Not in a million years would I have dreamt of doing an event like this! A 400km self-supported, non-stop MTB race for a 61-year-old who has never done a MTB race longer than 40km – sounds crazy? – it was.
I blame it all on Covid, of course. When it hit, I was over 60 and overweight, which was asking for Covid trouble, so I set about losing more than 10kgs during lockdown. This, plus a fancy new, light weight cross-country bike, made a huge difference to my climbing ability and, back on the bike, I could suddenly keep up with the group on club rides.
Lulled into complacency, during a casual ride in the Valley of 1000 Hills, I was somehow persuaded by Gill and John Graaf to join them in riding the Freedom Circuit 400km race. This is a gruelling race set on part of the Freedom Challenge route, with the difference being that GPS’s are allowed, and it starts and finishes at the same place (Bushman’s Neck) with a choice of two distances, 700km or 400km.
Charles (aka Chuck), who initially fell off his chair in disbelief when hearing what I had done, later suffered serious FOMO and entered as well. However, being a fat-headed male (his words), he decided that we were too slow for him and he and Guy Miles set themselves the goal of making it as hard as possible for themselves instead, by trying to complete it within 48 hrs.
Armed with a training program developed by my triathlon obsessed son-in-law (Chuck, of course, has none), we tackled some long rides, which included fabulous weekends away in places we would not have otherwise visited (hats off to Gill’s organising abilities). This made us a bit fitter, but also scared us half to death (the rides were quite tough), and so any idea of doing anything other than just finishing was abandoned.
John, Gill and I were joined by Andy Stewart on day one, when we found him wandering around a forest, completely lost, and lacking any further confidence in his GPS. Other than being navigationally challenged, Andy was a great addition to the group, especially when it came to lifting heavily laden bikes over fences and gates.
The course is set in remote and beautiful areas, including some 'give me my sweet' areas, and being chatted to by the local children as you push your bike up yet another hill, asking where you're going? Can I help you? Commenting on your pretty bike (or asking for your pretty bike). Going down steep hills and wondering whose brakes are overheating. River crossings, bogs, gravel roads, Spaza Shops and a bed and food at the support stations. The pre-dawn riding, seeing sunrises, sunsets and beyond. Riding the game reserve in complete darkness, just your headlights lighting the way on the rough paths and grassy jeep tracks and hoping the noises out there are innocuous. Walking the cow paths and in the long grass, remembering that video of the puff adders I had seen on the group chat just before we left. Then our last day in the rain, freezing cold and mud and wondering if you're going to even make it to the end. It was a challenge for me and without my co-riders I may not have finished, but we did it with time to spare. After that, even the fat headed husband was a welcome sight at the end.
So… what did I learn from all this? Well, basically, its flipping surprising what you can do, even if it’s something you would not in a million years have thought of doing! And If I can do it, then just about anyone can, so go out there and do it.
Lastly – big thanks to Gill and John. Without you I would never have entered let alone made it to the end.
Lesley (with contributions from fat head)