Wednesday, 6 January 2021
Saturday, 11 July 2020
After 6 months of planning and countless hours of training I found myself under a space blanket, spooning, with my dad, desperately trying to fight off the cold. It was just before dawn and -7 degrees, it felt like my body was being closed in a vice.
We were not lost but the possibility of getting lost was real, if we tried to continue on across the frozen river and through the endless maze of wattle in the darkness.
I wanted to see what was involved in undertaking an endurance event and this is how I found myself in the “spooning predicament.”
During Grade 11 at Michael Mount Waldorf school I was tasked with a research project, I chose the topic 'The Mental and Physical Aspects of Endurance Sports', and as for a practical component to the project, I participated in an event called Race To Rhodes, which is part of the Freedom Challenge. I was intrigued by the event as my father has participated in it previously. The event involves map navigation, self supported mountain biking and even some mountainous portage sections. I have ridden a bicycle since the age of 3 but only infrequently and socially.
Read the full post HERE.
Saturday, 4 April 2020
Exactly a year ago, as I lay in my hospital bed, limited by over a dozen fractures, my intrepid South African friend, Sandy, sent me an email, saying, "Dave....I have the rehab goal for you". When I read the details, I dismissed it out of hand. Mountain biking 65 miles a day? Climbing 10k ft a day on the bike? It was 2-3x anything I had ever done before...and certainly insane to be doing day after day, while navigating by map and compass (GPS strictly prohibited) across complex and totally unfamiliar terrain at altitude. But as I healed, I was plagued by intrusive thoughts of the Race the Rhodes. Maybe, just maybe... I was well enough to begin tentative riding in the summer, but real training did not begin until December. It was then that the challenge had become an obsession.
As many of you recall, you responded to my recruitment efforts with oh so appropriate and entirely reasonable negative (or at least doubting) assessments....save one individual. While I was mentally prepared to go it alone, I had no clue at the time how essential the strength and spirit of Emily would be so absolutely crucial to success. Except for a few hard core racers who had been doing this event many times over, it was the opinion of all - confirmed by my experience - that having riding partners was entirely necessary to completing all the challenges.
The Race to Rhodes is a 500k route from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes in the eastern part of South Africa. It crosses public and private landholdings through a wide variety of environments. About every 60 miles there is a support station (a farm house, a forest lodge, or a local guesthouse) where you can spend the night and be fed, as well as sleep in a real bed. About every other 30 miles, there are "soup stops" - often idyllic homes or lodges or a church in the countryside, teeming with all the drinks and food you could eat. Other than these support stations, you must carry everything you need, and no outside help or supplies are permitted. The race had to be completed in a maximum of 7 days. While we all were issued maps and a sort-of accurate instructional narrative, no GPS was allowed. We all carried GPS trackers so the "dot watchers" could tell if we were off course or stopped moving, or as in the case for some...needed extraction. The event was managed and coordinated by an amazing and thoroughly committed race director and his wife. Of consequence, this was the first time the race was held at this time of year - autumn, supposedly at the end (ummm..) of the rainy season.
Emily and I were the only foreigners. The great majority of others had prior experience in this same or very similar races. We were started in small batches each morning over
about 4 consecutive days. There were 26 of us total, including 4 accomplished ultramarathon runners. None of the runners were able to finish. About 4 of the others were unable to finish or were disqualified. As you can imagine, we would often go long periods of time without seeing anyone else.
I arrived in South Africa 10 days early, and had a plan to do some training at altitude out of resorts in the Drakensberg mountains. Actually, I ended up spending much more time with the maps then mountain biking. Emily arrived a couple of days before the race....and in true EM doc style, fresh off her last shift.
The official byline of the event was, "Adventure Guaranteed". I had thought, sure...some contrived hype....but no, they meant it ! There is absolutely no way this could have been held in the USA. The race often felt wild and at the limit. It seemed at every turn, some new obstacle or challenge would be thrown at us. Those distances and climbs were magnified many times over by the amount of pushing & carrying the bike; lowering and raising the bike; climbing fences; performing repairs. The navigation was often slow and uncertain. There was little rest, as I felt driven by a background anxiety of having do complex navigation once darkness ensued. The support stations always felt so far away in effort and time. The intermediate stops were often idyllic lodges or homes with fantastic buffets of food and drink. Yet we stuffed ourselves to certain heartburn, and were often gone in 20 minutes, driven the by need to extract the most from every minute of daylight.
I was shocked at how the experienced groups made serious nav errors, sometimes going many hours off course. It was so easy to mess up. There were times when I was distracted just a little while (like when my chain broke). Emily was there on task to spot the next obscure turn off. I was also shocked when a very experienced couple we had been leap frogging the first day quit the race just 5 miles from the support station - they has seemed so strong - it was disconcerting.
They call it a race, but it was so hard, that when you would meet up with others, we all tried to help each other. Making a hard race harder was the heaviest rainy period in 9 years. The mud was thick; the grasses very tall to the point of hiding so many of the tracks; and the rivers were flowing high. The race director said he will not hold the race again this time of year - the river crossings were too dangerous.
Some of our Challenges
- weather - we had oppressive heat and humidity, and the complete opposite extreme with icy cold, windy rainstorms - mud, including the "death mud" that would pack up and stop all rear wheel travel without q5min debulking - bushwacking....or the local term is "bunderbashing" thru dense thorny acacia thickets - swamps - you'd ride along thru the thick grass and suddenly submerge - chest high grass obscuring the tracks. We rode these invisible cattle tracks that you could only sense when your tire sidewalls scraped the edge of the ruts - donga's and donga pits: these are vertically sided deep water channels, small to monstrous. The big ones presented challenges to cross, the smaller ones hidden by the grass were another kind of hazard. We both endo'd into one pit, breaking gear and a couple of my ribs. - basalt and sandstone cliffs - where it's hard to believe you are on route - river crossings - some okay, some a little scary (brown water and rapids, etc) - quicksand - that was a surprise....took a while to get Emily extracted - and the one of the most difficult - night nav, often in rain or fog when you are at your most exhausted
We survived the huge day 1, getting to the support station at about 9pm. The next day was a different story, with a cold rain storm and riding deeper mud puddles than I ever thought possible. We were only 2/3rds of the way at a tricky river crossing just before 5pm. We contemplated an exceedingly unpleasant night - likely out in the open....and we were already cold and soaked. In what I think was one of our best decisions ever, we went back a kilometer to a small group of Zulu huts. The old man knew about as much English as I knew Zulu, but he caught on right away, as I pleaded our case. His wife had a priceless look of shock when she came out and saw these 2 totally mud encrusted white folk. With no hesitation, they cleaned us up, and fed us the best tea and bread dinner you could imagine around a warm, dry fire. The evening was one of the most memorable in my life.
We were now well behind schedule for finishing before the week was out under the cut off time. But we persisted. Each day we took some sense of satisfaction of navigating to yet another milestone - the Gladstone Farm, the swamps of Malota, the Tinana Mission, the Black Fountain, the Queen Mercy Shop, the abandoned house with the derelict truck on the porch, and onward.
On the 6th night we sat at the table in Mrs Kibe's kitchen, eating chicken and fresh vegetables from her garden, contemplating our situation. One more day to cut off. We were hoping to make it the next day thru the Vuvu Valley, a full stage short of Rhodes, but we could still be proud. It could still be considered a decent effort. Everyone reported what we intuitively knew, that a finish at Rhodes was not our prospect. The valley was notorious for what one racer called "serious nav". In fact, that night, an experienced party would get lost for 4 hours in the Vuvu Valley, returning defeated a long distance to shelter. After a well needed, uncharacteristically long sleep (6 hours), we had a good start the next morning, and for some reason everything seemed to click. Our nav was right on; the river crossings were efficient (except for a bit of quicksand); we pushed hard for the 2000 ft climb out of the valley. We arrived at the support station at noon. Wow,...our times were so good we considered going on. To go onwards, would usually mean the traditional route, involving a 3000 ft climb and bike carry including some exposed 3rd class terrain. Our calculation was that we would be short the 8000ft plateau before dark. There were endless stories of even the best racers coming to grief benighted up there. Instead, the course rules allowed a route variant - the Mcambalala ("Thinking About Sleep") route. It was much longer and had an extra 2000ft climb, but....with decent nav I thought we could reach an abandoned cattle post by dark. From that point onward, there began a series of dirt roads, which I knew we could figure out, whatever the conditions.
Off we rode, committed to one last push. The high plateau, with its trackless grass and wildflowers, radiated a beauty as extreme as our lives seemed to be. Our compass bearings were right on, and we were on the roads just before the failing light. In the dark, the clouds, and the mist we literally pushed on - our legs would no longer allow any uphill pedaling. Emily got quite quiet, while I rode my bike like a circus clown, wavering back and forth struggling with my balance. We felt the cold that comes with so many days of exhaustion, which doesn't respond to more layers. By 9pm we started a 3000 ft technical descent, my hands frozen in place on the brake levers. At 10:30p we finally arrived in Rhodes, to the cheers of the handful present, under the cutoff time and official finishers. The ceremonial Zulu whip and our patches would soon be awarded, followed soon after with so desired food and sleep.
While the above narrative may stress our difficulties, the experience was far more. The camaraderie of all who participate is intense, and we have some absolutely wonderful new South African friends. I was blessed by riding with a partner of incomparable suitability to the challenges faced. I wouldn't have gotten thru day one without her contributions and efforts. And, I want to say that in the midst of all those challenges, I witnessed incomparable beauty - every single day. Imagine yourself amongst brilliant green, tall grassy rolling hills going on forever....lit up by the long shadowed low light of dawn, and the resulting sparkle of dew upon the rain-driven bloom of endless flowers. You are riding those grassy slopes, following not a track but a compass bearing to a fence line far out of sight. You are enjoying this sense of endless freedom when your attention is diverted by a herd of wildebeest & eland stampeding across the hillock directly in front of you. It's all you can do to stop for a moment and just feel alive.
The Journey Home
Our trip home had too many elements of further adventure. We had a series of return flight bookings and rebookings canceled. Phone and online airline services became unavailable. We located to near the airport at Durban and made repeated trips to only receive conflicting information. We were acting under the stress of an impending strict lockdown - restricting people to indoors except for grocery shopping. All civil aviation was to cease with the advent of the lockdown. The US embassy had no plans for
repatriation flights. The end result was that we were the very last people on the very last flight (going standby) escorted by airline staff to the waiting plane, to take off half an hour before the airport was closed and the lockdown deadline to begin. We pleaded our rebooking case in London, and flew back to the USA on huge Airbus with 395 vacant seats. We are happy to be back, whatever the corona virus risks. My wish now, not just for myself, but for all of you - family and friends - is to remain boringly healthy and cope well with our newly restricted lives.
Tuesday, 31 March 2020
A message received from the Legendary Mike Woolnough during the race. I LOVE being NUTS!
Soooo my Munga Maaitjie Andy Wesson came up with this idea round about August last year… lets run the mountain biking event, The 480km Freedom Challenge RaceToRhodes. It did not take much to convince me, I am always up for any adventure and the tougher the better. With fellow Mungrals (anyone who has finished the Munga Trail earns “Mungral” status) Peter Purchase and Dean Barclay joining us as well, it was going to be fun!
This race was going to be the big brother of the Munga Trail:
1. Longer in distance
2. More distance between the aid stations
3. MAP NAVIGATION, no GPS’s allowed
After numerous discussions with Chris Fisher (The organiser) on how to make it more doable for runners, we were like nope we are going to take this race on under the same conditions as the riders 🙈🙈🙈, to see if it is possible!
I received our maps and narratives early January, I spent some time going through them, but not enough it would turn out to be. Putting the narratives with the maps, the nav looked doable and everyone said, you can’t get that lost on RaceToRhodes… they lied!
With my “ice cream” containers of goodies sent end of February, all other stuff I needed would be carried by me the whole way. Once our packs were packed with the necessary goodies and then food and water for about 60km, we were shocked at the weight of our packs but expected it, mine was over 7.5kgs and the boys even heavier!
We stood merrily on the start line in front of the Pietermaritzburg Town Hall in drizzling rain and waited for GO! Once escorted out of PMB, we relaxed a bit more and started our adventure with map navigation!
We seemed to do pretty ok with the daylight navigation, but as we climbed higher into the forests, the rain and mist got worse and it got very cold. It was round about here that Andy got super excited about spotting the Dispersis fanninninae, and in the rain photos were taken (the first of many orchid pics). A few doubts of which way to go, we soon got to the masts on top of the misty mountains and started heading down towards Byrne. We got to our first aid station, The Oaks after about 9 hours of running and most of it in the rain and mud.
We were cold, wet and muddy but we were welcomed with open arms by our hosts, who even tumbled dried our wet and muddy clothes for us (this was where Deans white cap turned brown). Our feet had taken a proper beating on this first leg and were all pretty sore, so we knew we were in for a tough few days!
We left the Oakes in good spirits and in the rain and headed for the Umkomaas River. A lady drove past did a u-turn and came back to ask if could take us to her home for the night, we thought she just took a keen liking to Peter! Moving on, this was where we made our first of many nav errors. We missed the turn off to the Illovo Nek forest station, but soon realised our mistake and turned back. Back on track (you will hear this phrase often) we headed through the settlement of KwaGeneshe and down to the Umkomaas river. The concrete track down was super steep and super slippery even in trail shoes, serious respect to the mountain bikers on this section. We got down to river and realised after all the rain during the day, the river was a lot higher and flowing a lot faster. We managed the scramble against the rocks only slipping once or twice and were amazed how the riders went the same way as us with bikes – the river was WILD!!!
Heading towards the Hella Hella crossing, we once again made some nav mistakes but were soon back on track and crossed the river at the bridge and started the big climb up! We stopped at the Highover chalets looking for water but found none… by now the sleep monsters were un-expectantly getting to us, so we took a quick power nap in the bushes before continuing up the hill… this was a proper hill! As daylight broke, we were almost at the next aid station, Allendale. Our pace was a lot slower than we had anticipated.
We were super happy to get to Allendale so we could rest our feet a bit and have some proper chow! We were greeted by happy hosts who got us all sorted in no time with coffee, toasted samie’s, koeksisters and quiche!
We have learnt that our feet need to rest and dry out properly else we are in for trouble. There are no medics on route, so foot care was our responsibility. All of us have done the Munga Trail so we have all learnt from the best foot medics, Johan Raath and his team at Bike And Trail Adventure Medics - PTY LTD, on how to look after our feet. Once rested we were on our way. The nav was ok here and we got to Donnybrook hassle free. A quick refuel at the Spar and we were on our way again heading through some proper muddy forests.
Next stop would be Centocow. At the top of the mountain it was dark and the nav tricky… we eventually got off the mountain, not quite the desired race route, but were soon at the Centocow Mission, our next aid station.
Greeted with load shedding, we ate something quick and headed to bed with the promises of a hot shower when we woke up. Here we took our first sleep in a bed for about 2 hours. We did our best to try lighten our packs, anything that would help speed up our average pace. After that hot shower and some more chow, we were heading early morning through the settlement of Centocow to the mountains.
It was a beautiful sunrise! Once on top of the mountain it was spectacular scenery. We then dropped down towards the next big river crossing, and like the Umkomaas, it was pumping. Slowly we made it through the river and headed into the forests again and onto a big district road. From this road we took the sharp left turn up the steep hill to the northern entrance road to Ntsikeni Nature Reserve. This was a proper steep and rocky climb, once again respect to the mountain bikers. The last 5km’s to the Ntsikeni Lodge proved eventful. So close yet so far as we found ourselves on the wrong saddle, so after some more detouring we got back onto the right track and found the lodge.
We once again were treated like royalty and had some great chow! Thubalethu Shange and Charles Mansfield and his crew pulled in just after us and some war stories were shared before we jumped into bed for another quick 1h45min sleep before heading out round 10pm. It was round about now that I felt like I was doing an adventure race (me, 3 teammates and only a map to get us from A to B) with a very looooong trekking leg!
This was where the first real game of “I Spy with my little eye” came into play, it was later followed by “Noot vir Noot” with Dean going through his playlist, playing the first seconds of each song and us guessing it – anything to stay awake! This was a tricky nav section, not sure how Peter did it, but we magically appeared where we should have at sunrise – nice work Peter! Once on the track, it was a long downhill to the tar road passing Pleasant View farm which had much needed water for us. From here it was a long slog to Glen Edward in the heat of the day.
Glen Edward was a welcome relief where we were treated with a delicious soup, fresh fruit, home baked cookies and coke! Glen Edward was a milestone as it was the halfway mark in distance, but the clocks was ticking faster. Here again Charles Mansfield and his crew caught up to us again, always great to have chats with fellow racers, thanks for all the nav advice Charles! Thuba was doing some of his own sight seeing at this point but would soon catch us again.
Just after 2pm we left the comfort of the farmhouse and headed out in the midday heat towards our next stop, Masakala. The first section was lots of gravel road, our feet really took a beating on these gravel roads with the heavy packs when running. At the St Xavier Mission, the folks very kindly bought us jugs of water to replenish our stocks. As nightfall fell we were heading towards the Little Umzimvubu River but we had some proper fun in the wattle plantations first… “Find the middle of the plantation”, yes, not so easy in pitch darkness. With a thunderstorm stopping by we ran for cover in the plantations and waited the storm out. Once going again, we found our way (we always did) and crossed the river and continued forward, one foot after the other. Heading into a valley, we had no idea where we were and decided to bush nap until daylight. At first light, we saw where were and we were still pretty much on the route, bonus! We made hast to get to the farmhouse through some muddy marshes. At the farmhouse we were greeted by a local on his horse who kindly showed us the way to the main road to Mademong. Before heading down towards the cattle dip, we found a spaza shop (one that was actually open) and boy did we do some shopping – what a bargain. The highlight being the Flyers and Mama’s Puffed Corn, only R2.50 a bag!!
As we headed down to the flood plain of the Botsolo River, we were not paying attention and ended up on the wrong road which went way off to the right. Some friendly locals showed us the way to the road we needed to be on. Back on track, the last little bit to Masakala was a sting in the tail especially in the heat of the day. Going through the village of Masakala we were greeted by friendly locals, some wanting to organise a car for us. It was a welcome site to get to the colourful Masakala Lodge and to be greeted by the friendly ladies. Here, it was just a “quick” stop to dry the feet out and refuel.
Early afternoon, we headed out again with some big rain clouds looming. From here it was plain sailing getting to the settlement of Jabulani. After passing through Jabulani things started going pear shaped again with the night-time nav. There was a lot of walking around in circles but like always we eventually got on the right track. Heading through one of the villages we were higher up than what we thought and ended up slogging through bog for kilometres before meeting up with the river. Here we realised where we were on the map… and it wasn’t where we were supposed to be. This was where the first and only real nav disagreement between us happened, as to go left or right of the river. Left won… We backtracked following the river until we got to the river crossing, we needed to be on. Here I think I did some proper sleep walking as it is all a blur until we ended up at Queens Mercy sooner than expected and much to our surprise! Here we took some time to clean the feet and shoes out of all the bog before continuing. Some more Mama’s Popped Corn came out and we were in a happy place.
We passed some massive fields filled with cosmos, a pretty site as we made our way onwards towards Malekgolonyane Lodge. Andy did some spectacular sleep walking here, so we took a quick power nap to get him going again. Another Spaza shop stop and more puffed corn before we headed up the mountain. Here the track was a bit tricky, but some herdsmen showed us the way. After a climb, a drop down to a river crossing and then another climb we were greeted by smiling faces and a great stew at Malekgolonyane Lodge.
We tried to make this stop as quick as possible so as to make the most of daylight. Late afternoon we headed out. We by now had realised that we were not going to make the 7-day cut off but were pushing on to see how far we could get. As we head out, we made some silly nav errors and found ourselves off course again.
It was here, after 5 and a half days of racing and covering about 362km of the official race route and over 400km in total, the boys decided to stop as time was not on our side. Our race was over and I sheaded a tear or two as we headed back to Malekgolonyane Lodge to wait for our extraction crew. What an epic adventure and certainly one for the memory banks! This was 5 and half days I would not trade for anything in the world! We spent 5 and half days running (and well walking) through our beautiful country being cheered on by all the locals we passed, what a privilege ! We learnt a lot of lessons this time round and are extremely disappointed not to have finished the full route, but we will be back to give it another go #unfinishedbusiness
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller.