Over the past decade, I’ve described myself as a “social endurance sportsman” to people. I was first lured by SA’s famous Comrades Marathon, but after a joint-pounding “up run” and down run” I decided to opt for the “easier on the body” Ironman and other events. Then, about 3 years ago a friend of mine drew my attention to the Freedom Challenge website (www.freedomchallenge.org.za), and the rest as they say was history. I was soon entered for the 2011 Race Across South Africa (RASA), and was fortunate to work for a banking group typically a little more generous with their leave allocations than many other industries. Yes, two of the big challenges regarding the Freedom Challenge are time availability and money. Mountain biking doesn’t come cheap. And if you have small kids, you’re gonna miss them badly too, and that can really get to you mentally when the going get’s tough on the race, so that’s the 1st mental challenge I would suggest you prepare yourself for right up front.
I had not done any mountain bike racing before 2011, but as luck would have it I had a friend whose partner withdrew from the 9 day Joberg2C event at the last minute, so there came the opportunity to get an idea of what multi-day races and the RASA would be like….or so I thought at least. Joberg2C was a superbly organized even, but does not remotely resemble the RASA. One rides with no weighty backpack on the back, you have arrows and marshalls to guide you at every turn, medical staff and choppers on stand by for injuries, and travelling doctors. You arrive early in the afternoon at the stage finish, ease into the huge race village, shower, put the feet up with a beer, or go off and locate the travelling Seattle Coffee Bar for some great filter coffee. Oh yes and you have a myriad of travelling bike shop repair teams, so every day you can book your bike in for a wash and a service. The bikes live a better life than the riders.
And then there’s the roads and paths, well-manicured, in great riding condition, and if there are tufts of grass on the path which cause inconvenient bumps, then the organizers get it in the neck. And so, to see to the comfort of the riders, the Joberg2C organizers employ the services of amongst others a certain Glenn Harrison (who clearly wasn’t made for a banking head office) to help build the track from Joberg to Durban. Then, when he is finished building half the route to Durbs, Glenn hangs around for the race, and cruises at the back of the field to see to the needs of the slower folk, in a “sweep” role. And this is where I met Glenn in 2011, at one or 2 of the water tables, because I always happen to be one of those guys at the back.
Somewhere we got chatting (lazy rider delaying tactics) and I discovered he was a “freedom Challenger” (but didn’t yet realize just how good), and then followed my 20 questions. This was a fortunate meeting, as in no other way did the Joberg2C prepare me for the RASA (although being a fantastic race itself). In fact, the only way you can prepare yourself for the RASA is to get to know people who have already ridden this race, because it is so different to any of the more commercialized multi-stage races such as the Epic or Joberg2C (and no disrespect to those great events).
Why is the race so different?
The brief description is….The Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa is an "unsupported" of approximately 2,300 km across South Africa. While recent winners have won in around 13 days, the race cut-off is 26 days. The race starts in Pietermaritzburg in early-to-mid-June, and ends in Paarl near Cape Town. Temperatures are known to drop as low as minus-10 deg. Celsius. While there are periodic "support stations" which will feed and accommodate riders should they require, the race is unsupported in the sense that riders must carry their own clothing and equipment, are responsible for their own maintenance and navigation (without the aid of GPS), and there are no marshalls or safety officials on the course (Race monitoring is done by satellite tracking). Estimates of cumulative ascent are around 37,000 metres, and the highest point on the route is approximately 2,700 metres above sea level.
The term “unsupported race” – what does it mean?
By “unsupported” is meant that there is no support between what are known as “support stations”. The term “support stations” immediately seems contradictory, and to an extent it is. These do provide support in the form of feeding the riders, giving them food packs for the next stage of their trip, and providing them with shelter and a place to sleep should they require it. The support station also house riders’ all-important ice cream tubs. Riders are allowed to pack 25x2 litre ice cream tubs, one per support station, with whatever they like (normally maps, energy food, and perhaps certain spare parts/accessories for re-supply), and the race organizers then drop these tubs off at the support stations prior to the race. On certain long stages there are also sometimes intermediate support stations, whose role is largely to provide food for passing riders. Riders must pass through support stations, but it is their choice as to whether they stay over or move on shortly after arriving and signing in/out.
In KZN use is made of traditional guest houses for some of the support stations, but over the whole race it is mainly farmers and their homes who play this role (or perhaps more their wives), and sometimes rural lodges.
So it is clear that there exists a degree of support in the race. What is meant by “unsupported”, is that in between support stations riders are on their own. There are no marshalls on the route, no safety officials, and few route markings apart from the odd small Freedom Trail sticker. Riders’ adherence to rules relies heavily on their own honesty, although they do carry a satellite tracking device for the race office to monitor them remotely. GPS is not allowed, and riders have to navigate with maps and narrative supplied by the race organizers.
No GPS and no support means navigation skills are key
This adds another dimension to the race, i.e. the possibility of getting horribly lost, and yes, last year my race partner Albert and I periodically made spectacular use of this opportunity. But even if one doesn’t get lost, it is important to realize that, on one’s 1st RASA you spend a lot of time checking maps and narrative at every second turn, and this does make your riding day significantly longer than would otherwise be the case. The serious racers such as Glenn, therefore, spend time in the months before the race scouting the route and making sure they are well-acquainted with it. Every year there are minor route changes, so their work is never quite done. For us social riders, it isn’t crucial that one recces the route, but do make sure that you can read maps, and your odometer comes in handy, because the narrative gives distances until the next time you need to take a turn.
At this stage, a warning is required. If you meet up with other riders who have done it before, don’t assume that they will always take the right route. Over 2300 kms one is bound to forget some detail, some old hands are not good with remembering routes, but worse still some of them think that they know the route better than they actually do, and we saw some veterans of the race getting horribly lost on our trip last year (sadly, often after having followed them). This is the 2nd mindset that a rider must be in ….i.e. the RASA is at all times an individual race and you are always 100% responsible for yourself and your own race. If you do ride with someone that’s great, but if they get theirs and your directions wrong you can’t hold them responsible. Always be doing your own map watching regardless of whether you are on your own or not.
Bike maintenance skills are crucial
Then comes the issue of bike maintenance. Once again the term “unsupported” is relevant. Riders are responsible for their own bike maintenance, which means that they have to carry the basic tools and spares with them to do running repairs. Should a farmer have the tools to assist them at a support station, it isn’t against the rules to accept such help, but be warned that the type of high tech bike that us city slickers have become used to, with disc brakes and all, have not always been seen before in the rural areas, so the relevant tools/parts are often a few hundred kms away at a bike shop in PE or Durban. And it is against the rules to have a friend/supporter bring in a new bike or parts during the race. It can be done, but this will incur certain daylight time penalties, meaning you could wait it out at a support station for a good while. If your bike snaps in 2, though, that might be the only choice.
On that note, a second warning – other riders may be kind enough to assist you if you have a maintenance problem. But always remember that they are in no way responsible should they “mess it up” even more. Best is to go on a bike maintenance course before the RASA and be up to speed with maintenance. Albert and I didn’t, and we were lucky for the help of some fellow Ride to Rhodes riders.
Then comes the next “un-supported” issue of weight. For RASA participants, unlike the shorter Ride to Rhodes version of the Freedom Challenge, there is no bakkie to carry clothes, spares and between-support station food. It is all on one’s back or on the bike. From my own experience, the novice riders tend to take too much stuff, trying to prepare for almost every eventuality. Albert and myself even had seat post carriers attached to our bikes, and all we needed was safari suits and we would have looked exactly like olden day Pretoria civil servants on their bicycles off to work with lunch box (in our case tool box) on the carrier. I had made the mistake of chatting to much with the legendary Jack Black (sorry buddy, for dissing you ), also a novice at the race and a man known for being very thorough in his preparations (implying that he bought half of Linden Cycle Shop for the race), and not enough to Glenn with his “travelling light” approach (see http://onegiantride.blogspot.com/2010/07/travelling-light.html ) , at all of 6-7kg on his back. Needless to say, at the 1st minor portage somewhere in the Umkomaas Valley, we realized that the 20-30 kg of “5h1t” on our backs and bikes and backs was not going to work, especially given the huge portages over mountains that lay ahead, and the 1st support station of Allendale fulfilled its primary purpose as a major dumping site for equipment (apparently we were not the 1st). The point is that one cannot prepare for major bike problems. It’s a probability game and you can only take tools and parts for the most likely maintenance issues. Tim james, former winner, likes to take a bivvy and a sleeping bag so as to be independent of support stations for sleeping, but the rest generally take their chances on getting to the support stations without getting lost and having to sleep in the cold. Indeed, Glenn has suffered the consequences of this approach, getting lost last year on the Elandsberg portage at night in the 2011 RASA, and having to sleep under his emergency blanket in sub-zero temperatures, and this may have in part cost him the race (energy spent shivering all night is enormous, and it takes days to recover). So it happens, but the overwhelming majority of riders make the support stations on time. Knowing what I do now I’m a fan of travelling relatively light.
A very different race route
The race also differs from the more commercialized races in terms of the condition of the route. One needs to understand that David Waddilove uses the term “route” very loosely. In the other races, “route” typically” means a track which is rideable at a fair speed. In the Freedom Challenge it can mean anything from a well-maintained district dirt road (tar is very rare) to a red line across a map drawn by David as an indicator of where he wishes that there was a road or path. Long portgages (a canoeist term for when they have to jump off and carry canoes, or in our case bikes) over mountains are a hallmark of the race, the legendary ones being Lehana’s Pass up the side of the Southern Drakensberg, and Stettynskloof over the mountains near Paarl. Often the best way to carry the bike is on one’s back (it rests nicely on one’s backpack don’t worry), and some even dismantle the bike and strap it to their rucksack in Stettynskloof because it is tough to get through bush with wheels sticking out either side of one’s back. The portages can be a good number of hours and very slow. And herein lies the next mental lesson. Don’t look at the day ahead’s kilometers and plan one’s times on normal cycling speeds. It can sometimes take a good number of hours to cover 10 kms. Distances are not necessarily a good predictor of a day’s cycling time to come.
When there are roads being used, they are sometimes roads last used by vehicles perhaps 20 years ago or more, which gives one an idea of the condition that they may be in. Indeed, some farmers have even unilaterally (without permission) fenced/gated such roads off. With a public right of way still existing on these roads, farmers are legally obliged to let cyclists pass, but in one or two instances this has not been without some tension, and even some legal wrangling. It also implies that there are regularly some quite high fences to climb (which reportedly had the legendary Jack Black practising fence climbing before the race), bike and all, a further reason for travelling light.
So that was a brief description of what riders physically encounter on the Freedom Challenge. If one wants to mount a serious challenge, therefore, such as Glenn Harrison, the requirements are somewhat different to “normal” mountain bike races. As already mentioned, navigation (and course knowledge) and bike maintenance skills are hugely important for competitors. Training requirements may also be different. Running training (especially hill training) may be more beneficial here due to long portages, which also make good upper body strength more beneficial.
This race is arguably more mental than physical
But it goes further than that. There is a serious mental side to the race. Glenn may have the luxury of riding with a companion periodically, but the top guys typically ride large sections of the race on their own as not many others can sustain their pace. I believe it requires a unique type of person to ride for days on end alone, especially at night in freezing cold conditions relying on one’s own sense of direction and with little in the way of human habitation in many of the RASA sections. Us social riders can normally have the luxury of company and riding companions and I would advise it from a motivational point of view (one gets miserable on your own).
Then we get to the “non-stage” aspect of the race. Bruce Fordyce used to often say that the slower runners suffered more in Comrades because they were out on the road for far longer than the front runners. In stage races, you end the day’s stage and go and rest until tomorrow, and the top guys have a longer rest than the back markers.
Because the RASA is merely a case of the fastest person to Cape Town, with no stages, it implies that it works the other way around in this race. Us slow pokes normally get to the next support station and call it a day. For Glenn and co, the faster they cover ground the more they attempt to cover in 1 day/night, and this implies far longer days/nights on the road for the serious racers, and far less sleep (and sometimes no sleep in a night) in the process. The freezing cold, sometimes around minus 10 degrees Celsius, at night adds a different dimension to the race. As a matter of fact, I would say that the severe discomfort of long cold nights on the road possibly causes more “suffering” than the physical exertion of the race itself. Indeed, when Albert and I went through our own “mental dip” somewhere in the Eastern Cape last year, the discomfort from the cold was far more de-motivating than the actual riding itself.
Indeed, this is a special race, and to win it or be competitive at it requires a special breed of racer. He needs to have all the usual mountain biker technical biking abilities. But more, he must be able to take a severe amount of discomfort caused by cold and sleep deprivation. He must also be able to get his mind around the length of the race. When you’re exhausted and lost at night somewhere in the freezing cold high country of the Eastern Cape, you’ve been going 800kms already, and Cape Town is still 1500kms away, you need to get your head down and focus only on the current stage.
Back to the social rider. Those few days after Rhodes can be a mental killer, with all the Ride to Rhodes company having left, and the trail becoming a far lonelier place (remembering that riders start on different days in small batches and are by now spread out over the trail). You begin to wonder why you’re doing this, and you’re missing the kids. Even the heated office at work starts to seem exciting (which is extremely sad). That is the time to focus day by day and think no further ahead. You need to motivate yourself through another few days and it does ultimately get better. Once through the Baviaanskloof your spirits should improve tremendously, because Cape Town is getting nearer, and the stages are also not quite as tough as in the 1st parts of the race.
So finally, I’ll leave you with this. Talking again from a social rider’s point of view, I found that I didn’t need as much training for the RASA as I did for the Comrades Marathon. But this was more of a mental race, because of the sheer length of it, the discomfort from the cold, and not knowing what to expect on the route (Comrades is all tar to Durbs and you drive it the day before to suss it out). Positive thinking is not about thinking that something is going to be easy. It is about seeing it as it is, hard or easy, but believing that you have the ability to get through it. The toughest days from a mental point of view on the Freedom Challenge are not necessarily the physically toughest ones. Often other riders had prepared us well for what to expect on those. The worst days came when we thought it was going to be easy (I thought the Karoo was flat) and it didn’t turn out that way, either because we got lost or the terrain was far more slow going than we had thought. That’s where misery can set in. This is a race with far more unexpected stuff than the higher profile commercialized endurance races, and far more that doesn’t go according to plan. The upside for the leading contenders though, is that even if one is a few hours behind the leader, it’s “never over till the fat lady sings”.