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.
See video featuring David and Emily HERE