36ONE 2017 Race Report

There’s a distinct hush that settles on the start chute of the 36one. It’s not the normal vibe you’ll find at the start of a marathon race, or even anxious energy that buzzes on a stage race start. It’s a confused, pent-up rustle of voices. This is because there are two kinds of riders at the start line. Those who know what is coming, and those who have no cooking clue. Those who have done this before and those who have only heard the stories. The hush from those who’ve done it before is pregnant with respect for this race. The nervousness from the newbies is the sound of the unknown and the hanging question of whether it’s even possible.


Last year was my first. My training had been solid, and I was confident having placed well in my first Desert Dash 369km a few months earlier. Sure, this race had thousands more metres of ascent, but I knew already the feeling of sheer fatigue that meets you at halfway and had conquered the mental demons that attempt to convince you to quit. But then the wheels came off. I started to get sick and limped with my tail between the legs for the next 180kms. It was one of the bleakest times of my life.

And so this time around my deep, deep respect for 36one made sure my training availability was there from the December holidays already. I’d made some serious changes to my diet, and even figured out a hydration quirk that plagues me at around the 8hr mark of a ride. I lined up this year wondering if the stars would align for me.

We rolled out of Kleinplaas into the dusk, not having to contend with the dust and chaos from relay and team riders in front us due to the change in start format (big plus!). The front group was increasing the pace at every incline, and yet I was feeling comfortable. My plan was to ride within very specific power bands in the first two hours and this pace was suiting it nicely. The legs were feeling fresh – good news after having had a throat infection to contend with 4 days before the start. But the pace just kept kicking up a gear on every climb. My fellow Benoni compatriots were beginning to complain about the pace. I thought I could hold on for longer after they dropped off. Not much longer. As we hit the trees and a particularly steep section the attack came. I was off. Right, now it was time to tame my power averages and find a good solo rhythm.

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I was joined soon by Brad who had been spat out by the guys at the front. To be fair, he’d been playing with them on the sharp end up front, so no wonder they attacked. Stage 1 was now in the business end. A little later Brad passed me sucking the wheel of Jeannie Dreyer (there was a local bet laid down by Dion Guy from Pain.Cave at stake for ale if one of us beat her). It was just that 5% too fast for me. Sure enough, a few kms down the road Brad was alone again. Victim to the Dreyer Express. Silly fool 😉

Stage 2. Brad and I found ourselves in the company of Pieter and Henri, fellow 2016 solo racers. We rode well together for a long time the four of us. The conversation was great too – discovering old connections to Benoni while contemplating the merits of road and MTB riding. The cold was catching me off guard a little though. And the dust on the downhills. About 20kms before halfway I hit something big on a fast downhill and felt my rear wheel struggle to hold it’s line. The tyre had burped and lost pressure. Brad, God bless him, came back to fetch me while I bombed the tyre. We were back on, but this time joined by the next group of solo riders going hell for leather to get to halfway. But they weren’t working well together, letting one poor soul do most of the work on the long tar stretch into CP2.

No disrespect to the hospitality at CP2 (we all know that Dryland events are managed and catered exceptionally well) but after my 2016 experience of gastro-intestinal issues I packed my own food that I knew I could digest. Brad and I pushed out quickly. He didn’t eat, so I shared my food with him. I thought we were going well but a pair of lights were looming large behind us. Dane and Craig shot passed us with intent (read Dane’s blog and you’ll know why), leading the team race. Demoralising that was. But we soon caught them again – they were paying for the effort.

The section between the next two water points is a blur. This happens in the wee hours of the night. You lose sense of time, speed and distance. It can also be a magical time. In fact, contending with this is a key to Ultra racing – you have to embrace the dissociation from time and distance. I have a vague recollection of another solo rider joining us, and soon pulling away from us. I dunno. Didn’t care.

We pulled into the waterpoint before Rooiberg and Brad mentioned that he was starting to take strain now. Again, we pushed off quickly. In the back of my mind I was wondering how long Brad and I would ride together. The companionship with a fellow training rider was awesome, but this was a race after all. I contemplated attacking on Rooiberg. Stupid thought, actually knowing how brutal the climb is. A minute later Brad said he’d forgotten both his water bottles at the water point! He wasn’t going to go back, and asked me for some water. I knew then that he would not finish due to dehydration. He did not know what was coming up at Rooiberg and in Stage 4. I gave him as much water as I could afford, and proceeded with the attack on Rooiberg. I was feeling surprisingly good and was pleased to show the hill who’s boss after last year’s torture. Brad managed to catch me again at the bottom, asked for some more water, but was clearly not in a good place. He started tapping off and I pushed on to CP3.

As I rolled into CP3 the horizon was beginning to change as dawn emerged. Man, it was spectacular. What was even more spectacular was arriving there just as Jeannie pulled in. The bet was on – I was gonna get my beers dammit! I rushed through my CP procedure and left with another solo rider ahead of Jeannie (a beanbag had sucked her in and she was looking comfortable there). Word from spectators was that I was lying 13th. Really not bad I thought! Now to consolidate and not lose position. I met Tat Brimmer and we rode together for a good few kms in Stage 4. From experience, I knew that Stage 4 was the worst experience of 36one, for two reasons: it is so pretty that it’s beauty slaps you across the face in your woeful state, making you hate the sheer beauty, and secondly because now you can see the hills and they play games with you. They just never seem to end. You think you’ve crested the hill to be greeted with another, and another, and another. It breaks you mentally. Tat was a master at small-talk to distract us, but my proverbial wheels were starting to come off and he pushed on ahead. Dammit. Now I was alone on Stage 4. I can handle the dark and spooks alone, but not effing Stage 4 man.

Eventually the last water point arrived and I knew that the climbs were done. But man, what was a smooth road to the Oudsthoorn last year was rough this year. The aches in my knees felt every jolt. I then spotted Tat upfront, but he was holding the gap. I was grasping to hold on to the hope that the spectators were wrong and that a Top 10 finish was perhaps on the cards. We hit the tar and Tat was just too far away. I had depleted both my physical and mental reserves. I was done. So I turned into Kleinplaas to hear the Sing-A-Long MC announce that I had rounded off the Top 10.

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I. Could. Not. Believe. It. Relief, surprise, fatigue, and gratitude to God and my family moved through my body in waves.

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Some things I’ve learned about 36one and ultra racing like this. It is certainly more mental than physical. But you’ve got to get the physical to a point where you can maximize the mental. Your training must be structured and consistent (hat tip to Dion and his coaching at Pain.Cave). You must then control what you can when so much (about 361 kms actually) is out of your control. Nutrition is a strategy. Hydration is a strategy. Supplements are a strategy. Stops are a strategy. Equipment is a strategy (especially lights). But above all, keep pedaling and keep moving forward.

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