Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Legs eleven: over a decade of adventure racing

This month, July, marks my 11 years in this sport of adventure racing. It was in this month that my first team started the 250km Old Mutual Hi-Tec event in the Kamberg area of the Drakensberg, an event organised by Zirk Botha. Adventure racing was in its infancy in South Africa - a little over six-months old.

We were all novices to everything multidiscipline – me, Lester Cary, Quintin Walker and Riaad Isaacs (yes, of Big Brother Series I fame), with Tracey and Roger as our support crew. Our backpacks were huge, stuffed with regular sleeping bags (hollow fibre car ‘n camp style), borrowed Dri-mac jackets, hand-held torches... Our most advanced equipment being Camelbak water reservoirs, an item as new to the country as to us and those brightly coloured ‘parachute fabric’ tops. I rode a Giant Iguana mountain bike – a hardtail with no front suspension – borrowed from Linden Cycles.

68 hours and five minutes after the start, we completed the race – the last team to finish. It was, for me, a liberating, exhilarating, humbling and life-changing experience. And I wanted more, more, more. I couldn’t think of anything else but adventure racing.

My first team at the finish after 68 hours of non-stop racing (with very little sleep!). Quintin, Lester, me and Riaad. I'm wearing a Wits Underwater Club beanie and a Dri-Mac type jacket. Yes, that's a compass around my neck (I started navigating with my first race). The guys are wearing those 'parachute fabric' running tops. Yes, those are Polly Shorts that Riaad is wearing!

At this stage I was 18-months into my Masters studies – bored, frustrated, disillusioned; I also had a part-time lecturer post, which I loved. I was playing Provincial A team underwater hockey, with trials coming up year-end for the SA team. Almost every road race I ran – from 10km to half marathon - was a personal best. Sport had been a pivot in my life, around which everything else rotated, for years already. So, I did what came naturally; I leapt into planning for our next race, a 500km in the Cederberg.

I put my money from lecturing into buying thermal clothing, a headlamp and other bits; and a bicycle (I still have the same bike!). My mom couldn’t understand my focus. It was only six months later, when she seconded for me at a race that she understood. My life rolled from one race to the next. I deregistered from university (AR was a catalyst, not the sole reason).

Although I'm not very sentimental - passing on more than I keep, I do have a scrapbook with oddities like this; my first race passport. This scrapbook also has some articles on adventure racing, as it was emerging in SA, and my very first writings for Adventure Zone and OutThere magazines. I still remember the shark and, especially, the train punch. This was on a freezing cold (truly sub-zero) paddle. My hands were so frozen that I couldn't press the scrapbooking punch. So I put it in my mouth and bit down to punch the card!

Now, eleven years and many races later, I still love this sport as much as I did the night we joined hands, singing “Ole, ole, ole...” as we walked towards the finish of the Kamberg 250km, welcomed across the line by Zirk, his assistants and the tv crew.

Through adventure racing my career changed from science and medicine to media and journalism; I learned that writing is in me - a part of me; I landed work on a tv crew tracking teams on foot; I’ve travelled to major international events in obscure places to write about races and teams; adventure racing introduced me to white water rafting, Camel Trophy, staged foot races, mountain running and orienteering. And, the people. Yes, the people.

My life has been enriched by meeting so many adventurous, brave and courageous people. I’ve raced with them, against them and I’ve watched them from the sidelines, blinking away tears in sympathy for their pain and disappointments and also their successes and triumphs.

www.AR.co.za has obviously been a major part of my adventure racing involvements. Websites were not new to me; I had been coding sites for six years by the time I created www.AR.co.za in April 2001. I’d set up various online structures (international) for underwater hockey. Adventure Racing Club was an obvious progression as I’d been administering sports and teams and clubs since primary school and through my high school and varsity years.

Last year, in preparation for a ’10 years in AR’ piece, which I didn’t write at the time, I asked Zirk to write something for me on his recollection of the early years of adventure racing in South Africa. This is what he replied.

Early in 1998 I read an article about adventure racing in an international triathlon magazine. Since 1996 I had been professionally involved in triathlon event management and represented a few athletes. I also coached at UCT and raced myself, but I was starting to be bored by the monotony of it. When I read the article I knew that this was a sport that would do well in South Africa, and besides, I was hooked!

After approaching Mark le Roux at Old Mutual World of Endurance, who immediately agreed to give TV coverage, I prepared proposals for various brands regarding the launch event scheduled for December 1998. Jeremy Thompson at Distell agreed to pay for a full-page advert in OutThere magazine, under the banner of Bernini.

I started scouting for a route and settled on the Western Cape, which was close to my home in Cape Town, once I realised how much time goes into putting an Adventure Racing route together. With Cara Lee taking care of the office and attending to the triathlons we were committed to present, I could focus on getting a route together.

Thanks to the ad in OutThere magazine we managed to get 13 confirmed team entries and as December got closer I managed to get hold of Pat Devine, the marketing manager at Hi-Tec, who agreed to be a product sponsor for this event.

The final route was about 215km and it started at Kleinmond. The competitors had to do a hike, followed by a mountainbike, then a hike and kloofing through the Hottentots Holland mountains to bring them to the end of the first day. The paddle that followed on the Theewaterskloofdam wasn’t for the faint hearted – temperatures soared to the high 30’s, with no respite on the mountain biking leg that followed. The final leg, a hike from Greyton to MacGregor, passed through Boesmanskloof with the promise of an ice-cold Bernini at the finish line.

As the last team crossed the finish line, an unseasonable storm came bucketing down causing severe floods in the Western Cape.

The footage captured by the World of Endurance Team was spectacular and the resultant two series event broadcasts were exactly what was needed to launch this exciting sport in South Africa.

Early in January 1999 I met with Pat Devine and he agreed on behalf of Hi-Tec to be a naming sponsor for a series of adventure races to be staged across South Africa. Mark le Roux of Old Mutual World of Endurance agreed to continue the coverage for co-naming rights and supported the idea to present events starting with a 180km, followed by a 250km and culminating in a 500km final, a series structured to help all newbies cut their teeth on shorter events before having to tackle a 500km adventure race.

The first event in 1999 was a 180km race staged in the Sabie area. With a host of top triathletes and teams, and the event sponsored by Hi-Tec and Old Mutual, the sport was the talk of the town. OutThere magazine was ready to do a five-page special. The teams took off in the early hours of the morning. What ensued was a spectacular learning curve for both event managers and competitors! Teams failed to comply with minimum food requirements; they got lost and ran out of food and water. Their support crews were frantic with worry. A member of one of the support crews came close to physically assaulting me. The incident was fortunately without casualty. We parted as friends and he successfully entered and completed the next 250km event at Glengarry in the Natal Midlands in July 1999.

The 1999 season concluded with the 500km series final staged in the Western Cape Cederberg. 23 teams entered. After a briefing at Elandsbaai on the West Coast teams did coasteering and then they mountain biked through Clan William into the heart of the Cederberg. It was down to the wire as Pieter du Plessis and his Iridium Africa Team raced Brandon Collier, Sandra Eardley and Philip Swanepoel’s team for line honours. In the end Brandon, Philip and Sandra pulled it off and were crowned the first Old Mutual/Hi-Tec South African AR Champions.

After the success of the sport in 1999 Hi-Tec encouraged the creation of a series of short-course races to make the sport accessible to the man on the street. This saw the start of an Urban Adventure Series in 2000. Three events were staged but for some reason this series was not as popular as anticipated. The long course 180, 250 and 500 km events kicked of with the 180km race around Empangeni in KwaZulu Natal.

Cara’s family pitched in to host the event, which started and finished on the family farm. This race will forever be remembered as the greatest mud bath in the history of South African AR! Teams battled though the Zululand countryside mud bath as support crews battled to the next checkpoint. Dominique Le Roux, then the editor of OutThere magazine saw her mountain bike fly unassisted down the abseil mountain; she observed from a distance.

After a 250km race around the Knysna area, the 2000 series came culminated with a 500km series final staged in the Tzaneen area. For the first time competitors and race crew had to deal with the challenge of coming face to face with Africa’s dangerous wildlife. An unfortunate team of marshals had established their ‘base camp’ on the favourite feeding spot of the local hippo cow on the bank of the Tzaneen Dam. They were just getting ready to put their chops on their braai when the hippo came storming out of the water, stomping out the fire. The marshals wisely abandoned their post and slept in the boat trailer until they could be rescued!

2001 introduced a new era in South African adventure racing; the Adventure Quest Africa became a qualifying event for the Adventure Racing World Championships, and the Hi-Tec Dirty Weekend Adventure Racing Series of sprint races was introduced.

Memories. Some are vivid; others are fuzzy – no doubt blurred by racing for 70 hours on four hours of sleep... Teammates – dozens of them over the years. Challenges – emotional and mental as much as physical. Mountains, deserts, coastlines, forests... we have a wonderful country, a small bite of this World.

Thanks seem inadequate compensation to people and places for the richness of my experiences. Yet ‘thank you’ is expressive simplicity comparable to this sport that is, at its core, human-powered forward progression.

Thank you.


Lobby said...

What lovely memories! thanks for all you've done for AR through all those years:)

swazidarron said...

Great piece...

Unknown said...

Great read Lisa ... brings back some awesome memories!

Unknown said...

That 250km Drakensberg race was my first. Also a completely novice team who managed to reduce their captain to tears before we even left! We finished the first run in last place, but went on to finish tie second! That race got me totally hooked. Since then age (!) and the pressures of life and work mean that AR is just a memory. :) Oh I also still have that first passport.

Uncharted W said...

Great post Lisa! Thanks so much for your passionate investment into the sport we've come to love. I now again feel like a complete newbie compared to these races...


Hugh said...

Great memories indeed......the first Swazi Xtreme, now in its tenth year, the Drifter Series, Roof of Africa, Children of Paradise......and covered all the way through by Lisa - with passion!
Thanks Lisa.