Endurance sports, especially big ultra-endurance events, always bring with them a weird experience. As an athlete, you spend months and months looking forward to it, wishing for the day to come faster - a goal always looming on the horizon. Then, the day is there, and during the event, you spend most of the time wishing it was over - it can't come fast enough! Then, it finally does end, and all you do is miss it. That's what I'm experiencing now. The Cape Epic was such a massive event to spend a winter training for, and now that I've completed it, I don't know if there is a tougher mountain bike race out there that I can set my sights on.
So without further introduction, here's my write up of the adventure that was the 2015 Cape Epic. Brace yourselves; it's a long one!
Travel and Westin Hospitality Pre-Race
After what felt like an eternity of build-up, the day was finally here. We were off to South Africa! All that stood in our way was 26 hours of travel time and an 8 hour time change - no biggie, right? The travel, although long, was uneventful (aside from Coleman almost dropping the gloves with a fat man from Britian, which is a story for another time...)
As most of you know, the opportunity to race in the ABSA Cape Epic came from SPG Moments, with all the local logistics handled by the Westin Cape Town, which would serve as our lodging before and after the race.
At the Cape Town airport we were met by 2 gentlemen sent by the Westin to pick us up. They grabbed our luggage carts, unwilling to hear our humble plees of being perfectly capable to handle it ourselves, and led us to the transportation. We were shocked to see a Benz pull up as we exited the airport. Not what we were expecting, nor were we deserving, yet here it was, a luxury car and a driver, along with a seperate vehicle for our bikes. The Westin truly was pulling out all the stops!
When we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted by the staff who would go above and beyond to serve us during our stay. At this point we were exhausted, doing our best to stave off jet lag, so off to the room it was. We were greeted with all kinds of custom Westin/SPG garb laying on the beds, a welcome card, and an assortment of food. The trend of cards, surprise food and Westin clothing would be a common theme during the rest of our stay. What a way to be treated!
Our ride was almost cut short when Coleman ran over a metal spike laying in the road. The hole left in the tire was huge, yet somehow, after some shaking, the stans sealant worked. Of course in our still jet-lagged state we had forgot to bring any form of flat repair, so we gingerely rode back to the hotel.
Next up, we were off to the Victoria Alfred Waterfront for sign-on for the Cape Epic. We were in awe of the scale of the event, Cape Epic banners, flags, and decalled Land Rovers were all over the Waterfront tourist area, not to mention the size of the Registration and Expo area for the race. It was here we were given all our race essentials, like the EVOC roller bag we would live out of for the next 8 days, the Tracker that made it possible for friends and family to follow our progress, the Amped Personal Charger, and more!
Vendors/sponsors of the Cape Epic all had booths setup, which we lazily wandered through, including a stop at the Woolworth's Coffee Shop to buy a coffee band, a wrist band punch card that would keep us caffeinated during the race mornings (the buffet breakfast of the race only had instant coffee, so this was a life-saver!) The Woolie's Coffee Shop guys would turn into our best friends, and our 6+ coffees each
Race jitters took full effect as we were back at the hotel room, strapping on race plates and jamming everything we needed for 8 days into the small race bag. Food and supplements took up the most space, and we were left struggling to find the space for everything we wanted to bring. What to pack and what to leave was a tough decision, but the specifics might be for another blog. Now that I've raced the Cape Epic, I'd certainly pack my race bag a little differently!
The fine folks at the Westin arranged a dinner with us and a couple Cape Epic veterans that night. Little did we know these 2 veterans were international Rugby celebrities! Colin Charvis from Wales and Marius Hurter from South Africa were kind enough to give us pointers, tips and tricks for the 8 days ahead. Now if you're wondering Who are Colin Charvis and Marius Hurter, you're not alone, assuming you're reading this from North America. However, for Rugby-crazed countries (of which there are a lot), they are superstars. Pretty cool for them to be friendly and humble enough to take the time to befriend us, especially since their claim to fame was lost on us.
The dinner was wrapped up with a surprise Bithday cake for me (my birthday was the next day - Prologue day!) which was far too kind and thoughtful. Just another example of the Westin going above and beyond to make this the experience of a life time!
The Prologue for the Cape Epic was a short stage starting out of the Cape Town University and working its way around the slopes of Table Mountain - great way to open up the legs and prepare for the 7 days of real stages ahead of us!
Riders were sent off in 1 minute intervals - with our start slated for 7:20 am it made for a bit of a rushed morning (especially since we had stayed up late the night before; it's hard to leave a dinner table with such friendly people!). Stepping up to the start ramp was a sureal feeling - so many months of traning, countless early mornings on the trainer, countless hours spent layering up to ride outside, and months and months of bouncing back between worried and excited, all led up to this.
And just like that, we were off!
Start chute for the Prologue
Myself and Coleman had agreed to ride a very conservative pace. Even though the prologue was short, we didn't want to dig ourselves into a hole early on. I have limited experience with some 3 day stage races, and Coleman even less, so were unsure of what to expect as the days would wear on. We had predetermined the ideal heartrate zones, the highest number we'd want to see, and where we hoped to settle into our pace. It felt slow, but that was the point. We were hoping saving energy now would pay off in the latter stages of the race.
There was plenty of climbing, but amazing views of downtown Cape Town below us helped keep the mind off the gradients. With the excitement and energy, there were more than a handful of occasions we realized we were going harder then we wanted to be. Nowhere else was this more true than cresting the last bit of major climbing on the day: the gradient stepped up to over 20% on the last 50 meters of the climb called Dead Man's Tree, which just so happened to be lined with fans cheering and screaming our names. We put in a max effort on that climb because there was no way we were going to walk in front of such a large crowd.
We finished the prologue in a very conservative time of 1:19. Then it was off to experience the Racer Village that would be our home for the next 7 days.
The Cape Epic - A Fully Service Mountain Bike Race: The Race Village
The Race Village really was impressive. The size of the race village was gigantic, bigger then we were expecting, but thankfully there were wayfinding signs scattered throughout. It never took long to get the lay of the land and know exactly where you were headed.
When they say it's a full service race, they mean it. As we crossed the finish line for the Prologue, we were greeted by someone who grabbed our bikes to take them to the bike wash area. After being washed, the bikes were brought into a secure fenced-off bike storage area with 24 hour security guards on-site. To retrieve your bike, you just needed the race wrist band (given out at registration) that matched the race plate on your bike.
After that we were greeted by more friendly faces as we entered the Woolworth's Recovery Zone. A wet towel (hot or cold depending on what kind of day it was) waited, as well as a bag full of wholesome food from Woolworth's. The Recovery Zone had plenty of industrial fans and misters scattered around during the hot days, so it wasn't a bad place to sit and relax for awhile.
Once we arrived at Elgin Valley, we were greeted with the full race village. A huge dining tent, an equally huge lounging tent with TV's scattered throughout, a Massage Tent, a full-service race hospital (not first-aid, a fully capable hospital!), a shower truck with at least 30 shower stalls, various vendors (food trucks, Columbia, Assos, Oakley, Sram Support, various bike shops, etc). the Amped Portable Charger Station and more were all set-up at each race village for racers convenience. You couldn't really ask for anything more!
And of course, how could I forget the classic red tents. Each race village welcomed us with 1200 Cape Epic tents, complete with a foam mattress inside. The tents were a touch small for me at 6'2", but I was so tired most nights, it didn't matter.
In any other circumstance, I would have spent more time marvelling the views camping offered, but most nights involved passing out not long after dinner.
Even though we had completed the Prologue, and with it officially began the Cape Epic, the race nerves were still out in full force. The Prologue was nothing more than just a tiny taste of the Epic, and we knew it. Stage 1 was where the real riding began. And on paper, it looked like it was the hardest day, not quite the longest, but the most climbing of the race.
The start line was electric, but we made sure to keep our pacing in check. We also made sure to take lots of breaks to eat - we had a pretty structured plan from Shari at RVH regarding our on-bike diet - we would end up stopping to eat so much that in later stages of the race, fellow riders started to make fun of us for it! Things were going pretty smoothly for the first half of the race, even with the legendary Groenlandberg climb, which rose over 700 m on rugged, rocky and loose terrain.
Close to cresting the top of the Groenlandberg.
The water points during each stage worked out to be great landmarks to work towards, breaking the day apart into manageable chunks. The water points were an electric atmosphere as well - there was always a commentator there calling out the names of each rider that rolled in, blasting music, a first-aid tent with complimentary chamois cream and sun screen, a full range of fluids, a great variety of food, a full service portable bike shop, a bike lube station, and a glasses cleaning station. Add to that an over-enthuisiastic crowd of people and you get the kind of atmosphere that made it easy to stay and hang out instead of wanting to get back on the bike.
When things started to feel overwhelming, we'd just break the race down into getting to the next water point for some reprieve.
Nevertheless, it was always down to business when we rolled into a waterpoint - fill up water, mix our drinks, grab some food, grab some chamois cream, grab some sunscreen, get the bike chain lubed, get the glasses cleaned, and then hit the trails again!
Being almost halfway into the day, we were feeling rather optimistic. If this is the hardest day, I think we'll be alright, I thought to myself. Little did I know what the future stages had in store. Or even the Stage we were in the process of trying to complete. Which is when the rain started as we climbed up into a new range of mountains covered in rain clouds. Fog and mist was so heavy at times we could only see 10 feet ahead of us and the rain did a good job of putting a chill into our bones. Who thought we'd go all the way to Africa and be cold!
We were still making decent time when the rain finally let up, but we had also been on a bike for over 6 hours. Things didn't seem so easy anymore. At the 8 hour point, Coleman turned to me and said Did we not train enough? I don't get it!
I had been thinking the same thing - it felt like we were slow, and the day was just dragging on! The terrain was rough, the climbs were starting to wear us down, and we were just ready to stop sitting on a saddle. All of a sudden, 6 more days seemed incredibly daunting. I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but this was even harder then expected. The last 10 km took seemingly forever, but we finally crossed the line in a time of 8 hours and 39 minutes.
As we sat down for dinner that night, I could tell how Coleman was feeling - I was feeling the same: What did we get ourselves into? Although I'm sure he knew I was thinking the same thing, we both deliberately avoided the conversation altogether, trying to talk about other things to forget that we had 6 more days ahead of us...
During the evening prior to Stage 2, while making conversation with an Epic veteran, I learned a couple things. First, he said out of the 5 Epic's he's done, that was the hardest opening stage he's ever raced. Second, he said that the bad days always seem to be followed with a mental rebound during the following day - bad days always followed by a good day. That certainly helped my morale, because before hearing that, I had doubts that I just wasn't physically prepared for the rigors of the Cape Epic, unsure of how I'd hold up on the following stages.
So with newfound optimism, I hit the start line for Stage 2, thinking I was ready for anything the race could throw at us. When preparing for the Cape Epic, I had read that there would be some common themes to prepare for mentally: Crazy heat and sun, Potential for rain and cold, Tons of climbing, and lots of Flat Tires. However, never in my hours and hours of reading on the race did I hear the wind brought up. However, as the days would wear on, I'd learn that the wind would be an equally formidable obstacle on more than one occasion. However on no other day would the wind be as wild as Day 2.
Not long after starting, we found ourselves on a 10% downgrade, pedalling and struggling to maintain 10 kph. I wish I was exagerating! When it came time to turn out of the headwind, the crosswinds were so strong riders in the pack seemed to be leaning almost 45 degrees to the side just to stay upright! The first 20 km were incredibly slow going!
Reprieve came when the race route finally turned into the shelter of the mountains. However, with that came the major climb of the day, the Nuweberg. It was the kind of climb that threw all it's punches at the beginning, with a 25% grade to start things out. After that short, steep section, the climb became manageable though for the remainder of it's 5.5 km, topping out 800 m above sea level.
The wind had died down as we exited the mountain ranges and the day went by surprisingly fast. Spirits were high again - the Cape Epic seemed manageable again.
Ride time: 7:29
To say the Cape Epic is an emotional roller coaster is an understatement. After being utterly overwhelmed and doubting our ability to finish in Stage 1, we had found optimism in Stage 2. Stage 3 would be another story...
It was the longest stage of the Cape Epic, and from what we had heard from most, the crux of the race for amateur racers - make it through this stage, and you could safely assume you could handle finishing the rest of the race. To try to make the long distance seem more manageable, we compared it to the previous stage where we had felt so good. Sure it was much longer, but it was the exact same amount of elevation gain. So take yesterday and add 40 km of dead-flat riding - no problem, I thought to myself.
The stage started with the biggest climb of the day, a feature that had been common to the race so far. It was a big mental boost to have the biggest climbs done before the halfway point of a long day spent in the saddle.
Things had been going smoothly, and we again felt pretty optimistic. Around noon, the temperatures hit their high, and that's when things slowly started going poorly. At one point, my Garmin said it was 37 degrees, which was much hotter then the forecasted high of 33. It was manageable so far, but definitely uncomfortable and effecting how fast we could go.
There was barely a cloud in the sky, and the majority of the route was very exposed. We were both very close to not having enough water between water points on more then one occasion through the day. Finally we reached the base of the Aarendskloof climb, the final major climb of the day. After that it was roughly 40 km of mostly flat terrain to get to the finish line.
The heat had started to agitate both of us, but as we crested the final big climb of the day, a wave of relief came over us. The rest of the day will be no problem. Sadly, that would not be the case.
About halfway down the descent, the trail turned into sand too deep to ride. A minor setback at this point, we hopped off our bikes and started walking. No big deal. But then as seconds turned into minutes, and minutes turned into an hour of walking through deep, beach-like sand, tempers were boiling. We walked in complete silence. I knew what Coleman was thinking, and he knew what I was thinking. There was nothing that could be said, except maybe a few expletives. All of a sudden the feeling of making quick progress was gone.
After what felt like an eternity of walking, the sand turned back into trail and we were free to ride again. Back to making progress and riding a reasonable speed! Of course, this is when the headwinds started to pick up - nothing like the day prior, but still enough to slow our progress.
With only a handful of kilometers left, I was feeling cracked myself, and mentally things became daunting again. With how poor I was feeling on the bike, it didn't feel like I had any chance of finishing the race. Like I said, the lows are incredibly low.
After crossing the finish line, we sat in silence for at least 10 minutes in the Woolworth's Recovery Zone before a word was spoken. One of those days...
At least we knew we weren't alone - organizers extended the cut-off time for the stage by 30 minutes due to the heat and wind. Somehow, this still didn't really make us feel any better.
Ride Time: 9:21
No longer did the trend of bad day's followed by good day's hold true for me. Coleman said he was feeling great over breakfast, but I couldn't say the same. The last 30 km of Stage 3 had done me in. Sunburnt and mild heat stroke had taken its toll. Another hot day was ahead of us.
Seeming innocent, dust was another opponent we had to face. I woke up in the middle of more than a few nights hacking up dust and dirt.
The day brought us through the Fairy Glen Game Reserve, although we only saw Water Buffalo and Gazelle as we rode through. The trend of major climbs being in the first half of the stages no longer held true. This stage featured many formidable climbs, spread evenly throughout.
Although there wasn't much flat riding in this stage, when there was the chance, Coleman did all the work. I was not feeling up to it, and I can defintely say I wouldn't have made it through this stage without his help. The heat and steep gradients were getting to me - it was another day above 30 degrees.
The Skyscraper climbs were the ultimate test on the day for me. About halfway up the first one, the only thing that kept me moving was the lack of shade. If there had been a tree, rocky ridge or anything providing relief from the sun, I would have stopped and layed down. Coleman kept me going, offering a few words of encouragement.
It was an angry, angry day on the bike, but we finally found some shade at the finish after 8 hours and 5 minutes in the saddle. The ride guide said that this stage was relatively easy in comparison to the others, but I had to disagree.
Although I kept trying to trick myself into thinking we were in the clear after the hellish Stage 3, today was always looming. Even though it wasn't the longest day yet, or the day with the most climbing, it was close enough, especially given the days of fatigue already in our legs. At the start line, we were also informed that the stage would be 4 km longer then the ride guide stated... Splendid.
I was feeling better than days previous. I had upped the sunscreen use the day before and was getting a little more accustomed to the heat, which was a good thing because today would be just as hot as the last few days.
There were some testing climbs in the first half, yet everytime I looked down at the Stage Profile sticker on my toptube, the major elevation of the day loomed near the end. At around 65 km, things levelled out for the following 20 km, which also coincided with me starting to crack. Coleman offered up his wheel, which I gladly took, riding in his draft to try to conserve energy.
Riding through a distillery in one of the many wineries we passed through. It took all my strength to not stop and lay down on the shaded, cool concrete and take a break!
As we neared the base of Bainskloof climb, which was entirely pavement, we started to feel the pressure of the time cut. We had been riding for 7 hours, which meant there was only 3 hours left to cover a little over 35 km. With fresh legs, it wouldn't have been an issue, but fatigue had set in, and the steep gradients meant averaging over 10 kph was going to be a struggle. Adding to the pressure, Coleman, who up until that point had been the strongman on the day, started to crack. Most stages, when one of us felt rough, the other was feeling fine. This balance led to us keeping each other at a great pace and sharing the work load, but this time, I was nowhere near feeling on the up while Coleman was crashing down to his low.
In the exposed sun, we were forced to look at each other and have the talk. I could tell we were both thinking it, but since he had been so much stronger up until this point, I had to say it: "If you're feeling like you can go for it, don't feel like you have to wait for me" I said, in reference to trying to make the time cut.
"I'm not feeling any better than you are at this point." He replied.
We discussed our options and quickly came to realize that even if we wanted to, we couldn't push a faster pace. The heat was playing havoc on us, and the pace we were going was as fast of a pace as we could maintain. I had to choke back tears as we talked about it. Up until this point, we had certainly had some very tough days on the bike, but no matter how physically and mentally testing those days had been, the time cut had never been an issue. Sure, we had to find the mental strength to push through, but as long as we wanted to, we could keep going. Now, the time cut was looming, a time cut that if missed would force us to abandon the race.
Now we were at risk of having an entire winter of training go to waste. Missing a time cut would mean missing a goal we had both focussed on for so long. To think of the sacrifices we had made to train, the countless hours spent getting up early to ride a bike on the trainer, and especially to think of all our sponsors and supporters back home that would be let down was emotionally draining.
"Well, there's nothing we can do now but just ride our pace and hope we make it." I said. Coleman agreed. It's not like we were going to drop out - we both knew that there was no way we'd willingly quit. We'd already been through too much to call it quits over something as trivial as maybe missing the time cut. So on we pedalled, to distraught to take in the amazing scenery around us as we climbed up the mountain pass.
As we neared the final water point of the day at the top of Bainskloof Pass, I had come to peace with the notion that we would potentially miss the time cut. I had been keeping an eye on my Garmin, and we were setting a pace which, assuming the descent at the end was speedy, would get us in right around 10 hours. However, I was too mentally exhausted to think too deeply about it - the pace we were riding was as fast a pace as we could muster, so there was no point in worrying about what we couldn't change.
It's amazing how much a dinky chalkboard sign can change; it stood at the entrance of the water point, on which it said "Amended Cut Off Time: 10 hours 20 minutes.
That changed everything! Barring a mechanical, we could make the cut-off now! That newfound knowledge made the climb up Full Monty seem a lot more manageable, and although we were both still exhausted, we felt like we could make it now!
They say time flies when you're having fun, so we clearly weren't having fun. Usually flowy descents seem to be over far too early, but this one couldn't end soon enough. It felt like an eternity.
Even the novelty of having a helicopter track us on the final descent wasn't enough to bring up the spirits.
We finished the day in 10:05. I have a theory on mountain bike rides over 10 hours. Every minute after 10 hours feels like the equivalent of 1 hour spent on the bike any other day. Don't believe me? Just try it!
As we sat in the Woolworth's Recovery Zone after Stage 5, the realization that we were nearing the end of the Cape Epic came upon me. I didn't want to underestimate the difficulty of Stage 6 since it packed quite a bit of climbing in a short distance, but it really seemed like nothing could stop us now.
Stage 6 also promised to be a fun stage, with almost half of the distance comprised of singletrack. About time! I have to say, although the Cape Epic is one of the most challenging races out there due to it's distance and climbing, one aspect it is lacking is technical mountain bike riding. An average bike handler could certainly handle the most technical terrain the Cape Epic throws at you.
The fun was back!
The climbs seemed mostly manageable - sure there were a few steep gradients that we were forced to walk, but nothing like the massive climbs we had become accustomed to from previous stages.
Stage 6 started with some free kilometers before climbing up. The climbs this time around made for some great descents though! The trail networks we were riding through (Welvenpass) were absolutely amazing. Fast, fun and flowy, we probably spent more time smiling during this stage than the previous 5 combined!
The scenery didn't hurt either - stunning mountain vistas surrounded us. The day flew by, and actually felt short! It was over 10 km of downhill singletrack to the finish, a great reward for the climbs of the day! We crossed the finish line in 6 hours and 8 minutes. Only during the Cape Epic does a 6 hour, 70+ km day feel short!
To toe the start line of this stage was even more surreal than toeing the start line of the prologue. There were times during the past 7 days that the finish line barely seemed attainable. Days where it felt like it would never come. And days where we didn't think we'd make it this far. Yet here we were. It was another easier day, at least in comparison to what we had conquered leading up to this. One HUGE climb, the Paardeberg, loomed, but after that it was a relatively flat day, until the final sizeable climb into the finish.
We sped quickly through the first 30 kms - today was all wide open district (dirt) roads, so keeping a decent speed was easy enough. Then, the slopes of the Paardeberg hit. 6 km and over 600 m of vertical awaited us as the trail turned skywards. Any other day, we would have begrudgingly walked our bikes up, muttering curses under our breath. But today was the final day and we had nothing to save ourselves for. We rode the majority of the climb, aside from one nasty section of extended gradient in excess of 20%, and in the process caught up to the tail end of an entire start wave, the faster group that had started 5 minutes ahead of us.
We flew down the other side and found ourselves in a pack of riders once we hit the flats, thankful to have wheels to hold into the moderate wind that day. The final water point of the day came with 50 km until the finish, so we still had a substantial distance to cover. Testing our patience was the terrain - a decidedly boring track of all farming district roads awaited us, with no singletrack, and very few views to be had. Any other time, riding through the wine fields would be intriguing, but we had spent so many hours in them already over the past 7 days that it was just business as usual. If nothing else though, we were thankful that it was mostly flat, and averaging a decent speed wasn't a challenge.
And just like that, we were rolling across the finish line. Finally, after what felt like an endless amount of time spent on the bike over the past 8 days. Some incredible highs, incredible lows, a few really bad days and some better ones; the emotional rollercoaster was over! We had done it, we'd finished the Cape Epic!
We were lucky enough to have what felt like endless people following our adventure, passing along words of encouragement and supporting us, and of course with that comes a lot of people who want to hear about the experience. It's certainly a fun experience to talk about, but words don't seem to do it justice. It's hard to describe the ridiculously wide range of emotions that you go through over the 8 days. There are times of utter despair - times where you feel like entering the race was the worst thing you've ever done in your life. Then there are times of acceptance, where you come to terms with the fact that you'll be sitting on your bike seat for 8+ hours and are somehow okay with it. And of course every range of emotion in between.
So although I've tried to paint a picture of my experience at the 2015 Cape Epic, I think I've only scratched the surface. Words truly can't do the experience justice...
16,000 m climbing
57 hours, 5 minutes, 13 seconds
In ride time, I spent more time in the saddle during those 8 days then my biggest month of riding. What a week!
Before wrapping things up, I'd like to thank our sponsors, whom without I never would have been able to even dream about completing the Cape Epic:
River Valley Health - I can honestly say I don't think I would have finished this race without RVH. There were times (most notably Stage 5) where we were dangerously close to missing the time-cut, so every percentage of performance gain was a difference maker, and working with RVH certainly offered up more than just a percentage of extra performance.
Pedalhead Bicycle Works/Out of Bounds: Thanks for letting me take 3 weeks of 'vacation' time!
Mavic - Bombproof wheels kept us rolling mechanical free for all 8 days!
Giro - We really put the new Vibram soles to the test with all the walking miles!
BIKND - Bikes arrived safe and sound thanks to the Jetpack bag!
Cannondale - The bikes worked every bit as perfectly as we expected them too!
Bike Town - Thanks for the countless hours of training on manicured fat bike trails!
Westin Cape Town - Secured our entry and dealt with all logistics, all the while treating us like rockstars along the way!
Family/Friends/Supporters - Words of encouragement went a long way, and on some days, just knowing we had a strong contingent of people back home rooting for us kept us from pulling the plug. Truly couldn't have done it without you!
That's all I've got for now. It definitely feels like there's a void in my life now that such a big goal is completed. But it's on to the next thing now, which just so happens to be another crack at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin as a Solo racer. It's only a handful of months away, so stay tuned!
As always, thanks for reading!