Monday, July 07, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part one

This has happened to me a few times in my life: A moment — on a bridge over the Colorado River, or a curb in front of my house in Salt Lake City, or the edge of a frozen lake in Alaska, or a trailhead in the Canadian Rockies — when I straddle my bicycle and realize that I really have no idea where this is going to take me for the next week or three or nine. I made some plans, I did some preparations, I studied some maps, but really ... I have no clue. It's a gut-sinking moment, a wide-eyed gaze across a bewildering horizon, when the scope into a vast unknown opens as wide as it's ever been. I feel that quiver in my lower spine, a weakness in my limbs, a gurgle in my throat that ignites an urge to sit down, to not venture any farther into an unfamiliar world where there is so little that I control. Every time, that's my gut reaction — don't move. Stay here. Crossing that threshold in a swirl of excitement and dread is like stepping out of a warm house into a blizzard — and it's one of my favorite moments in bike touring. 

 Straddling my bike in the predawn fog next to town hall in Pietermaritzburg, that urge to not start carried a lot of compelling arguments: "You're not just striking out into middle America or even Alaska, you're in Africa, really far from home, with all of its unfamiliar customs and language barriers and big scary animals and no signs on anything, and all you have is this map, and although you thought you got a sense of it earlier, right now it just seems like a bunch of squiggly lines. Don't go. Don't go."

I looked toward Liehann, who was passing his camera to someone else for the round of obligatory pre-race photos. Ever other person in our starting group of four men and four women seemed to be nervously fidgeting with lights and gear. Over our heads was the bright red banner for Comrades Marathon, and I thought about the 18,000 runners that stood in this same spot just over a week earlier. "How weird would it be to start a race that you knew was going to end on the same day?" I wondered. Comrades simply follows a main highway on a marked course 56 miles to Durban. I'm not saying that makes it easy by any stretch of the imagination, but there was comfort in pondering something so straightforward.

 Somebody called out "Go!" and the eight of us took off, following our pilot car — driven by race director David — as it guided us out of the one big city we would need to navigate in 1,500 miles. With a population of about 220,000, Pietermaritzburg is massive by any other standard we'd see. David worries about riders dealing with early morning taxis and other road hazards in the city, so he gives a neutral-start escort for the first six kilometers from town hall to the entrance of Bisley Nature Reserve. After he turned us loose at the gate, someone called out, "Okay, where do we go from here?" The group laughed. Pietermaritzburg is the one freebie you get in the Race Across South Africa. After that, you better have the mental capacity and daylight to pay a lot of attention to both maps and surroundings. Barring attention span and daylight, only luck and experience will help.

Liehann and I kept a slightly fast, somewhat nervous pace out of the city and into the mist-shrouded hills. The landscape was a rolling patchwork quilt of golden grass and tree farms — blocks of forest nestled amid the natural grasslands. I stopped at the first intersection to consult the map, and realized Liehann was no longer behind me. Several minutes later, he still wasn't there. "Did we already get lost in the first six kilometers of the Freedom Challenge?" I wondered. "That doesn't bode well." I pedaled back up the hill and found him hunched over his bike, giving off frustrated grunts as he tried to remove a pin in his chain. A broken chain at kilometer six — as it turned out, this would be a harbinger for poor Liehann's curse of mechanicals throughout the race.

 The rest of the morning passed without incident. Weather remained misty and cool, and the others in our group commented on the fact I was still wearing shorts and short-fingered gloves. "I'm from Alaska," I'd often reply. "Well, not really." But that and the fact this race is tracked on Twitter, where my handle is "AlaskaJill," gave me a reputation for being impervious to cold. That was far from the case — and at times even I was shocked at the depth of cold in this supposedly subtropical region — but cool temperatures were certainly one of the more easily manageable challenges in the Race Across South Africa, for me at least. We climbed over a divide to Minerva Tractor Museum for hot soup. The tractor museum has all manner of old vehicles and even a jet engine on display in the most unlikely location. We climbed overgrown track near powerlines to get there, but even the main route that we took out of the museum is a steep and rugged dirt road descending into another nowhereland. Lunch on the first day was the place where I started to grasp the reality that we were probably going to spend the entire race far away from anything.

 We pressed further away from civilization on a deteriorating track overrun by cattle and goats, and dropped into the Umkomass River Gorge on steep concrete slabs littered with small, round rocks. The effect of these rocks was like roller skates on a slide, and Liehann and I opted to walk down the slabs rather than risk crashing. Indeed, these slabs have forced more than one person out of the Freedom Challenge on the first day. This year, one competitor broke six ribs and punctured a lung in a crash on the slabs. The people who found him saw a bicycle lodged fairly high up in a tree, which is how they knew something was wrong.

At the bottom of the gorge, we followed a narrow and surprisingly rideable cattle trail through the thick willow-like trees. Where the cliffs came down to the river, we simply had to hike. The rocks were slippery and at times more treacherous than it looks.

 During this section we were caught by Tracy, Di, and Steve, and made an effort to keep up with them on the technical riding along the river. Di and Steve, a married couple in their fifties with grown children, run a bicycle touring company near Cape Town called DayTrippers. Both have both been involved with the Freedom Challenge since the early days. Di completed her first Race Across South Africa in 2007, and 2014 would be her third. Steve had also completed it before, though I was never quite clear on the number. These two would prove to be a fountain of knowledge, and they were always full of good humor even when things got tough. Di is a petite woman — probably 100 pounds tops — but incredibly strong, amazingly strong. We'd sometimes see them towing some of the longer climbs, meaning both bikes were attached to a rope with the stronger partner towing the person who was struggling. In every case, it was Di towing Steve, which was impressive for me — as a woman who understands my own level of strength — to witness. Steve was self-professed out of shape but always seemed to be in a good mood, even when he was, in his words, "shattered."

 Late afternoon brought a long climb from a village called Hella Hella, which I enjoyed immensely. My bike computer also gauged grades, and this climb often topped 14 percent, on loose gravel, over nearly 3,000 feet of climbing. Liehann was determined to pedal the whole climb without walking, and I aimed for this as well, although admittedly faltered near the top. The first day clocked in at 114 kilometers with 2,600 meters of climbing. Although there was some tough technical terrain on the grassy powerline trails, deteriorating jeep tracks and cattle trails, most of it was rideable. As it turned out, it was one of the easier full days on the route, although I'm not sure I would have believed it if someone told me this at the time. I was pretty spent as we rolled into Allendale farm, our first support station. In past multiday events, I've become accustomed to either complete self support, or else the bare-bones services you receive in the Iditarod Trail Invitational or Racing the Planet stage events. Freedom Challenge is comparatively luxurious. The woman at Allendale set us up in cabins, did some laundry for us, and prepared a big meal of what would become standard fare out on the trail — chicken pieces, mashed potatoes, rice, mashed pumpkin, peas, and bread. Carby and wonderful. This is one thing I will say about the Freedom Challenge — the food is so good and abundant that it's actually hard to lose weight out there. I lost 15 pounds during the Tour Divide and none in the Freedom Challenge.

 The following morning we were raring to go and set off in the frosty darkness about an hour before sunrise. This would be our introduction to "portages" — making our way across a section of land with no real trail. In our early-race excitement to get moving, we messed up the entry and spent more than an hour trying to find our way out of the farm. We could see Steve, Di, and Tracy's headlamps working their way up a hill off to the side and suspected they were just as lost. I had already accepted that a few hours of going nowhere were simply going to be part of this race, so I wasn't too frustrated about it ... yet. But I was nauseated. I had yet to adapt to the long days in the saddle followed by 4 a.m. wakeup calls, and my body was rebelling. I remedied my nausea by stripping off layers and letting my core become chilled. The temperature was a few degrees below freezing and I was in shorts and a single top again, much to the amazement of the South Africans.

Finally, with my headlamp on high beam, I was able to spot a depression in the grass that proved to be the singletrack cattle trail we were looking for. From there, we worked our way along the contour and into the next valley, climbing over several barbed-wire fences. I struggled to lift my bike, hooked my shorts, and made a joke about my natural awkwardness and terrible climbing skills. These fences were only four feet high. As I laughed at myself, Steve had a smirk on his face that seemed to express a belief that this newbie American had no idea what she was in for. "These fences are nothing," Di said. "Wait until the game gates. They're just as bad and three meters high." I remember her saying this, but I'm not sure I believed her at the time. Who would expect people with loaded mountain bikes to climb three-meter-high fences?

 Lunch on day two brought us into a rural mission, where a nun served barley soup and tasty cupcakes. The early days of the race through the Kwazulu-Natal province took us through one village after the next — never densely populated, but there was a sense of always being around people. These villages were populated by Native South Africans —in this area, the Zulu people. Infrastructure was minimal, and there was no running water or electricity in the villages. Subsistence farming appeared to be the main occupation, and it was rare to meet someone in these villages who spoke more than a few words of English or Afrikaans. But everyone was very nice, and the children in school uniforms were well-behaved — we were only bombarded for "money and sweets" a couple of times. I learned the Zulu greeting "sawubona" (I see you) and "unjani" (how are you?) Boys especially were fascinated the gadgets on my handlebars — often when we stopped in a village to look at our maps, that's what they would examine.

 We wove through a forest road maze and embarked on a long climb toward Bosholweni Peak on a track that can only be described as a river of babyhead rocks. Not so rideable, really.

This was also the section where Liehann realized his fork was busted. Oil was leaking out in several places, and the shock would bottom out and not rebound. He hoped that finding a shock pump and putting more air in it would remedy this, but he suspected he needed a new fork. Making arrangements to have one delivered to a town further down the trail proved to be a big production. Cell phone reception was minimal at best, and he had a difficult time conveying necessary information to all the people we needed to involve. At one point I sent Beat a 160-character message from my Delorme tracker that he relayed to Liehann's dad, who relayed it to a bike shop in Pietermaritzburg, who arranged something with the other race director, Meryl, to pick up and take with her to Rhodes. It will probably surprise no one that vital information was misplaced in this process.

Navigation was tricky through this section, and I was feeling anxious with all the time we were spending making fork arrangements. Each passing afternoon minute brought us closer to the claustrophobic darkness of night, when long-ranging sightlines and landscape features disappeared, and our world was reduced to the weak beam of our headlights amid bewildering black emptiness. During the day we could look toward the horizon and see the mountains we needed to approach, the villages we needed to pass by, the valleys we needed to cross. We could use our compasses to capture a bearing and at least feel confident that we were moving in the right direction, if not on the exact right line. At night, we could only see our immediate path with no real certainty that it was taking us where we needed to go, and I found this reality terrifying. As the race progressed, the coming of night would fill me with a heavy anxiety that is difficult to describe. Stress levels would far surpass any fatigue or aches I'd accumulated during the day. I feared night perhaps more than anything else. I would put up large walls of resistance at the prospect of navigating anything at night. The twilight hour was a desperate hour. Nightfall was a sinister force, a promise of doom.

But as long as the sun was up or at least was going to come up soon, as was the case in our always-predawn starts, I was happy. The landscape itself was more stunning than I'd imagined it would be. Some of the locals we spoke with told us, "It's sad that you had to come here in the winter. It is brown and ugly right now, not beautiful like it is in the summer."

 Approaching the nature reserve of Ntsikeni was the first place my intense "Night Is Coming" fear sparked. Liehann had lost his sense of where we were on the maps, and although I wasn't sure of this either, I was following the cues supplemented by Beat's intersection gadget to wind our way through a maze of faint tracks. Stress swirled around in my gut, and I was extremely happy when we caught up to Steve and Di at the border of the reserve, which meant we were at least on the right track, even if night was coming. We scaled the game gate on a ladder that I presume villagers put up to access a nearby stream. "It's a good thing this ladder is here," I said. "Otherwise we'd never get over this fence." Again, Steve just smiled knowingly.

The track into the lodge at Ntsikeni was almost entirely overgrown, but there didn't seem to be any offshoots to the trail so I was relatively thrilled, even if the riding was slow and prickly. We arrived about 45 minutes after dark to a warm welcome. I forget the name of the man running the lodge, a big Zulu man, but he had made a big spread of chicken and pumpkin, and put us up in our own cabins. It was gratifying to experience such kindness after every tough day. Anxiety and gratitude. For me, these would be the dominant two emotions on the Freedom Trail. 
Friday, July 04, 2014

The days before

So what exactly is the Freedom Trail? It's an off-road route across South Africa conceptualized by a former environmental lawyer named David Waddilove, traversing roughly 1,500 miles from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl, near Cape Town. The route follows foot paths, cattle trails, jeep tracks, disused old wagon routes, seldom-traveled dirt roads, farm tracks, cross-country "portages," and the very infrequent tar road connector. There is reportedly somewhere between 140,000 and 150,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain on the route. But when it comes to weighing the difficulty of any section, distance and climbing are almost nonentities — terrain is what matters. 

Each year in June, David organizes a Freedom Challenge, inviting mountain bikers to take on the route within a 26-day time limit. The race is held in the austral winter, with long nights, more frequent storms, occasional flooding and snow, and consistently cold temperatures. If terrain and weather didn't make the challenge difficult enough, David throws in a rule that all participants must navigate the non-marked route without the aid of GPS — old-fashioned maps, compass, odometers, and cue sheets are used to discern the frequently implausible passages over rugged ripples of land.  The Freedom Challenge first launched in 2004, and in that time roughly 170 individual men and 20 women have finished within the time limit. Almost all have been South Africans — only a handful of foreigners have completed the Freedom Challenge, and as far as I know, no other Americans. 

My friend Liehann planted the seed just over a year ago. He participated in the 2011 Freedom Challenge, riding for ten days before mechanicals forced him out of the race. Shortly after that, he took a job at Google and moved from South Africa to California, where he joined Beat's team at work. It was just pure coincidence that the huge world of software engineering brought together two ultra-endurance enthusiasts, but Beat and Liehann became good friends, and we all started riding together on a regular basis. Liehann and I often compared Tour Divide/Freedom Challenge notes, and he's long been anxious to return to Pietermaritzburg and wrap up unfinished business. He worked on several angles to convince me to join him, and I dragged my feet on making any commitments for a long time. You think I'd be an easy sale for something like this, but I was extremely reluctant to enter a race with such a strict navigation rule. I hate feeling lost, and knew the uncertainty of map navigation — no matter how much I worked on improving my orienteering skills — would be a constant source of stress. Although Liehann and I planned to ride the route as a team, I was terrified of the notion of hacking through the bush in some remote part of Africa all alone, with no idea where I was going, and rhino and leopards lurking. Still, predictably, adventure lust eventually won out and I was on a plane to Cape Town. 

Cape Town is near where Liehann's parents live as well as the finish of the Freedom Challenge, but it's more than a thousand miles away from Pietermaritzburg. We opted to manage this leg of travel by renting a car and driving one way along the coast. The South Africa road system isn't as well-established as the United States or Europe; even the major routes are usually just two-lane strips with no shoulder, often in poor condition, and see heavy use from pedestrians in some areas. Still, I was excited to get a sense of the land before the race started, even if it meant two days in a car on rough roads. 
We spent the first night near Port Elizabeth and the next morning driving across Addo Elephant National Park to gawk at animals. 


 Lots of elephants.

 This jackal curled up next to an elephant carcass like it owned the thing.

 Buffalo. Mean and scary.

Zebras and kudu. We spent a lot of time in the park and didn't arrive in Pietermaritzburg until late that night. 

 The Freedom Challenge begins in downtown Pietermaritzburg under the same starting gate as the Comrades Marathon, which is the world's largest and oldest ultramarathon. David told us he conceptualized the route back when he was regularly training for Comrades. He read somewhere that one needed to run 1,800 kilometers in a season in order to do well at Comrades, and he started venturing further on trails from his home near Pietermaritzburg. This expanded into an idea to create a roughly 2,000-kilometer, all-dirt route across South Africa, and David began connecting a lot of far-flung dots. He picked spots he could run to in a day, and looked to local farm houses and villages to find places to sleep. It's notable that the Freedom Trail started as a trail-running route and only later developed into a mountain biking challenge. During the first days of the race, I had frequent dreams that I was explaining to Beat why the Freedom Challenge would be better on foot.

 We were slated to start with group "B" on Tuesday, June 10. The Freedom Challenge still utilizes farm houses and other tiny places as support stations, so participants start in waves of eight or nine over the course of a week. Of the eighty or so starters, 35 were signed up for the full Race Across South Africa, and the rest were participating in the Race to Rhodes, which covers the first 500 kilometers of the course. Our wave had five RASA aspirants and three Rhodes riders. I forget the names of the first two Rhodes riders in our group (one not pictured), but after me and Liehann is Ingrid, a Rhodes rider who graciously gave me her compass in Rhodes after mine was rattled to death on day four. Then there's Tracy, Di, and Steve. Steve and Di were a married couple who we spent quite a bit of time riding with during the race. They were a valuable source of knowledge and entertainment on a regular basis, and Di ended up being the only other female finisher in this year's Race Across South Africa. Di always left her headlamp turned on long after the sun came up, so this photo makes me laugh.

Team California at the race start, so bright-eyed and innocent. We had a long, long road in front of us, that we hadn't even begun to fully realize. 
Wednesday, July 02, 2014

From the ends of the Earth

Re-entry into the real world after three weeks of single focus and nearly complete disconnection is always a difficult adjustment. I promised Beat an update on my own blog so I'm attempting a quick post. My friend Liehann and I finished the Race Across South Africa just after 10 p.m. on Tuesday, July 1, after 21 days of riding, pushing, shoving, and carrying our bikes along the rugged contours of the country. It was an incredible experience to explore South Africa in depth and visit corners that very few people see. The route was brilliantly and sometimes diabolically devised to keep riders as far off the beaten path as possible, and for an American in South Africa even the beaten path feels far away. It was culturally dynamic and physically challenging in ways I didn't expect. Our days were generally (but not always) shorter than I'd become accustomed to in past multi-day endurance events, but the daily challenges were more mentally strenuous and sometimes brushed against the limits of my physical abilities. Not working on upper body strength or practicing carrying my bike up steep, loose terrain was the biggest mistake I made in preparing for this event.

Liehann was a great riding partner, usually upbeat and patient with me in the areas where I struggled the most, which were (unsurprisingly) navigation pressure and fear of being lost in a foreign country, and (quite surprisingly to me at least) the hiking portages. The middle segment of the route featured a seemingly endless string of three-meter-high game fences to hoist our bikes over, and for that and many other reasons there is no way I could have completed this route without his help.

The Freedom Challenge is well organized and makes it possible to ride this remote route with fantastic support from Native villagers, farm houses, and a few hotels. We met many wonderful people and spent time in fascinating places, one of the most unique being a night spent in the village of Vuvu inside one of the villager's huts. Commercial services are few and this route would be a difficult thing to complete fully self-supported, so the race organization has created a great opportunity with this tour.

And of course Beat was at home monitoring the tracking page and updating my blog. His support from afar was fantastic and his device worked great. Although it couldn't help much on the many cow paths, farm road mazes and off-trail bushwhacking, the gadget was consistently accurate at gauging intersections on even small dirt roads, which was frequently reassuring.

I've been off the grid for so long I'm not even sure where or how to begin re-entry. I'm in the Cape Town area for a few more days, hopefully enough time to visit the coast and see a penguin, and then it's back to California finally on July 5. I'm looking forward to coming home.

There will be more to come. Thanks for checking in.