For this race, Team Cyanosis was made up of three usual squad members in Clinton Macintosh, Jane Swarbreck and Alex Pope (navigator). Tim Deane was drafted in as a fourth member since regulars Nic Mulder and Ryno Griesel were preparing for Rogaine World Champs.
The race venue was announced as the Waterfall Resort just outside Van Rhynsdorp (4 hrs along the N7 from Cape Town and just north of the Cederberg). No races had been staged in the area for many years so the conditions were unknown but expected to “gnarly” according to those in the know – translated as rocky, rough, rugged with robust vegetation.
Excitement and speculation were fuelled pre-race when Ugene released more detail than expected regarding the duration and distance of the different race legs. It was based on this that most teams started forming a picture of how tough the race would be and for how long they would most likely be racing for. In hindsight, teams should have waited until receiving the maps and doing detailed plotting before thinking too much about time estimates. Cyanosis was expecting a +-41 hour race and we planned our food accordingly. The summary schematic drawn up by Alex is shown below.
Wednesday afternoon at the start was about mapping, packing race crates and bike boxes and a bit of chit-chat to some of the other teams. Briefing and dinner followed and we managed 6 hours of sleep before the start.
The 05h30 start on foot was at a steady pace with most of the teams sticking to the jeep track. One team had taken the tiger-line (not sure in the dark who it was) and emerged as early leaders onto the road just short of CP1. They guided us into the checkpoint and from then on it was Merrell and Cyanosis together upfront until the descent down to the Doring River where route choice gained Merrell a 5min advantage. The 20-odd metre swim was cold and invigorating but thankfully we needed to jog a further 500m downstream to the transition which helped our bodies warm up again. The 16km leg had taken just over 2 hours as expected and we now rock-hopped our way out to the river guide stationed above the first rapid (House rapid) for our scouting briefing. The key point was to favour a centre-to-left line and avoid the syphon on the bottom right. The rapid looked rough!!
Into wetsuits (critical kit for the icy water) and off we set on 26km of awesome white-water rafting that was wonderfully remote in the pretty Doring River gorge. All three main rapids (Kraans and Island being the other two) were a wild, adrenaline-filled ride which we negotiated without incident but there were also countless smaller rapid that were still good fun and required some concentration. At Island rapid we’d caught Merrell and over the remaining flat water to the weir portage and on to the transition we managed to open up a 5min lead on Merrell. The heavy rains and snow over the previous weeks had ensured fun and faster-than-normal rafting conditions so we were an hour ahead of schedule when we dragged our crocs up the bank into T2 at 11H19.
The MTB transitions involved unpacking your bike, re-attaching handlebars, saddle, pedals, and wheels depending on how big your box was. With a quicker changeover Merrell left just ahead of us and soon opened up a gap as we panted up “Brand se Berg pad” while trying to apply sunscreen and get some food in. The fast 48km leg flew by in 3 hours as we toured the countryside via the rock paintings at Bushman’s Cave. Once we’d repacked bikes and set off on foot, the gap to Merrell had opened to 26 minutes with 3.5 hours of daylight left. We were also keeping an eye on the 2 teams behind us, WCAD Capestorm and Cross Contour, and although the gap to them had opened slightly further they were both within striking distance and very competitive teams.
The race was blessed with a warm, calm weather window between the cold fronts that had been lashing the Cape. This first afternoon was in comfortable conditions with the sun casting its glow on the colourful array of veld flowers. Our trek continued past rooibos plantations, dodged the aggressive emu, crossed over the Doring river again (this time in a croc paddled by Tatum Loftus so we didn’t get wet and cold – Thanks Hobbit!) and through a rocky gully in fading light. We trudged into T4 after 4.5 hours on leg 4 knowing that we were now starting the tougher part of the race.
Leg 5 held a 50km MTB in store which we expected to do in about 4 hours. The early part was straightforward enough however very soft sand featured regularly which made the going tough and slow with a fair amount of bike push. We headed down the jeep track to the dam where CP8 was located. At the bottom of the track we rounded the dam, passed through the graveyard enclosure and started searching the rock faces east of the dam. Since Ugene had made it clear that none of the checkpoints was hidden away, we started getting quite anxious when we could not locate an overhang with a checkpoint. We searched all over the rock face from base to the top and across what felt like a 100m horizontal distance. After an hour of searching we couldn’t believe that we hadn’t been able to locate the CP yet and started to convince ourselves that something must have happened and maybe a wild animal had swiped it. So we took some pictures of the dam, windmill, graveyard, green water tank at the base of the rock face, and two rock overhangs to prove where we’d been and we made the difficult decision to move on.
The rest of the bike leg went ok but the gloom and uncertainty of having missed a checkpoint hung over us. Fighting sleep and a tricky last hike-a-bike section into the transition we were welcomed in by some offers of hot chocolate and a warm kitchen fire. We’d taken about 6.5 hrs and knew we’d lost ground to Merrell and that the teams behind had closed the gap somewhat. Ugene happened to be catching some sleep at TA5 so although we felt a bit bad about waking him, we had to inform him about the ‘missing PC’ and ask him for a ruling. He accepted we’d been in the right spot based on our descriptions but wanted to immediately go and verify the CP8 status before making a ruling.
So we started leg 6 at 03H26, close to three hours behind Merrell who were moving well and what felt like only 10 minutes ahead of WCAD and Cross Contour when we saw their headlamps dancing around as they picked their way down towards us. The hike through to the abseil was long enough for doziness to set in and cause a few stumbles but we managed to avoid the fate of a certain WCAD team member who was to take an unplanned stumble into a stream, drenching himself (not so pleasant at that time of the morning but a sure-fire way to get yourself awake Quintin J). Adrenaline then surged as we arrived at the top of a huge 90m abseil that even in the dark was super impressive. Mac and Alex lead the charge and Jane and Tim followed more cautiously. Our headlamps illuminated the rock face in front of us, the twin line abseil rope above and below us, and not much else. This was an awesome way to start an epic section of the race!
The kloofing section was tough and slow in the dark, and not much faster once daylight arrived. Up and over, or around massive boulders often using tree trunks or branches to hold onto and numerous tricky crossings of the river either because we had no option to continue on the side we were, or because the other side looked slightly more open or easier going. By late morning I think we realised that the leg was going to be a lot longer than 12 hours but no one said anything. Alex kept pointing at a rocky feature in the distance as close to our next CP but this just never seemed to get closer. Eventually it did and we clipped in at Kameelgat Ruins which was a camp on the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve hiking trail. This beautiful area had quite varied vegetation from shrubs to fynbos and interesting sandstone formations including a number of San rock paintings. The trails are well-made and quite rugged and challenging in places and definitely worth considering for a weekend hiking excursion.
It was starting to get really hot in the gorge and sweat was pouring off us as we ascended the 300m vertical metres out. Alex gained us some good ground with direct line navigation rather than the longer route around on the trail. As we were approaching Dwarskloof and the spectacular CP13 we were very surprised to find WCAD were now ahead of us! They had spotted a possible route out of the kloof soon after doing the abseil and boldly taken it. This shrewd navigation and route-choice had saved them hours in avoiding the slow kloofing and was a great move (see map below). After a passing chat we continued on and had fun crawling and scrambling through the cracks and tunnels in the rock to CP13 which had a scenic view back out over the gorge and gave us a moment to appreciate the progress we had made over this tough terrain.
Then it was straight back to business as we focussed on closing the gap to WCAD, nailing the last few CPs in the reserve at Doltuin, Olienhoutbos and in the Kouekloof. Ugene had warned that there were only 2-3 areas to descend safely from the Bokkeveld mountains to T6 and we knew these would be much harder to find and navigate at night. So the team rallied and surged for the last 2 hours of daylight and by the time darkness fell we were already halfway down the slopes towards the Knersvlakte after successfully negotiating the tricky and steep first part. There was a lekker positive vibe as this last section had worked out well for us and we knew the epic hike was almost over. After 17.5 hours we got to T6 (Grootdrif) in second place about an hour behind Merrell.
The race was on again, but Merrell had bagged some sleep and we would have to try keep going without for a 2nd night to stay with them. We also got confirmation here that all other teams had found CP8, that it was correctly placed and that we had just inexplicably missed it. Our team status had changed to “Unofficial”. It was disappointing but it was our mistake! We’d had time to mull it over a bit and although we’d individually had thoughts of “What are we racing for? Let’s quit. Why carry on suffering for an unofficial finish?” those had been banished and replaced with “I’ve committed to the team. I’ve chosen to be here and I rely on the others to commit and to be able to continue racing, as they rely on me.” It is really that simple.
And so it was that we left T6 at 10pm about 30 minutes behind Merrell and in good spirits. There was a bit of cursing on the bike push up the endless and hellishly steep jeep track that rose nearly 400m in the space of a kilometre or two. The Vuurberg was living up to its name! At the base of Moutonsberg, Alex and Jane tried to get their first sleep as Mac and I started the climb up towards the trig beacon which was still a further 300m above us. It was very tricky route-finding as we caught up to Don and Hanno of Merrell and worked together to find the checkpoint, summiting 2 high points before finally making it to the correct top. The wind was howling and the cold front was starting to move in and we realised how lucky we’d were to be in the lee of the mountain. I securely stashed our map away inside my backpack and took a picture of the trig beacon ID. Forgetting that the map was no longer in the outside pouch, I had 30 seconds of blind panic when I looked down and couldn’t see it! I scurried around forlornly in the hope that the map had been caught up against a rock or something…ANYTHING! Then I checked the side zip of my bag… Relief!
The descent was fine despite my headlamp and backup light going flat and me needing to stay as close as possible behind Mac to see anything. Our roundtrip time was 2.5 hours which had given Alex and Jane some cold and uncomfortable rest with a little bit of sleep. We set of with Merrell and soon passed WCAD coming the other way still needing to do the trig beacon. A light drizzle was starting to fall and we did not envy them still needing to go up high in the worsening conditions.
We were going to have our own challenges. The shortcut track to CP18 disappeared and we started a hike-a-bike down a very steep slope in search of the route. There was no shelter as the drizzle got stronger and the wind tore into us. Not moving very quickly and concerned about staying warm we decided to backtrack and follow the longer route around, leaving Merrell to continue searching for the shorter one. It was around 5am and we were desperate for sunrise but did not expect much light or warmth through the clouds. Off to the left of the road was house and we decided to try take shelter there. The doors were locked and we thought of kicking them in but then found an outside kitchen and fireplace that had a small roof. This gave us protection against the wind and the rain as Mac and Alex set about using their Boy Scout skills to light a fire. It was a smoky affair but we huddled as closely as we could wrapped up in our survival blankets. Quite a unique feeling being forced to push the pause button like this during a race and just focus on surviving! At 7am the farm labourers whose house it was woke up very surprised to find us in their kitchen. They were very hospitable once we’d explained and built the fire up a bit as well as getting some coffee on the boil.
By 8:30am the rain had lifted and we knew we had to get going again. It was still very windy and cold but we warmed up after 20 minutes of cycling and it was even more comfortable once we’d dropped 500m in altitude down off the pass. Merrell’s tracks were clear as we battled the same deep mud they had earlier. The district roads were a slog and then the bike push up from Matjiesgoedkloof was slow going but we were at least progressing. We’d now been going for 12 hours on a leg that was expected to take about 6 hours. Sure we’d lost time by taking shelter but that didn’t help the feeling that everything was proving to be much tougher than anticipated. It is a bit easier to stay motivated during daylight hours but racing in the tougher and slower conditions was starting to take its toll. It is such a mental game to keep going. CP19 gave Mac and I some respite as we grabbed 35 minutes of blissful sleep (our first in 55 hours of racing, not counting the micro dozes while stumbling/hiking and while sitting shivering around the fire) as Alex and Jane hiked up to the trig beacon. Perversely we were wishing that Alex would struggle more in finding the CP so that we could bag more sleep. It was not to be.
The route back down to the valley floor involved far too much hike-a-bike for our liking as we clipped CP20 and got the news that the final hike leg had been shortened. Happy to see the end of our bikes after 17 hours we rolled into T7 at Diepvlei farm at around 3pm. The filter coffee on offer went down a treat! Buoyed by the news of a shorter final hike we set off just before 4pm determined once again to make the most of the remaining daylight. We’d broken into a jog when Ugene drove up to us to see how we were doing. It was a brief exchange and we asked his view on how long the last leg would take and got an estimate of 2.5 hours. We accepted this happily as the temptation at these later stages of a race is to only want good news, or to too trustingly accept good news. Had we checked with our own estimate, we should have immediately realised that it was going to take a minimum of 5hrs (not allowing for tricky and overgrown gully ascending and descending). Merrell passed us coming down from the top as we starting climbing the gully and for the next half hour we had illusions of being close behind them and the race still being on. Eventually after 2.5 hours we reached CP21 (you guessed it, another trig beacon) and accepted that it was still going to be a while before we got to the finish and that Merrell were too far ahead.
We worked our way down from the beacon on Bontheuwelberge to the district road and the final +-8km into the finish. It was a slow hike on painful feet and with our headlamps off there was a serenity that comes with knowing that you’re almost home, that you’ve given it a really good go, and with reflecting on some of the tough challenges and difficult terrain you’ve overcome as a team. We crossed the line unofficially 2nd after 65h45m of racing at 23H17, about 2.5 hours behind the winners Team Merrell Adventure Addicts.
My thanks to Alex, Jane and Mac! It was a privilege to race alongside such strong, determined and committed athletes and team players. Thanks for allowing me to share the adventure with you and for staying strong throughout.
To Ugene and team: Thanks for a pure unadulterated and unchaperoned AR experience! Your passion shone through in the build-up to the race, through the course itself, and with the thank you’s and prize giving. We found your race tough, we underestimated it, but we loved it! Sure, that passion led to overambitious content for a two-day race, and overambitious time estimates, but no true adventure racer really wants predictable, safe and straightforward races. Thanks for bringing some uncertainty and some wild racing back. This race is cut from the same cloth as Swazi Xtreme in terms of tough content and conditions. We look forward to future editions!
Well done to Team Merrell for a racing well and for winning and to all the other teams for braving the Quantum Leap and for racing hard!
Some final personal reflections.
There is never really a good enough reason to quit! YOU accept the challenge, and YOU commit to your team. When the thought does pop up that this might be too tough, try adjust your perspective a bit for a different view. Never assume you have been the one person or the one team suffering the most. When you see what your team mates are prepared to go through and when you hear afterwards of what other teams went through, you realise that you had quite a lot more in the tank than you believed you had at the time. Jane took a very heavy fall when a boulder shifted early on in the big kloofing leg and for the following hour she was close to tears and wincing in pain every time she had to bend her knee. Thankfully the pain eased as she bravely soldiered on and we had huge respect for her!
Every team is facing a battle throughout the race and it is only as a team that you can survive this battle. We heard about Team Namaqua having multiple withdrawal thoughts and how they phoned in to withdraw and then sometime later phone back to say they were continuing. And this happened three times I think, with the third reversal happening just after they had descended a massive downhill on their bikes intending to take a shortcut directly to the finish. This last change of mind and commitment to carrying on meant that they would have to go straight back up the climb they had just come down! Crazy and inspiring stuff! It highlights how small the margin between ‘Quit’ and ‘Don’t quit’ can be and how if you recognise it at the time you may find it easier to stay on the right side of the choice. Continuing to race and to race hard after missing a checkpoint, or losing a team-mate to injury, or being short-coursed is a choice.
This is the first race for me during which weather conditions and remoteness from shelter worried me. It was a wake-up call on the importance of having good gear against wind and rain, and probably more importantly, to put this on early, before your first layer is wet. The cheap Builders warehouse plastic glove worked well with a thin glove underneath and kept my hands warm and dry, however they didn’t survive the final gully section as thorns ripped multiple holes into them.
I’m still trying to work out my race nutrition. I’d planned about 5000 kcal per 24 hours but the longer legs and race time meant that my actual was closer to 3500 kcal/24 hr (I weigh about 80kg). I wasn’t hungry at any point but was out of food towards the end of legs 5, 6 and 7 and think I might have benefited slightly if I’d had more available at those stages. My team mates ate less than me I think and seemed fine with that. In AR we appreciate that eating well and regularly during racing is important but I find it interesting that the window to comfortably operate in seems quite large. On day 1 of a race we are typically able to burn about 10000 kcal/ 24hr while race pace is high. This obviously reduces somewhat for day 2 and later. There seems to be no way and no need to fully replace that fuel while you are racing, but how much is too little? I plan to target an amount that’s 15% less in my next race, so about 4300 kcal/24 hr. This still gives a 20% safety factor on what I’ve now tested as a comfortable minimum of 3500 kcal/ 24hr (in case of longer than expected legs J). With Team Red Ants in the Tierra Viva, Argentina 2011 race we tested the low limit – food for an expected 18 hr hike ended up needing to last us 44 hrs (probably equated to 2500 kcal/ 24hr). This definitely affected our speed and energy levels towards the end since we’d eaten most of the food in the first 15 hours. Is there anyone who has any insights or experience to share on this?
Having a sense that you are making progress, even if it is slow progress, is critical. Good nav helps to keep the team positive so from that perspective we were fine and accepting of longer than expected legs. It was our fault for not adjusting leg estimates based on previous leg experience. Lesson: be more adaptable during the race on timing, challenge your estimates and ask if they need updating.
Author : Tim Deane | Team Cyanosis | Quantum Leap 250km 2012, 23-26 August 2012