This is just a report from my point of view, as everyone is asking how it was to race with the Russians…
Let’s start at the beginning, on Wednesday before expedition I spoke to Lisa about Team Red Fox Arena, she said that the team raced at the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge in 2010 and that I should get on the bus without a doubt and just keep in mind that they are very strong on the run, but for the rest I’d be able to handle them. I knew this would be a challenge, as I haven’t done any running since Feb when a car took me out on my bike.
Lisa also sent me a basic handbook on how to race in a ladies team. It’s very complicated as no one will ever understand women, but wow, what a help. Really glad she embedded those tips in the back of my head.
Thursday I confirmed with Irina, Friday I packed, and Saturday I drove down to Port Alfred for 500km in the bush with three Russian ladies.
It came as a bit of a surprise when I got to registration and Stefan and Heidi told me that they are pretty certain that Team Red Fox couldn’t really follow their instructions at registration, good luck and we are so glad you are racing with them to bridge the language barrier… There and then I knew this wouldn’t be any ordinary race for me.
We spent the rest of day getting down basic English words, trying to learn each others names. I really wanted to know what their goals for the race were and I would still like to know, it’s one of the mysteries of life I couldn’t solve.
Over dinner I realised that these girls have been doing it for years and this is their sport and that I had replaced their navigator. I opted to stay out of navigation when we plotted and it took me 30 mins to describe what a fence was. We decided it’s also known as a wire construction.
I usually race with a 40L back pack, but when I saw what the girls were packing – midget jiffy bags and titanium knifes, everyone with 15 or 20L packs – I realised that I needed to scale down and go light, so I left my 40L.
So everything was set for a very interesting race.
Leg 1: 18km Trek
The start of the race was a massive downhill, and within a few minutes we were running with the front teams, just as I got settled in, my back pack ripped open, the Russians kept on chasing Merrell Adventure Addicts and Red Ants. Luckily Bubbles stopped to help me re-pack in the run. A little bit unsettled with how the race started I got back, started to calm down and though, wow, do they know we will be doing 500km???? At this pace? (The whole race I could only think words, never speak them, as no one would listen)
Long story short, we started bundu bashing, they girls nimble and light, all about 1.5m tall and weighing 45kg, just run over and under the thick vegetation. Me on the other hand, a rhino, 1.8m, 88kg, bashing through everything to keep up. I know they deliberately choose the smallest gaps to squeeze through as I could see them wait for me to get stuck and laugh.
Leg 2: 24 km paddle
Still at the front end of the race, I was really happy to be paddling. They had run me into the ground and this was prime time to get some well deserved rest. The girl I was paddling with didn’t really have paddling experience, her paddle twisted, and next thing I knew, she would only get out an effective paddle stroke on the one side, as the other side didn’t show it’s face forward on a stroke. This made things interesting, she didn’t speak one word of English, so adapt or die… I just started to do the exact opposite and paddle only on the other side, what an experience. Luckily I did many hours of paddling before the race, and now had the opportunity to test my patience, and ability to keep quiet. Sounds like these are useful qualities in married life one day.
Leg 3: 24 km Trek
Also known as Suffering 101, this would be the tipping point in the race for me. I knew I had to hold on at any cost, if I could keep up here, then the rest of the race would be fine. They went out on a mission, running like androids. We passed team IALA 4 times on this leg, blasting past, making a navigation error, and doing it all over again, and again, best thing was, they were just on an easy Monday morning hike, the chirps I received were inspirational, and later heard that they were betting on me. It’s really demoralising when you pass a team four times; they are walking, and we are running flat pace.
But the opposite is also true. IALA said it’s the best feeling when you just stroll along and a faster team passes you again and again and again. The leg ended with a swim, really cold, got everything wet, and this would be the start of bigger things to come.
We managed to make a navigation error on a river, had to turn around and paddle back about 4km, same paddle twist problem, but by this time I was in idling mode and just kept on going without saying a word.
Leg 5: 18 km Run
The girls set of again like they were running a PB on a 10km… Irina asked if I’d mind if they put a tow rope on me (not in so many words, more sign language etc to get to that conclusion). I said sure, just remember I’m really heavy. So steadily they started to attach the tow ropes to my middle with all three girls pulling me like a horse cart. Now we were moving like the wind, made another navigation error close to the river and in the mist and lost another two hours. The following day Irina told me that Russian guys would rather be chopped into 1000 little pieces than receive any help from a girl, so at least I was broadening her horizon as well.
Leg 6 : 23 km Paddle
Stefan told us that there would be a short portage from one river to the next…. Short, yeah right, knee deep in mud for about 1km, mist so thick we couldn’t even see each other, lions roaring in the back ground, eventually working through it we finished the paddle early morning, fighting sleep monsters and trying to stay awake on the kayaks.
Leg 7: 80 km cycle
At last, my strong point, thought that now would be the time that I can hurt the Russians. Not the case, these girls were there strongest girls I’ve ever seen on a MTB. After about 30hours of racing I realised that I’m sleeping on the bike and asked for a 10 min nap, which they granted, and after exactly 10min on the stop watch, they awoke me with a gentle kick.
Leg 8: Rope work
This transition felt like it took forever. One of the girls wasn’t feeling good at all, so we gave her a 30min sleep. That’s when WCAD caught up with us and we went through the rope work together. Last check point on the hike, a beacon, was just impossible to find, we spent two hours looking for it, this is where I realised, that I shouldn’t get agitated when the ladies start debating about navigation, I should step back a little, and enjoy the moment, in fact, get some sleep, as these meetings never got settled in shorter than 10mins. This would be my game plan for the rest of the race.
Leg 9: 47km Cycle
Last push to midway camp, the Russian train started pumping. We caught Castle light again and passed them like they were standing still. Saffy later asked if we ride like this all the time, answer was yes, pretty much. Slow transitions and long debates about route choice meant that we were over taking teams constantly. We finished at Glen Boyd for mid-way stop. What a magical place!
I polished three bowls of malva pudding, rusks, wilds vleis potjie, stamp mielies, felt like I rode into heaven. Will be back again there soon.
Leg 10: 128km Cycle
The long one, the leg I’ve been waiting for. Got out of bed at Glen Boyd after three hours of sleep, and as soon as I put my foot on the ground, I collapsed. The insane running of the previous day ripped my muscles apart. I pulled myself up and used the walls to walk around, I knew I was in trouble…. But hoped that as soon as the wheels start turning, I would get better.
That wasn’t the case
I cycled with tears in my eyes, walking up a pass (I never walk and never cry) Castle Light came past when we were almost at the top of the climb and Saffy just squeezed my arm as if to say, hang in there, you can do this, and well done so far.
I told the girls this is the end of my race, I’ll stop at the next check point, and they can go on, I’ll call the organisers. The next check point came and they just ignored me (or maybe they didn’t understand the message I was trying to give them) a few kilometers later we saw Castle Light getting water from a rural school, so we also stopped.
That’s when one of the girls saw that I was in immense pain. After a few minutes of trying to figure out what was wrong, she pulled out a roll of kineso tape and strapped my whole leg.
There are no easy fixes in life right? Well this might be the only one. I was reborn instantly, all the power back in my legs, no pain, and so we started to open the taps.
Catching and passing Castle Light again, the Russian train steamed forward.
Then the biggest mistake of the race, I would say due to sleep deprivation, heat exhaustion, dehydration or all of the above. We took a left turn, and should have gone right, plummeted down a mountain, and when we realised we made a mistake, it meant 600m of vertical climbing back to the turn off, and 35km extra, it was a four hour mistake – one we couldn’t afford now.
At about 2pm, the girls were drained, the heat got to them – just coming out of Russian winter – this was too much. A30min rest in the shade, water and cool down, and we were off again. I tried to push one of the girls up the hill, that’s a mistake I wouldn’t make again; they want to do everything on their own.
Our 126km cycle turned into 164km, but we made it to Hamburg.
Leg 11: 20km Paddle
Optional paddle for two team members. I would have been one of them, but said there is no way, as the next trekking section could be the end of me, I need to rest. They accepted my ‘no way I’m paddling approach’ and set out.
Leg 12: 58km Trek
As I started to unpack our re-supply box, I realised I packed my trekking clothes and fresh shoes in the other box. This was the biggest mistake I ever made in any race. This meant I was going out in cycling shorts, and with mud filled wet shoes. Huge problem.
20km into the trek, the cycling shorts had started to eat into my flesh, that when experience saved me. At that moment I was thinking back to Abu Dhabi when the guy from Team Buff Thermocool came running past us in the nude on one of the dunes, and I knew this would be my solution. So I dropped the shorts and started my commando trek. Locals thought it was very funny, while my team members didn’t even seem to care, you have to do what you have to do.
This was one of the toughest trekking sections I’ve ever done, and one I’ll always remember, making our way to the lighthouse in Fish river. It’s a feeling you can’t describe, and that’s why we do adventure racing, for that moment, when you know, now you are alive!
I finished the trek with really bad feet but didn’t care, the finish was here, I could taste it.
Leg 13: 43km Cycle
This was just a formality, a final moment to take everything in, as we neared the finished, I got flooded with emotion, my first World Series event done! A dream since I was a little boy, 12 years old, when I first saw Eco Challenge on TV. Heidi and Stefan waited for us at the finish with champagne and food, a true dream come true for me. Finishing in 7th place.
Within minutes of finishing all family and friend started calling, they had been tracking us from 4am in the morning to see us finishing, best feeling when you can share something as specials as this, with the one you love.
So overall, one of the best experiences of my life, Heidi and Stefan outdid themselves again, and we are truly blessed to have organisers like these at home! I can’t wait for the next one!
I’d love to race with the Russians again, and if anyone is serious about a placing, give these girls a call, they are extremely strong, awesome people!
People always ask why do I do this, are you crazy, what do you get out of it, don’t you want to stop?
It’s easy, it’s a drug, is an absolute addiction, and any one of my fellow racers that suffer from this addiction will say exactly the same, we go out there, to see if we are still alive, to see if we can find a limit. I live for those moments, it’s the only time I really feel that I am living, and once you have tasted that feeling, you will always be back for more, always hungry for it, always searching for it, and it will never stop.
Author: Francois Jooste | Team Red Fox Arena | Expedition Africa, 5-13 May 2012, E. Cape
Photos: Zelda Coetzee. Posted in Kinetic Gear’s Facebook albums.