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. 

21 comments:

  1. What an incredible recounting of your and Liehann's journey through South Africa! Each night, I looked forward to reading your next post. Enjoyed every word and photograph!

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  2. What an adventure! Liehann looks so happy in every picture. The Valley That Must Not Be Named looks beautiful. I wonder if hiking/running it would be fun. You guys are tough! Thanks for sharing your story.

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    1. It's astonishing how simple movements like walking can become full-contact, anaerobic efforts in the absence of a trail. I don't really think the Stettynskloof would be actual fun under any circumstances, save for a real winter storm that dumped at least six feet of fluff over all of that nasty brush. :)

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  3. I wrote a comment but it got too long so I posted it here. Thanks for the awesome race report and the ride!
    http://www.liehann.com/2014/07/freedom-challenge-stettynskloof.html

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  4. It's completely inappropriate to compare my early days of MTBing with your epic challenge, but I could really relate the part where you were calling out for Liehann only to get no response. I'd like to think that I had a part in training him to deal with fallen riding partners who just need a hug and to have a nice cry. ;-)

    Not sure if Liehann's told you explicitly, but I think it was great for him to have a riding partner - someone with whom to share the burden, and also someone to keep him on his game. Those of us at home also appreciated having someone more communicative than Liehann to keep us posted.

    Thanks for the awesome race report and all the terrific photos. I can't wait to compile yours and Liehann's into a photo book.

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    1. Thanks! I was grateful that Liehann was so kind to me during my low points; he could just have easily been exasperated. Good job with the sensitivity training. :) Can't wait to see the photo book! Let me know if you want copies or any extra pictures, I have loads more.

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  5. This series has been very captivating. Reading about portages made me feel frustrated for you. As somebody who likes to ride bicycles, I hope to never learn the skill of carrying my bike for long. I fell of the Resolution trail today while making room for hikers, slid down about ten feet of almost vertical hill side and it took me about 20 minutes to get me and my bike back up! I thought I would never climb those three meters.

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  6. Welcome to the Freedom Challenge family, a real Band of brothers and sisters !!

    All the best with your new adventures, be strong, be brave !!!

    PS. You'll be back for more, just give it time..........

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  7. This couch potato loved every photo- every update. Well done and thanks so much for blogging.

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  8. Thanks for a very "real" report on the Freedom Challenge. I found your blog captivating. It make mine seem "feeble"! Good luck with your future adventure. I would love to hav ethe opportunity to meet with Liehan and share some of of our stories of FC 2014. I also live in Cape Town.

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  9. I was dreading the last report, did not want them to end. I am sure the pictures were a very inadequate representation of the beauty of South Africa. Nevertheless, they were awesome and enlightening. Thanks for keeping us posted.

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  10. Whew! Glad to see that Jill and Liehann Potter defeated the Valley-That-Must-Not-Be-Named. I figured you would. I just wasn't sure if you would die in the process!

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  11. So, after commenting I jokingly thought that with all the hike-a-bike you guys should have brought a Bike Friday. Then I started to think it wasn't such a bad idea. I looked it up and Bike Friday does have mountain bikes. There's also a folding bike made for paratroopers (http://www.militarybikes.com). So, did you guys run into anyone doing the Freedom Challenge with a folding bike?

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  12. Brilliant. Best account of the F.C. yet. Thanks for baring your soul, most of us aren't willing or prepared to expose that side of our RASA adventure.

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  13. Thanks for sharing this amazing race report with all the nitty-gritty details. It's been really interesting to follow along as you've posted these installments! Congratulations on a truly impressive achievement!

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  14. Thanks for another great story, after following your tracker on that last day and wondering how bad it could be to give the low to no speeds you recorded, I now understand!

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  15. Jill, thanks for the great update. Like many, I followed every day and was amazed by what you encountered and overcame. I enjoyed your book and your blog. I completed a 60 mile ride to celebrate my 60th birthday this week, and when the going got tough, I thought about what you would have done and just kept pedaling. Thanks for the motivation!! I would love to know more about your bike and equipment if you get a chance to give us those details. Thanks again for sharing your adventure.

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  16. Anonymous5:48 PM

    This was an amazing report. I loved checking daily to see if more of the story was up. You painted such a vivid picture - thanks for the great writing!

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  17. Brilliant write up and photos Jill. Congratulations on an awesome achievement.

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  18. By a weird twist, I am on vacation, prepping for a long mtb race on Sunday (one day ;) and am reading Be Strong Be Brave. Finally had time to catch up on your South Africa adventure. Jill, you are plenty strong and plenty brave. Well done! (I hope I can be that strong and brave when I ride Tour Divide in two summers!)

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