It's hard to know where to begin this entry. On April 5th, 2008, my Team Pioneer Africa teammate and I managed to struggle across the finish line of what is one of the toughest, longest, and most-elevation-gained mountain bike races in the world. If you zoom in you can see the tears in our eyes:
1,200 riders started the race on March 28th, and something like 967 riders finished all 8 stages and the pre-race Prologue on April 5th. The race is 966 Km (600.2 miles) long and has 18,529m (60,790.68 feet) of vertical gain. That's the equivalent of riding your bike up Mt. Everest from sea level ... TWICE.
Rou and I began preparing for this event over a year ago. I should start by saying that Rou and I are not competitive mountain bike racers. We are, at best, experienced weekend warriors who are passionate about riding. We followed a strict training regimen that we downloaded from the race website that had us begin our training in November of 2007. We did a lot of riding before that in order to "train for the training"; our first week had us doing a 5 hour ride with 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and we had to be ready for it. We read all the manuals and blogs and talked to folks who had ridden this race before. Despite all our training and preparation, we were consistently at the tail-end of this group of over 1,000 extremely talented riders. It was a humbling experience to say the least.
The hardest thing about the race was not knowing what to expect. Every day we were riding on new terrain. We were riding more miles and more hours and climbing higher than we had ever done before, and we were doing it day after day. We had no idea what was around the next bend, but experience taught us that more likely than not, it was another hill. I learned very quickly that there is no such thing as "the last hill" or "the last climb" in the Cape Epic. After days on end of riding, even the short staircase to door of the shower trailer feels like scaling a sheer cliff. Walking to your tent feels like its uphill. The whole world seemed to be leaning up towards wherever you wanted to go!
The best thing about the race was the finish line. Seriously, even the stage finish lines were amazing mini-victories. In the back of the pack, where we were, it was not uncommon to see tears from those riders barely making the cutoff times ... but making it! The feeling of crossing that line each day was one of the things that kept us going. For the first few days, we kept saying, "I can't believe we just finished Stage 1 (...Stage 2... Stage 3...). Even better than crossing the finish line was what got us there - all of the riders ahead of us (if they can do it...) and the riders around us (We can do it guys!). There was a great deal of camaraderie amongst the riders at the back of the pack. Everybody helped everybody along. We rode in groups, drafted off one another, and pushed one another, helped each other repair flats. And when it came to our teammates, we LITERALLY pushed one another up hills!
The race is done in teams of two. All around you are pairs of riders in matching kit, sometimes even matching bikes. Although this makes the race extremely challenging in some ways (when you have a bad day, your partner does too!), you quickly realize that despite the drawbacks of having to ride at the same pace and having to put up with that guy who is constantly RIGHT next to you, it is actually a blessing in disguise. When you are in the 5th hour, 7th hour, up to the 10th hour of riding(in our case), you really appreciate having that teammate to help you along. The thought of doing this race solo is just unbearable. A lot of guys write about the importance of having the right teammate, who is at your same condition level, and you realize just how right they are. Having the right teammate can make (or break) the race for you.
This is my version of a typical day during the race. All of these things happened at one point or another during the race:
The sound of 18-wheeler semi-trucks blaring their horns at 5:00a.m. startles you awake when awake is the last thing you want to be. You thank God for the sleeping pills you brought and wonder why you didn't take them sooner. You crawl out of your sleeping bag and throw on some clothes, the only ones you have and the same ones you've been wearing for the last 3 mornings and evenings. You check your bike computer and for some reason it didn't charge properly during the night. It's cold and pitch black outside. The lights on the ball-field slowly begin to turn on. You stumble to the porta potty to have a pee. About half way there, you decide to just pee on the grass because it's too far and your legs hurt. You walk to the dining hall tent to get some breakfast. You get there and realize that in your stupor you forgot your pass, so you have to walk 200 meters back to your tent to get your pass. You get lost and can't find your tent which is hidden among 1,000 other identical tents. At the dining tent you are bumping shoulders with about 1,000 other hungry riders who are in line for food. You get to the eggs and they are gone. You wait as a fresh tray arrives. You stack your plate high with eggs, topped with cheese, with a side of bread. You make two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat on the trail. You sit quietly at your table with a bunch of other weary riders. You ask yourself why you are doing this. You want it to stop and there are still 5 more days.
You stagger back to your tent, wondering how these guys can put their bike clothes on so early in the morning. It's like they slept in them. Half way back to your tent nature calls and you'd better answer because it's your only chance that day. You answer in a dark, cramped, smelly port-a-potty. Back at your tent, you prep your bag for the days ride. If you were smart, you filled and mixed your camelbak the night before. Of course you were too tired last night, so you are doing it now. You walk 150m to the water truck and fill your spare bottle and your camelbak. Back at your tent you slowly pour your drink mix into the small hole on your camelbak spilling sugary powder all over your bag. You don't care. You unwrap your cliff bars, make sure all your tools are back in your pack, and get today's stage map out to have handy during the ride to see how many more hills there are ahead of you. There are always a lot more. You pull on your bike clothes, which are still cold and wet from being washed yesterday because you got finished with the stage so late that the sun was setting by the time you put your clothes out to dry. You don't really care. You get dressed out in the open, right in front of everyone. Guys, girls, it doesn't matter. You don't care because getting dressed inside your tent would be too hard. You put on your shirt before your bib shorts because you forgot what order to get dressed in. Then you have to take your shirt off and start over. You put on sunscreen, which seems ridiculous at 6:30a.m., but you are going to be riding a bike in the shadeless African sun for 10 hours, so you don't have a choice. (You will change sunscreen brands after the race because the smell of your race sunscreen will cause flashbacks that trigger bouts of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.) You struggle to find something to wipe your sunglasses clean with. You walk 150m to the bike corral, where your bike is stored, and you walk, not ride, back to your tent. You check your bike to make sure its running. It is. You are thankful for your Ibis Mojo and your great LBS back home. It's been running flawlessly (not even a flat!) the entire race and you hope it stays that way. (It does.) You lube the chain. You check your Maxxis Crossmark tires, hoping you put enough Stan's in them to last the race. Your teammate's tire is flat. You pump it up, hoping it holds, thanking god for tubeless tires and sealant. He had to use Slime because the entire country of South Africa was literally out of Stan's because of this race. You climb back into your tent and pack up your sleeping bag, your clothes, your junk. Then you put your big race bag on the seat of your bike (because you lack the strength to carry it) and wheel it 100m over to the big trailer and the overly-enthusiastic bag boys who provide you a little much-needed entertainment each morning with their calisthenics routine choreographed to the song, "Tie Me Kangaroo Down". They take your bag, and now it's just you, your teammate, your bikes, and 100 miles and 8,000 feet of climbing until you get to crawl back into your tent.
You head to the start line. Actually, you head to about a 1/2 mile behind the start line because that's where you and the other sloths in the "Open" category get to start. You once-over your bike and realize something is loose. It's your brake where it bolts to the frame. You pull out your tool and frantically tighten it before the gun goes off. The gun goes, then you wait about 4 minutes before anyone starts moving, then you walk like cattle for another 2 minutes before the group gets moving fast enough to warrant pedaling. And off you go. Your butt is killing you, your legs are stiff and sore. Your back hurts. Your hands can't grip. But you want this and you want it badly so you just go. You just keep pedaling. The morning is nice, there is a beautiful sunrise starting to come up and its casting long shadows of you on your bike through the open fields. The beauty distracts you for about an hour. Then you realize you are climbing up a really steep hill, again. The pack spreads out. You fall back but keep going, wondering how all these guys from the NETHERLANDS of all places are beating you up the hills. You decide it's because they are born on bikes. "Music Man" slowly approaches you from behind. This guy brought an iPod and some portable speakers and put them in his pack and would play music when the going got tough. Some raunchy rap song comes on and he skips to the next track. 5 guys all yell out in protest, so he turns it back and the beat pushes you up yet another hill. On the hour you pull out your PB&J sandwich and wolf it down, because your partner reminds you to eat. Otherwise you would have forgotten. It's 9am and you've been riding for 2 hours. At 10 am you hit your first water-stop. It's a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. You grab a cup of Coke, refill your camelbak with water, and throw two bananas in your pockets, and go. No resting for you, because you are at the back of the pack and you are racing against a cutoff time. You ask the water saviors how many Km to the next station. It's 43. Oh, and there's a lot of sand up ahead, they warn. Off you go, down the dirt roads, which turn to sand. The sand kills your legs. You simply can't ride through it. Riders are trying anything possible to ride around the deep sand in the double-tracks of the jeep trail. The sand goes on for miles and miles and never ends. You hike through most of it. When you finally get some speed on a downhill you hit a hidden sandy patch and it throws you off your bike. It's hot now. Really hot. You use your spare water bottle to pour water on your head to keep from overheating. Your lips are chapped raw and burn every time you eat or drink anything. You want to take your shoes off because they are filled with sand but you can't because your teammate ran over the release buckle yesterday in line for the bike wash and broke it off. It now takes 3 people working in unison and 5 minutes to take off your left shoe. You don't have that kind of time. You eventually make it to the 2nd water station, where (because you signed up for the Nutrition Service) they have an ice-cold camelbak bladder of yours, pre-mixed with your drink mix, waiting for you. You swap out your bladder with the cold, full one, chug a Coke, quickly re-apply sunscreen from the little film case you stored it in, and off you go. Only 28Km to the next station! The bad news is that there's a mandatory cut-off time at Station 3 so you'd better hurry. And a really big hill. That you have to hike up. You trudge on. Immediately you get off your bike and start hiking. It's steep and loose and un-ridable in your condition. You take your video camera, turn it on yourself, and film a minute of your misery. (You will laugh at this later and wish you made more movies during the race.) You get to the top and you see the sign with the three arrows pointing down, which means, "You're probably going to crash going down this descent." It's a nasty downhill which lasts forever and by the time you get to the bottom your hands are cramped and your legs are shaking from all the time out of the saddle. You wonder if going up is easier. You're lucky, and don't crash. You stop to pee. Your teammate joins you. Another team of 2 joins you. It's a pee-fest. The next guy riding by takes a picture of everybody peeing in pairs of two. Anything is funny at this point. You make it to Water Stop 3 with an hour to spare before the cutoff. You think you can rest a bit but they tell you there's a hard 34Km to the finish and you better hurry because it's going to take you all the time you have left to get there before the cutoff. You hurry, not like you haven't been hurrying for the past 7 hours, and chug a Coke and take an energy Gel and off you go. 5 minutes later your stomach is revolting against the sugary Gel and you have horrible and painful stomach cramps. You feel more sorry for the guy behind you. Luckily it "passes" and you feel like you are back to your normal, suffering miserable self again. Your teammate is complaining again about his saddle sores. He decides to have them checked. You pass the Medical Truck and you finally get a break from the pedaling. The nurse puts on a glove, introduces herself (seriously), and tells him to drop his shorts and bend over. "It helps if you grab your ankles", she says. You take a picture. He doesn't care. You've stopped caring about anything by this point. All you care about is getting to that finish line. All lubed up and approved to continue, your partner joins you as you pull through the last stretch, hours 8-10 of the day. You realize you are in a real time crunch, so you pick up the pace. Then you realize you can't pick it up much, but you try regardless. You pass two teams, then, behind you, you hear a crash and cussing and yelling. One rider, while passing another team, inadvertently swerved into another rider and made her fall. Looking back you can see them checking on her, she seems OK. (You find out later that the woman who crashed dropped out of the race shortly thereafter.) Ten minutes later the same team passes you. The same rider swerves again, in his exhaustion, and nearly takes out another rider. You let them pass with plenty of room for error. Everyone is so exhausted at this point that you can't blame them for swerving. You pass through a small town and there are children on the side of the road running, yelling for chocolates. You are sprinting frantically at this point because you have only an hour until cutoff and too many Km to go. The children run along side of you, barefoot, keeping up with you. You realize only then how slow your "sprint" really is, but it's all you've got. You ride on, mile after mile. You hit a paved road, which offers you some relief, mainly because you can ride faster now. A young man from the village, wearing jeans and sandals, suddenly passes you and your teammate on a rusty old fixed-speed bike, head bobbing to the beat coming through his headphones. You look at your teammate and you both burst out laughing at the irony of the situation. The laughter gives you a little boost to keep going. You look down at your legs and they shaking, caked with dust. A thick layer of dust. You feel lightheaded. Your butt is killing so you stand up to take the pressure off. As soon as you come off the saddle there is a red-hot searing pain from your rear that feels like someone has sliced deep into your skin with razors. You groan audibly, loudly, in pain until it passes. It's the blood rushing to your saddle sores as you take off the pressure. Then your legs begin to protest and you sit back down, shifting around trying desperately to find a spot that doesn't hurt quite as badly as the others. When you find it, you hit a bump in the trail that knocks you off that sweet spot. You give up and just deal with the constant pain. You join up with another group of riders and group together to fend off the howling head-wind. It's still hot, and the dust is relentless. The stronger riders from each team take turns "pulling" the rest of the group through the wind. On the last few hills, you push your teammate up the hills to keep the momentum going, and he takes over on the downhills, letting you rest as you draft behind him. You notice that your shadows are getting long again. You see the 5Km to finish sign, but you keep sprinting because you have less than 10 minutes until cutoff. You are in a crazed state of panic now. You realize that if anything went wrong you miss the cutoff. You continue sprinting, up the last hill. No, there is another. You sprint, push, pull, you don't know how you are doing it or where it is coming from but you finish with a burst of speed from deep within. 1Km to finish. Almost there! You can see the finish line and know you will make it but keep sprinting anyways. You won't stop unitl you cross the line. Nothing will stop you now. You cross, grab your partner's hand and your eyes well up with tears. You just finished Stage 4, with 5 minutes to spare before the dreaded cutoff. Only 4 more days like this to go.
There aren't many people around the finish line at this point. You grab a couple cups of Coke to pull your sugar levels up. The other back-enders are congratulating you and you them for making one more stage. You wait to see who else makes it across the finish line before the cutoff. You feel dizzy and sit on the pavement for a minute. You feel utterly, completely, totally wrecked. Wasted. You can barely walk, but somehow you will convince yourself to get on your bike and ride another 90 miles tomorrow.
You walk your bike over to the bike wash, and there is a huge line of bikes. You stagger around and find and tip a kid to take your bike over and get it washed and put away. You walk to the baggage truck and you tip another kid to carry your bag over to a tent, if they can find an open one. Most are taken now. Your bag is one of the last ones there. At your tent, you struggle for 5 minutes, with help, to get your shoes off. The guy across from your tent is getting a full-body massage on a proper massage table from his support team. You realize you have no support team and joke with them about getting you a massage even though you really aren't joking. Shoes off, you grab your soap and wet, stinky towel and your one change of clothes and make the long trek across the field to the shower trucks. There is a line, which you wait in. You shower, and it takes ages for you to wash the dirt off every last bit of your body. You slowly make your way down the stairs, knees on fire, feeling a little better but quickly realize that your blood sugar is dropping dangerously low and that you need some food in you. You grab some M&Ms back at your tent and lay down for a minute enjoying the downtime. It doesn't last long because you rememeber that your brake lever was getting stuck so you have to get your bike over to the mechanic, then you have to eat dinner, then you have to prep your drink mix for the Nutrition Service before they shut down for the night, and then you have to get your Garmin Edge GPS bike computer charged up and hopefully it will work this time. (You find out after the race that the unit can only hold about 15-20 hours, or 2 days, of riding and is automatically deleting all your previous days' rides.) Oh, and you have to wash and dry your clothes for tomorrow. Luckily there is a laundry service at this Stage so you can drop it off and pick up clean DRY clothes in the morning. You crawl into your tent, pop a sleeping pill, and get ready for that 5am wake-up call. And last but certainly not least, you think about quietly suffocating your teammate in his sleep for talking you into this ordeal...
I'll be posting up some of the pics and videos I took from my on-board camera during the race when I get back home in July. For now these were the only pics I had.