Friday, July 11, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part five

Earlier this year, shortly after I arrived in McGrath during the Iditarod Trail Invitational, I spent some time pondering what it would be like if my effort didn't end there. After 350 miles of strenuous sled towing, with my swollen feet and aching shins that wouldn't even let me run the last three miles into town, what if I had only been a third of the way done? Not even? I watched Tim, Loreen, Beat, and Donald ready their supplies for the thousand-mile journey to Nome, and tried to conceive not feeling a warm rush of relief or accomplishment ... instead, just the same fatigued urgency of a race morning, cramming down mancakes to fuel something much bigger.

Granted, the Freedom Challenge is not the Iditarod, and I arrived in Rhodes feeling much more fit than I did in McGrath, minus a fully functioning set of arms. But the parallel remains ... Rhodes was the finish line for many, and there was an air of celebration that I couldn't take part in. Bruce and Ryan's family members came out to see them finish, and I sat down to have a drink with the group before the banquet dinner.

"How can you just keep going?" one man wondered. "Day after day?"

"Well, you know, you start to develop a routine," I answered. "The first week is always hard, but then it becomes your life. I don't think you actually get stronger, but it feels that way — it becomes your new normal."

Liehann had been looking forward to Rhodes for days, because Rhodes is where he would pick up his new fork. His old Reba had reached the point of being completely bottomed out and locked. Not only did he have no suspension, but he was permanently stuck with an aero position  — we called it a "rigid lowrider." His hands were already almost completely numb from the odd pressure points, and this new fork promised the relief he craved.

Or not. As I enjoyed a relaxing afternoon chatting with families of the Rhodes racers, believing Liehann was outside installing the fork, he was actually back in frenzied phone call mode after he discovered it wasn't the right model. What arrived was a tapered steerer fork, and what he needed was a straight steerer. It was the wrong shape — there was no way he could make it work.

He held out hope that he could still have this wrong fork returned and the right one delivered farther down the trail, but the tiny town of Rhodes was the only mail stop for many days, and he still was having trouble reaching the right people. I could tell he was disappointed as we sat down to dinner to cheer for the Rhodes racers as they received their finishing prize — a small herdsman's whip.

"Why don't we get a whip?" Liehann wondered out loud. "We finished the ride to Rhodes too."

"Do you really want to carry that thing all the way to Cape Town?" I asked. "Anyway, this isn't our race." This is something I feel strongly about, actually — if you sign up for the long haul, you better be ready to hold out for the long haul. There's no such thing as a halfway finish.

Our morning out of Rhodes was much like every other morning — alarm blaring at 4:30 a.m., piling on layers, cramming down a peanut butter and honey sandwich. I'd been up much of the night with indigestion after the rich dinner at the hotel, and was already missing the simple pumpkin, plain rice, and potatoes of the villages. We shared a room with Monday starter Mike du Toit, who was battling a nasty chest infection and already spent one layover day in Rhodes. He rolled out with us in the morning, wheezing heavily, in temperatures of -8C (17F.) Brisk, but lovely. There's few things I relish more than a clear, cold morning, and I have to say that it was a treat for me to enjoy pleasant winter temperatures (as opposed to the wet winter storms that are possible here) during a month when I'm usually baking in California. For many South Africans who live near the coast, however, sub-freezing weather is somewhat foreign. High pressure systems and clear skies meant this year was colder than most, and there were several riders who withdrew from the Freedom Challenge with flu and respiratory infections. Mike was one of the first. As we climbed the first hill out of Rhodes, he started gasping so loudly that I stopped and turned around to make sure he hadn't collapsed.

"I can't do this," he coughed. "I have to go back."

And that was that. Poor Mike.

I was having a most wonderful morning. Skies were clear, the light was rich, and we were riding our bikes. It felt like it had been a couple of days since we'd done that. Long dirt road climbs and frigid dirt road descents. Bliss. Call me a roadie. Fine, I'm a roadie. This is one of only two selfies I took during the Freedom Challenge. I wanted to document how happy I was. See the happy? (Note: It is still very early in the morning.)

Photo by Liehann Loots
This day had a lunch stop at a farm house called Chesney Wold (all of the farms in South Africa have individual names. When I was studying the maps before the race, I mistakenly interpreted these as small towns, but they're not. They're usually just a single-family farm house, a few barns, worker houses, and lots of open space.) Liehann remembered this stop from 2011 and was particularly excited about it, for good reason. When we arrived, five or six neighbors were there to greet us, there was a homemade lasagna (!), Coke, and fancy decorated cupcakes for lunch, and a tour of an antique-filled farm house with a room that contained an enormous cap collection. I don't remember the exact number of caps, but it was in the multi-thousand range. As we rode west, we were leaving behind the village-dotted hills of the KwaZulu-Natal province and delving deeper into the high deserts and wide-open farm country of the Eastern Cape. Beyond Lehana's Pass, the culture was very different, but the hospitality was still wonderful. In many ways, this region is similar to the American Midwest. Locals will go out of their way to be friendly and accommodating to strangers.

We were now traveling with Steve, Di, Richard, and John — quite the cheerful clan. Liehann and I were ahead of the others in the afternoon, and took on the tricky Kapokkraal portage on our own. A large group of baboons was perched on the ridge, barking in our direction, which made Liehann nervous. I guess the habituated baboons near cities sometimes steal food from people, and have, Liehann warned, "very long teeth." He grabbed a large rock as we passed, just in case.

We nailed the nav on our own. Maybe it wasn't that tricky of a portage, but it did require a cross-country traverse, locating the correct saddle to cross, and tracing a "wagon trail," which, like most "wagon trails" on the Freedom Trail, was just a figment of someone else's historic knowledge. I was feeling triumphant at the bottom. We passed below the abandoned Spitskop farmhouse, where our cues said a traveling Italian artist had painted murals on the walls. There was so much daylight left in this flawless day that we decided to go check them out. We explored the long-vacant house with its peeling wallpaper, eerie little girl's room, rusting appliances, big holes through the walls, and partially mummified sheep carcasses (!) until we were thoroughly creeped out, but we never found the murals. Actually, I'm skeptical they exist — perhaps it's just a joke inserted into the cues for novice Freedom Challenge riders with far too much time on their hands.

We left with new fears that the Blair Witch was coming to kill us, but enjoyed a late afternoon of fun riding along sandstone cliffs. We were in a new geographical region as well — the Stormberg, or "Storm Mountains."

We joined back up with the group at the farm house of Slaapkranz (I'd always think of Beat yelling out these Afrikaans names with an exaggerated guttural German accent as we worked on the maps together.) There was another tricky portage right out of the gate the following morning, and Steve was eager to take it on before dawn. I was dubious, because by agreeing to their strategy, I also had to agree to their pace, and my arms were still sore and numb. If I couldn't keep up ... and my track record hadn't been good ... then I risked becoming lost first thing in the morning.

The morning was cold again, probably even colder than -8C, and I scrutinized my map through a thick vapor of nervous exhalation. The compass I brought from California had been rattled to death on Black Fountain; Ingrid graciously gave me hers after she finished in Rhodes, and I was trying to get a sense for reading this new compass — the window was much more scratched, and the arrow seemed more sluggish. I pointed it into the darkness, but it was useless because I couldn't see anything. It was like getting a bearing under a blanket. You know you must move in a westerly direction, but there's a damn mountain in the way. How to actually get over that mountain is the important part.

So we blindly followed Steve and Di as they confidently marched up the tiger line of the mountain, a segment that gained 350 meters in less than two kilometers (about 1,200 feet in a mile.) I think they may have been carrying their bikes; I couldn't see. I was still trying to push my anchor, with arms so weak the muscles didn't even have energy to feel a burn — they just smashed against the handlebars like useless blocks of rubber as I used my shoulders and back to force forward motion. I started to fall behind. I tried to push harder. Then my arms failed, they actually failed, falling away from the handlebars altogether as the bike shoved me backward and onto my side. I was laying in a bush with my bike on top of me and I could hear Liehann calling from somewhere far above. "Are you all right?"

"I'm okay," I called back weakly. "I just need some time. Just give me a little more time."

Liehann engaged his helpful technique of hanging back just enough to stay in my sights while keeping the main group of fast portagers in his sights. It worked well. I finally made it to the plateau in time to hear Steve give his directions for a row of mountains running north ("And now, we must go over there.") We followed him into an incredibly fun rollercoaster descent on a bulldozed track with enormous speed bumps. John had fallen back as well, and we'd learn from Richard that he turned around and went back to Slaapkranz. John also was fighting a flu and couldn't muster the energy for the climb. He would eventually withdraw from the race as well.

The day's second portage started at kilometer eight, and gained 400 more meters over five kilometers — more friendly than the first, and probably mostly rideable for a strong and fresh mountain biker, but it still had enough steep grades on loose terrain that all of us pushed. I finally decided my arms were a liability, and set up my map board so I could lean into the board and push with one shoulder while resting my arms limply on top of the handlebars, occasionally repositioning my hands to steer. It seemed to work; I kept a better pace. The top had a beautiful, sweeping view, followed by a near-vertical descent on extremely loose dirt and stones. It was barely walkable; one tiny slip put me on my ass, and even Di took a hard fall. By the time we reached the farm road at the bottom, it had taken us nearly six hours to cover about 23 kilometers (just 15 miles!) of distance. Ah, Freedom Challenge.

The afternoon was quite enjoyable — warm sunshine, and lots of short but steep climbs and descents on scenic dirt roads. We ended up with about 100 kilometers on the day into Kranzkop, and most of the details of this part of the day are fuzzy to me now. I admit, for me, the navigation aspect of the Freedom Challenge caused a lot of stress and became more mentally draining as the race progressed. Any time there was an easy nav section — often a series of roads that only required watching the odometer for turns — I took the opportunity to shut my brain off and just enjoy the ride for a while. It was a nice respite, but it's true that in the end, the tough portages were the more memorable and enriching experiences.

Day 9. Wednesday, June 18, I believe. By this point, we were swiftly losing track of the days. Liehann often thought we were days beyond where we actually were, and would fret about bumping up against the 26-day cutoff. "We're still on pace in our race schedule," I'd argue — although it's true, both of us had forgotten to print out the 20-day race plan that Liehann and developed, and had pretty much forgotten what we actually needed to do to stay on pace.

The morning began with an easy portage across a veldt — which is a South African term for a wide-open shrubby area or grassland, best I can tell. There were always a bunch of fence and gate crossings in this farm country, and I wasn't getting better at them. The gate in this photograph was easy, but usually we had to climb onto thin wires while gripping gaps between the barbs. I'd hand my bike over to someone and then hoist myself awkwardly over the wire, hooking my second foot and usually snagging my tights on some barbs before plopping down like a sack of sand on the other side.

"I just can't watch you cross gates like that," Liehann said. "One of these times you're going to rip your tights or break your ankle."

"I'm a really awkward person; I need three-point contact," I'd shrug.

By early afternoon, the west wind started cranking again, with fierce gales blowing right in our face. After a long climb followed by rolling descents into a valley, it was all I could do to hold an 8-kilometer-per-hour pace on a flat gravel road. Our lunch stop was at kilometer 50, and Steve and Di arrived about a half hour after Richard, Liehann, and me. Steve announced he was "shattered" and didn't think he had the stamina to complete the second half of the day. This was often his reaction to the long road sections. It seemed strange, because Steve was a lion on the portages — tiger line, no problem. Strenuous technical descents, he was gone. But on the roads, he seemed tired and miserable. I found this interesting because I was having the opposite problem. Not that I was miserable on the portages, but I struggled so much. And yet, I was still strong and fast on the roads. It caused me to ponder how much my attitude was affecting my physical performance — that maybe I didn't have to struggle so much on the portages, that maybe I could turn this around by engaging the power of positive thinking. Meanwhile, when it came to long road sections, we'd often end up an hour or more ahead of Steve and Di at the end of the day.

Richard, Liehann, and I stuck together for the second half the day. Richard is a British gentleman in his fifties who has lived in South Africa for a couple of decades. Typical British, he is incredibly polite and strong as a bull. We formed a paceline and Richard and Liehann took turns pulling into the brutal headwind. I had an occasional brief turn, but Richard usually ended up just returning to the front after a few minutes, and did the lion's share of the pulling. I have relatively little experience with pacelines and was skeptical it would even help, but Richard was an excellent peloton manager — directing us into a diagonal formation when the wind swung to our sides, and working to keep the pace brisk and efficient.

The day, like every day, was full of endless climbs and descents, and in the afternoon we crossed over another steep portage, passing by stone ruins from the Boer Wars and dropping off the face of a cliff through a boulder-tumble gully into a railroad yard. This is the site of the Battle of Stormberg, which was a rout for the British after a badly timed march put troops in a trapped position down in the valley to be mowed down by the Boer from up high. There's a parallel in there somewhere for the Freedom Challenge, I think.

The sun went down, but we somehow picked our way through a maze of sandy farm tracks after nightfall, and arrived at Romansfontein after 137 kilometers of fighting either fierce wind, cross-country portages, or darkness. "This is your hardest day," the proprietor at Jenny's Cottage had told us during our lunch stop. "It's 130 kilometers. If you're strong, and you guys seem strong, you can start doubling up now and reach Cape Town in 18, 19 days no problem. This is the hardest day."

Of course, I didn't believe that for one second. 


  1. I am loving reading these instalments each day, wonderful race reporting and pictures, thankyou. I loce that even in the midst of such a lengthy endurance event you can mentally step back and consider attitude as an issue with the portages, tiger lines live some amazing adventures!!

  2. Please continue with your narrative at the same pace. It does tribute to the progressively changing landscape and mood of your work. Your observations of group dynamics are so accurate and typical of what plays out among individual's as they experience the F.C. I'm anticipating your next chapter each day to the extent that when I boot up mt laptop and see that you haven't posted your next insert I feel irrationally disappointed - more please.


Feedback is always appreciated!