The ultimate single-stage mountain bike race in South Africa. The single-stage 361-kilometre race through the Karoo is longer than the cumulative distance of most of South Africa’s popular three-day mountain bike stage races, making it one of the longest, toughest single-stage races in the country. Adding to the challenge is that it starts on the Friday evening, which requires the competitors to pedal through the night and into the following day in an effort to beat the 36.1-hour cut-off. Rebecca Sands knows too well the dedication, mental focus and skills required for endurance races such as the 36ONE. She has competed in many endurance events and after failing to complete the race in 2016, she returned with enough fire power to conquer the monster single stage event in 2017. Here is her story…
Over the past few years, I have discovered that I love endurance mountain biking. Coupled with my love of travel and discovering the road less traveled, this has set me on the journey toward completing the iconic Freedom Challenge RASA one day. Building up to my dream is taking some time, this is a sensible thing as the physical and mental challenges of riding a bike across some of South Africa’s most desolate and hilly terrain is not to be taken lightly. Last year, I decided to enter the 36one mountain bike race. I have to admit I didn’t really think much about it except that it would be really good training. My fiancé Sean noticed the team race entry and as he has learnt to do, took it in his stride. I often wonder if his coping strategy is to not look too closely at the events I enter us into as he seemed fairly happy to go along with it!
We arrived at the 2016 36one, well trained, well informed and with a solid objective to finish within a certain time. By the time I crawled into Check Point three after 19 hours of grueling riding, we both knew that we weren’t going to finish. My wrists were shot (both have been broken before) and the fatigue was horrendous. The shame of the DNF was not at all tempered for me by the fact that we had ridden 282km in one go!! Fast forward to 2017. This time… we are going to finish the 36one, no matter what. We have 36 hours! We could crawl it in that time. The strategy is different. Ride to finish with a little subtitle of “try to finish in 24 hours”. The respect that we both now have for this massive race is huge and humbling. I had several flash backs from 2016 in the days leading up to the race… none of which filled me with any confidence at all. The worst memory was that of Rooiberg, the massive climb that you encounter 250km or so into the race. I remember stopping, bursting into tears as I realized we still has to ride 120km to finish the race and I was only half way up that endless beast. It was going to take a lot for me to conquer that demon this year! So, we lined up on the start line on Friday 19th April with a very different approach to the 36one.
A few of the things that we did differently this year were:
We practiced pushing ourselves physically and mentally beyond our usual limits. During 2016 we completed Race to Rhodes and Transbaviaans and then we successfully completed the Everesting Challenge in October. That saw us climb 8900m over 31 hours in bad weather – an achievement which definitely prepared us for riding through the fatigue and the pain that comes with riding a bike for a long period of time. We then completed Race to Cradock in March 2017. This section of the Freedom Challenge had us riding for 10 hours a day over 5 days keeping our destination in mind and teaching us to pedal the journey. In an experience like this, you have to accept every kilometer that is thrown at you no matter what. Excellent physical and mental preparation.
We are lighter and leaner. Our coach, Dion Guy, introduced us to an App that tracks our eating as well as helps us to control our calorie intake. Using this along with some sound nutritional advice from Debbi Nathan, my nutritionist, we were able to lose about 9kg each. Not so much weight to drag up the 5000m or so of climbing! This definitely made a big difference. We optimized our nutrition. Race to Rhodes and Race to Cradock saw us eating real food instead of goos and bars. Dates, nuts, rice, grains, fruit and seeds kept me going with treats of liquorice thrown in. I have also discovered Gluten Free electrolyte drink and a tasty gluten free gel that doesn’t give me the horrific stomach cramps I suffered with other products. Lastly but not least, the beetroot content of my diet is enormous during these events – concentrated Beet-it shots, beetroot crisps and lots of steamed beetroot leading up to the event helps me a lot. I arrived a day ahead of the race. In 2016 I flew into George on the morning of the 36one and rushed around until it was time to start. This year I gave myself a day’s grace and managed to sleep for a few hours before the start.
The race.. We set off at an easy pace. 148 teams of two started the race and the front runners pulled away early setting a hot pace. We settled into a good rhythm close to the back of the field, knowing that this race is definitely not conquered in the first 80km. Our friends Clair and Greg rode with us on their tandem and I quickly saw how hard it is to ride “the beast” up the early hills. I was very glad we were on single bikes. Slowly but surely we started to pass people who had raced off ahead of us. We passed A LOT of people. Towards waterpoint one at De Rust, about 50km in, we were starting to pick off the back markers from the Solo challenge who had started 10 minutes before us. The first stage of the race is surprisingly tough. You can’t see the climbs in the dark and the dirt roads were fairly corrugated. It was dusty and dry and the weather was still warm. I could see Sean was feeling strong and to my surprise, my legs were feeling really good so I kept tempering the pace and taking it easy… even letting some ladies pass me from time to time. The road towards checkpoint one is dusty, has a few fast descents and also has a fair amount of traffic on it with the spectators and supporters cars being marshaled to the next checkpoint. Although this has improved from last year, it still caused problems and I found myself being cautious and tense. I could feel my back tightening up and I had to continually tell myself to release the pressure on my shoulders and wrists to prevent paying for it later. We reached check point one comfortably, greeted by our sons who were supporting us. They did a fantastic job and had our boxes ready and waiting for us. 81km down, we set off after a short break (the soup was delicious!). We left before Greg and Clair, knowing that they would catch up as they fly down hill on their tandem beast and after a few km's they were with us again. The next part of the race contains the only single track (about a km?) and a couple of railway line sections. The second railway line section is a bit sketchy and I don’t enjoy it at all, but luckily its not too long and we were soon at the 4th water table at about 2am. I gauged my physical and mental state… all good so far, still smiling, still energetic and still determined to finish.
The next few km's to Checkpoint 2 went quickly. The km's ticking over until we hit the tar road with about 7km to go until the checkpoint. We enjoyed a good pull from the tandem on this section and swept into the second checkpoint feeling good. We knew from experience that we had to refuel properly here. We ate the sit down meal of lasagne, raided our boxes and hauled out a complete change of clothes. Sean and Scott, our support team were freezing cold, but had everything organized for us – wonderful! We went to change in one of the rooms and found it had a shower. By this stage we were very cold and the temptation of a steaming hot shower was irresistible, so we showered and changed before gearing up again. Mentally, this was a winner for me.
Now I told my tired mind that I had just woken up and showered and was about to start day 2 of the race. Another bolster was the fact that we were leaving the 180km in the dark. Last year, we had only made it there by 5am and left just before 6am. Now we were at least 90 minutes ahead of this. As we climbed from Volmoed to Paardebont, we made steady, good progress and were at the top of the first valley before the sun had come up. This 80km was no doubt, my strongest part of the race. I knew Rooiberg was up ahead, but I felt none of the debilitating fatigue that plagued me last year. The Paardebont water table had the most delicious date balls that I have ever tasted… great fuel for the early morning! The next section is beautiful. We rode next to a river which is carved into rocky terrain. The temperature was still bitterly cold as the sun hadn’t reached us yet. It was at this point that the first of the half marathon riders passed us. Young, fit, strong riders in summer kit looking forward to their “short” 180km sprint!! A few minutes later a group of more experienced guys powered past us –that looked like it was going to be an interesting challenge.
We methodically rode towards the next water point, taking in the beautiful surroundings which was a welcome change after the hours of night riding. As we drew up to water point 6 I was very aware that my nemesis, Rooiberg was about to loom in front of us. We fueled up, stripped off and prepared for battle. The Rooiberg climb is relentless. After 250km of riding with over 2500m of climbing, any hill is going to seem tough. This monster may not be so bad on fresh legs, but … well, you get the picture! Over 1 hour to ride just under 8km. By this time (around 9am) it was very warm – 25 degrees. I must admit, I took it slowly and paced myself. Sean made it look easy, he was looking incredibly strong and he got to the top in time to wait and get his camera ready.
One of the half marathon riders asked me why my team mate hadn’t pushed me along… one thing that I will rarely do is ask for help and I nearly have to be dying to ask for a push, Sean knows full well that I will not accept any helping hand! So there it was. Done. Rooiberg, you no longer fill me with me dread. In fact, one day, I will race up there!! The descent is tricky – steep switchbacks with some ruts and rocks and sketchy sections. it was much better than last year and I rode all of the way down without any problems (last year I walked a few sections). We then had a nice 14km stretch of fast riding until the third checkpoint at 282km. My son Sean was waiting for us with our boxes at the checkpoint. He looked exhausted! He and Scott had helped a number of our friends as well – they were proving themselves invaluable. We hadn’t seen the tandem on this stretch, they left checkpoint 2 quite a while after us and we knew that they would find the climbing on this section grueling with their 28kg machine.
After a 45 minute break, we were about to leave when they came in. They had both suffered dehydration at the top of Rooiberg and were looking fairly broken. Sean took them to the shade and we waved goodbye, hoping that they could recover to finish the last stage. As we set off the temperature was climbing to 40 degrees. We had 80km to go… the end was in sight! What a 80km this turned out to be. On the route profile, it looks ok. A couple of steep climbs, but nothing as bad as Rooiberg, so I wasn’t too worried. As we rode, my pace got slower – the heat was draining and my feet were on fire. Although stunningly beautiful, the surroundings offered little protection from the scorching sun and the dust and brilliant blue skies were hurting our eyes. We climbed and then descended a little, climbed some more and then descended a little more. There were charming farm houses and holiday retreats, then there was another hill. After a few more kilometers like this, I began to get GRUMPY. I had however promised myself, not to show any ill temper to Sean. I was already feeling bad as I knew I was slowing him down… there’s no ‘I’ in Team, but I hate being the weakest link. When we had looked at the profile it had looked like Batman.. i.e. two ears and a nice fast descent. This was not accurate. When we thought we must have conquered Batman’s second ear, the next massive climb appeared around the corner. I made a sarcastic comment (oops..) to which Sean countered… “Thats nothing!! It’s not that steep, you can ride it in your big chainring”! That's when I knew he was hallucinating….. !
So on it went. Hill after hill. Beautiful scenery. Hill and then a hill oh and another hill. We found the second last water table after a very welcome descent and set about pouring ice cold water over ourselves. The magnificent Lions people had somehow managed to keep an endless supply of ice frozen in this scorching heat. I loved them. They and all of the 36one water table people are easily the best I have ever met. By now, it was over 40 degrees and my feet had become too painful to cleat in. Not to worry, I managed to ride on the flat part of my pedals and I mentally congratulated myself for not complaining. We had now covered 310km. Only 53km to go. I have to admit, we rode through some of the prettiest scenery that I have seen on a bike and even though it was really tough, I didn’t ever think about giving up. I did make a mental note not to do this again.. but heck, who am I kidding? I’ll probably be back. The last 20km was not great. After the last water table, we slogged along corrugated dirt roads until we eventually met the T junction to the main road to Oudsthoorn. As we approached town, Sean was saying – “Look, we’ve done it, well done babes!!” I was sobbing, unable to decide if I was happy or flabbergasted or just plain exhausted!
We decided that we wanted to finish strongly so we geared up and sped up making the last couple of km's fly by. As we entered the finish stretch I saw my son Sean and started to cry again – this was something very special! We were met by Sean, Scott and the faster Benoni riders – George, Bryce and Marc who had smashed the course in 19hours or so. Our time was 23hours 24 minutes – we were very happy with that and our ride time was 20hours 47 minutes so all in all, not a bad day on the bike. The sweetest news was that we were the third mixed team home – a podium! What a surprise and well deserved by my long suffering fiance. The tandem crossed the line triumphantly a couple of hours later – I have tremendous respect for their tenacity and strength. Our friends who completed both the full 361km challenge and the 180km challenge all know that this is a race that changes you – you cannot fully convey the enormity of the challenge and the sense of accomplishment you feel when it’s done. We are very grateful for all of the support from our friends and particularly our sons Sean and Scott who helped us at every checkpoint. Thanks to Dion Guy and his coaching along with the PainCave sessions, these definitely have made us stronger. So that's it…. 36One…. FINISHED BUSINESS...
For more info on the 36ONE challenge: