Friday, June 06, 2014

Freedom Challenge-bound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official Freedom Challenge site:
Thursday, June 05, 2014

Small adventures before the big one

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

Well, you know how it goes. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into Cape Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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