The Other Side of Darkness

There’s an upside to being a dark horse. You’re partly naïve as to what lies ahead, and largely under the radar. Undistracted by the thought of some future pain, you can race hard and take it one day at a time. Of course when you’ve done something before, this is no longer the case.

Apart from numb fingers and a sore rump, winning last years Freedom Challenge had left a growing void. Part capacity and part wonder, I had spent hours, if not days thinking and dreaming about the race, piecing together bits of the trail in my mind and trying to figure out what was possible. This wasn’t just a normal bike race. It was a trip down the dark side and as such, the thought of doing it again was like a bitter sweet pill. Tim James record of 13 days and 15 hours was doable, if conditions were right. Let me clear something up, I wasn’t after Tim’s record per say. I was more interested in filling that void – answering those questions so to speak.

In January the fun started with easy 4 and 5 hr rides on the mtb on familiar trails with familiar faces. I had to be content now with the short hours and appease the unsettled grumbling deep inside for something longer. Then a desert trip to the Emirates and a climbing trip to Australia kept me off my bike for a while, probably a good thing. But by April I had notched up a number of 100k+ rides, and the first 200. I was starting to realise that if riding a better time than my previous race of 14 days was on the cards, or the record for that matter, I was going to have to learn a new way to count. Long distances were simply numbers, and slowly the battle of learning this new language was shifted out to Magaliesburg.

Early in the morning twice a week I would meet the others at the Magaliesburg Wimpy. By others I mean my partners in crime, Anton Mayberry, Jacques Swart and Mike Woolnough. Our offence, agreeing to race the FC knowing full well what awaited. Leaving the cars in the parking lot we would head out west, out towards Boons and Derby and eventually Ventersdorp, out over quiet dirt roads and empty mielie fields. The same roads where Jameson’s tenacity had come to an end and diamond diggers had found scant pickings in alluvial fields. Some days we road together, others it was just me. Me and the familiar Jackals in the same spots with that same forlorn look on their faces. I loved all of it, the silence and solitude, and seeing a valley or ridge for the first time.

By May we had notched up a couple of 200’s and had also done the Ride to Rhodes unsupported as a training ride. It was time to take things up a notch and hit that big number - 300. At 2.30 am on Saturday the 28th May, I met Mike and Anton on Beyers Naude. Mike would join us for about a 100ks, but Anton and I were going big. That it happened to be the coldest morning in Joburg thus far was apt, and foreboding, because it gave a very accurate indicator of what was to come later on in the race. As Mike rolled up and pulled off his buff he noted “this is just silly!” He was right of course, both for now and for later. It was minus 3 or 4 going through the cradle. 7am and we hit the Magalies wimpy for a quick coffee and a goodbye to Mike. An hour later we hit a 100, and 6 hours after that, 200. We were within 15kms of Ventersdorp when we swung a lazy circle and started the long trail back.

The problem with doing 300kms on trails and dirt roads is that it’s a tricky exercise to work out what kind of loop will come in at the 300k mark. By sunset we had stopped next to some old diggings to fill up on water. We were sitting on 235ks with still a long way to go. I was starting to think the loop we were on was going to be way more than 300! 275kms and we pedalled past Tarlton and some rutted roads from hell. 290 and we were nearing Sterkfontein with limbs aching and my behind now somewhat numb. Anton made a call for a pickup realising to ride all the way home would be plain stupid. And so, around 10 that night we pulled up at the Kloofzicht traffic circle to a waiting van. We had cycled 308kms in around 19 hours. We felt surprisingly good.

The tough part though, was to get up early the next morning and go and do another 100. My knees ached and my bum was starting to talk a language neither of us knew! But it was done. By the end of that weekend I had a new sense of discomfort on the bike and a bigger beachhead in my mind. I never seriously contemplated doing 300 in the race, but I knew I would do many 200+ days. To have the knowledge that I could do 300 was a big plus. It was also an important trial run in full race gear. I was riding a 29 inch hard tail with a bag built into the middle triangle. This kind of stuff needed to be tested well before race day.

On the 16th of June at 6am the Maritzburg town hall bell set us off and my mind was once again in a familiar place. I tried not to think too far down the line, just the morning, and the hills and where I would spend the night. It was a warmer start than last year and by the time I got to the Umkomaas valley, it was blazing hot. Legs struggled up the steep Hela Hela in the heat. I was wearing the same kit as before, a Capestorm furnace against my skin. The only  difference was the cows blazoned across it. CHOC (childhood cancer foundation) had agreed to sponsor my race, as long as I was covered in Cows! I figured it would give me extra warmth latter on, but for now I was cooking!

Day 1 and 2 went as planned with 155 and 205 in the bag. By day 3 the predictable cold weather was on its way and strong winds were lashing the  mountains. My race strategy was simple, ride 18 hours, sleep 5 and mess around for 1. Simple however, is not a word that is in any part of the FC dictionary. Grinding a big gear out of Tinana Mission, my trigger happy fingers fired both gears at the same time and I jammed my chain, so badly that I need to disassemble both my front rings and my chain just to get it off. I also broke my shifter in the process. Not gear failure, brain failure! I sat cursing on the road while I fixed the whole mess and killed 45 minutes. By the time I got to Vuvu, I was chasing time again. An hour later on Lehana pass I got the full brunt of the wind as I battled to keep my balance. One of the camera crew followed me up the steep berg pass as gale force winds pounded across the ridges. It was insane, and a reminder that the best made plans are quickly made a mockery of.

8 pm That night I rolled into Rhodes, too hammered to push on. Over the next three or four days I realised my strategy was not going to work. There was simply too much water about. Torrential rains had pounded the Eastern Cape for the past month leaving in its wake one of the wettest winters in ages and a long list of flooded rivers. All the small portage sections and vleis, where I thought I would blaze across, I was now stumbling, and slipping and sliding and just altogether making a mud mess of everything. Consequently, my speeds weren’t as fast as id hoped. And so, the only other place I could steal time, was my sleep. Slowly, I started sleeping less and less so that I could spend more time on the bike.

On day 8 I slept through my alarm and started out late across the Darlington Dam. Chasing time is a bad thing. You make mistakes. It’s like brain freeze after glugging down a Mango Frio too quickly. Wrong turns and more mud saw me get to Buckland’s 2 hrs later than planned. By evening I was dropping down towards the Grootrivier and the start of the infamous Baviaanskloof. By midnight I was at Hadley station, just before the start of the 4x4 track. I turned in for 2 mins. It was locked. I contemplated bivvying the night in the back but decided against it. In retrospect, this was a defining moment in my race. If I had known just how flooded Baviaans was, I might have chose discretion. But I didn’t know, and so, I pushed on. Half way down the 4x4 track I stopped for a 15 min power nap. I stuck my body out of the wind in a clump of fynbos and slept. When I woke, my phone beeped in some passing signal. I pulled it out and phoned Nadia and asked her to lift me up in prayer. My spirit could sense the darkness below, and aware of some impending doom, it wanted out. I wanted to stay, stay where I was and wait for brighter days and warmer times. My mind was drifting, beyond the limit of consciousness, beyond what I could focus on and handle. My wife’s voice was like an elixir. She reminded me of who I was and whose image I had been made in. Suck it up, something deep inside me said, you need to see this through.

When I got on my bike I was focused, clear cut like a laser beam, I knew what I needed to do. Primal almost. I dropped for an hour and a half into Baviaanskloof, arriving at my first river crossing at about 1 am. In front of me was a wall of debris. Broken thorns trees and clumps of bush had been washed down in flood and now blocked the way to the river. I thrashed around trying to pick an easy way through, before stumbling into the river. It was up to my waist and ice cold. On the other side I had the same problem, except I couldn’t see the road. Baviaans has 11 or 12 of these river crossings. Each one was worse. The flood debris was thicker and the flooded channels faster. I now had to get to a thicket, claw my way through, visualise the line across the river and where the road might be on the far side, and then try and cross without being swept away. At one point I slipped on a reed island and fell to the side, soaking the right side of my body up to my shoulders. I cursed then kicked into survival mode, quickly stripping my tops and putting on a dry one.

Six hours later I had hacked, clawed, thrashed, cursed and swum my way across 10 kms of Baviaans, in a silent darkness. I had glimpsed into Mordor naïve, and had come out old. It was a long day, 25 hours all told by the time I rolled into Cambria for 2 hours of sleep. Later that day I caught up to Eugene(Uge) and Garth. The company was a welcome change from the demons id been chatting to. When a day later Garth was dropped, it left just the two of us and a mad, semi frenzied dash for the line. Uge was well versed in the arcane art of sleep deprivation and so we forged a friendship founded in the hearth of some far off primitive world, predicated on a belief that less was more. 2 hours a night was now a luxury as it became 1.5, then 1. By the time we crossed Anysberg, 200kms from the finish, I had slept 10 hours in the last week. Sleep monsters were now a constant companion, attacking often, relentless and ruthless!

And so, to counter the growing, debilitating lack of sleep, we had to power nap. 5 mins, 10 mins, 15 mins, anything to prevent us tumbling head long into a ditch or river. The desire to sleep grew like some insidious beast, like a neap tide drifting in and out with growing waves. First a full moon, then a farce. Sleep was a drug. 5 mins and I wanted more. 20 and I would’ve been gone, addicted like a zombie and destined for the inexorable fate of the undead. We tapped, we pushed, we shouted, we joked, anything to keep us awake and going. The penultimate day we rode 224kms, part pacing and part sleepless drifting. We lit a fire to get warm, and we sheltered in a shed. Endless roads, icy plains, wind and rain. The world had slowed to the shifting of a seamless chain and Uge and I were the links.

When at last it was done, 12 days and 15 hours had passed. I'd caught a glimpse beyond the darkness, beyond the murky, fetid breath of a whimper to quit and the dizzy numbness of a mind caught between night and day. And so, the void was filled and the questions answered. Sleep that night was mixed, for I hadn’t quite escaped the prison. Only now, with the post race fading euphoria still lingering, am I finally unshackled. But I’m not sure I will ever be free.