It always seems to be the fourth or fifth day of a long tour that the physical wear and tear really starts to set in. Even though our daylight plan in the Freedom Challenge ensured plenty of rest, and nutrition was good, twelve-plus hours of riding and wrestling with a bicycle every day takes it toll. For me, wrestling with the bike caused major strain. I'm well-adapted to turning pedals all day, but I failed miserably in upper body strength department. It's not a natural strength to begin with, and I admittedly did almost nothing to improve it before the Freedom Challenge, reasoning that running would be training enough for the hike-a-bikes. I was wrong. My shoulders and neck ached, and my arm muscles felt tingly and weak. My legs were a patchwork quilt of cuts and bruises, including a swollen and painful bruise over my right knee that formed after I partially flipped over the handlebars on a cattle trail the previous day. The Freedom Trail beats up bodies in ways I hadn't experienced before on a long tour, and I was feeling it. While the crew at Ongeluksnek cooked up our breakfast of dark porridge, eggs, and steam bread, I massaged my numb biceps.
"Vuvu Valley," she kept bringing it up. "If we are bumbling around in that valley after dark, we are screwed." Di went on to tell a story about a past year when she and her companions took on a tough portage late, and ended up spending the night huddled in a barn. "I was so cold I thought I was going to die," she said. "I really thought I was going to die."
I was carrying a robust emergency bivy sack and some firestarters, and although I felt confident in the survivability of my system, I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of putting it to use when nighttime temperatures were dropping well below freezing. Before the race, I confidently (and mistakenly) assumed that if nights went late we'd just keep moving, neglecting to realize how navigation can become impossible at night. Darkness was as good as a wall in some places. We might actually get stuck somewhere outside overnight. I hated that I hadn't just planned my system with an assumption that we'd sleep out, and brought a sleeping bag and thin pad. I probably would have been less anxious in the afternoons with a real sleeping system as insurance.
Also leaving Ongeluksnek were two Race to Rhodes riders who started one day later, Bruce and Ryan. They disappeared into the first gorge before us, and were already picking their way up the other side as we arrived at the edge of a cliff. "Now we must look for the wagon trail," Steve announced. He located a tumble of table-sized boulders, only slightly less vertical than the cliffs, and started down. "How did people ever get wagons down this?" I pondered out loud.
Toward the top, something snapped. I became extremely dizzy, and the whole valley swirled around as I weakly gripped my bike against the rock face. The cliffs weren't too exposed, but a slip would have resulted in a fall of ten feet or more, and I could see those drops rushing toward me as I teetered on a ledge. It was only fifty or so more feet to the top; I was almost there. And yet, when I turned around to try to lift my bike, the dizziness became more pronounced. I gazed up helplessly at the group waiting at the top. My struggle must have become blatantly apparent, because one of the Rhodes riders (I think it was Bruce, although I apologize that I don't remember exactly) scrambled back down and grabbed my bike, carrying it the rest of the way up. I followed behind him, still teetering as my legs folded underneath me and I balanced on my rubbery arms like an intoxicated ape. I felt both incredibly grateful and ashamed. At the top, I drunkenly stumbled toward Liehann — unable to even hold a straight line on solid ground. He ran toward me with a packet of Hammer Gel.
"I thought you were going to fall of the edge," he said.
"I thought so too," I stammered, and took the gel. Both of my hands were shaking violently as I struggled to open the packet. "I've never had a bonk like this. Never like this."
The last remnants of dusk filled the sky as the group pedaled into the village of Vuvu in full celebration mode.
"Vuvu in the light! We made it to Vuvu in the light! Can you believe it?" Di exclaimed.
My head was foggy and I felt ashamed. Defeated. My empty legs spun the pedals and I slumped over my handlebars, completely spent. Physically, this time. And mentally, too.
"I'm not strong enough for this," I fretted to myself. "I'm just not strong enough."
But this was not the time to give in to despair. I had to turn my mental game around and fast, because tomorrow, we would climb Lehana's Pass.