Monday, July 5, 2010
Fun and Games
Sitting here nibbling on yet another snack and wondering how long until dinner, my body is still stuck somewhere in race mode. The body clock also has'nt quite reset itself to normal sleep patterns and a daily routine but on the whole I'm feeling fine and easing my way into normal life again. My thoughts return constantly to the trail and I'm finally able to reflect back on this year's race and the crazy adventure it turned out to be!
I had fun. Yes, even though the day's were long, the nights were cold, the headwinds blew and the sand was sometimes thick, when I think back, I remember plenty of moments when I was smiling, actually racing, covering ground efficiently and trying to chase down the front runners and sometimes even getting it right. Going out on a singlespeed meant I was always going to be in a one-horse race, just me against the clock but when I realised that by putting in a few more hours a day, I could keep up with the other guys, it became a game to see if and for how long I could hang on. And that was the whole fun bit, focusing on the game being played kept my thoughts positive in spite of the bad weather, late nights, punctures, headwinds - those were just the daily curveballs you had to deal with which kept it interesting and kept us honest. Making up ground on them was hugely motivating and losing ground just as disappointing.
After the initial hard days and cold weather had taken their toll on me, I started to stabilise and recover and when the weather started improving, it made sense to try and push hard to get back on track and maybe even have a few days in reserve for if the weather changed suddenly again. Thus began the other little game of 'chasing the sun' With the sun setting in the west, you're usually always riding into the sun in the afternoons on your way to the Cape. The portage sections act as obstacles along the route that slow you down and you'll always be quicker through them in daylight, so I would race to get over these portages before sunset and then ride on for a few hours into the night. On so many of the days, my focus from the time I woke up was on the last portage section I needed to clear before sunset that day and along the way, I'd be checking time and assessing how long I could afford to stop for snacks or lunch, all based on how many hours were still needed to get to and over the portages. I chased the sun to get off the ridge at Tinana Mission, again to get over Bonthoek before dark, raced across the plains through Hofmeyr to try and get through Elandsberg with enough light, again to clear the Struishoek portage near Pearston and later to get through the sandy jeep tracks of Anysberg and the tricky powerline track at Coeniesrivier in the light. Each time I came up short, wishing for even just 30min more light to make it easier. Sometimes it was because my top speed on the singlespeed was just too slow, other times because the hills had been too steep and I'd had to walk more than anticipated. Often the wind or riding surface had played a role - I still got through them all in the end but sometimes sacrificed precious sleep time in the process. On the final day up the Stettynskloof portage, I made it out the kloof with about 20min of light to spare - this was a seemingly small detail but this had been my goal since 3:30am that morning and I'd been chasing hard to get there so it felt really good to crest the ridge and find the road in daylight for a change, a small victory which made the last 30km to the finish seem easier.
I had a fairly good idea of the route after last year's tandem ride but there were some new sections this year which I attempted in the dark for the first time. Navigating in the dark makes things much harder and also slower, so if there was a new section that I needed to get through in the dark (in order to make it to a set goal for the day) I would attempt it before dawn, so that if I got it wrong, at least I could wait for daylight to solve the puzzle, rather than get it wrong at night and have to sleep rough (and cold). I got through the new Mjikelweni section near Tinana Mission like this and did the same on the Stormberg section near Molteno (although I probably wasted about 30min here following the wrong jeep track) as well as the Trappieskraal section after Kasra but it backfired horribly on the Perdeberg section after Bucklands and cost me at least 5 hours and effectively a whole stage that day! This was quite a psychological blow at the time because making up the lost time was not easy on that part of the course where the stages get longer and harder. The only way to really keep moving then was to focus on interim goals for the day - "get to Dam se Drif by 11:00am" or "get to Willowmore by 18:00" - getting there on time or ahead of schedule would be a boost and all of a sudden I was thinking positive thoughts again and the chase was back on.
Many people have asked me what the physical/mental split is for a race like this. Obviously the physical component is massive and there's no way your body will cope if you haven't done any training. It's hard to peg the mental component though because it's equally massive, you go through so many psychological highs and lows every day and being able to control and stabilise them is often harder than just turning the pedals. I found that on the days when fatigue didn't overwhelm me and I could generally remain in a positive frame of mind, even the really big days felt manageable and the time in the saddle passed quickly. On other days when I was very tired, I often struggled to complete the shorter distances and they seemed to drag on forever. I would almost say that the mental part is bigger than the physical but you can't neglect either of them if you want to finish in one piece.
Sometimes during the longer, monotonous sections, it was hard to keep focused, especially after a long day with a tired body. Then there were other games I resorted to to keep me alert - trying to guess what was on a road sign from behind, bleating at sheep or mooing at cows and seeing how they reacted (the Eastern Cape merinos are an unsociable lot, Angora goats in the Camdeboo are quite inquisitive, the cattle around the Darlington Dam are quite friendly and the Alpacas near Montagu are obviously Spanish so they didn't understand me at all!). I also listened to music playing on my phone sometimes, it really worked well when I needed to keep going at a higher intensity but sometimes I preferred to ride in the quiet of the night or the pre-dawn stillness (especially after having ridden in strong, noisy wind all day). Other times, I'd come across a humourous sign and be giggling about it still hours later. Strange as this behaviour may seem, it was all part of the fun and games and helped keep the mind positive and the wheels turning.