The 36one – Unfinished Business

Over the past few years, I have discovered that I love endurance mountain biking. Coupled with my love of travel and discovering the road less travelled, this has set me on the journey toward completing the iconic Freedom Challenge RASA one day. Building up to my dream is taking some time, this is a sensible thing as the physical and mental challenges of riding a bike across some of South Africa’s most desolate and hilly terrain is not to be taken lightly.  Last year, I decided to enter the 36one mountain bike race.  I have to admit I didn’t really think much about it except that it would be really good training.  My fiancé Sean noticed the team race entry and as he has learnt to do, took it in his stride.  I often wonder if his coping strategy is to not look too closely at the events I enter us into as he seemed fairly happy to go along with it!

 

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Feeling strong and going out too fast in the first 180km of 2016 36one sealed my fate of a DNF

We arrived at the 2016 36one, well trained, well informed and with a solid objective to finish within a certain time. By the time I crawled into Check Point three after 19 hours of grueling riding, we both knew that we weren’t going to finish.  My wrists were shot (both have been broken before) and the fatigue was horrendous. The shame of the DNF was not at all tempered for me by the fact that we had ridden 282km in one go!!

Fast forward to 2017. This time… we are going to finish the 36one, no matter what.  We have 36 hours!  We could crawl it in that time.  The strategy is different.  Ride to finish with a little subtitle of “try to finish in 24 hours”.  The respect that we both now have for this massive race is huge and humbling.  I had several flash backs from 2016 in the days leading up to the race… none of which filled me with any confidence at all.  The worst memory was that of Rooiberg, the massive climb that you encounter 250km or so into the race. I remember stopping, bursting into tears as I realized we still has to ride 120km to finish the race and I was only half way up that endless beast. It was going to take a lot for me to conquer that demon this year!

So, we lined up on the start line on Friday 19th April with a very different approach to the 36one.

A few of the things that we did differently this year were:

  • We practiced pushing ourselves physically and mentally beyond our usual limits. During 2016 we completed Race to Rhodes and Transbaviaans and then we successfully completed the Everesting Challenge in October. That saw us climb 8900m over 31 hours in bad weather –  an achievement which definitely prepared us for riding through the fatigue and the pain that comes with riding a bike for a long period of time.  We then completed Race to Cradock in March 2017.  This section of the Freedom Challenge had us riding for 10 hours a day over 5 days keeping our destination in mind and teaching us to pedal the journey. In an experience like this, you have to accept every kilometer that is thrown at you no matter what.  Excellent physical and mental preparation.
  • We are lighter and leaner. Our coach, Dion Guy, introduced us to an App that tracks our eating as well as helps us to control our calorie intake.  using this along with some sound nutritional advice from Debbi Nathan, my nutritionist, we were able to lose about 9kg each.  Not so much weight to drag up the 5000m or so of climbing!  This definitely made a big difference.

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    9 kg lighter than last year!
  • We optimized our nutrition.  Race to Rhodes and Race to Cradock saw us eating real food instead of goos and bars.  Dates, nuts, rice, grains, fruit and seeds kept me going with treats of liquorice thrown in. I have also discovered Gluten Free electrolyte drink and a tasty gluten free gel that doesn’t give me the horrific stomach cramps I suffered with other products. Lastly but not least, the beetroot content of my diet is enormous during these events – concentrated Beet-it shots, beetroot crisps and lots of steamed beetroot leading up to the event helps me a lot.
  • I arrived a day ahead of the race. In 2016 I flew into George on the morning of the 36one and rushed around until it was time to start. This year I gave myself a day’s grace and managed to sleep for a few hours before the start.

The race..

We set off at an easy pace.  148 teams of two started the race and the front runners pulled away early setting a hot pace.  We settled into a good rhythm close to the back of the field, knowing that this race is definitely not conquered in the first 80km. Our friends Clair and Greg rode with us on their tandem and I quickly saw how hard it is to ride “the beast” up the early hills. I was very glad we were on single bikes. Slowly but surely we started to pass people who had raced off ahead of us.  We passed A LOT of people. Towards waterpoint one at De Rust, about 50km in, we were starting to pick off the back markers from the Solo challenge who had started 10 minutes before us. The first stage of the race is surprisingly tough. You can’t see the climbs in the dark and the dirt roads were fairly corrugated. It was dusty and dry and the weather was still warm. I could see Sean was feeling strong and to my surprise, my legs were feeling really good so I kept tempering the pace and taking it easy… even letting some ladies pass me from time to time 😉 The road towards checkpoint one is dusty, has a few fast descents and also has a fair amount of traffic on it with the spectators and supporters cars being marshaled to the next checkpoint.  Although this has improved from last year, it still caused problems and I found myself being cautious and tense.  I could feel my back tightening up and I had to continually tell myself to release the pressure on my shoulders and wrists to prevent paying for it later.  We reached check point one comfortably, greeted by our sons who were supporting us.  They did a fantastic job and had our boxes ready and waiting for us.  81km down, we set off after a short break (the soup was delicious!). We left before Greg and Clair, knowing that they would catch up as they fly down hill on their tandem beast and after a few kms they were with us again.  The next part of the race contains the only single track (about a km?) and a couple of railway line sections.  The second railway line section is a bit sketchy and I don’t enjoy it at all, but luckily its not too long and we were soon at the 4th water table at about 2am.  I gauged my physical and mental state… all good so far, still smiling, still energetic and still determined to finish.

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At Waterpoint 4, about 2am after 146km

The next few kms to Checkpoint 2 went quickly. The kms ticking over until we hit the tar road with about 7km to go until the checkpoint. We enjoyed a good pull from the tandem on this section and swept into the second checkpoint feeling good.

We knew from experience that we had to refuel properly here.  We ate the sit down meal of lasagne, raided our boxes and hauled out a complete change of clothes.  Sean and Scott, our support team were freezing cold, but had everything organized for us – wonderful! We went to change in one of the rooms and found it had a shower.

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Defrosting at Checkpoint 2. 183km into the race.

By this stage we were very cold and the temptation of a steaming hot shower was irresistible, so we showered and changed before gearing up again.  Mentally, this was a winner for me.  Now I told my tired mind that I had just woken up and showered and was about to start day 2 of the race. Another bolster was the fact that we were leaving the 180km in the dark.  Last year, we had only made it there by 5am and left just before 6am.  Now we were at least 90 minutes ahead of this. As we climbed from Volmoed to Paardebont, we made steady, good progress and were at the top of the first valley before the sun had come up.  This 80km was no doubt, my strongest part of the race.  I knew Rooiberg was up ahead, but I felt none of the debilitating fatigue that plagued me last year.  The Paardebont water table had the most delicious date balls that I have ever tasted… great fuel for the early morning!  The next section is beautiful.  We rode next to a river which is carved into rocky terrain.  The temperature was still bitterly cold as the sun hadn’t reached us yet.  It was at this point that the first of the half marathon riders passed us.  Young, fit, strong riders in summer kit looking forward to their “short” 180km sprint!! A few minutes later a group of more experienced guys powered past us – that looked like it was going to be an interesting challenge.

We methodically rode towards the next water point, taking in the beautiful surroundings which was a welcome change after the hours of night riding. As we drew up to water point 6 I was very aware that my nemesis, Rooiberg was about to loom in front of us.  We fueled up, stripped off and prepared for battle. The Rooiberg climb is relentless.  After 250km of riding with over 2500m of climbing, any hill is going to seem tough.  This monster may not be so bad on fresh legs, but … well, you get the picture! This is what Strava says about it:

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 2.58.33 AM.png Over 1 hour to ride just under 8km.  By this time (around 9am) it was very warm – 25 degrees. I must admit, I took it slowly and paced myself.  Sean made it look easy, he was looking incredibly strong and he got to the top in time to wait and get his camera ready.  One of the half marathon riders asked me why my team mate hadn’t pushed me along… one thing that I will rarely do is ask for help and I nearly have to be dying to ask for a push, Sean knows full well that I will not accept any helping hand! So there it was.  Done.  Rooiberg, you no longer fill me with me dread.  In fact, one day, I will race up there!!

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Rooiberg conquered!

The descent is tricky – steep switchbacks with some ruts and rocks and sketchy sections.  it was much better than last year and I rode all of the way down without any problems (last year I walked a few sections).  We then had a nice 14km stretch of fast riding until the third checkpoint at 282km.

My son Sean was waiting for us with our boxes at the checkpoint.  He looked exhausted! He and Scott had helped a number of our friends as well – they were proving themselves invaluable.  We hadn’t seen the tandem on this stretch, they left checkpoint 2 quite a while after us and we knew that they would find the climbing on this section grueling with their 28kg machine.  After a 45 minute break, we were about to leave when they came in.  They had both suffered dehydration at the top of Rooiberg and were looking fairly broken.  Sean took them to the shade and we waved goodbye, hoping that they could recover to finish the last stage.

As we set off the temperature was climbing to 40 degrees. We had 80km to go… the end was in sight!  What a 80km this turned out to be.  On the route profile, it looks ok.  A couple of steep climbs, but nothing as bad as Rooiberg, so I wasn’t too worried.  As we rode, my pace got slower – the heat was draining and my feet were on fire.  Although stunningly beautiful, the surroundings offered little protection from the scorching sun and the dust and brilliant blue skies were hurting our eyes.  We climbed and then descended a little, climbed some more and then descended a little more.  There were charming farm houses and holiday retreats, then there was another hill.  After a few more kilometers like this, I began to get GRUMPY.  I had however promised myself, not to show any ill temper to Sean. I was already feeling bad as I knew I was slowing him down… there’s no ‘I’ in Team, but I hate being the weakest link. When we had looked at the profile it had looked like Batman.. i.e. two ears and a nice fast descent. This was not accurate.  When we thought we must have conquered Batman’s second ear, the next massive climb appeared around the corner.  I made a sarcastic comment (oops..) to which Sean countered… “Thats nothing!! It’s not that steep, you can ride it in your big chainring”!  Thats when I knew he was hallucinating….. !

So on it went. Hill after hill.  Beautiful scenery.  Hill and then a hill oh and another hill.

We found the second last water table after a very welcome descent and set about pouring ice cold water over ourselves. The magnificent Lions people had somehow managed to keep an endless supply of ice frozen in this scorching heat.  I loved them. They and all of the 36one water table people are easily the best I have ever met.

By now, it was over 40 degrees and my feet had become too painful to cleat in.  Not to worry, I managed to ride on the flat part of my pedals and I mentally congratulated myself for not complaining. We had now covered 310km.  Only 53km to go.

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The real shape of Batman’s ears…

I have to admit, we rode through some of the prettiest scenery that I have seen on a bike and even though it was really tough, I didn’t ever think about giving up.  I did make a mental note not to do this again.. but heck, who am I kidding? I’ll probably be back.

The last 20km was not great.  After the last water table, we slogged along corrugated dirt roads until we eventually met the T junction to the main road to Oudsthoorn.  As we approached town, Sean was saying – “Look, we’ve done it, well done babes!!”  I was sobbing, unable to decide if I was happy or flabbergasted or just plain exhausted!  We decided that we wanted to finish strongly so we geared up and sped up making the last couple of kms fly by.  As we entered the finish stretch I saw my son Sean and started to cry again – this was something very special!

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HEADING TO THE FINISH LINE!

We were met by Sean, Scott and the faster Benoni riders – George, Bryce and Marc who had smashed the course in 19hours or so. Our time was 23hours 24 minutes – we were very happy with that and our ride time was 20hours 47 minutes so all in all, not a bad day on the bike.  The sweetest news was that we were the third mixed team home – a podium! What a surprise and well deserved by my long suffering fiance.

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A Very Proud Moment!

The tandem crossed the line triumphantly a couple of hours later – I have tremendous respect for their tenacity and strength.  Our friends who completed both the full 361km challenge and the 180km challenge all know that this is a race that changes you – you cannot fully convey the enormity of the challenge and the sense of accomplishment you feel when it’s done. We are very grateful for all of the support from our friends and particularly our sons Sean and Scott who helped us at every checkpoint.  Thanks to Dion Guy and his coaching along with the PainCave sessions, these definitely have made us stronger. So thats it…. 36One…. FINISHED BUSINESS.

 

 

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Dream Journey Part 1 Act 1

After a restless night at the Sleeping Bao B&B, the Freedom Challenge’s home in Petermaritzburg, we got up early to begin our Race to Rhodes. Our fellow batch members were also stirring.. checking bikes, packing backpacks and contemplating how much or how little clothing was needed for the day.  It is the beginning of winter in South Africa and the Race has a reputation for putting its riders in sub zero temperatures, so we all had a variety of “winter woollies” to choose from.  A check on AccuWeather seemed to tell us we were in for a warm day in the valley, so the back packs got a little bulkier as we settled for thin rather than thermal.

The 6 other riders in our batch all had their own agendas and strategies.  I was surprised to find that only two had trail experience (Leon and Ollie) while the rest of us were journeying into the unknown. All of the riders with us looked fit and strong. Sean and I didn’t rate our chances of being able to hang on to their pace, so we made peace with the fact that we would be doing a lot of our own navigation.  To add to that, Leon told us he was aiming for a 5 day finish with his son Dave, and Ollie and Lee were also planning to skip a couple of support station overnight stops. The other trail virgins, Dave and John, had the look of seasoned endurance athletes about them.  Conversation over dinner last night led to where we ride and what we have done – we soon learnt that these two loved to hone their skills at Giba Gorge, this told me they were going to be flying over the technical sections where I would probably be walking!

So it was with more than a little trepidation that we started off that morning.  We had to ride the short distance through town to the famous Town Hall which sees the start of the Down Run of the Comrades Marathon. We managed this without too much trouble and waited in a neat photo line for the iconic clock to chime the hour at 6am. The bell tolled and Meryl (the Trail Mum) and Johan (Race Director and issuer of yellow and red cards) set us on our way.  They escorted us to the entrance of Bisley Nature Reserve (6km away) where our adventure began.

In the first few hours of our ride we managed to stay together as a group. I calmed down when I realised we weren’t going to be dropped straight away and started to get to know a little more about the rest of the riders. The scenery through the reserve was lovely and I was excited to find that I recognised a few of the landmarks on the narrative. We quickly turned onto narrower tracks as we made our way towards Minerva. There was a lovely forest section that saw Ollie and Lee speed away into the distance.  A few kms later, they rejoined us from another direction having taken a wrong turn.  A faint alarm bell rang in my mind… Ollie has trail knowledge, he’s done this before and he’s already getting lost!

One of the most difficult things about this ride is the lack of measurements.  Normally when I ride, I have my Garmin GPS device sitting in the middle of my handlebars.  This tells me how far I have ridden, what speed I am going, my heart rate, the temperature, the meters ascended, the time of day and many, many other wonderful titbits of data. I LOVE data.  I usually upload my riding file as soon as I am finished and analyse every km, every heart beat and rate my performance.  We are not allowed GPS devices on the trail for many good reasons (for more info see the Freedom Challenge website).  So where my Garmin usually sits, I had a mapboard with the maps and route narrative for that particular day (cannot be read while moving by the way!!) and a very simple bike computer giving distance and speed. I had a heart rate monitor on, but after a couple of days I didn’t even use that as I couldn’t be bothered.. So, here comes the first epic shift in behaviour for me. I actually had to pay attention to my surroundings.  I could not chat to the others and zone out.  I needed to know where I was and where I wanted to go.  It sounds pretty simple, but think about it.  How often do we really take notice of our surroundings? Most of us are on auto pilot or in sheep mode in many of our travels. There are some stretches of my commute to Rustenburg that I struggle to remember because I don’t need to.  Now I need to focus on the next 500m or the next 6km or where there is a gate or a dam. When you are new to navigation, this is a time consuming process. You literally have to stop and check at every turn.  While we were still riding with Leon it wasn’t too much of an issue as he knew where he was going, however, not long into our morning ride, Leon, Dave, Ollie and Lee dropped us…

We came to a field which was rutted and grassy and pretty difficult to ride through.  Then we came to tall thick grass, which was even more difficult to ride through.  Then we came to a rocky climb underneath the thick tall grass.. time to get off and push. Big wake up call for me – I am a slow bike walker pusher!! So, much to my distress, I was quickly at the back and seeing the gap between me and the rest of the batch grow. It was brutally hard work. I was panting and my legs were in pain. This was not fair. Not only am I bike fit, I do strength training twice a week and I had recently done some long fast hikes to prepare my legs for this kind of thing.  I am not very happy about being at the back, but there was nothing I could do but plod on and get to the top.  The group in front took the “Tiger Line” (I was going to find out lots more about Tiger lines in the days to come!) but Sean saw a track which looked almost rideable going to the right and curling up to the top.  We took that one and managed to catch up with Dave and John who had stopped to take some photos. Thank goodness.

We decided to ride together and so off we pedalled, the newbies with their maps and brand new compasses to see if we could make it to Allendale, our first support station. We did well. We got to the soup stop at the Oaks hotel (very nice) and then managed to take all of the correct routes to the infamous Umkomaas Valley.

Today was Umko Valley Day….the Valley and I have a history. During Sani2C in 2014, I successfully rode all the tricky tracks down to the end of the valley section on Day 2. After this amazing feat, I promptly fell and broke my leg on a very tame twist in the track. I was helivaced out which allowed me to see this wondrous valley in all its glory from the air. Now I was back to see it from the bottom.. in my mind I would soon have the full 3D visuals. Job done.

As we were on the rim of the valley on a nice fast section of rocky track, my rear tyre burst.  Sean was a little ahead of me, so I had to call him back as he had taken the responsibility for all of our tools.  It wasn’t good news. I had a large sidewall cut so after some debate, we decided to put a tube in the tyre topped up with some extra slime to help prevent punctures. My amazing man took less than 10 minutes to sort it all out and then we were back on the trail again.

Getting down to the Umkomaas river on the freedom trail, involves a treacherously steep concrete road. We were warned about this – it has been known for riders to end their race right there with a high speed crash.  Needless to say, when it got so steep that my brakes started to burn, I got off and walked. At the bottom, we caught up with Dave and John and we started to work our way through the track next to the river.

The river and the valley were stunningly beautiful.  The sunlight was sparkling off the water and the sky was a deep azure blue. I managed to take a few photos between our map reading stops but as with all the photos that we took, the camera could not capture the intensity of the scenery. As we pedalled through the overgrown track, we could hear the river flowing over the rocks – just the sound made me feel cooler and more alive. After quite a bit of worrying as to whether we were on the right track, we were very excited to see the Freedom Challenge bokkie sign on a tree. There are only a few of them on the way to Rhodes and I’m not quite sure what the criteria is for their placing, but wow, this one meant we were nailing the nav!!  We scrambled through the undergrowth to find a track which was studded with evil vicious thorn bushes. In no time at all, our legs were scratched to bits and bleeding.  We looked like we had been in an alley cat fight with a tiger and to add insult to injury the larger bushes were having a go at our arms, hands and even faces. It was horrible and very sore.  One particularly vicious bush managed to tear a hole in my Mio watch! During this thorny run, we lost Dave and John and were riding on our own again.  The track improved and then (thank you Murphy) my rear tyre went flat again.  Not surprisingly, the tube had not stood up to the million thorns that  lined the track. We decided that as we were pretty close to the Hela Hela climb on a district road, we would push the bikes until we got there and fix it. This is the point at which Sean and I gained some fame as “dots of the day”. We were being tracked by our friends and unbeknown to us several “Freedom Trail Junkies” who are glued to their PCs and delight in providing a running commentary on social media like Twitter and the Hub bike forum. Instead of taking the relatively easy to find Jeep track to the Hela Hela bridge, we decided that we were going to see if we could cross the river.  We went down to the river, but it was not looking at all crossable. We then decided to go along it to find the bridge. The forest at that point, became one of those Lord of the Rings forests. Thick, gnarled low, thorny branches literally jumped out at us and dragged us backwards into their clutches.  The trees got lower and denser until we had to leopard crawl under them.. (not easy to do with a bike and a backpack) – at this point we decided we were probably not on the trail and should make our way back to the last place where we knew we were. So after a two hour or so loop through the undergrowth we got back to the track and voila… there it was a few meters up to our right, the beautiful jeep track that had been described in the narrative!

We pushed to Hela Hela bridge and then Sean set about putting a new tube in my tyre.. (our last one). After another half an hour or so, we were finally ready to tackle the Hela Hela Climb.  We stopped at the Highover campsite to fill our water bottles and in the diminishing daylight, clicked ourselves into Granny Gears for the grind to the top.

I love climbing. Its my favourite.  I can even boast that I managed to ride the whole way up the incredibly steep Rooiberg climb at the 360-1 after riding for 17 hours or so. This made me confident that I could conquer Hela Hela. This happened to be my second big wake up call for the day. Hela Hela climb was the steepest and longest climb that I have ever attempted.  We walked quite a bit of it. Just as you thought you were at the top because it teasingly flattened out a little, there would be another switch back and yet another climb.  It was soul destroying!  Eventually when we got to the top, it was dark. We switched on our lights and enjoyed a few kilometres of fast rolling hill riding.  We sped through the township detailed on the map and eagerly turned onto the road that would take us to Allendale and our first support station. With only 3 or so kms to go, guess what? Yep.  Back tyre went down again. Sean pumped it and we carried on riding for a few meters then it went flat again.  After repeating this three times, I made the call to just walk and push the bike. In a normal race or event, this would have been a disaster… the last straw even. However, it dawned on me that I still had a maximum of 7 days to get to Rhodes and I was about to pull into an overnight stop anyway.  So what if we got there late?  yes we would lose a little sleep, but it wasn’t the end of the world.  I was experiencing a new mindset – moulding myself little by little into a proper freedom rider.  No data, no rush to get to a point before they packed away the tables, no fancy mechanical support, no GPS and as it was increasingly becoming apparent, no worries!

We strolled into the Allendale farm at about 7pm and found the rest of our batch getting ready for bed. A good meal, a hot shower, a borrowed tube from Ian the owner and a good chat to everyone, saw us turning in for a good nights sleep to prepare us for the next day of adventure.

Oh yes, I am, quite literally, living the dream Baby!

 

Dreaming of Freedom..

Four years ago, I met a chap mountain biking at Sondela.  His name was Colin and he had a massive back pack on his back. Coming from a racing bike background, where less is more, I had to enquire why he was lugging this load around. His story, told over the next two hours of riding, stirred something in my soul.  He told me about the Freedom Challenge. At that time, my youngest child was 3 and I was sorting a lot of my life out.  The people I rode with loved adventure and nature, but I didn’t have a fellow rider who was wooed by the spirit of the trail as I was.  The closest ally I had was my bud Jess, who shared my excitement and understood my passion, but  for a number of reasons could not entertain the reality of a Freedom Challenge in her near future.

In 2014, I had hatched a plan. I was going to enter Spring Ride to Rhodes which looked like the most logical introduction to the Trail.  This takes place in September every year, is supported and guided along the route that the Freedom challenge takes to Rhodes, but although being tough, does not have the added complications of self navigation to contend with. I quietly entered the event and started to get fitter.

2014 saw my second onslaught on Sani2C.  This time, I had entered with my friend Marlette. We are a good match for riding and we had done a few events together so we were looking forward to the race. Unfortunately, my Sani ended on Day 2 that year, with a fall at the bottom of the Umko Valley that broke my leg. After a few weeks of denial, I had to admit to myself that the surgery I needed and the recovery time that followed would make me put my Spring Ride To Rhodes off for a least another year.

Forever optimistic, I asked Meryl at the race office to hold my deposit over for 2015 and I worked on getting back into riding again with a string of endurance cycling events.  During this time, I met my Soulmate, Sean Brown and right from the start of our relationship he understood my dream of riding the Freedom Challenge one day and agreed to become part of it.

2015 turned out to be very busy – we competed in many stage races, went overseas and got a surprise entry for Imana Wild Ride. All of this meant that I again put my dream on hold… reluctantly having to face up to some practical reality (not one of my strengths!).  In November however, I made a decision and after mentioning it to Sean, entered us both for Race to Rhodes 2016.  No time for the recce version, my dream had been put on hold for long enough time to jump in at the mini deep end and do the unsupported ride to the Eastern Cape.

The whirlwind months that followed saw us ride our hearts out, purchase Fat Bikes, go for double century training rides and subscribe to a professional training programme with a coach. The start of 2016 saw us prepare for ultra events like the Berg 100 and the 360-1 with different degrees of success.  In the meantime, our maps arrived and we started to seriously contemplate the art of Mountain Bike Orienteering.

Once 360-1 was over, I took the lessons that I learnt from achieving a DNF after riding 282 km non stop, to prepare my psyche for Race to Rhodes.  It started to become daunting – I had no idea what a Spur or a Floodplain should look like in real life. I was reading stories of riders who had to camp out in Umko Valley and in the Maluti mountains with their space blankets and their peanut butter sandwiches in sub zero temperatures. I did know that I can survive after being completely broken mentally and physically (as I had been in 360-1)  I just had to find a way to translate that into coping with the challenges of the trail!

In the weeks leading up to Race to Rhodes, the reality of the event began to hit home for Sean.  He had decided that he was ultimately responsible for not getting us lost and he was beginning to feel the stress of trying to prepare for every eventuality. I was still wrapped up in the allure of my dream, so I couldn’t understand his deep concerns – maybe this was a good thing, or we would have both been nervous wrecks by our starting date on 2nd June.

When we left Benoni on Wednesday 1st June, we thought we were well prepared and there was no turning back… so with a certain amount of trepidation and a huge amount of excitement on my part as we headed off for our Race to Rhodes. My dream of Freedom was about to begin to be realised.

 

Becky’s Hardness Scale

Discovering a curve shift to a higher pain threshold…

As a Metallurgist, you get introduced to Mohs Scale of Hardness as part of your studies. It allows you to compare how tough different minerals are and helps you to identify them.
Up until last year, I thought I was a pretty tough cookie. I moved halfway across the world alone when I was 18, I managed to carve a career out for myself in a male dominated industry, I lived and thrived in Namaqualand and I survived two broken marriages and one disastrous and destructive long term relationship.

I was right up there with Corundum and Diamond at the top of Mr Mohs scale as far as I was concerned.

In 2011 I was introduced to a new beauty therapist. Her name is Marlette and when I met her, she looked like a beauty therapist. Well dressed, tall, an abundance of blonde curly hair and nice nails. As I got to know to Marlette, this “chick” turned out to be a bit of a phenomena. A mountaineer, with a taste for mountain biking without the use of brakes and a couple of big ass KTMs in her garage, Marlette toppled me off of the top of that hardness scale graciously until I settled at a respectable 7 along with the mineral quartz (can be scratched by diamond…)
But this story isn’t about Marlette and her triumphs. It’s about how she was the catalyst to a new life reference for me.
One day during a heavenly facial, Marlette (aka Molly) asked me if I wanted to trek to Everest Base Camp with her. She was attempting her 5th of the 7 summits and it would be nice for her to have some friends to wave her off from the bottom of the mountain.

I have never been one of those people who analyse and plot my adventures – I’m more of a “Ok, that sounds like fun, I’m sure I can do it” sort of a girl. So with not much thought and a bit of preparation, I trekked to Everest Base Camp with Molly.

I started to write a blog. I was going to document this achievement so that my grandchildren could read it one day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. To say that EBC Trek was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life is not an exaggeration. During the trek I was 100% out of my comfort zone and brutally shown that even if you are fit enough to ride 200km on a bicycle and resilient enough to bounce back from personal tragedy and broken bones, it is not hard enough or tough enough to wander merrily up to 5364m above sea level in rough, ice cold terrain.

I haven’t celebrated my base camp trip much. I didn’t even show my Mum and Sister the video I made when I came back. I dared myself to peek back at the journey for short snatches of time but I did not dwell on the marvel of the Himalayas or the gentleness of the Nepalese people or the majesty of that Mother of all mountains. In fact I am only beginning to reminisce nearly a year later.

Why?  Well, a large part of it is the earth quakes and tragedies that happened when I got back and Molly was still at base camp. It was unfathomable that a nation so committed to prayer and peace should have to suffer like that. I was so scared that our team were going to die there. Once you have been there, it is easy to imagine loosing your life there.

The rest of the reason lay in how I suffered personally. I am not good at high altitudes. I found that out in Peru when I suffered from Altitude sickness in Cusco at only 3400m ASL. I was ill from Namche to Dingbouche during the trek – luckily I recovered as we went on, but it made walking and thinking very hard work indeed! I hate not being able to do things. Why was I at the back? What happened if I just stopped threw a tantrum and said that I couldn’t go on? I kept slipping and tripping over my own feet. I was so useless.
Thank goodness I wasn’t at Base Camp when the Avalanche hit – I don’t think I would have coped.

So, I got home and life went on – as it does. I did some tough things in 2015… I didn’t scale one of the seven summits, but I managed to do some really tough mountain bike rides. I pulled my company through a downturn in the economy. I opened up my battered heart to another man and his family which led me to my soul mate. I dealt with some personal daemons that have made me a much nicer person!
On top of it all, I now understand that I have made a shift in my hardness scale… being uncomfortable and scared is actually healthy. It outlines the risk and helps you to calculate how to deal with it. I may not be Diamond tough number 10 but I think I’m well on my way to Topaz at number 8.

So on Saturday after 60km of tough riding on my Fatbike when I was starting to get tired and sore, I asked myself this question – is this tougher than trekking to Everest Base Camp? No ways! That’s when I knew I could and would ride the remaining 50kms of the Ultra Marathon. On a Fatbike. Because, I am Topaz.

Day 4. Namche Bazar to Deboche

We woke up to a beautiful day – sunny and crisp, decked with brilliant blue skies and edged by the sparkling white snow covered mountains.  I dragged myself out of bed and realised that my headache was still bad and I felt like death warmed up.  I took a disprin, ate my umpteenth omelette of the trip and gingerly sipped on my tea.  Oh boy, today was going to be tough!

We gathered outside of the lodge and I quietly joined the back of our group as we tackled the steep steps that lead us out of Namche.  I soon fell behind, not being able to force my body to go any faster and cursing every laboured breath that came out from my buff that covered my face.  At the top of the hill, I had to ask another group which way I should go… I don’t think anyone realised I wasn’t with them! Luckily, a few of my team had stopped to take off jackets a bit further up the path.  I took a deep breath, calmed myself down and joined them as we made our way onwards.  I listened idly to Gerald and Nico discussing some business issues, this distracted me and soon I was ticking along and enjoying the view and the sunshine.  After a while, we came to a corner and a lot of commotion.  Several hikers had stopped and there was much excitement and photo taking.  Around the corner, we were treated to our first view of Mount Everest.  In the distance, between other peaks, the unmistakable peak peeped out, with its’ plume of fine snow blowing off of the summit.  We took LOTS of pictures.  We started to excitedly babble about our climbers expedition… other trekkers were told in no uncertain terms that we had four heroes with us who all would be standing on that very peak.  We felt proud to have the important task of accompanying these super South Africans to the bottom of their dream.

My first glimpse of Mount Everest!
My first glimpse of Mount Everest!
The Everest Summit Zoomed in
The Everest Summit Zoomed in
Yak Poo and mud
Yak Poo and mud

We saw a few bearded vultures soaring on thermals across the valley.  This along with the majesty of the mountains was a treat and I really enjoyed this part of the day.

From here on, I started to deteriorate.  I was feeling weak.  My mind was playing tricks on me.  I felt useless.  Why did I decide to do this? What was wrong with me?  Why wasn’t I riding my bicycle somewhere?? The weather started to get colder and the sun disappeared.  We left the beautifully manicured path and the track became gnarly.  Yaks seemed to be everywhere. I had managed to fall to the back again.  Oh boy, I am really not good at this walking thing.  I had three Sherpas behind me, Tenzing, Pudding and Tikka (excuse the spelling!).  They respectfully kept to my pace and sensed my distress. I didn’t feel that they were pressurizing or judging me however, I did wonder if they thought I would make it!!

We came to a suspension bridge and Tenzing had to stop a yak train from getting onto the bridge from the other side.  It could have been a very scary game of chicken as the bridge sways precariously in the wind and the heavy yaks would have made it worse.  Shortly after we had safely crossed, we found the rest of the team at a pretty restaurant next to the river. I sank down into a plastic chair absolutely exhausted.  All I wanted to do was sleep. I managed a short nap and then had some garlic soup for lunch.  i simply could not face another omelette and there was nothing else without carbs on the menu.

After a quick trip to the stand up style toilet we set off to climb the hill that would lead us from Phunki Tenga to Tengboche.  It was a narrow, gnarly trail, winding it’s way steeply up the hill.  The path switch backed on itself regularly and wound it’s way in between trees over rocks and loose ground.  Every step was hard work. I was beginning to hate this trek.  What happens if I turn around to Tenzing and refuse point blank to go on? How would I get back?  Would they carry me?  I was thoroughly miserable.  Then, just as I was zoning out into feeling numb, it started to rain.  I got my Euro Disney poncho out of my bag and put it on over my head and bag.  It ripped. Oh boy. Then it started to snow… The scenery reminded me of Sabie, similar to the MTB race I did there in the rain… which happened to be my worst MTB race ever.  I trudged on and eventually after 600m of vertical ascent, we got to the top of the hill.  We walked to the famous Tenbouche Monastry – no way was I going in.  I stopped, changed out of my ripped poncho and marched after Gerald who was heading down the slope.  We got to the Rhododendron forest, it was snowing harder now, there were lots of Yaks.  There was lots of mud. Well it could have been Yak poo and mud and Yak urine… it was slimy and slippery.  Gerald perfected a Tarzan like swing through the bare branches… he disappeared into the distance (traitor) leaving me to teeter along the muddy path.  Finally, I reached Pemba at the bottom of the slope who was grinning… grrrrr … and showing us into Rivendell Lodge.

I can honestly say that I was as exhausted as I had ever been in my life.  I was cold, wet, miserable and not very heartened to see my stark room with ice on the inside of the window!  The ice cold shower I had was probably the last straw.  I got dressed, made my way to the dining room and sat quietly in th ecorner listening to everyone chatting.  The end of a very bad day.  Oh yes.  I had Omelette for dinner….

Day 3 Acclimatisation and Rest in Namche

I woke up with a headache and I’m not feeling great. I know it’s the altitude, but I was hoping that it wouldn’t hit me so soon. I drank some rehydrate and lots of water and took a painkiller. I hoped that I would improve during the day. 

Outside, the weather was bright but there were some clouds covering the mountain top.  We were getting ready to do our Acclimatisation walk – just an easy stroll up a hill apparently….

We got dressed up and I decided to take my backpack so that I could get used to the weight. I had my trekking poles as well. They have helped me tremendously with my left knee – it is strong enough to trek after my personal trainer has been building it up, but I often feel a bit unstable so the poles really stabilize my steps. 

We left the lodge and turned right up a very steep flight of steps   After 10 steps, I was already overheating and had to stop to take off my jacket. There were little stalls at every corner selling trekking bits and pieces as well as Nepalese souvenirs. Children and doggies were playing with stones and little puddles while their parents set up shop for the day. There was a crisp coldness to the air that made everything seem fresh and new. The bright sunlight made it even more beautiful, even in the relative poverty that surrounded us. 

On our way up the steps, we heard the bells of the prayer wheels ringing. At the top, there was a massive prayer stone with a large prayer wheel behind it. Our route took us up the hill. Under normal circumstances, this would be no problem… however the altitude and my decreased wellbeing made it an arduous task. Step by step we made our way up. It was difficult to breathe, difficult to think, my calves were burning! We stopped for a breather and marveled at a Japanese hotel high up on one of the mountains… you’d have to crazy to stay there and I tell you something, I would not walk to it!  

Trekking to the Everest View Hotel 

We also spotted some bearded vultures soaring above us. I hope they didn’t have their eye on me because I’m sure I looked like easy prey! 

We got to the top of the hill – a mere 400m from the lodge and found Everest View hotel. This was once a luxury hotel where visitors flew in to the local airstrip. They were lured by the promise of views of Everest, Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Choslote and Kumb Yai Lai. However the sudden change of altitude made the guests very sick, so the hotel now only gets visits from trekkers and climbers. It is very run down and is a pity that this beautiful spot hasn’t been made more of. 

 

The view from the top of the hill

After a few cups of lemon and ginger tea, we headed back for Namche. 

That afternoon was spent shopping and resting. 

I found a beautiful painting of a Nepalese girl, she’s about 4 years old and giggling shyly over something. When I saw it my heart sang – it just captured joy and happiness. I struck a deal with the artist and I’m now the proud owner of genuine Nepalese art. 

 

The artist I found in a corner of Namche

After my customary dinner of omelette (I’m tolerating them now), I called it a night and hoped to feel better the next day.  

Day 2 Phakding to Namche Bazaar

I woke up pretty early to the sound of the prayer wheel bell. It was cold outside, but beautifully bright. Today should be a good trekking day. I packed up and went down to the dining room to write my journal. Sunam, our hostess ushered me into the heated room where I saw an Illy machine… Cuppachinos in the valley!! 

As I wrote, she “blessed” the room with a swinging brass incense burner quietly reciting a prayer. I felt very peaceful and blessed to be here. After a good breakfast, the team assembled for a day of good walking. 

We slowly made our way out of Phakding up from the river on a nice wide path. There were many people sharing our journey- some locals with their loads of produce, some yaks, some donkeys and many climbers either going to or coming from Everest. 

The beauty of the surroundings is very difficult to adequately describe… there’s a presence that needs to be felt to put it into context. The fast flowing river, the beautiful cherry blossom tree, the first glimpse of a magnificent snow covered peak…. wow.  

We walked until we got to the entrance of the Sagamartha park. We enjoyed sitting in the sunshine while Sean sorted out our entry permits. There was a beautiful gate at the entrance of the park adorned with prayer wheels and it had a notice on the front that told us this was a religious place where we should refrain from taking life, refrain from anger, refrain from jealousy, refrain from offending others and refrain from taking excessive intoxicants! 

 

We then started on our way along a rocky winding path next to the river. It was tricky going but luckily flat. 

  

The river part of the trail showing the suspension bridges in the background 

After a while we climbed up again on the trail and found ourselves staring at a very high suspension bridge…the Larja bridge.  It was also a long one which swayed treacherously in the middle. I convinced myself that it was as stable as the others (which it was) and made my way across. The middle section was pretty scary. You felt like there was a chance that you could be tipped off as it was really windy, but looking straight ahead I marched across and made it safely to the other side. The next part of the trail was the big climb… 600m ascent in 2km! It was getting hot now, the secret was to choose a steady slow pace and stop often for water. At one part of the trail, a yak had lost its load of barrels and was being reloaded which blocked the path this gave us a welcome break. 

I got into my rhythm and zoned out, just like I do on a long lonely mountain bike ride. It was wonderful to just have the time to reflect and think about life. It was about 2.5 hours of trekking before we reached the Namche Bazaar check point. 

 

Namche Bazaar is a bustling town with cobbled streets and many shops and lodges. As you walk in, you pass the local ladies doing their washing in the river outlets that are piped down the mountain. I could only imagine how cold that water was! 

We passed a temple surrounded by prayer wheels and then an Irish pub boasting cheap booze! 

Our lodge, Sona lodge was warm and comfortable with good wifi (which is crucial for this blog). 

We then went for Cuppachino and cake at the Everest bakery. 

That evening after a good meal and a hot shower, I finally got my bag and was ecstatic to dress in clean clothes and use deodorant 😊

Tomorrow is an acclimatization day so I’m looking forward to exploring the town more. 

 

It was pretty cold in the bedroom!