I attempted what is known as the toughest mountain bike race on Earth and to be frank, I'm convinced they're under-selling it.
“The End of the Life You Knew”
It’s hard to capture my experience doing the Munga, things go wrong from the get-go. You look at the elevation profile and it is 400 odd meters of climbing per 100km for the first 800kms, what is not said is that the wind will very quickly throw all plans you had on riding a certain way out of the window.
You start at The Windmill Casino in Bloemfontein, you are ravaged by nerves and seeing all the packed, race-ready bikes makes you nervous and contemplating whether you packed the right things and the wrong things. We anxiously wait in the holding area to accept our fate... guaranteed discomfort for the foreseeable future. Eminem has a line: “Knees weak, arms are heavy” but mom’s spaghetti was in little seed rolls by the dozen in bike bags placed strategically in places I could access one every 45mins.
Alex sends us off, you pass these pillars with the words: “The end of the life you knew” written on them. Indeed! I’ll never be the same again.
My plan was to keep my heart rate in zone 2 (that is under 148bpm for me) and just cruise along and look at the scenery. With the wind not playing its part it was hard to keep my heart rate under 160bpm, even though I was still only maintaining a pace of about 18km per hour (significantly slower than the majority of my weekend rides) I chose to ignore my heart rate thinking it must be adrenaline or some other made-up excuse I found comfort in and kept pushing with my heart rate at 160bpm for another 9 hours (BTW, a hard veteran named Trevor also did warn me... I still don’t listen)! By the time I got to waterpoint 2, I was spread so thin, I actually had to just swallow my pride and ride slower. Talk about eating some humble pie. Pity I only chose to eat this after 9 hours of pushing beyond my capacity.
"Here Be Dragons"
Once you fall behind on schedule it is nearly impossible to get back that lost time, I found this out the hard way. Instead of slowing down, I was determined to make up that lost time by stopping at the first race village (224km in) for only 20mins. I was out of there and started pushing towards the next water point.
The Munga has a saying: “Here Be Dragons.” They don’t elaborate on what this means and it’s up to the rider to choose how it is relevant to the individual.
My first dragons came in the form of sleep monsters, around 3am I was falling asleep on my bike and had to revert to some heavy metal (Slipknot) and a 200mg shot of caffeine. This pushed me into waterpoint 3 just after 5am. When I got to this waterpoint (totally obliterated) instead of choosing to sleep I saw other riders sleep and saw this as my opportunity to push past them. I chugged a few coffees and shoved as much food into my mouth, in front of my shirt and into my shirt pockets on my back and left there feeling brave but actually being stupid.
This day started pretty well with the sun still very timid and the wind still in dreamland. I took this opportunity to enjoy my riding alone and push the needle a bit to get to Britstown (403km) and get back some decent time. This piece was mostly pleasant, I had to take a Karoo kak (which is something all people should experience at least once), it is a very exposed, personal moment where good hip and ankle mobility does make it a tad easier. The birds are out and about, the air is clear (momentarily polluted by the stench of a lot of calories consumed) and there is a surreal silence we need to experience more.
I eventually got to Britstown and felt worse for wear. Had I known that my "Karoo Kak" would be the last true enjoyable moment of this ride, I would've basked in that position a little bit longer. At Britstown I’m ready to take an extended break and I see two familiar faces (Johan and Dirko - two incredibly hard individuals). Dirko convinces me to join him and Johan and push on towards Loxton which is seen as a very hard piece of this race. I can't miss this opportunity, so I eat as much as I can, fill up all the necessities on my bicycle, apply some numbing cream to my chaffed-beyond-comprehension bum and we leave Britstown ready for battle.
The next 123km will take us roughly 13 hours (any cyclist will know that such a distance with relatively low elevation will take you about 6 hours max at a decent pace), this section is soul-crushing, the warm heated wind ravages your face, going into your nose and throat and laying down some damage that is still present as I'm typing this.
We arrive at waterpoint 6 which is at 527km, I have now been awake cycling for 36 hours taking minimal breaks here and there. I am sleep deprived and everything is moving, I hear things that are not there and the darkness is more intense than I'm comfortable with. I decide for the longevity of this journey I will have to get some sleep as I'm on the verge of collapse. I eat and drink more Super M's than I'm allowed. I wave Dirko and Johan goodbye as they move on while I find the nearest room and finally get out of all my clothes. I get some awful sleep that lasts for roughly 3 hours, get my things together and push onwards towards Loxton. The next 63km is roughly okay, the dark and cold does get to you but the terrain is okay with minimal wind. I arrive at Loxton at around 5am and I’m desperate for some sleep, I eat something and steal a 45min nap that recharges me for the next push.
A Karoo Kak is most comfortable where there are no thorny bushes around.
Salt of The Earth Hosts
Upon getting my things ready I see that my Garmin has gone off and I’ve lost my ride file, I have to restart it. It is not the biggest train smash except that now the kilometres start over and this makes judging the waterpoints and my average pace a bit hard as now I have to work out the distance to every waterpoint myself (let's just say I'm much better at anything physical than anything mathematical). The next section is amazing, nothing too steep, the roads are flat and not too corrugated I cruise along to waterpoint 7 at 652km, which was my favourite waterpoint of them all. The farmer and his son greet me like an old friend, ask me how I am and what I want to eat. Their hospitality is so heart-warming that, for the slightest moment, I forget that I’m in a world of pain. I feel welcomed and accepted, stench and all!
I eat and chat with the farmer, he is the 5th generation on that exact farm, they work with horses and his farm is as remote as they come. He explains that his kids are at local farm schools and they are not affected by any farm murders as the people working on their farms has come with them also for at least 5 generations. This conversation makes me happy. I stuff some more muffins down my face and push on to Fraserburg, a little town that I’ve been hearing about for this whole year, mainly because there is one particular cafe named JJ’s that is iconic on the Munga route. I push on, road eps and flows and I’m feeling better than I have felt all Munga long. The last push is a very long windy road that seems to never end, I eventually get to my desired destination and find what I’m looking for. I go into JJ’s Cafe, as expected a not so friendly big fellow greets me, I greet him. I buy 2 wafer ice creams, 1 pack of lays chips and a buddy coke. I sit outside send some pictures to Mike Woolnough, who was instrumental on my journey to The Munga. My choice of appetizers is also directly influenced by Mister Mike as those items are his go-to at this particular cafe. I believe in tradition and at that moment, it was my duty to keep it alive. I exchange a few SMSs with Mike. His responses are short but just enough! I enjoy my ice creams and go inside to buy a third one. Success!
As I’m enjoying my ice cream and resting up, a fellow Munga rider approaches. His name is Maarten and we exchange in conversation. It comes out that Maarten's Garmin has breathed its last breath and I offer that we travel together as he needs my Garmin, and I wouldn’t mind some company. Win-win situation.
We push on towards waterpoint 8 which was arguably the worst piece in my opinion, Alex (the race organiser) surely shows us what the Freedom Challenge is about. Going through farms, opening and closing gates for the better part of 55kms. By the time we get to waterpoint 8 we are spent. We have cycled 749kms. You can feel it and see it. My shirt and bike are full of blood from all the heat, wind and dust. I look like someone who is doing the Munga. I belong and I am content.
Waterpoint 8 is amazing, the farmers are salt of the earth people. I get some frozen pineapple juice, two wors broodjies. I and a bunch of riders talk about our war stories so far. Everyone is awestruck as to how hard this has been and we wonder how the next stretch is going to be.
Into the Trenches
Not long after, we get up, get some food and press on towards Sutherland, which I heard is the goal to get to if you are in good stead of finishing this race.
It is late midday and we are welcomed by some cooler air and a beautiful sunset. This next stretch is hard, our knees and bums are worse for wear, we are very tired and there is not a lot left to spend. Maarten is a very strong rider and this helps me to keep my pace up. This next part to Sutherland is an exceedingly long drag and you have to work at it. Somewhere along the route, I have my third Karoo Kak (just as enjoyable as the first two). I eventually catch up with Maarten again and we eventually get to Sutherland around 10pm that night.
Sutherland is at 811km, the town greats you with the biggest relief. Getting there is a massive fight; everything has been hurting for the longest amount of time, you haven’t had any proper sleep for days, your eating is erratic and your bottom resembles punched lasagne. We make the strategic decision to get some proper sleep here. Once again the people manning the race villages and water points are some of the most amazing people I have met. We get taken to a bed and breakfast (sorry for your towels) and here I shower for the first time since before we started. I hang my clothes up where they can air out a bit and jump into bed as naked as the day I was born. We get a decent 5 hours of sleep. Wondrous! My familiar alarm wakes me up. It’s 4am Saturday morning and it’s time to get moving so I get out of bed shocked by the lack of support my legs give me. They barely hold me as I try to walk towards the bathroom. It's torture. By the time I have had 4 coffees, rice crispies and more future life my legs seem to get with it! Bikes are loaded, more numbing cream applied to the battered rear end and off we go.
The next few kilometres are absolutely breathtaking. We navigate through some farms and enjoy the fresh morning air. Maarten and I exchange some reasons as to why we are doing this race. He says he is setting an example for his son and I tell him that I'm doing this for the little kid in me. We are not too different it seems.
The elevation profile on my Garmin teases me that we have a massive drop coming up, in the Munga there aren't many "free" kilometres so I have been salivating for this section as I know we’ll be gifted about 5km of downhill glory. We push our bikes up the last hill before Ouberg pass and we are greeted with the most amazing view; on top of the mountain looking down over the Karoo. It is a pristine morning and we take turns to take some pictures with our bikes.
Down Ouberg pass we go, it’s not as free kilometres as I would’ve hoped it to be as the wind was heavy and you have to concentrate hard to make sure you choose the right line. Eventually, we get to the bottom and push onwards to waterpoint 9 at 875km. This waterpoint will forever be etched into my mind. It’s a beautiful little house with an inviting pool just before the entrance of the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Had I known this would be my last happy moments for at least 24 hours I would’ve stayed longer.
We ate spaghetti bolognese, future life, drank coffee and coke, some more future life and I knew… I knew this moment was too good to be true. We left here just after 9am and I decided the next 90km stretch before water point 10 doesn’t require extra food and I would be okay without it.
Never had I been so wrong! We entered the Tankwa Karoo National Park and were immediately greeted by a headwind and light drizzle. This would now be our reality for the foreseeable future. We CRAWLED forward through the Karoo, with more wind and then more rain. Harder rain. Twice on this hard unforgiving stretch, we were blessed with random people stopping and offering us food. We gladly accepted with tears in our eyes (at least tears in mine). We crawled forward and eventually after one of the longest days on a bike we entered water point 10. Tankwa Padstal! We were in pretty bad shape. It was here where I had my most humbling experience and I hope to one day meet these fantastic medics that helped me.
My bum was now past any recognition of a food analogy. I couldn’t sit and all the standing and peddling put a lot of pressure on my knees and strangely enough my Achilles tendon. With my tail between my legs, I walked up to the ambulance and explained to the medic inside what’s happening to me. He smiles at me and asks me to step into his office (back of the ambulance). Inside, he requests me to take off my bib and sit on the bed on all fours. Let’s picture that for a moment.
He does his magic while I cringe and blush the sunburn away. After a few minutes, he says I'm good to go and, I’m good to go! One of the farmers warns us that the wind will only pick up and he advises us to keep pushing towards Ceres. It is roughly 17:30pm and the now bigger group of 4 pushes on.
The next 40kms was probably the darkest hours of my life. The wind was relentless, the rain smacked us and the cold crept in at a rapid pace. We fought hard to stay on the bike and I fought even harder not to give up and turn around back to waterpoint 9. The culmination of rain, wind and being wet since 9am had caught up to me , and by this point, I was jackhammering on the bike. I kept promising myself I'll go one more kilometre, one more kilometre, just one more kilometre. In this time, I went through a funny thought pattern; I found myself praying to God to help us and make this easier but then realised; why would God? I want to do this, I signed up for this and this is good for me! Instead, I prayed to be harder and overcome this. God did come with help, however, in the form of a Toyota Fortuner. The people inside were looking for their friend who is also stuck in this storm. Maarten, knowing how cold I was then helped me by asking the people inside for something warm. Without hesitation, the lady inside took off her jacket and handed it to me. This gesture itself warmed my heart and helped me instantly.
Not long after this we eventually found the tar road and this road led to some abandoned farmhouse. The group made a collective decision to go inside and hide from the storm and this decision turned out to be our best decision all weekend. Once inside it was mere minutes until the full force of the storm hit. The roof vibrated and water was pouring in from all crevices and cracks. We huddled together under our space blankets on the hard cement floor. This was pure torture alone. The coldness from the cement made its way into all my joints and within minutes I was in pain. No matter how I turned my body I would be greeted with dull pain everywhere. I'm not sure if we ever actually fell asleep, the rain pounded this abandoned farmhouse until 5am the next morning. As if someone switched it off, the rain was gone within minutes after 5am.
Taking the Bee Line home
We got up slowly, gathered our things and pushed on towards Ceres. One last 6km climb and we arrived in beauty itself. It’s hard to imagine that mere hours ago we were in proverbial hell and now we are freeing (yes, my friend, free kilometres on The Munga) into Ceres. Through the beautiful farms, horses grazing, fruit trees everywhere we made our way to the final race village.
We dropped our bikes off and went inside. Second last time we had to check in on Munga 2021. The first thing I did inside was to call Carla, tell her that I'm okay and that I am in need of a few hugs. I took off my wet clothes, hung them to dry and started chugging coffee after coffee. The friendly race village staff brought me pasta and some delicious bread. I got myself some more future life, more coffee and made use of the bathroom. I then packed my clothes full of food for the home stretch. Only 90km to go!
I leave Ceres on my aero bars feeling fresh as the day I started. I’m powering through the next 40km as if I’m leading this race and on my way to Munga glory, winning myself some much-needed bitcoin. I'm powering past 3 or 4 other riders and feeling confident. The weather is great, my bike is great and I am great. In my mind, I have finished the Munga. I imagine seeing my significant other at the finish line and cashing out those hugs I was promised.
I’m untouchable! The next moment I see a sign that says Wellington 50km and I proceed to lay down the watts. I feel a smack (albeit a small smack) on my face and seconds later my lip is stinging. I pull on brakes and come to a stop, pull off my glove and gently inspect my throbbing lip. I rode into a bee. Its sting is still wedged into my lip as I wait a few moments for the two riders behind me to stop. Luck is on my side as the one rider, Pieter has a tweezer and proceeds to save the day. He asks me if I'm allergic, luckily, I am not. I get back on my bike and try to lay down some watts again. Within minutes my face starts to swell and I can feel my upper lip wedging open my mouth. Every sip I take, half the amount squirts out of my mouth and the apple I’m periodically chewing on gets wasted onto the ground by every bite I take.
40km, 30km, 20km, 10km, 5km, 2km, 1km, 600m, 400m. Finally: “Welcome to Doolhof Wine Estate.” I enter the premises, go around a corner and enter my new life.
Precisely a year ago I was sitting in the bathroom while Carla was taking a bath and told her that there is a mountain bike race named the hardest race on earth. I asked her if she thinks I can do it and she said yes. I enter it and train relentlessly for it. I obsess over this race day in and day out. I am extreme, I do dehydration training, heat adaptation training, cycling every weekend through the winter starting at 3am on either Saturday or Sunday. I read about ways to accomplish this goal. I learn by speaking to people who have finished this race. I poured my whole being into this challenge.
The Munga is extraordinarily hard. People tell you it’s hard and your brain can’t conceive it. The Munga spreads you thin and bends you past the breaking point. But in the end, you will win. You are stronger than you could ever imagine, the spirit inside you has no end and has no limits!
I challenge whoever reads this to overcome whatever it is they need to be great. I am by no means great. But I am not who I was last year this time and I’m one step closer to being great. I challenge you to set an unrealistic goal and dedicate one year to chasing this goal with relentless obsession! Forget about having balance and conforming to other people’s insecure opinions. Choose a goal so big it makes people around you laugh at you. A year from now those people will congratulate you.