Wednesday 26 April 2017

Posted by Velouria Posted on 08:26 | No comments

The 36One 2017

What is it about the 36One that makes this race so unique? In the four short years that Captain Craig and I have been doing it, the event has grown from a handful of endurance freaks eager for their next big challenge, to a gathering of some of the toughest, and probably craziest, bike riders in South Africa.

While a lot has changed over the years - the event just gets slicker and better organised, the riders get faster and fitter, and the race tactics are refined, one thing has always stayed constant. The first words that I mumble as we haul our tired and aching bodies across the finish line - "Never ever again!". And yet we've been back three times.

The 36One is one of those events that you enter, and then try to forget about completely. Any prolonged thought on the scale and difficulty of this ride is enough to drive one crazy, although the mere act of just entering is probably a sign that the craziness was a preexisting condition. But try as you might, The 36One Fear starts working its way into your subconsciousness. Without even realising it, you're thinking about date balls and ostrich sosaties, light run times and bottle hydration strategies, and before long every waking moment is consumed with anguish and mild panic, as well as a few nights where you wake up screaming, desperate to turn on the light and escape the never ending loop of riding up Rooiberg at a snail's pace.

The racing legs of Captain Craig
Captain Craig and I had completely opposite buildups to this year's race. In the week leading up to race day, Captain Craig probably did more kilometres than I'd done in the entire month, thanks to a forced break due to a torn hip flexor. Mr Overdone and Mr Underdone. Not only were we on opposite ends of the fitness spectrum, but our riding styles are completely different too. It's a miracle that Captain Craig and I can actually ride together, particularly in long events like this. His preferred style is to start fast, get a gap and then manage the pace, while I prefer to keep it steady at first, and then finish with a flurry. Given all this, the hope was that at some point during the course of the race we'd briefly be in our peak operating zones together.

Mr Southpaw
The organisers had switched the starts around this year, with the solo adventurers starting before the teams. I quite liked this as it meant Captain Craig wouldn't be tempted to keep pace with the race snakes, and it also meant that we had 542 targets ahead of us to keep us motivated. Little flashing red lights of temptation. The first half an hour of racing was a bit of a peacock parade by all the teams, like body builders flexing their muscles to show their strength. The Purple Paper Pandas (I really just wanted to hear Carel, the ultra endurance MC, get tongue twisted over that name), played along, Captain Craig setting a beautiful pace on the front, while I sussed out the small group of contenders from the back, looking for signs of weakness. Small things like slightly laboured breathing, or taking a second or two to close a gap. Mr Good Guy and Mr Unfriendly.

As we left the tar and hit the climbs we found ourselves alone out front. It's always great to be in front - you're in charge of the pace, your destiny is in your own hands. But at the same time it can be a little daunting as the self doubt creeps in. Are we going too fast, too early? Can we conserve energy by riding in a group? What if they gang up on us and work together? Always a trade off for everything.

Sneaky photobombers
We quickly slotted into our usual formation, me on the front with Captain Craig on my wheel. I never know how to feel about this. Is Craig being complimentary and letting me set the pace? Is he being selfish while he sits on my wheel as I set the pace? Am I stronger than him, or is he stronger than me? It doesn't help that one of the overriding rules we were taught about team riding is that you go at the slowest person's pace. Am I slow? If so, how slow? And should I be going faster? With this internal debate raging in my head the kilometres roll on by, and my mind is distracted from the pain and suffering.

It doesn't help that Captain Craig and I try to pass the time with witty banter or profound conversation either. We both have hearing issues. Captain Craig is going deaf, and I am blessed with rather large ears that tend to catch a lot of wind noise, so any conversation between us usually goes like this:

"Did you see that tortoise up ahead?"
"Yes, I think they should escort us off to bed"
"It looked like it was sleeping"
"I feel sleepy too"
"Me too"
So riding in single file is what we do. Mr Deaf and Mr Wind Noise.

The old saying "Go slow to go fast" certainly rings true, and despite riding rather conservatively, we hit the first checkpoint in good time. For the first time in years I didn't have snot dripping from face, blood oozing from my ears and tears in my eyes. I almost felt normal. A quick snack, some fluids and some chain lube and we were back on the road, the longest stage ahead of us.

Looking after the bike is as important as looking afer the body
Back on the road the flashing red lights ahead of us were few and far between, and those riders that we did catch and pass were often rather eager to join the Dane and Craig Express. Which we weren't going to allow! So our race tactics became rather predatory - we'd silently stalk the red flashing lights with our own bike lights on dim, with the aim to pass the unsuspecting victim at the bottom of a slight hill. We'd hit the bottom of the rise with speed, and try to power our way over the bump, aware that if we went too hard we'd be paying for the effort in several hours' time, and that if we didn't hit it fast enough, we'd have a wheel sucking solo rider for company.
All this catching and passing sounds like riveting action adventure stuff. It wasn't. These cat and mouse, or as I prefer, lion and impala confrontations could take the better part of an hour to unfold. Racing in slow motion!

We rolled into the halfway checkpoint well up on last year's time, and got down to preparing things for the toughest slog of the race. For Captain Craig, that meant a light change. In the time it takes him to remove the old light and attach the new light, I'm quite sure entire civilisations have risen and fallen. Our stop took so long that I actually had to relearn how to ride a bike again. And he says I am the time waster at water points! Mr Faff and Mr Speedy.

If I have one criticism about The 36One, it's got to be the water points. It's really not fair on endurance athletes to have to make decisions about which of the tasty food they are going to eat. Porridge brain is a real problem, and too much choice, from banana bread to biltong, lasagne to koeksisters can be race ending. I've seen cyclists lost in thought, staring at the food tables for hours, suffering from food decision paralysis. Whatever happened to those days of expired energy bars and water in cups the size of thimbles?
With Captain Craig finally rejoining the race, we set off to conquer the witching hour demons. The uphills were getting longer, our legs were getting heavier, and our progress through the red flashing lights had come to a halt. Just Captain Craig and I in the middle of nowhere, with a thin waning crescent moon for company. And the odd marshal - the real unsung heroes who make this race possible.

Often, our only companion
In a race like this you are always going to have good patches and bad patches. The hope is that the good patches last a long long time, while the bad patches are brief. And the switch from a good patch to a bad one can happen in the blink of an eye. One minute you're feeling invincible, and the next you're desperately sucking on a gel, making silent pleas for the pain to end! Add in the team dynamic and you can be guaranteed that good and bad patches will never be synchronised.

We hit the bottom of Rooiberg, the big climb, not quite knowing what was going to happen. The benefit of riding a little faster is that we get to do this climb in the dark - never able to see the top. However, that's a double edged sword, as often it's only the thought of the top that keeps you going. As the road tilted up, the memories from previous years came flooding back. The year Captain Craig rode me into the ground. The year we took the lead in the team category just before the top (and didn't even know it). The year we passed The Beast as he walked up the climb, a shattered hulk of a man. Anything could happen on the slopes of this invisible monster, and it often does.

The Purple Paper Pandas suffered up the climb, as I am sure every other participant did too. An eight kilometre climb after 250 kilometres is always going to hurt. But we made good progress, and as we crested the summit, the lights of Calitzdorp glistening in the distance. We'd broken the back of The 36One before it had broken us, although I came close to running on empty. With a flick of the arm, Captain Craig hit the front and dragged my sorry frame into the third check point, and the oasis of snacks that awaited us. Mr Strong and Mr I Should Have Eaten More.
Once again, getting Captain Craig to leave the sanctuary of the check point proved to be rather tricky. He'd just discovered the koeksisters, and was intent making up for all those he'd missed in the previous 12 hours. And then he caught sight of the pancakes. And just to prove that he wasn't happy with the level of conversation so far on our ride, he struck up a conversation while I patiently waited to get rolling again. He clearly needed the mental stimulation, so I was prepared to give him a minute or two, provided he paid me back later.

That welcoming CBC beer!

The final stage is the most beautiful, for one simple reason. It's the only stage that we actually get to see beyond the small puddle of light in front of us. And the Klein Karoo is a rather pretty place. It's also the final grind towards the finish, the end of the torment and the welcoming promise of an ice cold CBC beer. No wonder I tend to suffer from long range white line fever at this race! But it's not all plain sailing. The hills are merciless in their gradient, and vicious in length, especially on tired legs. From the top of the final climb to the finish is around 35 kilometres, and this is where I am in my element. Time for Captain Craig to pay me back, which means hopping aboard the Dane Train, and holding on tight. Next stop Oudtshoorn. Mr Caboose and Mr Engine.
With the temperatures rising we whittled off the final kilometres, pushing our bodies to the limits one last time, not motivated by times or placings. Just wanting the ordeal to be over. Everything hurts. As we haul our tired and aching bodies across the line, the first words that escape my mouth once again are "Never ever again!". And this time we're serious. I promise.