It was with some trepidation that I headed to Botswana for the Subaru Kalahari Challenge. Since finishing RASA, I had done two spinning classes, one 50km ride and a bit of running. My Achilles seemed to have cleared up but I didn't feel ready to tackle 185km over two days.
Even worse, my partner was Malcolm (of Plett to Cape Town fame) who is also known as The Terminator. He likes to race hard and I was worried I would let him down. We headed out of Joburg on Friday afternoon via Magaliesberg, Zeerust and on to the border. The border crossing was a breeze and we saw a couple of other cyclists there all making the trek to the Kalahari. Gabarone was a lot closer than I expected for my first visit to this country.
We were being home hosted by Angus and Alex Boxshall-Smith on Friday night and we arrived to a warm welcome by the locals, many of whom are regular supporters of The Sabie Experience. Also staying with Angus and Alex were Adele (editor of Ride Magazine) and Craig who always rips me off about the colour of my bike. I happen to like the colour of my bike! What great hosts they were. Nothing was too much trouble and we were made to feel completely at home.
The temperature was dropping fast and when we arrived at the house, it was close to 2 degrees. We had been warned about how cold it would be at the campsite the next night and if this was an indicator, we were in for some bitter temperatures.
The race caters for 100 teams of two which keeps it small and intimate, just the way I like it. So instead of being anonymous in a crowd, there were loads of people we connected with while riding and socialising.
The route is really, really flat. It was more than the 200m of ascent advertised for day one. Probably about 600m but it means that it is 95km of hard work. There is no respite for the legs as there are simply no climbs or descents.
The sand wasn't as bad as I thought and very little was unrideable. Where it was deep, the route simply went around on *gasp* single track.
I reckon the route is 70% single track with another 25% being jeep track and the rest some gravel. The single track is pure, natural and unadorned. This means that your clothing gets ripped to shreds by the thorns so long sleeves, old jerseys are a must. My windproof jacket was left hanging on a tree and when I eventually got it back, the was a huge rent in it.
The twisty turny bits have you guessing at times and you can see flashes of colour as riders weave in and out of the thorn trees. Some riders, me included, ended up doing circles as we missed a turn and had to maneuver through the bushes to get back on track.
I started the race feeling strong but the voice of reason kept reminding me that I need some kms to warm up and that speed was not my friend. I chased hard to keep up with Malcolm but ended up at the first water point ahead of him. Head down, he had raced past a turn and only got back on track a couple of kms later. Good. I had a chance to catch my breath. I have to mention that riding with just a camelbak felt like riding with nothing at all. That was a new sensation!
But more importantly, I could feast on the spread at the water point. It was simply unbelievable. There was juice and coke and water but, there was also: potatoes, eggs, doughnuts, chocolates, apples, naartjies, bananas. Hell, who needed to carry on. There was also a full bike mechanic service there too.
I dragged myself away and the two of us set off in pursuit of the teams that had passed us. reality set in when I developed lower back ache and started to feel quite tired. The pain in my back increased rapidly and stretching was too painful to try and release it. This time however, the pain was in the front of my legs which was unusual. Gritting my teeth we headed to the second water point where I could barely get off my bike and I hobbled over the a chair and sat down.
Once again, I was stunned at the efficiency and spread on offer. This also included two Myprodol. Stretching was impossible and even sitting still was sore. The ladies of Notwane all belong to a whiskey tasting club so I had two slugs of whisky while I was there too.
I shovelled Malcolm off as I wasn't sure how long it would take for the back to ease and worst case scenario, I would get a lift to the end. So there I sat and watched the riders come and go. These ladies had it all together. they cooked boerewors rolls for the riders which went down extremely well. There was: fruit cake, lemon creams, peanuts and raisins, fruit, doughnuts, chocolates, tea, coffee, marmite sandwiches, and more. Cold water and drinks were dished out in quantities and the bike mechanics lubed your bike as you arrived and did any servicing required for riders.
The best moment was when I was "accosted" by Louis, one of the riders in our start group at RASA. It was so out of context that neither of us were sure but it was a great reunion and we had a couple of drinks at the campsite to reminisce and swap stories.
While I was sitting there in the warm sun, Claire, who is a Body Talk practitioner, came and did some of her art on me. So the combination of head tapping by Claire, the 45' of relaxing and eating ala RASA, the anti-inflams and whiskey soon dulled the pain and I felt that I could perhaps ride to the finish 30kms away.
I set off gingerly but soon found a rhythm that was better suited to my lack of speed training and began to enjoy myself again. I soon met up with Matt (63yrs) and Nevile (53yrs) and the three of us enjoyed each others company to the end.
Alex had set up everything for her guests and all we had to do was shower and replenish. Not that I really needed it having spent waaay too much time doing it at the water points but my memories of RASA still stimulated my appetite. Angus had come in third overall despite an injured ankle which was a fantastic achievement.
The campsite was a higgeldy piggeldy affair with all shapes and sizes of tents. There was a full bike workshop, hot showers, and huge blazing braziers to keep the cold at bay. As the sun disappeared, the temperature plummeted and all the warm kit came out.
We were treated to a great dinner, mountain bike DVDs and a band who could barely keep their fingers warm, poor buggers.
In the morning, the condensation in the tent had frozen and 5lt bottles of water left out overnight were also frozen solid. I was warm all night thank goodness but apparently the temperature had dropped to -6 degrees. As I tried to fill my hydration pack, the water turned slushy. But the fires were roaring again and kept the cold away until the start.
We headed out at a much more sedate pace and my back was fine and so were my legs. This time I paced myself better and Malcolm would let rip with his stunning new bike and wait for me down the road. We worked our way through the field and soon arrived at the first water point. Once again, a feast!
I loved this stage. The bush was pretty and more interesting, there were bigger trees and the riding seemed faster. Also, its easier to be happier when pain free! We hooked up with a couple of riders which made the time between water points seem quicker but I was feeling tired again. I figured out (too late) that I should be drinking more carbs not just water. I was riding harder and had less reserves on tap so hello, get with the programme. At the next water point, I downed an Energade and put some USN in my camelbak for a constant drip of carbs. Malcolm had one of the best steak rolls he has ever had while I shovelled in doughnuts.
From then on, we rode well to the next water point and I was good to go all the way to the end. We caught some teams and dropped others and it was great to finish strong at the Gabarone Yacht Club.
Alex had once again done a sterling job in bringing our kit so we could shower (ugh - ice cold) and have a few beers with all of our new friends.
Its taken me 3 years to get to this event and it was worth it. Its a great way to start shaking off the winter blues and start getting in shape for the new season. The people of Gabarone are incredibly hospitable and made us feel so welcome.
See more about them here. Thank you Seamus, Kim, Alex, Angus and everyone else who put together this lekker race.
....and no, there can never be enough single track.