An account of the 36One mountain bike race (361km in under 36hours) undertaken as one of my preparation rides for Race Across South Africa in June.
Oudtshoorn, South Africa. The date 15 April 2016. Time 18:05.
5 minutes to go! And I am profoundly calm on the start line of one incredibly insane mountain bike race that is about to start!
What is it about this ride that has now been etched into my mind? A mind that has now been altered somewhat onto a level that is incomprehensible. Yet, I am sure many of the 780 riders that crossed that start line that evening may know all well what I am talking about!
I say some; because not all made it back from the dust covered battleground where the personal wars were waged and where it was also commanded not to last any longer than 36 hours while crossing the mountainous terrain of the Swartberg, Outeniqua and Rooiberg mountains as well as the treacherous heartlands of the Karoo over a distance of 361km. Some left their nightmares out on the mountains. Some slayed their demons and dragons in their quest to make it back but some also left their offering of blood, sweat and tears out there in the dust too!
After a failed attempt at this beast of a race in 2015, I never forgot the mystifying pull of this ultra distance event and the desire to conquer it! And so I set in motion the plans, the training and goal to get back there and here I was standing calmly on the start line as the sun dropped off the horizon making way for a breezy warm evening with hundreds of like minded cyclists.
There were plenty nerves firing. Enough to jiggle an atom! The look of apprehension on some of the ‘warriors as they were readying themselves to embark into battle and for some the unknown, being it their first time was prominent! It was also heartening to see and hear the nervous chatter echoing the concerns, the doubts and what was to come. It reassured me that even though we may have trained like machines, we were also human.
The ‘bugle sounds and we fire off. A kilometer neutral zone behind the lead quad bike leading us out and then it’s all go! The pace quickens off the front almost immediately and is blitz fast kicking up the fine dust of the dirt roads we embark on creating a film of mist that would stay with us almost the entire night. The bike lights remain off until the last of the fading light makes it almost impossible to navigate without them.
Still in a reasonably sized peloton and about an hour in we leave the short tar section we are on and join dirt on an incline. The long night of insane ascent and the battle royale between mind body and spirit had begun! I found myself riding the mountains and passes with relevant ease throughout the night, pacing well and racing within myself, alone into the darkness with the odd flickering red tail lights of distant participants ahead of me crossing mountains and hills, one after another. I monitored the plan I had implemented for myself and swept through water point after water point along with the checkpoints, all the while keeping my tank full, ensuring sufficient ‘ammunition was taken on board to continue with the battle ahead. To keep my head together, I was using my distance splits between stations to maintain stability and effort.
The night was warm and there was no need for protection against the elements. I had found my mind in one or two ‘dark places through the night near half way and it came with an over-whelming emotional desire to cry. Not because I was full of self doubt or negative perspective about what I was doing but more so because the night had gone so well, incident free and I had yet to feel as strong as I had up to this point of the ‘battle in a long time. All my training was paying off.
The mind has the ability to sabotage the best laid plans. A week running up to the race, my visualization of the race, the climbs, the fatigue, and the finish was ongoing. My silent mantra “I will do it!” was hissed into my subconscious.
The 36One is a lonely race. If you are not up front with the contenders, you are pretty much on your own. Through the night, it’s you, your steed and your thoughts. There was a partial red moon setting down off the horizon in the early hours. Sometimes there would be the unsuspecting visitors like the couple of frogs I saw crossing, bouncing, hopping across the roads, or was it an illusion from the after effects of fatigue? And then there was the silence, also some extra silence because of my hearing loss too. Just your bike wheels crunching through the dirt, your heart beat pumping the rest of the engine and your breathing stabilizing your rhythm getting you to a place where you are one with everything around you.
By the time I had left Checkpoint 2 and on my way with around 190km in my legs, the sun already just coming up, I calculated my stats and I was on track for my 25hour finish I had set. I was pretty chuffed with the progress so far.
The sunrise was a sight to behold!
By now the battlefield route was dotted with the odd warriors on their bikes attempting their way to the front line of victory. Some were behind and some ahead. I saw broken people with bewildered stares. Some were walking and some were sitting alongside the battle lines. Some were still moving along slowly and here and there in passing I felt the need to offer some verbal support and encouragement. You see, I had been where they had been a year earlier. The battle scars can run deep if you allow them to. Some, I couldn’t but help feel would be traumatized by the effects of this particular battle for time to come.
My onslaught to checkpoint 3 started to unravel 25km before arriving at the checkpoint destination. I came under fire with heavy heat threatening to derail my mind as I approached the 12km obstacle of that being a drag of an ascent that lay before me and allowing me access to the safe haven of a meal, something cold to wash down and rest. My mantra “I will do it” kicked in and I put it all out there to get over the infamous Rooiberg mountain. This was an absolute mind attack to its core! No guts no glory! No retreat and no surrender pushing on to the summit. Victory was sweet arriving at the top and then a frantic descent and a grind of an effort with the devil trying to get into every chink of my amour in his effort to derail me, failed as I pulled into the welcome sight of checkpoint 3.
Checkpoint 3 became my safe haven for nearly an hour as I re-stocked, patched my mind and rested. I was 80km from my final post. I had two mountains to get over.
Induced rest applied and I was ready to ride on. It was time to break through the final ranks of the last two murderous climbs and this was going to take some smart tactic and riding so not to allow my mind to collapse. Yet, I looked back to see how far I had come as a boost to get through what was coming. Giving up had never ever been an option throughout the battle so far and once again I had an overwhelming desire to spill my guts, not because of the agony I was feeling in my body but because of the pride I felt in how strong I had been through it all!
I had two water points to get to before I would find myself on the final frontier. I stumbled across a weary warrior (Martin) in my pursuit of the finish and he and I teamed up. It was a partnership that would take us to the end. With darkness falling he was low on battery power and ended up having no lights for the final run into the finish. We were all in this ‘war together and as I would have wished the same would have been done for me in the same position, I adopted a silent commitment; we leave no one behind in distress. We both witnessed warriors falling along the wayside with only 40km to go. They had nothing more to give and their minds had taken their bodies’ hostage. They were prisoners in their own souls. Nothing could rescue them other than themselves. They had to beat their own demons to keep moving forward and it seemed they had lost the battle.
Martin and I pushed on in the darkness, with one light and conquered the torturous hills, one after the other in every way we could. We reached the last water point and we had 23km to slay in the final run in. We both logged calls to our relieved loved ones waiting for us back on the finish line home front. We were bringing it home!!
Martin and I gathered the last of our reserves and made a dash for the ‘borderline. We dished out and laid everything we had out on the final dusty road and racked up the final kilometers in just on an hour amidst heavy fatigue and exhaustion along with a splatter of rain as we came into the last stretch.
The run into the finish was a bag of mixed emotions. Seeing a crowd of loved ones waiting for you at the finish line was better than victory itself! Martin and I had taken on a battle in our own rights and won the war! We crossed the line in a non stop 27 hours and 7 minutes of racing. All the discomfort and tired body was lost in the moment of achievement. I had a lot riding on this race, especially from a mental boost perspective and I had achieved just that!
With over 5300m of vertical ascent cutting throught the 361km distance, 780 brave souls started out on the battlefield. Only 521 made it back when the final trumpet blew.
I came prepared, I rode it, I conquered it!
I became my own hero; ………..to self…….
No guts. No glory
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