Freedom Challenge race across South Africa is less than 84 days away. Sometimes the best laid plans can be side tracked, the best thought intentions can fall by the wayside and sometimes the motivation levels wax and wane for amateur athletes in all their training endeavors. I feel I have been on a solid, consistent path of focus since October 2015 and consistently refer back to previous stats on training and information kept on past training habits. Yes, maybe I need to put in more hiking time, maybe more core workout time, more training with a full backpack time but in all that, I think it is more important to spend psychological time with oneself. Not to over think things but rather mentally prepare in your head some of the obstacles one will and could face competing in a tough and testing environment such as the race across South Africa on a mountain bike. I believe as much as this is a physical test of endurance, it is also a psychological game with your mind and keeping it intact when the chips go down.
Even though time is limited for a working class amateur athlete in a work week, the weekends are where one can find the time to delve into bigger things referring to training. The recent past Saturday, with a little bit of apprehension, maybe nervousness I embarked on my first biggest single training ride and day to date. Having built up my training base, the time had come to take the next step and from a physical perspective I was in no doubt but it was my mind I needed to put at ease. I attempted my first double century, solo.
The Friday late afternoon was spent prepping the bike. Bike cleaned. Tyres topped up with fresh Stans tyre sealant. Chain lubed. Bike bags fitted to the frame. Spares sorted and packed together. Then there was my Osprey Talon 22L backpack. I gathered a change of riding clothes, a change of casual clothes, an extreme waterproof rain and wind proof jacket, various nutrition forms in x2 protein energy bars, x3 Gel sachet, packet of jellies, a packet of raisins and nuts, x2 isotonic powder sachets and then the odds and ends such as a money, power supply and extra batteries. Of course, not to forget the mini pump as backup too. A 16L Summit to Sea dry bag was used to pack all into and packed into the backpack. A small waterproof zip up ultra mini bag was used to pack my mini tools and spares that would fit into this. I was planning to use my 11L Apidura saddle bag this time around but felt I needed the extra weight on my back from a training perspective. Lights were fitted, one 200 lumen light to my helmet, one 1000 lumen to my bike as well as a red blinker light for my bike rear as I would be leaving in the early morning hours, in darkness. Shock pressures were checked front and rear to ensure the correct pressures were run as this could also mean the difference between a good or uncomfortable ride out on the bike, especially if one was planning to be out all day.
This was not a navigation exercise this time out and I had the course I was doing preloaded onto my bike gps computer. The course planned, 205km from start to destination. This time of the year, the Freedom Challenge race office run an annual race from Rhodes, Eastern Cape to Cradock which is around 600km long and also runs part of the Freedom Challenge race across South Africa route. This race was underway and my plan was to hopefully intercept some of the riders taking part as my route would cross their paths.
A 500ml, 750ml bottle as well as 3L hydration pack were topped up and placed into the fridge. The weather forecast was checked out on the hourly weather predictions for the coming 24hours. Light rain in the morning to high temperatures by afternoon as well as isolated thunderstorms and high winds were predicted for the duration of my planned time out there. With everything checked the alarm was set for 3.30am Saturday morning. After a 6.5hour sleep it was time.
Saturday morning 3.30am, two freshly made sandwiches were made and packed. A light breakfast of museli and milk had. The outside temperature was around 12 degrees at 4am. The cycle route would take me from my home town to a small karoo town, Hofmeyr 144km away, covering district dirt roads as well as farm jeep tracks and a small amount of tar. From there I would make my way to a small town called Tarkastad where a family member would rendezvous with me. It was my wife’s birthday on the Sunday so instead of sleeping over in Tarkastad and riding the 86km to my home base the following day I decided I would be home on the Sunday morning for her birthday.
All liquid hydration loaded and after all goodbyes bade to a sleepy household, I was off. I covered 9km on tar in pitch darkness and then I was officially on dirt with 135km separating me and my first official pit-stop in Hofmeyr. For the first three and a half hours the temperature stayed at around 12 degrees sometimes dropping to 10 degrees with no wind but the odd sprinkling of drizzle. From here on the temperature started to gradually climb as dawn broke and the day progressed with at around 13h30 it reached its highest at 36 degrees. At around 10am I had reached the highest point in my ride which was 1628m bearing in mind the karoo is pretty flat but with many other little short stings in the tail. This highest point resulted in an awesome view of the dry barren karoo before me and then an adrenalin surging drop off with a couple of switchbacks and which also almost saw me lose control for a moment because of a slight lapse in concentration negotiating the descent. Nevertheless! The awesomeness of being out there was incredible!
The heat took its toll with me. The long endless straight roads were daunting but also haunting because there were times it seemed never ending. I succeeded in maintaining a steady cadence. The heat, for me definitely played its role trying to infiltrate my state of mind along with the headwind that plagued me for the last 40km to Hofmeyr. A slight technical chain issue resulted in me having to use precious water and chain lube to sort out a problem that is dubbed “chain suck”. The early morning had been muddy in places due to excessive rain in the area as well as excess muddy water lying around gelling with my bike components and when this happens so it starts to form a thick paste and the chain can become tacky and sticky which affects the smooth rolling of the linkages. Mechanicals are all part of mountain biking and it pays to have a basic background knowledge to effect repairs. With that sorted, the heat causing me to start rationing my liquid supply I started to look for a water source while pushing on. The karoo is treacherous in summer months with miles and miles of nothing and minimal trees for shade if any.
I passed the section where the participants racing from Rhodes to Cradock would exit from a mountain they had to portage over and found bike tracks in front of me realizing they were now already ahead somewhere. I was now on the lookout and fancied the idea of some company if I found some. I passed an unoccupied farmhouse right next to the road I was on and saw a windmill pumping water into a reservoir on the property. I immediately u-turned and rode into the farm yard and up to the reservoir where I felt blessed to find the clearest, cleanest, coolest water being pumped straight out the ground. Head dunked, bottles filled, it was a matter of minutes and I felt revived from the heat of the day. Having found and relished in my oasis, I set off again.
4km from Hofmeyr I spotted two mountain bikers pushing their bikes up the final small hill sitting like a bump out on the flat land before arriving in Hofmeyr on the other side. Having not been to Hofmeyr I always thought I would see the town from miles away over a flat karoo landscape. This was not the case. Fighting the headwind I managed to close the gap and found two lady Freedom Challenge race to Cradock participants as I crested this same hill and seeing the town in front of me. I rode with them into Hofmeyr. There was a “famous” pie shop that was always spoken about and being a “one horse town”, my first time there, it was easy to find. A 144km effort, done and dusted to this point. It was fabulous sharing a table with these two courageous ladies and having a bite to eat. It was also interesting sharing some of the stories of the trail. They were pushing on to their next stop after having something to eat and I would push off in the opposite direction to Tarkastad. While stocking up on much needed refreshments and an awesome chicken pie one could hear the rumbling of thunder outside. Storms were brewing just as the weather had forecast it would. With nearly an hour spent at the pie shop, it was time to start saddling up and moving on. I wanted to make Tarkastad before nightfall and was sure I would. I saw the two ladies off with a quick photo taken and well wishes. A quick visit to the restroom, some more chamois cream applied to my rear end to minimize more chaffing, bill paid on the way out and a quick call to my loved ones, it was backpack on and my trusty steed mounted. I was on my way looking up to the heavens and the far distant horizon where the skyline had already gone from clear blue skies and turned into a dark blue grey colour.
The wind had picked up considerably and as I turned onto the dirt district rode to take me to Tarkastad I whispered a short thank you prayer. I had a tail wind! This tail wind for most of the way was instrumental in me recording my fastest time ever over a 40km distance. The road was endless and plenty time for my mind playing over many aspects of my life on work, good times, challenging times, people, moments in time and my endeavors. When you out there on your own, nobody, not a single soul to be seen for miles it can get lonely but it can also be an empowering loneliness. Not many people can do this, never mind experience it.
Once I had completed this section I linked up to the main road and placed a quick call for the rendezvous. It was late afternoon. The temperature had dropped by 10 degrees and the rumbling of thunder and low dark clouds resembled blackened cotton wool with the odd splash of lightning with its spit of rain drops here and there also had the wind whistling a tune and indicating a big storm was on its way.
I made hast along the main road to Tarkastad 17km away. The road had no shoulder and the traffic was fairly busy. Having spent the better part of a 12 hour day ending, and with 9hr and 45min in the saddle of pure riding I was having a mild anxiety attack with the traffic around having spent the day with none.
Perfect timing! My lift arrived spot on time and with a quick maneuver of loading bikes and bags into the SUV as the wind indicated the advance of the storm, we drove out of Tarkastad as the heavens opened, closing a worthwhile, hot, tough in places awesome training ride day.
This was only a training ride but also a sense of another achievement and another wall the mind will have to break knowing I had fortified things a notch in that riding 201km in under 12 hours was all that I needed to quell the sometimes human nature’s nagging questions of abilities to hang in there and endure…….
There was something about the quiet drive home, the peaceful splatter of rain on the windshield, a corner smile on my face, me staring far away to the mountains in the distant…..recollecting.