By Mark Leisher
How did I end up racing for Zia Velo in a South African mountain bike race? As the story goes, a friend retired, moved from Las Cruces to South Africa, took up mountain biking, and then somehow convinced me to do this crazy hard 475km mountain bike race called the “Race to Rhodes” (referred to as RTR from now on), the first stage of the much longer 2300km “Race Across South Africa.” Adventure called, I answered, and with help from family and friends, the dream turned into reality.
Anecdotally (conversation with one of the organizers/racers), this race was formed in part to get racers to interact more with the terrain and communities they are racing through. No GPS is allowed, all navigation is done using compass, maps, and a narrative booklet that contained brief descriptions of critical turns, landmarks, and some distances.
The terrain is well described by the tag line often used in the region: Land of a Thousand Hills. My running joke is that 90% of this area of South Africa is uphill. The hills are tall, the valleys deep; climbs are hard and descents fast. And even in the dry season (early winter), you can count on water and mud at regular intervals.
Most of the RTR course consists of flat, hard packed roads between and through small towns and settlements, small forest roads (lumber is a big regional industry), rough two-track, cow trails, and some single track. The two track, single track, and cow trails usually cross grasslands and in some areas, marshy seeps. Imagine a lot of saddle time bumping over low hummocks of grass and pedaling hard through mud to avoid uncleating.
You might think that traversing remote areas of South Africa would be isolating, possibly even somewhat anxiety-inducing, but the simple truth is that cell phone coverage in this area of South Africa is almost ubiquitous (if you don’t have cell service, moving a few tens or hundreds of meters in any direction is likely to find cell service). This greatly reduces worries about encountering race-ending problems with no help/extraction within reasonably easy reach.
At no time did I feel in any danger and everyone was very friendly (typical South African trait). The race organizers went to great lengths to get communities all along the trails on board with the race, and they’ve done a remarkable job of it. Most of my trail-side conversations were very cordial and the sentiment expressed most often was that RTR racers were a special brand of awesome-but-insane: On one particularly long and difficult climb, a school kid exclaimed, “You don’t have a car?!”
The early winter weather for the 2017 race was generally clear, dry, and sunny. A mix of very hot days, and temps that dropped fast between 3:30-4pm as sundown approached.
Mistakes were made.
Most of you are probably aware by now that my race ended early because of dehydration. I made several mistakes, and one small-but-crucial mistake happened before I ever left home. That small mistake, which would cause trouble very early in the race, was setting my tire circumference wrong in my cycling computer. A senior moment that would come back to plague us.
Incorrect distance readings on the odometer meant that matching the terrain to the maps and narrative booklet became seriously confusing. Nothing seemed to match up. If I had been more alert the first day (not enough time adjusting to new time zone), I would have remembered being briefed that the narrative distances were as accurate as three different GPS units could make them. My odometer was off by quite a bit (up to 1.5kms short in some cases).
Another problem was that my compass (digital, part of my watch) reported every direction as WNW. I had put what I thought was a new battery in the watch before leaving, but I later discovered it wasn’t as new as I thought. Eventually I smartened up enough to put a functioning compass app on my smart phone. Those two mistakes, odometer and compass, helped lead us to a chilly overnight adventure/campout in the Umkomaas Valley, next to the Mkomazi River, which is probably where the dehydration got started.
The race begins.
The race for Group 3 (our group) started pre-dawn in Pietermartizburg, and it was clear early on that it would be me and Andrew riding together behind the other four. I was feeling pretty sluggish from the start, but as the day wore on, I started feeling better. The others in our group had all done this race before and were setting their own pace. We finally got unhitched from rest of our group at a barbwire gate that took us a while to untangle. About mid-morning we got off-course by missing a turn and logged some accidental tourist kilometers. Once we figured out our mistake, we were back on track. By the time we reached the descent (pretty steep concrete path) into the Umkomaas Valley, I was feeling like the race was on! And then we got diverted again.
To make a long story short, we overshot a critical turn that would lead us out of the Umkomaas Valley and ended up bushwhacking through never-ending thickets of acacia in search of the trail. Somewhere between 8 and 9pm, we decided it would be best to stop and try again at first light. It quickly got cold. I was reasonably prepared for cold weather with some extra fat on my bones and warm clothing (which became a liability later), but Andrew began to experience hypothermia symptoms and decided it would be wise to end his race that night. After a call for extraction and an extended push through the bush, he found the support vehicle in the early morning hours.
The hell of Hella-Hella.
I slept fairly well and rose at dawn to repack the bike. The next 1-1.5 hours were spent forcing my way through the bush to get to the cow trail alongside the river. Once on the cow trail, I backtracked quickly to a known position and almost immediately noticed the “Bokkie” (silhouette of a springbok head) sign tacked to a tree next to the trail out. Good timing! I had run out of water shortly after we stopped for the night and needed to find more ASAP. Strike one on the way to dehydration. A few kilometers later, I managed to find the white water rafting center at the base of the notorious Hella-Hella climb, and got topped off with water.
Then came my first real physical test. By the time I started up Hella-Hella (around 9am), it was getting very, very hot. The 9km Hella-Hella climb is all steep, smooth dirt road. Under normal circumstances, I would probably be able to ride most or all of it on a geared bike. But I was on a heavy bike, carrying too much gear (another first-timer mistake), so I spent ¾ of the climb on foot, sweating profusely in the high 80’s heat. I have vague recollections of noticing that I stopped sweating about half way up, which wasn’t a good sign. When I finally made it to the top, I had to ration what what was left to reach the stop for the night (Allendale). Strike two on the way to dehydration.
Allendale at last!
I finally made Allendale, the first overnight stop, around 2:45-3pm the second day. Allendale Farm has some really nice heated cabins with very comfortable beds and as much food as I could eat. And after showering, I ate and drank for the next four hours. I was up again at 2am to eat another full meal before leaving at 4am. I’ve never eaten and drank so much in my life as in that short span of time.
Not long after I arrived at Allendale, the guys from Group 4 arrived. This is when I learned that (some) South Africans have a pungent sense of humor. They were hilarious. Lots of dirty jokes, political jokes, and making fun of Afrikaaners (they were all professionals, South Africans of English, Scottish, and Italian ancestry). Toward bedtime, they all decided to leave at 4am (they were skipping the next overnight stop) and convinced me to ride with them until we got off Allendale Farm. The argument that swayed me was their claim that the owner of Allendale Farm sometimes couldn’t figure out how to get off his own farm using the trail we were given, but they remembered the way. That was one of the best decisions I made during the race.
Our 4am departure was cold, foggy, and marshy. We splashed through a lot of very confusing boggy spots and the bikes were thoroughly coated in mud by the time we made it past a dark Donnybrook and into the forest just before dawn. The other guys were carrying half the gear I was, on bikes half the weight of mine. Part way through the forest I insisted they leave me behind. After that, all I saw of them was their tracks. Which saved me quite a bit of time. I didn’t have to get off the bike a lot to figure out why the map wasn’t matching the narrative according to my odometer. I just followed their tracks in the damp ground.
Centacow to Ntsikeni Nature Preserve.
I made the old mission at Centacow (roughly half way to next overnight spot at Ntsikeni Lodge) around 9:45am and only in retrospect realize that I didn’t eat or drink anywhere near enough for the next leg. I left around 10:30am, and the next few hours were spent climbing up to a saddle that spilled me over into some settlements. At some point, the mismatch between my odometer and the narrative convinced me to make a wrong turn and I started a very steep climb that had to be close to 600 meters in altitude gained. I was hiking it along with a bunch of school kids heading home. After pushing through it, I discovered I had gone the wrong way, but going back would have added hours. Luckily, the road I was on intersected the road I should have been on, and after some texting with race support, I pushed on and found the correct road.
It was fully dark by the time I reached a crucial turn for the Ntsikeni Lodge. And I couldn’t find it. The narrative was vague, and by this time I had figured out the odometer was wrong and race support found the right tire circumference for me. I should have stopped and fixed the odometer problem then and there. The cumulative hydration and caloric deficits I had incurred were beginning to affect my judgment, and it took me another 1.5 hours and a visit with a local to decide I was on the right track. I was. But I made another mistake that would cost me later.
I was out of water with a few kilometers left to go to the Ntsikeni Lodge. After asking a local for directions to the Lodge, I asked him to fill my water bottle. It wasn’t filtered or purified, but I didn’t really notice the odd taste until much later. Most of the remaining ride to the Lodge was uphill through lumpy, grassy tractor tracks. Sometimes the grass was taller than me and I couldn’t see the trail, even with both lights on full power.
Around 10pm, I topped out at a saddle and could see the Lodge lights a couple hundred meters ahead. Downhill. Through marshes. I was a wet, muddy mess by the time I parked the bike for the night. I walked into the lobby, they sat me down, pulled my shoes off and immediately washed them in a tub of hot soapy water. Then I gave them whatever I wasn’t wearing which they promptly washed by hand and hung up to dry next to a wood stove. I ended up paying for that laundry service twice because my judgment was impaired (it was only $8 total, though). Eighteen hours on and off the bike was over. I was so tired I couldn’t eat or drink anything for at least an hour. Then I could barely choke down food, and water felt like it was drying out my body, not hydrating it. Something was wrong, but I thought it was simply fatigue. Strike three on the way to dehydration.
I planned to wake at 7am, pack the bike, eat, drink and leave. I didn’t get out of there until well after 9am. I was having trouble eating and drinking again. Instead, I woke at 5am, pulled out of a sound Ambien-fueled sleep by two large skinks noisily fighting for territory in the unheated cabin and could not get back to sleep. I managed to get a lot more food and drink down at breakfast after taking a handful of Pepto-Bismol tablets. I started feeling pretty good, and after fixing my odometer and receiving a batch of instructions from the Lodge manager on finding a shortcut (“It will save you an hour. I promise!”), I was on the trail again. It didn’t take long to figure out the Lodge manager was full of it so I simply continued on with the map.
The next few hours was an almost idyllic wander through grasslands along the edges of lumber tree plantations. It was bumpy, but I was feeling decent and my legs were working well. I took an extended break at a kraal (corral area) because the narrative was again vague and map didn’t really match what I was seeing even though the distances were correct. After some hiking, I found tire tracks that got me going in the right direction again. Still feeling pretty good, the ride to the next kraal was a pretty enjoyable run around the edges of a notch in the side of a big hill until reaching another kraal around the next shoulder. After passing through a couple gates at the kraal, the trail headed mostly downhill to a paved road.
Toward the bottom of the descent, nausea struck hard and sudden. Everything came up. After resting a few minutes, I managed to choke down what food I had left, got a little water back in me, and I started feeling better. A few minutes later, right in front of a farmer watering a field, the diarrhea arrived. The farmer didn’t say anything, he just shook his head. A few texts later with my brother Craig indicated I was probably dehydrated. I was swilling Nuun tablets, inhaling water, and popping Pepto-Bismol tablets, but was feeling worse and worse. At this point, I pretty much knew there was no way I would make the next stop at Glen Edward. I was out of food and low on water. So I waffled a while as I walked the bike, hoping against the odds to recover enough to continue, but finally decided to withdraw from the race. Later, I realized the unfiltered water I had picked up on the way to the Ntsikeni Lodge probably contributed to the problem considerably.
About 40 minutes after my decision, my friend Andrew arrived to pick me up, and we stopped in Pietermaritzburg on the way back to return the SPOT tracker. We chatted a while with Glen, a race organizer and single speed record holder for the 2300km race. Glen said first-timers often run into navigation problems, which is why they recommend doing the guided tour of the course before racing it.
Back in Kloof.
Once back in Kloof (where Andrew lives outside Durban), recovery happened fast. It only took a little over a day to get mostly back to normal. I spent the extra time doing a small local safari (a place called the Tala Collection), manning a feed station for the world-renowned Comrades Marathon, eating everything in sight, sampling regional beers, and sleeping.
The race was moved a week earlier than usual this year, to avoid racers having to finish in the snow in Rhodes. But this year turned out to be abnormally warm, so a lot of the cold weather gear I packed was unnecessary. Some other lessons I learned:
- Take a lighter bike with suspension next time.
- Take half the gear.
- Replace batteries with new ones no matter what.
- Take double the food.
- Take more hydration choices.
Despite it sounding like a miserable, mistake-filled ordeal, I sincerely loved every minute of the experience. As my brother Craig texted once, “You’re alone, on your bike, in the middle of nowhere South Africa. It doesn’t get much better than that!” I made a lot of mistakes, but also learned a whole lot that I’ll need for endurance races to come. And I plan to go back some day to finish the Race to Rhodes.