the country to the start in Pietermaritzburg. After that, life will be whittled down to the simplicity of riding and sleeping ... and I can't wait.

And hopefully today (Monday?), amid the things to do, I will venture outside to see just how far I've travelled amid this sleepless haze. There's a mountain virtually in the backyard, and I want to climb it.