Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Forever pace

After failing at last year's Petite Trotte a Leon, I did some soul searching about whether I was taking this endurance racing hobby too far. Months later, I told friends that I still couldn't decide whether PTL was a valuable learning experience, or the worst thing I had ever done to myself. I joked that exploring limits is a lot less fun when you find them. I've gained so much personal enrichment from confronting difficult and frightening situations amid the parameters set by racing — which extend far beyond parameters I would have ever set for myself. But how far is too far? During PTL, an onslaught of technical terrain near the edge of my capabilities, constant focus on navigation and maneuvers, perceived dangers, internal and external pressure, and sleep deprivation drove me halfway out of my mind. It pushed me into some dark places I never wish to visit again, whether in a voluntary situation or real trauma. I race to gain control over my Monster, and PTL only revealed all the ways Monster still controls me.

I considered stepping back from racing for a while. I came close to withdrawing from the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational. And then a switch flipped. Monster doesn't control me. I don't need to slink away from adventures that feed my passion, energy, and muse just because of one bad experience. I threw my name in the White Mountains 100 lottery, and then the Hardrock 100. I agreed to join Liehann at the Freedom Challenge. And I signed up for the Tor des Geants.

I didn't write this intro to delve too deep into my personal philosophies or deeper motivations regarding racing. Only to expand on the complicated relationship I have with racing right now, and the wild swing from convincing myself I should take at least a year off to jumping headfirst into my biggest year of racing yet, culminating in the one that should scare me most of all — a 330-kilometer march around the Italian Alps, with a distance and elevation profile that very closely resembles PTL. Back into the belly of the Monster.

The allure of Tor des Geants is another complicated matter than I could ramble on about for thousands of words, but the short explanation is a desire to explore the edges of the galaxy amid the incredible setting of the Aosta Valley. Beat has completed every running of the Tor des Geants, and I've joined him to crew for three of those four years. In that time, I've developed a deep affection for this race. Hiking a handful of the route's numerous cols gave me a taste of just how physically demanding the whole loop would be — and also its potential for an intensely beautiful experience. The dream of TDG is what ultimately drew me into PTL last year, and I contended that I should have tried the "friendly" race before I jumped into the "mean" one. Not that TDG is sunshine and foot massages. It's still 200 miles of rugged terrain, with 80,000 feet of elevation gain (and, more importantly, another 80,000 feet of elevation loss) in 150 hours.

What I tend to overlook amid all of my spiritual- and emotional-enlightenment-seeking race greediness is the reality that my body is the one who needs to cash these checks. It took me longer than I care to admit to come to my senses about removing my name from the Hardrock roster. Even still, giving myself a mere two months to both recover from a 21-day strenuous bike- and hike-a-bike tour, and physically prepare for a race like TDG is ridiculous. I know that. I get that. And yet I have this dream ... the dream of forever pace ... the sweet spot where motion can persist and exploration doesn't have to cease.

I bounced back quickly from the Iditarod, resting little amid the manic opportunities of March in Alaska, and still enjoyed my best White Mountains 100 race yet a few weeks later. But post-Freedom-Challenge recovery has been more stubborn. As soon as the soreness in my arms abated there wasn't any remnant tissue damage. If fact, leg muscles and tendons seemed to be in great shape — I could hike for 11 hours without feeling remotely sore. But my cardiovascular system was worn down. I had no pep. I couldn't run. I wondered if it was a bug or perhaps residual effects from the infections in my fingers, which are still in the process of healing. I took lots of rest days — good for catching up on lots of missed work — and started using a heart rate monitor to gauge short efforts. The heart rate monitor did not inspire confidence. I was hitting Zone 5 far too soon. While riding up Montebello Road, my heart rate spiked 188 at a laughably slow pace. Beat assured me it would just take more time.

I lamented feeling terribly out of shape. And then I wondered if that was precisely the problem — I've been in forever pace for so long that I am terribly out of shape ... for short efforts.

On Sunday we planned a run in Portola State Park. Beat wanted to show me the Peter's Creek Loop — home to the largest grove of old-growth Coast Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This grove was just remote enough and difficult to access that the nearby Page Mill logging operation left it alone, and it's still remote and difficult to access.

Temperatures hit the triple digits this weekend. We actually had planned to do this run on Saturday, but were turned around by a traffic jam on Highway 9. There was a plan B, but when we stepped out of the car into a furnace blast of 98-degree air, we both looked at each other, shook our heads, and got back in the car. Sunday was going to be just as hot, but we built up a little more mojo, froze water bladders solid, and left a whole lot earlier. I left the heart rate monitor at home — it wasn't intentional, as I hoped to gauge the effect of a longer effort versus the hour-long runs. But it was just as well. Judging performance based on numbers from a watch wasn't doing me many favors. I was probably better off just moving at whatever pace made me happiest, and not worrying about where that fell in on the fitness spectrum.

So we did this run. It was 23 miles with somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 feet of climbing. It was very hot — 96 at the car upon return to Skyline, where it felt cooler than the more sun-exposed ridges. I drank 2.5 liters of ice water and then 2.5 liters more of lukewarm water refilled at the ranger station. I didn't have the heart rate monitor to tell me whether I was overtaxed or not, so I just ran forever pace. It felt good. The forest spread out above us, and happiness drove me forward. Happy legs, happy feet, happy heart.

This is the root of my "forever pace" experiment. I'm happiest on the move. Even when summer is in full force with its oppressive heat and fierce UV rays, when sweat is so thick that the annoying bugs buzzing around my face land on my skin and drown, and both social convention and personal inclinations tell me to embrace hibernation and sit indoors eating popsicles ... I still find my joy outside. Maybe I will fail spectacularly at TDG, and maybe I'll make good on past promises and take a year off of racing next year ... but I can't say I have't enjoyed the process immensely. 
Thursday, July 24, 2014

One more for the road: Gear and training post

I realize that I promised no more South Africa posts, but that's before I remembered that I wanted to do a Freedom Challenge gear and training post-mortem. Shortly after the race, Liehann asked me what I would change about my gear if I were to ever try this again. The short answer is: Not much. As for what I would change about my training, the short answer is: Lots.

My bike is a Moots Mooto-X YBB 29" titanium soft tail. Here are the specs:
Shock: Rock Shox Reba RLT dual air, QR
Group: Shimano XT 2x10 (XTR shifters)
Brakes: Shimano XT
Wheels: Mike Curiak built Stans Arch + DT swiss 240s hubs, tubeless
Tires: Front: Bontrager XR3 team issue 2.30 Rear: Maxxis Ikon 2.35
Tubeless setup. Shimano XT skewers.
Seatpost,stem: Thomson elite
Handlebars: Ritchey wcs aluminum riser
Headset, BB: Chris King
Saddle: Terry something (probably Butterfly.)

This bike was my dream bike when it became mine in April 2012. It is still my dream bike. I'd be happy to never get a new mountain bike, but instead just continue fixing whatever components break on this one, until frame death do us part (which hopefully will not happen for a long time.) This bike was built to be touring bike — especially of the mixed pavement, trail, and dirt road variety — but it's also solid on technical trails (within the limits of my abilities.)

Yes, I use platform pedals. No, I'll probably never change. In addition to the comforts of wearing large trail-running shoes (Montrail Mountain Masochist, size 10), I really do move my feet around on the pedals all of the time. I press down with my toes, I press down with my heels, I hold them up and shake them out for a while. I'd rather not lock my contact points into any position when spending twelve-plus hours per day in the saddle, be it my butt, hands, or feet. It's a personal comfort thing. I realize I could improve my technical control if I used clipless pedals, and my shins took an awful beating in the Freedom Challenge. Still, for me, the benefits of platforms outweigh the drawbacks. My nerve-damaged toes are happy.

Freedom Challenge racers also participate in the ongoing debate of 29" versus 26" wheels. But unlike U.S. bikepacking races, 26" full suspension bikes seem to be the most popular choice in this race. Big forks also win out in many cases. It makes sense to me; there is quite a lot of rugged terrain on this route, and all-mountain bikes, while a beast to haul on one's back, will ensure less downhill hike-a-bike. I'm likely to hike the harder stuff either way, so I'd just stick with the 29'er soft tail for optimal performance on long climbs and dirt roads.

There are also jokes about using a super-light carbon cross bike, since there's so much hiking in this race. I wouldn't recommend it. There's a lot more riding in the Freedom Challenge than my blog report lets on, and very little of it would be fun on a cross bike (think lots of barely-there cattle trail, rocky jeep tracks, and sand.)

Backpacks are also a point of debate. I used a Salomon XA 25-liter waterproof backpack, and believe it or not, I actually had one of the smaller packs among the riders we met. Many Freedom Challenge riders race with most or all of their gear on their backs, because there is so much bike carrying in this race (I know I said there was a lot of riding. There's a lot of both.) Bike bags are starting to take hold in the South Africa bikepacking community, though. Quite a few riders had seat post bags made by Revelate Designs in Alaska; they called them their "Revelates." I didn't see anyone else with a frame bag.

My system actually worked pretty well, because the backpack itself was half empty most of the time. I usually packed three liters of water and miscellaneous warm clothing (the puffy jacket always made it look fuller than it was.) I should have utilized this extra space sooner, but on the last day, before hiking up the Stettynskloof, I transferred most of the items from my seatpost bag and frame bag into my backpack, lightening up the bike as much as possible. It worked, because with a better distribution of weight, I was able to pick up and carry my bike on my back without pain for decent blocks of time — at least until that final, impossible climb.

As for clothing, I mentioned I recycled much of my Iditarod 2014 kit. Here's the rundown:

Kit: Castelli Elle skort and Patagonia capilene long-sleeve mock turtleneck with zip
Wind and rain layer: Skinfit shell pants, Outdoor Research Mentor Jacket
Insulation layers: North Face ThermoBall jacket, Freedom Challenge thin fleece pullover (only ended up wearing indoors), GORE windstopper tights
Head: Regular buff, windstopper buff, windproof hat, thin skull cap.
Hands: Outdoor Research fleece mittens, short-finger bike gloves, RBH designs mitten shells
Feet: Montrail Mountain Masochist, size 10; Acorn fleece socks; Integral Designs vapor barrier socks, Drymax socks (x3)
T-shirt and running shorts for indoor use

I'm not sure I'd change anything about clothing. There were a few items I didn't use often (the shell pants, vapor barrier socks and mitten shells), but I certainly would have used them in the event of heavier rain or snow. The GORE tights have been one of my favorite items, both in Alaska and in South Africa. They're just so versatile — warm and windproof, and yet easy to unzip and vent when the day heats up. They're running tights, so there's no chamois — which means they're great for hiking. The Freedom Trail tore them to shreds, and I'm sad to see them go. The Patagonia capilene also acquired a bunch of holes. It's been a fantastic shirt; I think I've worn it in every major race I've participated in since early last year, including a bunch of 50Ks.

As for training, well, where to begin? During the race I had major issues in the upper body department, which were largely concentrated in my upper arms and forearms — muscle pain, numbness, constant aches, and outright muscle failures during lifting. I don't even know where to start to strengthen a weak upper body — which is why mine is so weak — so I won't weigh in on what I'd do differently in training just yet. But in the unlikely event this bug ever bites me again, I would spend a lot more time building core strength, as well as strengthening shoulders and arms. I would also swallow my pride and actually go for training hikes while carrying a bike on my back, even though Californians would look at me like I was on drugs. Time in the saddle ... eh. I can't even say my mileage prior to the Freedom Challenge was all that high. Through March I was focused on Iditarod training, and then I continued running two to three times a week throughout April and May (lots of good this did me for the hike-a-bikes. Ha!) Still, I had no problems in the saddle. Riding bikes for a long time ... in the Freedom Challenge, that's the easy part.

Finally, navigation. So important. One of the guys we crossed the VuVu Valley with estimated that navigation was 80 percent of this race. For the Race to Rhodes, I would absolutely agree with that percentage. Beyond the 500-kilometer mark it gets a little easier overall, but not much. At 21 days, we finished about as fast as we could without submitting to night navigation. Most who want to ride faster than 20 days will have to be a lot more comfortable navigating in the dark. If I were to ever do this again, I would take the time to learn some more advanced orienteering techniques, such as dead reckoning. I'd also try to get a better grasp on the southern night sky so I didn't have to constantly watch a compass.

Liehann mentioned printing the 1:50,000 maps larger. This would help to some extent — it was extremely difficult to read the maps while the bike was moving. Still, these race-provided maps are partially hand-drawn and somewhat limited in detail, especially when it comes to trying to judge a position based on topographical features alone. The lines just weren't precise enough to discern real shapes. I suppose this is where orienteering techniques come in handy. Terrain association techniques, pacing techniques (because bike odometers do not work when a bike is being carried), and more focused use of compass bearings. You know what's funny? I hate all this stuff. Honestly, I do. Freedom Challenge did not turn me into a Rogaining enthusiast.

Another thing I would do different in a future Freedom Challenge is carry a more robust sleeping system — probably a 32-degree down sleeping bag and lightweight pad, along with an emergency bivy. For an extra two or three pounds, I'd gain a lot more willingness to take on some of those more difficult segments at night. Getting stuck out with little to no gear is so less than ideal that I was never willing to risk it. I feel like a sleeping bag would give me a lot more peace of mind. And it actually would be fun to sleep out occasionally, although at -10C with a granola bar dinner, it still wouldn't be terribly comfortable.

I know other blanket-wearers (as the Freedom Challenge riders call themselves) check in on this blog. I'd love to hear your thoughts and tips on how to succeed in the Race Across South Africa.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

And then it was summer

Back to California. Happy to see Beat. Jet lag. A thousand e-mails. Work catching up. Heat. Try a five-mile run. Side stitch. Downhill walks. Rest days. Book edits! Photo downloads. Blog, blog, blog. Pet the cat. Evenings with Beat, who's shored up all this excitement about next year adventure scheming, and there's five and a half more months left in this year, and still he teases me because I say I'm not ready to think about it, not just yet. Tired. 

We decided to go for a hike. 

It seems everyone's training for late-summer mountain races, and the group was headed to Yosemite for a thirty-mile loop around Buena Vista Peak on Sunday, July 13. In the week since I returned from South Africa, I attempted two short (five-mile) runs. Both did not go exactly well ... my cardiovascular system was working much too hard, I got a horrible side stitch at mile three that limited my breathing capacity and forced me to walk the final two miles downhill. This was the gauge for my fitness level going into Sunday's hike. There's no high end, and sort of not even a moderate level of power — but I knew my legs were strong and endurance solid. Our friends were planning to run the loop, but I told Beat I likely wouldn't be able to run any of it. A fifty-kilometer hike — but it is summer here in California, and daylight is generous.

 We started near Wawona, where daytime temperatures topped 95 degrees. Coming from South Africa, where 12C (54 degrees) felt like a warm day, the heat was a shock to the system. That, plus lingering jet lag, plus altitude, made for a tiring day. But worth it.

 Beat climbing the bowl below Buena Vista, elevation 9,700. Mmm, granite chunk.

Esa es una hermosa vista.

Because some in our group were running and some were mainly or only hiking, we predictably spread out. Heather ended up behind us after scrambling up the summit ridge after following an errant arrow on the runners' route. We thought she bypassed the peak and hiked on in front of us until we saw John walking back up the trail to look for her, many miles later. The off-trail scramble is just long enough that reconnecting with the trail isn't entirely straightforward, and Heather spent a tense hour or two feeling lost and alone in the Sierra backcountry. I empathized with her, with my own "lost and alone" emotions still so raw, and after spending the whole hike down worried that she might be hurt (we decided it would be best to return to Wawona and inform the rangers in the event that she and John didn't return by dark.)

It's a good reminder that if you go with a group into the backcountry, you should just stick together ... or at least make a more structured plan. But the Buena Vista loop is a wonderful route (strava file.) We don't get out to the Sierras nearly often enough. Sadly, one of the main reasons for that is a strong aversion to traffic. In some ways, it's easier to travel to South Africa than it is to drive out of the Bay Area on a Friday evening.

I made up for it this week, though. My dad has been trying for a permit in the Mount Whitney lottery for three years. After two years of rejections for all ten alternative dates he chose, he finally snagged a two-person day permit for July 17 in this spring's lottery. It's almost as tough as getting into Hardrock, which, consequently, I know was also this past weekend. Several people have asked me whether I have any regrets about withdrawing from the Hardrock 100 even though it was very likely my only chance to ever run that course in the official event. I wondered the same myself, but in truth these hikes confirmed what I already knew, which is that Hardrock would have been a huge disaster. Huge disaster.

"I'm not quite on yours or Beat's level of masochism," I wrote to yet another friend (Dima, Beat's partner in the 2013 PTL) who sent me a message about it on Saturday. "I can't feel all that bad about missing out on so much pain."

"What's wrong with disaster?" he replied.

 I tell you, I'm connected with some nutty people.

But Whitney was fantastic. My dad and I first climbed this mountain together in 2001. I was 21 years old, and at the time it was the longest, most demanding physical feat I'd ever attempted. A monster. I still have the same respect for this mountain, even if my perspective on "monsters" has expanded. Dad drove out all the way from Salt Lake City in his 1994 Toyota pickup with no air conditioning. We met in Lone Pine for Chinese food and headed up to Whitney Portal to camp. We woke up at the civilized hour of 5:30 (lots of hikers get up at 2 a.m.) I had a pounding headache already ... but the weather looked good, and it's always enjoyable to spend a whole day on a mountain with my dad.

Dad retired in April and has logged a lot of hiking hours in the Wasatch this summer. He's in fantastic shape, and charged up the famous 99 switchbacks toward the summit ridge. I tried very hard and couldn't keep up with him. 13,000 feet came and went. My headache took on more of a woozy, ethereal sensation — which seemed better, but then again the summit ridge has steep drop-offs, I'm already clumsy by nature, and feeling somewhat intoxicated on an exposed, rocky trail is not ideal.

We passed by these bottles of Jack Daniels, presumably stashed away for a post-summit celebration. "You couldn't pay me to drink whiskey at 14,000 feet," I declared. I might as well have taken a shot or two; my headache came back, along with nausea, and I was plodding. I've been at 14,000 feet a few times before, and I don't think I've ever been quite so sick. But the oxygen deprivation combined with the beautiful setting sparked feelings of euphoria, so you could say I was in a conflicted state of not knowing whether I felt really good, or really bad. I made an effort not to complain. Skies were still mostly clear, and I figured we had enough time for me to take it as slow as I needed. Dad just charged on ahead, strong as a mountain goat at age 61.

Looking out from 14,508 feet to Lone Pine at 3,727 feet. There aren't many places in North America where you can sight that much vertical relief.

Aw, standing on top of the high point of the Lower 48 with my dad. Few moments could be better. I finally took in some food after feeling so nauseated most of the way up, and we made decent time hiking down. Dad was curious about our progress, and I tried to make some comparisons to my solo hike on Whitney in 2012, when I was training for UTMB. Dad will be interested in the stats: In 2012, I had a moving time of 9:11 and total time of 10:15, for an average pace of 27:18 minutes per mile. On Thursday, our moving time was 7:56(!), total time 10:36, for an average pace of 21:46 minutes per mile. Strava doesn't lie. Okay, it could have scrambled some data in there somewhere. But still — nice work Dad.

On Friday I drove back over Sonora Pass, and as a way of avoiding horrific Friday evening traffic, stalled for a few hours by hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail toward the Emigrant Wilderness. What a beautiful region. I don't get out to the Sierras nearly often enough.

But I hope to return, soon.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Last South Africa post, I promise

Liehann and I finished the Race Across South Africa on July 1, and returned to California on July 5. We'd given ourselves a buffer in case it took a few more days to reach Diemersfontein, and also so Liehann's girlfriend Trang could come out and spend time with him and his family in Somerset West. Those extra days near Cape Town were a whirlwind. With Trang and Liehann's friend Evelyn visiting from California, there was lots of touristing to be done. And of course Liehann wanted to visit his friends in town. I struggled with the rapid shift back toward civilized life and mostly just wanted to escape into the mountains, but I was happy to spend a few more days in this beautiful country. 

Trang, Evelyn and I all weighed in on our preference of tourism opportunities. My list was long and included Table Mountain, but with the time crunch, we could realistically only choose one. So I lobbied for my top choice — go to the coast and watch penguins. It's intriguing to see exotic animals in their natural habitat. Plus, penguins are so adorable and awkward on land, just waddling around and falling over all the time. I can really relate to that.

 We looped around the Cape Peninsula on Chapman's Peak Drive to watch the sunset.

 I couldn't help but think of Big Sur in California and feel wistful about going home. It had been a long trip, more than a month, and the intense nature of the Freedom Challenge stretched out the emotional timeline to something much longer than that. Sometimes I let myself believe that I'd be happy as a permanent vagabond, anchored nowhere, but then I get out there and realize I'm too nostalgic and prone to homesickness to ever truly be free.

 The first weeks after the Freedom Challenge have been difficult. There's always that period of decompression, when I shift from feeling like I could live this way forever, to wondering if I'll ever feel strong or adventurous again. The physical setbacks are noticeable, although I still harbor suspicion that the struggle is mainly in my head.

 Most of what we call life is held in our perceptions. What terrifies me could have no impact on other people. What makes me most happy would make others miserable. What gives me energy, others find draining. And vice versa. All-encompassing experiences such as the Freedom Challenge are compelling because of the way they expand perspective. They demand the best of us and also bring out the worst. They peel away artificial shells and let raw emotion run naked for a while. They draw bold lines over what has value, and what does not. They open our minds to inexpressible beauty, a clear-eyed view that I have only experienced when I'm most vulnerable and exposed.

 And so I wonder, when the intensity of it all has diminished, what's actually worn down — my body, or my mind? At least during those final days in Cape Town, it seemed to be the latter. We had lots of fun activities and social engagements, and also lots of real life to catch up with. I relished in brief opportunities to get out for two solo runs. These runs were good for the soul, an opportunity to ease the shock of the transition by returning temporarily to this simple, raw mindset.

It had been stormy and cold during our entire first week we were in South Africa, and then we enjoyed sunny, mostly dry weather for the three weeks of the Freedom Challenge. Then, true to the pattern, our final days in Cape Town were stormy and cold. Two days after the Freedom Challenge, I stole away from the house for my first recovery run in the Helderberg Nature Reserve. I couldn't bear the thought of climbing anything, so I just ran along the friendly trails in the valley below the mountain. The day before we left, there was a major storm. Downpour, flash flooding, snow on the peaks. Liehann and Trang planned to visit a farmer's market, giving me an opportunity to run in Jonkershoek.

This run was incredible. I'll just go on the record now and admit I haven't felt remotely fit since I returned to California. But for this one last run, before jet lag set in and deep physical and/or mental recovery took hold, I felt like a falcon. I'd been dragging around that bike for weeks, and suddenly I was light and free on my feet, relishing the sensation of driving rain against my face and charging toward a snowline that I longed to reach. As I climbed higher, the sky began to clear and streaks of sunlight escaped through the clouds. Jaw-dropping views of the valley opened up, and I could see walls of craggy peaks, waterfalls, and lush vegetation that I didn't have to hack through ... it was all so enjoyable. Although I agreed to return after two hours, I got a little carried away and had to sprint as best as I could to get back in time. I was eleven minutes late, but wrapped up 10.5 miles in 2:11 which, considering all of the climbing, is close to real running. It had been a while. I couldn't believe how fast I could move without my bike.

This valley is directly behind where Liehann went to school and is close to a house he still owns. One of my first thoughts was why would Liehann ever leave this place to move to California? (Liehann has a great job and girlfriend, so I make this statement in jest, mostly.) Of course, I missed California, too. I missed Beat, my cat, Diet Pepsi, just sitting down and writing, riding my bike up Montebello Road, and going for runs on the dusty, poison-oak-lined trails that have worked their way into my heart. It had been a long journey, and I was tired, but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. 
Sunday, July 20, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part eleven

"When this is all done, I'm going to set my alarm for 4:30 just so I can turn it off and not get up," Liehann announced as we downed a cold breakfast of granola and milk in the chilled cabin at Trouthaven. 

"Strange that this is the last morning," I agreed ... although, silently, I wondered to myself if it really was our last morning on the Freedom Trail. Sure, there were only 54 kilometers between here and the finish at the wine farm of Diemersfontein. And sure, only 12 kilometers of that was even supposed to be full portaging, although I had heard rumors that this was a direct-line estimate and the reality was probably closer to 15 or even 20. Coen said the portage alone would take seven hours. "That means it will take me twelve," I lamented. 

 We planned to leave at 5:30 a.m. sharp. Sunrise was just before 7 a.m., and 5:30 was about the earliest we could leave to cover the first "easy" kilometers of riding in the dark before first light would help us locate a footpath at the edge of the reservoir. "You must find this footpath," Coen warned us. "Otherwise what would take seven hours will take fourteen." Which meant at my pace ... I didn't want to think about it.

Icy darkness sank into the river gorge like silt at the bottom of the sea. As we rolled along a steeply undulating road, I stuck in my earphones to calm my nerves and listened to the Stars, singing the song "North" quietly as Liehann surged ahead ...
"It's so cold in this country. Every road home is long.
He had a map that he bought for the price of a song.
He had a reason to go there, and a warm place to stay.
But when it came time to leave, it was never the right day.
Good luck, bad luck, survival. 
Sleep is my friend, and my rival.
Good luck, bad luck, survival." 

Photo by Liehann Loots
We rounded the dam manager's house and looked for the road that led to the dam wall. After several passes of failing to locate a road, we asked a man who just happened to be out walking along this dead-end street at 6:30 a.m. "The road washed away in a flood; it's not there anymore," he told us. "If you want to go to the dam, you will have to leave your bikes here and climb up that way." 

"Leave my bike here," I thought wistfully. Although I was too timid to proudly accept an official disqualification in exchange for symbolic glory, I daydreamed about just leaving my bike in Trouthaven and running the last 54 kilometers, then picking it up later. Part of me relished the cross-country adventures of the Freedom Challenge, but I was frustrated with the ways an odd-shaped anchor turned my undertrained body into something so weak and awkward that it was as useless as the bike. I dreamed of being light and free on my feet, of hacking through the brush unhindered, of running that last rideable 30 kilometers after the valley and proving I could do the whole stage as fast as anyone else, sans bike. "I know they won't give me an official finish, but how awesome would it be to finish the Freedom Challenge without my stupid bike?" I pondered out loud to Liehann the previous evening.

"You're an idiot," he replied. 

 Instead, I found myself shouldering my bike beneath the flickering light of a dam manager's house and picking my way along the disappeared road. It wasn't just washed out, it was obliterated — a rushing creek with table-sized boulders filled the space where the road used to be. By sheer luck, Liehann shined his headlamp through the brush where the old road bed veered away from the valley bottom and climbed up to the dam, giving us an almost-free half-kilometer of pedaling before we had to find the "footpath" that led around the reservoir and into the Valley-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.

The term footpath is generous — it was a trace of something through the brush, easy to wander off of, and difficult to relocate. Some of our wanderings proved this footpath was still faster than the full-bushwhack, so we moved slowly and made an effort to squint out its faint line along the hillsides.

It was along here that I reached into my frame bag for a snack and realized that I failed to restock my food supply in the morning. For each of the past 20 evenings in the Freedom Challenge, my habit was to go through my drop box and extract the items I wanted for the following day, then place them in a ziplock bag to transfer to my frame bag as we packed up in the morning. I knew this last day would be long, so I carefully placed the feed bag where I wouldn't forget it, next to my shoes. Somehow, I forgot it. On the most important day of the whole journey to be fully self-reliant, I had only whatever food was left over after the ride into Trouthaven. That had been a short day, so at least there were leftovers. But how much ... I was afraid to count. I had a general idea based on my daily packing habits and what I remembered consuming. There would be three or four bars, some trail mix, some biltong, half a bag of gummy bears, a sandwich from Trouthaven that I grabbed from the fridge that morning, and my emergency supply of 750 calories of peanut butter ... probably adequate, but I was going to need to ration carefully to avoid bonking in this valley.

 Beyond the reservoir the footpath effectively disappeared. I hooked two spare straps between the bike frame and my backpack, and leaned forward into the carry system I'd devised. I had to put the bike down when we reached the river, where the prospect of teetering on boulders and stumbling through swift current made the anchor attachment unwise. Our cues were quite specific about these river crossings, and despite a complete lack of evidence that any footpath still existed through this remote, burned, flooded, and overgrown valley — we continued to hold out hope that we'd locate something. The river itself was also cause for suspicion, because vertical rock walls seemed to indicate if we did not follow the correct route, we would eventually find ourselves cliffed out with no choice but to turn around. In hindsight, the cues could probably be as simple as "Find your preferred schwacking method and follow the river up the valley until you reach the end, and then climb out." But, in the midst of it, we were convinced there must be one almighty right way.

Coen and Con caught up to us as we bumbled back and forth at the first river crossing, and directed us on a ledgy skitter along the left bank that did get us around the high cliffs on the right. From there, we started hacking our way up and over a seemingly endless progression of spurs. These were steep climbs and sketchy descents laced with thick, almost impenetrable walls of reeds and brush in the drainages. Although my strap system was a good idea in theory, attaching the bike to my backpack made wrestling through the brush even more impossible. Finally, I just accepted that I was going to have to carry my bike with my own weak shoulders and puny arms. "I have to learn this sometime," I thought, and lifted my bike over my head as my shredded triceps quivered before lowering it onto the top of my backpack. Once balanced, it didn't take that much extra strength to keep the bike up there, although my tired quads and calves balked at every step.

Photo by Liehann Loots
Coen and Con quickly outpaced us, but since Coen had successfully climbed out of The-Valley-That-Must-Not-Be-Named before, I wanted to keep them in sight. I traced their line over the ridge of a spur before Liehann and I dropped into the drainage below, were we encountered the twisted wreckage of a plane that crashed in 1963, the Shackelton. Like the other drainages, this one was cut with a small but steep gorge at the bottom, necessitating a six-foot, sheer drop that was difficult to gauge beneath all of the reeds and brush choking the edge of the stream. Since the easiest way to cross this drainage was to climb over the crushed fuselage of the plane wreck, that's exactly what we did. "I hope there aren't still bodies inside," Liehann said.

"They probably removed them a long time ago," I shrugged.

 At the top of spur we located the plaque commemorating those who died in the crash — which, to us, meant we had climbed an unnecessary spur. We were not supposed to see the plaque; we were supposed to go around it at river level.

 Coen and Con were still up there, and the four of us descended the steep face of the spur, toward a horizon line near the bottom that had me convinced we were going to become stranded at the top of a cliff before we reached the river. Coen located a doable scramble down a tiered ledge, and we helped each other lower bikes down to river level. We forged through the current and then we climbed a ramp of rocky scree, still searching for a footpath. Coen seemed to believe one existed. But all we found were walls of reeds. We left the river to climb back up the next spur, hacking through thick brush and meeting walls of reeds that Liehann and Coen both hacked at for several minutes before declaring them impassable. We split up and fanned out in four separate directions, calling out to each other from the maze of nothing that we were inadvertently constructing. Thorny branches grabbed my tights and ripped new holes in the fabric; there were now several dozen long tears, and I was genuinely concerned that the tights would shred apart and fall off my body before we ever made it out of this valley.

"There's no way through here," I lamented. "There's really no way through."

 I almost believed it. But with everything we'd hacked through so far, there was also no way I was going to go back ... so I suppose forward was the only option. With the four of us bumbling around in increasing stages of hopelessness, it was Liehann who finally took charge and did what needed to be done, which is just bulldoze straight up the hill until he found a sneak around some slightly less impenetrable walls of vegetation up high. In hindsight, bulldozing is what needed to be done all along — tights, shirts, dangly bike parts, and tender arm and face skin be damned. We needed to just pick up the bikes and throw them over the brush if necessary. There was no footpath, no free passage through The-Valley-That-Must-Not-Be-Named. Destruction was the only way out.

We wasted well over an hour going absolutely nowhere with this first hack, and the subsequent spurs did not get much better. Each plunge into a gully was like battling through a tangle of wires — thrashing in a claustrophobic green net while dragging the bike sideways and sometimes upside down. Then we'd emerge from the stream bed and start another steep climb on loose dirt.

Coen, like me, wanted to take his time to locate the right (and nonexistent) route. We'd trace lines that almost looked like a trail and find occasional rock cairns, probably left behind by other riders reconning the route. Although he'd been through twice before, Coen's recollections of details were far from clear. He stopped at the crest of every spur and looked toward the end of the valley. "Now we must pick the right line out," he cautioned us. "Otherwise we'll spend the night in here."

Liehann seemed to believe the exit was a wall off to the left, well before the end of the valley. We were moving so slowly through the hacks that I let myself believe this as well. But as soon as we passed the point between two nipple-shaped peaks that we'd be approaching for hours, all I saw were more walls. And when I say walls, I mean a canyon slope so steep and rippled with rocky cliff bands that I would never hike out that way on my own, even without a bike. The surface was clearly loose dirt and rocks, and any fall could potentially launch a death tumble. More disconcerting was, from this angle supposedly less than two kilometers away, the walls at the end of the valley looked no less steep.

Photo by Liehann Loots
 Clouds started to close in on us. Droplets of rain fell, followed by steady drizzle. Night was coming. I didn't have the courage to look at my watch, but the darkening skies indicated something more ominous than a passing storm. We bumbled around at a final spur before Liehann finally took charge and bulldozed down through the confusion of prickly brush. While we waded through the river around and over more table-sized boulders, I watched the sky close in and thought, "We really are going to spend a night down in here." Attempting to climb any of these steep walls after dark without a clear view of the cliff bands seemed suicidal, and we didn't have many more minutes of daylight to try.

I thought about finding wind shelter near the rocks and laying out my bivy sack under brush to hold off the rain. I thought about gathering twigs to build a little fire that I'd probably just spend the whole night stoking instead of sleeping. I thought about my meager food supply and how it wouldn't be nearly enough to remain comfortable into the next day, and how I might feel colder overnight with limited calories. I wondered how Liehann would feel about survival camping, and whether he'd insist on forging out of this valley after dark despite not knowing a safe route, and what arguments I'd make to try to talk him out of this. I wondered if he'd listen to me. I did quite a bit of backpacking in my twenties, and while I knew our limited gear would make camping uncomfortable, we wouldn't die. I've also done a fair amount of mountain scrambling near and beyond my comfort limits, and I wasn't so sure about our chances if we attempted to climb out at night. I thought about all of Liehann's family — his parents, sister, girlfriend, and friend who were waiting for us at Diemersfontein. They anticipated we'd be in by 4 or 5 p.m. No one was going to be thrilled if we didn't show up at all.

Coen, Con and I gathered on the other side of the river. Liehann was already on his way up the face of the mountain — he likely had the same thoughts going through his head as I did, and knew there was no time to waste. I looked up-river at a saddle dipping into the edge of the valley — that line must be the friendly way out. It was still another kilometer or so of hacking away from us. Liehann was marching up what was clearly the tiger line — the only line we had enough time to try before darkness took over. I lifted the bike onto my back and looked up in bewilderment at the wall in front of me. "I'm not strong enough," I panicked, and the tried to quiet my fretting with the mantra that lately hasn't worked nearly as well as it used to ... "be brave, be strong."

Coen and Con were stronger, and surged ahead. I hooked my left hand around the seatpost of the bike dangling on my shoulders and used my right hand to aid the scramble. Balancing on my toes with searing pain coursing through my calves, I first tried a direct line just to keep up, but was soon forced to make zig-zags. Loose pebbles dislodged and tumbled under my feet, and I had to rush forward to avoid sliding down with them. I climbed to the bottom of a cliff band, about eight feet tall and vertical. To the left, I could see Con disappearing over the horizon, but my efforts to contour this slope had taken me much too far to the right. There was no time, there just wasn't enough time. I veered to the left where the cliff band dropped into more of a ramp, and leaned into a full scramble. I took one step, and then barely managed to lift my foot for a second. It was trying to walk with two cannonballs chained to my ankles. "This bike's not that heavy," I scolded myself. I grabbed a handhold and tried to pull myself up. Suddenly it felt like the cannonballs had hooked into my shoulder blade and were ripping muscle away from the bone. A strange sort of collapsing sensation rippled down my back, followed by moment of pure terror when I felt the unmistakable pull of gravity behind my head. I was tipping over backward.

I instinctively left go of the bike and threw a leg back to arrest the fall. My right foot touched down, collapsing the knee and tossing my body to the side. I landed hard on my right hip while the bike tumbled several feet back before coming to rest against a tree. Pain coursed through my leg. Was it broken? No, it just felt battered. Was my bike broken? Who cares? I should just leave it here. But instead I slid back down the slope and attempted to pick the bike up again. My shoulder muscles seared in pain with every attempt. Maybe I did tear something? I tried to hook the saddle over my shoulder, but this slope was far too steep to dangle either wheel out front. Pushing was a joke, impossible, but I tried this anyway, shoving the bike ahead while I dug my toes into the loose pebbles. The bike only nudged me backward and I slipped to my knees. It was true, it really was true. I wasn't strong enough for the tiger line. I was never going to make it up this mountain.

"Liehann? Liehann?" I called out. I stopped my struggle and listened for voices, but heard only the dull roar of the wind and the hiss of drizzling rain. "Liehann?!" I called out louder. "I'm stuck. Can you help me? Please?" Again, just silence.

I stood up, threw the bike on its side, and started dragging it up the mountain behind me. "Liehann! Liehann!" I screamed as loud as I could. "Please, help me." The last part came out as more of a whimper. Only the wind answered. Liehann and I been a team since the beginning. Rationally I knew he wouldn't leave me behind, but when I was feeling weak and completely vulnerable and Night Was Coming, survival instinct forced me to consider the possibility that I might be on my own. I looked back at the river. There was water there, and wood for a fire. Should I retreat now while I could still see the way down? Shivering set in. Whether rational or not, I was very frightened.

Photo by Liehann Loots
Meanwhile, Liehann was doing what needed to be done, which is charge up the tiger line with the last remnants of daylight so he could arrive at the saddle and sight the way out along the Elandspad plateau. We needed to make our way down a broad ridge into the next valley and locate a stream bed with a faint jeep track running along the slope to the right. None of this would have been easy to do in the dark, especially finding that track, and failing to locate it would mean compass-aided schwacking for eight more kilometers. Liehann crested the ridge with enough daylight to clearly see the contours of the stream bed. It was a triumphant moment for him, and well deserved, as his speed up the tiger line is a physical feat worth nothing. Afterward, he returned to help me.

He found me still only about halfway up the climb, floundering with attempts to push and drag my bike, and limping from the pain in my bruised leg. Seeing Liehann after about twenty minutes of mentally preparing for a night out alone flipped my survival mode switch off, and I went into meltdown mode. Shoring up that much fear requires releasing an emotional floodgate, and Liehann was gracious about my blubbering as he shouldered my bike and picked his way up the tiger line a second time. Even without the anchor I could barely keep up, still slipping backward on the scree and clutching boulders. I was amazed. Liehann really did well with the Stettynskloof. He deserves accolades for his performance in there.

We walked together down the plateau. Just as the last red strips of sunset were disappearing behind a purple horizon, Liehann spotted the faint white strip that proved to be a short exposed section of the overgrown track out. It was like spotting the beam of a lighthouse after being lost at sea. It was 7 p.m. We had been in the Stettynskloof for more than twelve hours, covering a distance that amounted to, at most, ten miles.

When I finally mounted my bike to ride it again for the first time in a half day, the chain skipped off the cassette and lodged firmly between the cassette and the spokes. Something was bent. It didn't look like the derailleur hanger — it was likely the rear derailleur itself. Probably from me falling backward on top of my bike, or dragging it along the rocks, or any number of the endless schwacks and brush tangles during the day. Either way, it looked like I might have a long night of running ahead of me, with only a handful of gummy bears, half a sandwich, and some biltong as fuel. I didn't care. I had survived the Stettynskloof. I would gleefully run thirty kilometers with a broken bike and no food out of gratitude that I wasn't in that valley any longer, and that, barring any unforeseen lapses in judgement, I would never have to go there again.

Liehann found a cable adjustment that kept the chain on one of the middle cassette rings, although it still clunked loudly, and I had to remember not to shift the rear derailleur. The gear I was in was a stiff one, and there was still a lot of climbing to complete before we reached Diemersfontein. I mashed the pedals but there wasn't much strength left to mash with. I was shattered. Liehann, listening to my labored gasping, was the one who suggested we walk up the track, which was laid with parallel concrete slabs to aid vehicles up the steep slope. We saw our first electric lights of the day, and cheered the return to civilization. We passed through a remote and gated community where the route out wasn't clear. Liehann saw a truck and flagged down the driver to ask for directions. As it turned out, the driver was about to close a gate in front of us. This gate would have been the ultimate barrier of Freedom Challenge gates — sturdy steel, 10 feet high, with loops of barbed wire across the top, and no way around. If we had approached that intersection just five minutes later, we would have been locked in.

After the gatekeeper let us out and locked the gate behind us, we sat down on the road for our first break since early afternoon. I nibbled on biltong and the remains of half of a smashed chicken salad sandwich. Liehann gave me a gel from his emergency food supply. I stuck it in my pocket for insurance against a bonk.

We reached a paved road where we had to climb for seven more kilometers — and 1,200 feet of gain — toward Du Toits Kloof Pass. The main freeway now bypasses this road through a long tunnel, but we still had to cross through a shorter tunnel on a narrow road traveled by drivers who were too cheap to pay the toll. The climb through the tunnel was absolutely terrifying, in the dark with only our headlights and red blinkies, listening to the roar of semis echo with deafening cadence. As trucks approached, we'd jump onto a narrow concrete berm and press our bodies and bikes against the wall of the tunnel. I agreed with Liehann that this road was far more dangerous than anything we encountered in the Stettynskloof.

Finally we reached a pass with only twelve more kilometers of descending between us and the finish — but as the final devilish icing on this cake of a last stage, it was all through a forest road maze that required constant vigilance, and lots of right turns, all the way to the edge of Diemersfontein. Even after Marnitz let us through the farm gate and directed us toward a wide circle around the farm, we still weren't entirely sure where to go. And even as we crossed a dam, and could hear the cheers of Liehann's family at a nearby manor, I was unconvinced. There was still a potential wrong turn to take somewhere, and I really didn't want to make the wrong choice now. Embarrassing.

How did it feel to finish the Freedom Challenge? I can't speak for Liehann, but I was pretty much just shellshocked and numb that night. The sensory overload of lights, sounds, and people was overwhelming, and I failed to call Beat until several hours later, which I felt bad about. Beat and been so supportive of this adventure, and I'd missed him so much during the weeks I'd been away, that it was telling of my mental state that I didn't call him right away. In all honesty, I went into the Freedom Challenge believing that our semi-civilized touring pace would make it feel like more of a vacation than other endurance races I'd completed. But this race laughed at my delusions, then chewed me up and spit me out into a bruised, battered, and grease-smeared pile after 21 days, 16 hours, and 5 minutes on this beautiful and brutal dotted line across South Africa.

As you likely gathered from my reports, I couldn't have done it without Liehann. Although it was difficult and humbling, I am grateful that he talked me into this adventure and stuck with me through it to the bitter end. Also invaluable was the guidance of those we met and rode with along the way — Steve, Di, Richard, Marnitz, Coen and Con. The Freedom Challenge participants form a wonderful and tight-knit family, and I'm grateful to have been a part of it this year. The Race Across South Africa was an incredible adventure, although one I'm not rushing to repeat. There were experiences and memories enough to last a lifetime. 
Saturday, July 19, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part ten

As the schwack around the Osseberg slipped farther into the past, our days on the Freedom Challenge route started to become more friendly ... dare I say civilized? After we exited the rough doubletrack leading away from The Ladder, our cues prompted us to "turn left ... and now you start the run into Cape Town. Most of the difficult navigation is behind you. You only have three more portages, you have a fair amount of easy riding, and you have a few glorious downhills and the first one starts now."

Even though we arrived very late for the couple at the farm house of Rouxpos — 10:20 p.m. — they still prepared a fresh pot of tea and heated up a hearty dinner for us. There was a lovingly personalized lunch for the next day — homemade fudge and fruit roll marked with the stamp of Rouxpos. And, as a special surprise, dessert was a hot waffle topped with ice cream. Liehann was especially thrilled about the waffle, and raved about it as one of the highlights to look forward to when he returns next year (which he's planning to.) The support stations are one aspect of the Freedom Challenge that make it a truly unique long-distance event. On one hand, you do travel unsupported throughout the day, and in many ways have to be even more self-reliant than the self-supported bikepacking races in North America, which take place on routes that offer a wider array of outside services. But on the other hand, it's warm and reassuring to have someone leave a light on for you to come in late from the cold, and enjoy a waffle.

I advocated for leaving Rouxpos after sunrise so we could take on the first of the final portages in daylight. It turned out to be a very easy portage, so much so that I repeatedly checked my compass and map just to ensure we were moving in the right direction. The track was sandy and rough, but it was a track, which I wasn't expecting. This day was off to a good start.

Liehann and I rolled through "Grand Canyon" and had a good laugh about it. We had ridden through a number of deep and rugged gorges across South Africa, and although none quite reach the scale of the Colorado River gorge, they were more deserving of the name "Grand." Here ... well ... between this and the lush and scenic valley called "The Hell," I was beginning to see a trend of places being drastically misnamed.

The road into Anysberg started out smooth and fast, but quickly deteriorated into a mire of rocks and sand along a narrow, overgrown doubletrack. We slowed to a 9-kilometer-per-hour pace, chundering along into a stiff headwind. After 18 kilometers of tedium, it took us a half hour to locate the correct building for the lunch stop. Liehann was frustrated and adamant about just grabbing our boxes and leaving. I talked him into staying for reheated chicken stew because I always did a lot better with a lunch stop — regardless of what I ate, the hour-long break in the middle of the day was always good for a big energy boost.

There was another 18 kilometers of chunder track after Anysberg, and Liehann's rear tire continued to deflate even after he stopped multiple times to spin sealant into the puncture and top off the air. I suggested putting more sealant into the tire; since I had two containers and Liehann had one, we had plenty to spare. For reasons I'm not quite sure about — possibly because pouring sealant through the valve stem can be problematic — he decided to open up the tire. Inside, he found an impressive number of thorns, which would have made switching to tubes difficult, as it's tricky if not impossible to find and remove all of the thorns. But when he added sealant and started pumping it back up, he couldn't get the tire bead to seal to the rim. The air pressure from the hand pump wasn't enough.

What followed was twenty minutes of Liehann being the most stressed I had seen him in the entire Freedom Challenge. There wasn't much I could do besides offer him my slightly-larger-volume hand pump, but my arms were much too weak for the amount of pressure needed. He admitted that both of his spare tubes — which were taped to the outside of his frame — had holes in them from the bushwhacks. I had two good tubes and a patch kit stowed away, but the thorn problem made their usefulness questionable. I was not nearly as stressed as Liehann because at least we weren't lost ... and as long as you're not lost, you can pretty much walk anywhere that you need to be, eventually. But he was getting angry, and pumped furiously until suddenly we both heard that joyous "pop." The tire inflated and Liehann held the wheel up in the air triumphantly. "Yes! Yes!"

From there, we finally dropped off the Anysberg road and enjoyed an afternoon of pleasant climbing. We were high on a plateau free of traffic, the air was warm and the evening light rich, and we were both relaxed enough to just ride side by side and chatter away, which we actually hadn't yet done in the seventeen days of the race thus far. We were either too focused on navigation, tired from physically taxing sections, or managing difficult terrain — we could never just ride along like two friends out for a pleasant tour. But this evening ride was well-earned, and it was gratifying to just sit back and enjoy it.

After Ouberg Pass, there was supposedly 25 kilometers of descending, but I refused to believe it. A 25-kilometer downhill? There is no such thing in the Freedom Challenge. But then we launched into a free-wheeling plunge that was nothing short of amazing. Rolling along a river, it was just gradual enough to keep the downhill trend going to entire way. Montagu was the largest town we had seen since Pietermaritzburg, and we arrived at the Montagu Country Hotel at the civilized hour of 7 p.m. This hotel was one of my favorite stops on the tour — sitting in a fancy dining hall in our dirty bike clothes, we enjoyed a gourmet dinner that, while portions were more on the "normal" side, included lots of fresh vegetables. We chatted with people who knew nothing about the bike race and likely didn't care, which I admit was refreshing after spending so many days in an artificial bubble where everything was all about the race, all of the time. I had a delicious chocolate pie for dessert, and had my own quiet room where I could rinse and spread out my clothes, and just lay in bed and read a magazine like a civilized person. Liehann admitted that Montagu was one of his least favorite stops — for many of the same reasons that it was my favorite. I agreed that after a day of hard pedaling through remote country, it can be difficult to flip back to civilization mode.

The following morning, we rode 51 kilometers into McGregor that were just wonderful. Cold, misty air. Quiet roads. Lush valleys surrounded by craggy mountains.

Liehann was feeling rough on this morning, so we kept the pace fairly mellow.

I thought I was having a great morning, so I took my second and final selfie of the tour. Selfies are an interesting way to document long trips like this, and I wish I had taken more. Because although in my mind I was strong and healthy, this photo shows the swollen face, drooping eyelids, and chapped lips that betray the reality of my physical state.

The scenery was starting to look more like the region surrounding Cape Town that we'd left behind weeks earlier. This is one of my favorite aspects of bicycle touring — watching the landscape change over time. Even though you're propelling yourself under your own power, and sometimes moving quite slowly, you can still cover meaningful amounts of distance. It had been a seeming lifetime, and at the same time quite sudden — and now we were nearing "home," the Western Cape.

On our original race plan that we were already one day behind, Liehann had us covering the stretch from Montagu to the final support station in Trouthaven in one day. It was nearly 160 kilometers with two portages and lots of potentially tricky terrain in between, which would almost certainly take sixteen hours or more to traverse. It would then be followed by the final stage, the Stettynskloof, a name I couldn't bring myself to say out loud, like Voldemort. Back in Cambria, I asked Di if Stettynskloof was worse than the Osseberg or the Vuvu Valley, or if it was more like Lehana's Pass or The Ladder. She said, "It's so much worse, it's like everything wrapped into one. We won't talk about it just yet."

There may have been a few weak moments when I advocated just skipping the Valley-That-Must-Not-Be-Named altogether. Liehann could go on, but I would just ride right up until the final support station, and then ride on roads back to Somerset West if needed. It's true, I wouldn't have finished the Race Across South Africa, wouldn't have received the finisher's blanket ... but I wondered if this final portage might just be my complete undoing. "It would be like telling someone like me that everyone had to bench press 150 pounds to finish their race. Many could do it, but me? Well, thanks, it's been fun, but ..."

These were weak moments, and I was mostly joking. I did want to finish the Freedom Challenge. But I was nervous. Extremely nervous. I advocated for breaking this grueling penultimate day into two days, to shore up needed strength for the Stettynskloof, and also to enjoy the last remnants of civilized living.

We arrived at the Good Hope farm in the early afternoon. While Liehann took a nap, I worked on a system to more effectively carry my bike on my back. I didn't necessarily want to take it apart, like they do in during the Grand Canyon crossing of the Arizona Trail Race, because I knew there would be thick bushwhacking that would require more maneuvering than a static position on a backpack would allow. But I wanted to keep my weak little arms free when possible, so I worked up a strap system to hook the frame around the shoulder straps of my backpack. That way, the backpack would support the weight of the bike on my back, but it could also just dangle from the frame when I needed to nudge the bike through thick vegetation. For the better part of an hour I practiced with my system, walking around the yard with the bike hanging off my backpack, attempting to step up onto higher ledges with only the strength in my legs, jumping up and down to test my balance and stability. It seemed like a good system, and I was feeling more optimistic at the end of the day.

The long break also gave me time to perform some much-needed surgeries on my fingers. A number of thorns and other debris had become lodged in my skin and then ignored, and some of my fingers had become badly infected. I had to dig through the red and swollen skin and mostly just extracted puss, but at least they were finally properly disinfected and bandaged. My fingers were in bad shape, and I also had a single — but painful — saddle sore that I was treating. Still, those were my only physical maladies at the time, so I had little to complain about.

We rode 76 kilometers into Trouthaven. There was one steep hike-a-bike first thing in the morning, but the rest of the ride was just fun and relaxing, with the exception of five kilometers on a busy paved road that seemed frenetic and out-of-place on this route. It was a reminder of just how little time we'd spent on pavement in the past three weeks.

Trouthaven was another early afternoon stop. Although our times into both Good Hope and Trouthaven indicated it would have taken us upwards of 18 hours to ride the distance in one day, doing these segments in two felt almost like cheating. These afternoons were far too relaxing, sitting with my feet up next to a fire and reading fishing magazines. I was still extremely stressed out, and nothing Liehann said made me feel better. Later in the evening, Coen and Con arrived at Trouthaven — the men had surged ahead of Steve, Di, and Richard, and would now take on the Stettynskloof on the same day as us. Coen had ridden the route twice before, and did not sugarcoat his previous experiences at all. He talked about taking the "tiger line" out of the valley, with his legs about to buckle underneath him, but it was too steep to slow down.

"No tiger line," I said to Liehann. "I'm not strong enough for the tiger line." Our cues described a route that was farther up the valley, and longer, but less steep.

I didn't really think I was strong enough for any of it, but I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try.