This is part 1 of a two-part series on my solo ride through the Namib.
I’ve written about the Desert Dash. A 369 km mountain bike event, slowly turning into Namibia’s premier test of grit, determination and the ability to endure. Soloing the dash is about mental toughness, not physical ability. The reward is life-enriching, even life-changing.
It is a little after 13h00 on 9 December 2017 and I find myself in an underground parking lot of Windhoek’s largest shopping mall surrounded by other “Dashers”. All in all one thousand mountain bikers are herded into a couple of starting groups. Solos first, then followed by the 2- and 4-person teams.
I’m nervous but at the same time at peace with my fate. There’s nothing I can do now that will change the outcome of this event. Finally the loudspeakers crackle into life and the countdown begins, 5..4..3..2..1..Go! Tentatively I swing a leg over my bike and without clicking in start up the ramp. The bottleneck, before exiting the parking garage, causes a few riders (who have clicked into their peddles) to fall over. I’m not taking any changes, and gingerly make my way out and into the hot afternoon sun. My solo attempt is finally underway.
When faced with a daunting prospect or a seemingly insurmountable challenge, brake it up into small bite-size portions and concentrate on one piece at a time. I’ve broken the 369 km route up into 10 “loops” of roughly 37 km each. The first stage is 35 km in length and takes us up the Kupferberg Pass onto the highest point of the race at 2050 m above sea-level. Stage 1 is loop 1.
The first couple of kilometers are on tar. Shortly after hitting the gravel I find myself in a group with Pieter Praetorius, Silvio Suardi and Werner de Wet. Exactly five years ago Silvio talked me into driving a support vehicle for a 4-person team. The rest is history. It’s Silvio’s 3rd solo. For the rest of us, it is our 1st solo attempt. All of us planned how we’ll tackle the race beforehand. A quick chat reveals that our plans are more or less the same so we decide to stick together for as long as it lasts. We realize that at some stage self perseverance will take preference over the interest of the group and it will be every man for himself. That is just the nature of solo endurance events.
Loop one flies by and despite the suffocating heat we reach the first water-point on schedule. We allowed just under two hours for stage 1. In my mind I tick off the first loop, 9 to go.
Stage 2 is a scenic 67 km stretch of gravel road with a water-point roughly halfway into the stage. This is my loops 2 and 3. A tailwind pushes us along at a much faster pace than planned. Instead of using the wind to expend as little energy as possible while still sticking to the plan, we go hard. Pieter is in a particularly racy mood and soon disappears off into the distance. I glance down at my Garmin and with my heart rate hovering in the low 160’s decide to take my foot off the gas. I make peace with the fact that the next time I see Pieter will probably be at the finish. I’m a bit disappointed but appreciate the fact that were not a team like the previous year and that on a solo mission it is indeed every man for himself. Werner is happy with reigning it in a tad. Somehow, at the Stage 2 water-point, we’re all together again. Silvio reminds us that the coast is still a long way off and that we need to keep something in the tank for stage 3. Stage 3 is a notoriously difficult stage of endless steep climbs.
Silvio and Pieter having fun on stage 2
After a quick drink we set off on the second half of Stage 2. My loop 3. The pace is bearable and there’s even time for some idle chatter. Apart from working out a plan of action before the race, I also dedicated parts of the race to my family. It is a strategy that worked well in the past. It gives me purpose and focus my thoughts on a cause other than myself. That way, when the going gets tough I’m not pitying myself but rather focused on something outside of myself. It tends to make me squeeze a bit more out of the tube.
We are nearing the end of stage 2, a part of the race dedicated my sister, Craig her husband and their young family. Like us, they’re in the early stages of “the battle” and they already had to traverse numerous steep hills with many more still looming in the distance. The thought of them makes me forget my aching legs.
We reach the end of stage 2 (also referred to as the Kuiseb Water-point) approximately an hour before schedule. The water-point itself is a disappointment. The supply truck got lost and failed to deliver the goodies that were supposed to replenish our energy stores. Without dwelling on the small setback we head off on stage 3. The sun is setting and it’s getting dark. The stage starts with a series of steep hills. Less than ten minutes into the stage my light fails. No worries, we still have three lights between the four of us. Then Silvio’s light goes out.
Stage 3 is a suffer-fest but having ridden the stage three times before I expected my legs to complain and my heart to race. The discomfort I’m in does not surprise me, in fact I anticipated it. The effort I’m putting in was expected and therefore something I’m happy dealing with. It is when things get much harder than expected that it catches us off-guard. You are much more likely to quit when the actual effort is harder than the perceived effort. So expect the worst, it helps.
Still staying slightly ahead of our schedule we reach the water-point on Stage 3. And as always, it looks like a scene from a war movie. Cyclist lying everywhere. Bicycles on the side of the road abandoned by their riders. The four of us are all on the wrong side of forty. Scanning “the battlefield” I realize that many abandoning the race are much younger than us. There is definitely a correlation between the ability to endure, and therefore to suffer, and your age.
We reach the halfway mark of the race after ten hours of cycling. It is 01h00 in the morning as we roll into checkpoint 3. I’m relieved. Although tired I’m still feeling alright. Pieter’s wife, Tanya shoves a plate of lasagna in front of me and orders me to eat. It’s a real battle trying to force down the food. I manage a few forks full and walk over to where Pieter’s cousin offers me a bowl of water. I wash my dirty face. It feels really good. In the meantime Jasper (my support driver) filled up my water bottles, my camelbak hydration pack and shoved a few energy bars into my shirt’s back pocket. Reluctantly I grab my bike and stroll down the gravel road, now lined with support vehicles, to sign-in for the second half of the race. Silvio and Pieter joins me and we’re ready to get going. Werner’s missing. After a short search we find him slumped in a chair complaining about an upset stomach. He tells us to go ahead and promises to catch us later. Didn’t thought we’d see him again.
Departing from the halfway point was particularly pleasing. I’ve heard from others who have completed solo rides that if you’re on your bike after stage 3 you’re on your way to collecting that coveted finisher’s medal…