When an old style, tough as nails Adventure Racer puts on an expedition Adventure Race, you know it going to be a good one. This was our impression once we heard that Ugene Nel had added a 250/300km Adventure Race to the South Africa AR Calendar. It was added to our year plan without hesitation.
Merrell Adventure Addicts have been quiet on the racing scene since dominating at the 500km Expedition Africa in May. The team was not in top shape, with Hanno Smit coming back from a broken Collarbone, Donovan Sims coming through a busy work schedule and I was coming off a rest period after tackling the 2300km Freedom Challenge. The Addicts pint-sized Hobbit, Tatum Prins, was taking sometime off racing and this opened the door for SA Mountain biking legend, Yolande De Villiers, to come into the team for her first Adventure Race. It was an exciting time both for the team and for Yolande who didn’t really have any idea as to what she was getting herself into. It is always amusing to watch “novice” racers packing, repacking and further repacking gear and kit.
The 300km Quantum Leap was held in the Cederberg mountains 400km north of Cape Town and was a “basic” Adventure Race with simple accommodation and logistics supplied. The event was more about the race route and the experience of tough expedition racing rather than all the “bells and whistles”. Uge had spent many weeks in the area scouting a fantastic route that had plenty of route options and tough legs to test all. His passion and energy for this event was obvious for all to see.
Seven 1:50 000 maps with 23 Checkpoints pre plotted plus a route booked revealed the course. The route was broken down into 8 legs, which included a river rafting leg doQuantum Leapwn the Doring River. From the outset it looked like the first 5 legs would be relatively simple and fast. The last 3 legs appeared to be the tough legs with plenty of navigational options and testing terrain. This proved correct.
As expected the first five legs (141km) were ticked off with easy and at a good pace (16h40). From Transition 5, the route got significantly more brutal. Leg 6 was a 40km trekking leg that included a 90m abseil into a kloof. Uge had predicted a time of 12-18 hours for this leg. We had estimated a 15-hour leg for ourselves. Having abseiled into the kloof at 02h30 in the morning and not having the benefit of daylight to show the breaks in the cliffs, we were confined to bushwacking, boulder hoping and kloofing the 9km to the next CP. We did this 9km in 7 hours. We then ascended into the magnificent Oorlogskloof Nature Reseve and cris-crossed the reserve on a maze of paths, before a massive descent into TA6. We eventually completed this leg in 19 hours.
Based on Uge’s predicted times for the various legs we had estimated a total race time of around 46-48 hours for ourselves and had hoped to get through without stopping to sleep. Upon reaching TA6 it became very obvious that we would be racing significantly over this time and re-estimated our finishing time to be around the 57-hour mark. With leg 6 taking significantly longer and being more brutal than we anticipated, we realized it would be very difficult to maintain a decent pace to the end of the race without some sleep. So the team took the decision to sleep for 1 hour at TA6. Sleep in the warmth and comfort of a TA is worth a lot more than sleep out on the course huddling cold under a bush. We knew that this would allow the chasing teams to close the gap on us, but we knew we would be fresher and more alert when we got going again and would allow us to build the lead again. This proved correct.
Leg 7 was a 60km MTB that included two 500m odd ascents to collect CP’s located at trig Beacons. Both required riding as close as possible to the points and then climbing the remaining bit on foot (two team members going, two staying with the bikes). The first proved difficult, with 200m of climbing needed. Darkness provided the additional challenge in finQuantum Leapding a break in the cliff line to get on to the top and then searching a flat-topped mountain with limited visibility for a trig beacon. Needless to say, Don and Hanno had three hours of bush whacking while Yolande and I had three hours of bush sleeping. The weather also took a turn for the worst with gale force winds and rain coming through at just after 03h00 as the team looked for a non-existent cattle track off the mountain. Driving rain, no paths, sleep deprivation, hike-a-bike, extreme cold and very challenging navigation made for a tense few hours. The only option was to keep moving as stopping meant freezing and hypothermia. Once on the valley floor, the farm and district roads proved just as challenging with mud clogging up the bikes and making them un-ridable. Hanno’s rear derailleur got jammed up in the mud and broke. This cost a few hours of repair time and also meant slow going for the remainder of the ride. An 18km loop with an un-ridable 600m climb to collect a CP at a trig beacon seemed completely pointless. We finally finished the leg that had had a predicted time of 5-8 hours in 16 and half hours
The final trekking leg was shortened due to the rain affecting the abseil point just before the finish. After anoQuantum Leapther pointless CP requiring the team to climb 500m to a trig beacon and then come back down the same way, the team finally reached the finish line after 260km in just over 63 hours of racing (46 hours for 119km from TA5). Team Cyanosis, finishing 2h30 behind, was the only other team to finish the full course, though they were unofficial after failing to find a CP in an overhanging cave. 6 other teams finished the short course with eight teams withdrawing.
Though not on top form, the Addicts performed brilliantly with their experience carrying them through and allowing us to race at our pace and not be dictated to. Yolande had a proper introduction to expedition racing with a brutally hard course and extreme weather as well as the usual stuff to content with. She pulled through with flying colours and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. Me thinks she is hooked.
Uge set a fantastic AR course. The TA’s were basic and it was all about the route and the team’s ability to look after its self and to survive out there. Hard and Brutal. It is comparable to any of the Hard AR’s I have competed in before. As said, Uge is from the old school and believes we all need to “toughen the FU”. He succeeded.
Do I think it was too tough? Tough is a relative word. Any Adventure Race is tough. Be it a 2-hour or a 170-hour race. You need to be out there pushing yourself to the limit for that particular time and distance. The uniqueness of the terrain and the particular route and CP placement for the different races are what make some races tougher than others. Routes can either be set up to take teams along an easy navigable route with paths or they can be set up to have teams navigating on a number of options without paths or distinctive routes. Is a 300km race that takes 63 hours tougher than a 500km race that takes 63 hours? The time out there offers it’s own unique toughness. 63 hours is 63 hours and 63 hours of competing is tough. Is a 40km, 19-hour trek without paths or a distinctive route tougher than an 80km, 19-hour trek on paths with a distinctive easily navigable route? The physical, emotional and mental strength to get through either is similar provided your perception is not skewed but the slower speed on the trek without paths. This is where experience plays a part.
What made the Quantum Leap a particularly tough race was the cut offs and the predicted times. All teams came into this race prepared for a 45 – 72 hour race based on the predicted times tQuantum Leaphat Uge had published. The first cut off for the long course was after only 29 hours of racing. If the cut off had been after 40 hours and the predicted times for the event had been 60 – 90 hours, it would have seen most of the teams completing the full course and those that withdrew probably pushing on to complete the race or at the very least complete a short course option. Crossing the finishing line, I immediately commented to Uge that not many racers in South Africa would have completed this course. The race route that Uge set needed another day or two for the majority to finish it.
Over the past few years Adventure Racing in this country has given racers the luxury of having distinctive routes to follow that are ultimately relatively easy to navigate. Quantum Leap was different and had a racecourse that did not have distinctive routes and it involved a lot of tricky navigation and lots of different route options with its fair share of bushwhacking and boulder hoping. This made it tough in that over the past few years we have not had courses like this and were not prepared for it.
So give South African Adventure Racers a few more courses like this with achievable time cut offs and accurate predictions and it won’t seem so tough.
Well done to Uge for a fantastic race. It was a simple and easy race to prepare for from a kit, gear and logistically point of view, which always makes a race a pleasure. We thoroughly enjoyed the course and hope that you will put on many more like it. We are up for the challenge.
As usual competing with my mates Hanno and Don is always a pleasure and makes the experiences so much more meaningful. Well done to Yolande for getting through a “tough” race and fitting in so easily. To Hobbit, our cheerleader, thanks for all the support and encouragement. We understand how hard it must have been for you to be on the sidelines, but not long and you will be back cracking the whip.