There is no “I” in “team”

On the 7th of December 2018 I lined up for my 4th Desert Dash. A 24hr MTB race covering a distance of 373km and in the process crossing the Namib Desert from east to west.

I am in a 4-man team. Twice I completed the race in a 2-man team and last year I completed a solo. The 4-man format should therefore not present any problems whatsoever.

That was also the overriding thought during my preparations for the race. I’ve soloed this thing so riding a 4-man should be easy. Not necessary to train all that hard. Just show up in reasonable shape and the rest will take care of itself.

But the Dash had other ideas. Straight out of the start-shoot we were met by a nasty westerly wind that derailed our carefully worked out plan for the first two stages. I deliberately took it easy up the Kupferberg Pass on stage 1 knowing that stage 2 was straight into a headwind. The youngsters on our team were however either full of adrenaline or just simply over excited as they blasted up the pass hardly pausing to wait for me as I gingerly made my way up to the top. (Everyone can start strong but it’s not about how you start, it’s all about how you finish…a lesson that’ll be learned during the next 20 odd hours…)

I suffered through stage 2 and handed over the baton to one of the young guns who’s unenviable task was to deal with the unrelenting hills of stage 3. He did a stellar job but arrived at the halfway mark looking ragged and utterly spent.

Another youngster took over on stage 4, a flat stage and by far the easiest of the 6 stages. He arrived at the end of the stage cramping like crazy and for the first time the thought occurred that we might not make it to the end.

Pieter, my Dash partner for my two two-man finishes was on next, only he could not get himself on the bike! He had severe stomach cramps, was throwing up and already in a state of dehydration. We still had 126km to go and the possibility of a DNF was now real.

Summoning every ounce of willpower Pieter got on his bike and wearily started the 72km 5th stage. Waiting anxiously at the end of stage 5 word arrived that Pieter was found lying on the ground next to his bike at the waterpoint midway through the stage where somebody gave him valoids and something to drink (and persuaded him to again get on his bike and cycle to the end of the stage). In the meantime we arranged for the ambulance personnel to be on standby for his arrival. Pieter arrived at the end of the stage, grey as a ghost and went straight into the ambulance and onto a drip. There he lay for an hour while a little bit more than a liter of fluids slowly entered his system.

Pieter in the Ambulance, end of stage 5

Pieter is not a quitter, In fact he is one of those you would want to go to war with. Pieter still looked weak after the drip but he spent a couple of minutes walking around, allowing his system to cope with the added fluids and then looked us in the eye and said that he was ready to get going. The last stage, although shorter than most is by no means easy. A fair bit of climbing, thick sand and against the prevailing westerly breeze, it hammers in the last nails…

Just the fact that Pieter got onto his bike and was literally willing his body to the finish line gave me all the inspiration I needed to drag the team to the end. I went to the front and sat there dishing out a steady but brisk pace, the youngsters on my wheel and Pieter following in the slip. On a few occasions one of the youngster would come to the front to help with the pace setting but neither lasted more than a few minutes before slipping back onto my wheel again. Pieter did not say word, he kept his head down and clung to the wheel in front of him as if his life depended on it.

Team Radler at the finish

I’ve seen, and experienced this type of thing a couple of times. When you’re weak, you’re strong. Pieter could not have been physically weaker than he was, yet his courage and determination fueled me with a strength I did not think I had. Fitness wise I was not supposed to be able to operate at that pace for that length of time as I did on that last stage, but somehow I did. The mind is able to override the body, it is however most likely to happen when fueled by strength in the face of obvious weakness.

Pieter at the finish, all smiles

The 4-man Dash of 2018 proved to be my most memorable Dash yet. Even more memorable than the Solo attempt of the year before. It’s the tough times that linger longest…

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Nedbank Desert Dash – The Second Half of my Solo Ride

Continued from Part 1

We’re one stage 4. In my head, I’m on my 6th loop. We are still slightly ahead of schedule. It is as if stage 3 tired my legs up to a point and that they have now “settled” there. I’m not capable of going much faster but I’m not slowing down either. My legs are simply going through the motions now, propelling me forward at a steady, constant pace. Other things, such as sore hands and a very sensitive backside starts to bother me. Getting off the bike at a water-point is a relief but getting back on, literally becomes a pain in the ass. It takes a while after re-mounting to find the “sweet spot” where the pain is bearable. A cluster of lights in the distance brings the realization that we’re nearing the next water-point. The sixth loop will shortly be a thing of the past.

The stage 4 water-point is, as always, a highlight of the race. A well-stocked table of refreshments greets us. Friendly staff fills up our water bottles and after a quick visit to the loo we’re eager to get going again. As we’re about to set off Werner appears out of nowhere and with a broad smile proclaims “I told you I would catch up!” We’re all together again. Over the course of the race the four of us have been bound together by a common goal. A camaraderie developed and upon leaving that water-point together I knew,  barring a real tragedy, that we would finish the race together.

At the end of stage 4 we are allowed to again meet up with our support vehicles. Spirits are high with the end in sight. It’s 05h30 when we start stage 5, for me, loop 8. Psychologically I’ve won this battle. There is no way I’m going to quit after having completed 7 out of the 10 loops. Fifty more kilometers and we would reach the 300 km mark. Only 69 km left after that. Suddenly the realization dawns that I’m going finish this race. That’s not to say that the last third of the race wasn’t tough. Every so often Pieter or Silvio would set a brisk tempo at the front prompting me to remind them that we’re well within what we aimed for and that they can take it a bit easier. Stages 4 and 5 goes by in a blur.

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Descending to Goanikontes through the spectacular Moon Landscape at the end of Stage 5.

Goanikontes is a little oasis in the desert and also the start of the last stage. Loop 10. Being solo riders and having endured everything the previous 323km threw at us we have little regard for the difficulties of stage 6. It is by no means an easy stage, but thick sand, steep climbs, rising temperatures and tired legs fail to dampen the spirits.

Realizing that the end is near a strange feeling of sadness grips me. It’s all going to be over in a while. A challenge that dominated my thoughts for much of the year is about to be completed. I’m grateful for the guys I’m with. Silvio was a constant source of encouragement. Tirelessly doing his turns at the front. Werner, steady and calm throughout. Even when he wasn’t feeling well after stage 3 he did not look fazed. I was glad to see him rejoin on stage 4. I always knew that Pieter would make it. I’ve known him for a long time. Twice we’ve partnered up and completed the Dash. You’ll search hard and long to find a more solid person and a more loyal friend than him. I’m quietly pleased with my effort. Earlier in the year Kilimanjaro kicked my butt, and despite a very sore behind, the Dash was not about to.

A couple of kilometers before the end the pace picks up. Pieter is aiming for a sub 21-hour time and he’s pulling us with him. Like a horse turning for home I find an extra ounce of energy and hang on to the wheel in front of me. We duck underneath the bridge and swing onto beach. The site of the Atlantic Ocean is just beautiful! I scan the crowd gathered at the finish for familiar faces and spot my daughter. There’s time for a high-five before the timing-mat beeps to signal the end of an epic event. Official time: 20 hours 50 minutes.

There’s a lot of hugging going on and plenty of emotion. “I’m proud of you” my wife whispers. That’s reward enough.

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From left to right: Werner de Wet, Silvio Suardi, myself and Pieter Praetorius. Solo Dash 2017 – 369km 20 hrs 50 min

My 2017 Solo Dash, is dedicated to Josh Williams. A “Little Big Man” that taught me to focus on the “awesome side” and not the “other side”. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nedbank Desert Dash – Soloing through the Namib Desert

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.

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Organised chaos at the start of the 2017 Nedbank Desert Dash

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.

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Pieter and Me at the start of the 2017 Desert Dash. Still all smiles.

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.

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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.

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Me, dirty and tired at the halfway stage of the race.

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…

 

 

Namibia’s Desert Dash – The world’s longest single-stage, 24 hour Mountain Bike Race

Those who tasted the dust and conquered the unrelenting gravel roads simply refer to the race as “The Dash”. It’s is a beast that lures you in, and once in its claws, curiously converts most into loyal “dashers”, returning year after year for more. The rest it simply spits out, never to be seen again.

The equation is a simple one. You have 24 hours to cycle from Windhoek (Namibia’s capital), crossing the Namib Desert from east to west, to Swakopmund, a quaint holiday town on the coast. The race covers a distance of 369 km (230 miles) divided into 6 stages. You can enter in a 4 or 2 person team or you can go solo.

Never in my life have I dreamed of or considered entering an event of this nature. I got my first taste of the Dash in 2012 when a friend talked me into driving a support vehicle for a 4 person team. Had that team not included South Africa’s World Cup winning lock, Victor Matfield, I doubt whether I would have grabbed the opportunity. Little did I know that 5 years later that “friend” and I would both complete successful solo rides…

Stage 1 departs from Windhoek at 15h00 in the afternoon. O, did I mention the race takes place in December? It is smack in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer and one of the hottest months of the year in Namibia – and along the way you’re crossing the planet’s oldest desert…

Profile1_new It’s a short brutal stage. You’re climbing up the Kupferberg Pass in the heat of the day, gaining 650 vertical meters and topping out at a little over 2050 meters above sea level. You can’t win the Dash on stage one but you can certainly lose it there.

I remember standing on top of the pass in 2012 waiting for my team to arrive when Rein van Veen told me that I would be on a mountain bike doing the Dash the next year. I told him that he was smoking quality stuff and that he should not lose track of his dealer…

Profile2_newStage 2 traverses the Khomas Hoogland and on this 67km stretch you’re likely to encounter a headwind. Some riders consider stage 2 to be one the most difficult stages of the race. Definitely the most exciting section of the stage is descending down the Uss Pass into the Kuiseb Riverbed. The descend is steep and made all the more difficult by loose gravel, fading light and poor visibility caused by the dust kicked up by the support vehicles. The aim of the stage is to arrive at the Kuiseb water-point with all your teeth in your mouth.

Profile3_newStage 3 is a monster. The profile does not do it justice. The 76 km to the halfway mark of the race is a never-ending series of short steep climbs and with a total elevation gain in excess of a 1000 meters it gets your full attention. Another factor making it a bit more difficult than it should be is that you’re on the stage when you should be standing beer-in-hand at a braai. For us mere mortals you’re likely to be on stage 3 roughly between 20h00 on a Friday night and 01h00 on a Saturday morning. It is on this stage that most of the “withdrawals” take place. I’ve seen the halfway mark on stage 3 look more like a scene from “Saving Private Ryan” than a water-point on a mountain bike race. Survive stage 3 and the battle is nearly won.

Stages 4 and 5 are the easiest. They’re flat and both covers a distance of 74km. The sun is likely to rise on stage 5. In 2013, as part of a 2-man team, I vividly remember the moment the sun crept over the horizon. I had a few hundred meters to go to reach the Stage 5 water-point when I felt the first rays on my back. It was as if plugged into a charger. The first light of day gave me new energy. Apart from warming my body it also helped in winning the mental battle. It’s a new day, I’m close to the end of the fifth stage where my partner is waiting for me. We’ll ride the final stage together. I can taste the beer.

Stage 6 is a short, nasty stage. Profile6_newIt kicks off with a section of thick sand in the dry Swakop Riverbed. Exiting the riverbed a jeep track traverses a series of steep climbs before turning into a gravel road descending gradually towards the coast. A westerly breeze coming of the cold Atlantic Ocean only serves to hammer the final nails into the coffin. Don’t be fooled by the 46km distance. Stage 6 is difficult.

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Pieter and I on stage 1 of the Dash in 2016. I’m riding in the front with Pieter following. We ended up finishing inside the Top 20 2-person teams. A friend I’d walk through fire with.

And as predicted in 2012, I entered the 2013 edition in a 2-person team completing the race in just over 19 hours. In 2016 Pieter Praetorius and I completed our second Dash together, this time clinching a top 20 spot. On the last stage of that year’s race we resolved to never enter the Solo Category, but instead to each find another partner and enter a 4-person team… That is off-course not what happened in 2017.