A Weekend to Remember

Last updated 2001-03-15

Anyone that lives a fairly hectic lifestyle will probably agree: Keeping fit is an essential part of that lifestyle. For the past year or so, I've played squash three mornings a week. I really have to bend over backwards to fit those sessions into my schedule, but I doubt if I would cope well if I didn't get my pulse racing intermittently.

I also run occasionally. Every few months, I manage to convince myself to don my running shoes and enter for a 10 km race. I never get around to preparing for it, but at least I find that a 10 km race is manageable without any preparation. I did no races in 1999, but 2000 became a busy year with not only two races, but also a club running session of 4 km!

During February 2001, it became clear that I was going to have to spend a week in Cape Town, to take care of some business. I phoned my sister Linda and told her that I'd be there for a weekend. She mentioned that the Cape Argus Pick 'n Pay Cycle Tour would be on that weekend, and suggested that I join her and her husband Eddie for the race. I was apprehensive, based on the fact that my last serious cycling had been in 1979, and that I'd even stopped using my bike as a mode of transport around 1990. My total experience on the road for the past decade probably consisted of a total of less than 20 km! However, as I had a month to prepare, I thought I could cope with it.

A day or so later, I heard about the Long Distance Edgemead Runners Robben Island 15 km race. I had heard about this race before, and it had appealed to me. It was being run on the Saturday, and given that I had run a 15 km race as recently as 1998, I thought that surviving this race would be a much surer bet than the cycle race.

I immediately entered for this race, and was lucky to receive the last entry after spending a few days on the waiting list. I phoned my sister to tell her, and was told in no uncertain terms that withdrawing from the cycling was not an option. I thought about it, and decided that I could probably survive both, given that I had four weeks to get ready. I would start training immediately, and I would have three weeks to train and a week to rest. Provided that I didn't try to achieve competitive times, I could probably pull it off.

Step One was to get a hold of a bike. As both my road bikes had not been used for over 20 years, I would need to do some work to get one of them roadworthy. I would also have to spend money to get one of them down to Cape Town. I decided that it would make more sense to buy a cheap used bike in Cape Town. I spent a few hours digging through CapeAds, an on-line advertising medium in the Cape. I found just what I was looking for: I bike without the looks, but with all the important bits. It was probably the better part of 20 years old, but the price was right and most of the important bits were there. My sister Linda collected it on my behalf, and briefed me well enough that I was able to buy the necessary spare parts and take them with me.

In the first week, I tackled a 10 km running race and did a 45 minute spinning session at my local gym. I also managed a leisurely 4 km jog with my running club. Unfortunately, my training ground to a halt right there, as I picked up a case of the sniffles that lasted two weeks. I wasn't even able to spend any time on a bike, apart from about ten minutes to check the adjustment of my cycling shoes. Fortunately, the sniffles subsided in the week before I left, and I was able to work in two games of squash in the last three days. Unfortunately, I also had to hand in two university assignments during this period, leading to some serious sleep deprivation.

I arrived in the Cape feeling decidedly unprepared. However, I also knew that I could probably survive both events if I could contain my desire to be competitive, and could manage to take it veeeeery easy. My new bike was a pleasant surprise, as despite a few hours of work that it required, it was basically in very good shape.

My business day was another surprise. I had recently started working for Prism, and part of my reason for being there was to talk to my new colleagues there about several projects that we are cooperating on. I was amazed to see how many people at the office were getting ready for the Argus cycle tour, either as participants or as supporters. Half the people in the office must have been involved somehow! All participating employees were given company jerseys to ride in, and there would be a company tent at the finish, with refreshments and an opportunity to exchange some lies about the event.

Robben Island

The excitement started mounting very early on Saturday, when we had to report at the dockside at 05:30. After a rather tedious registration process, we all boarded the ferries to the island. Robben Island is now a World Heritage Site, with a museum and a number of guided tours. The island has been used as a prison by the British, the Dutch and the South Africans at various times over the past four centuries, but its fame is largely associated with its recent past. Former South African president Nelson Mandela and others were imprisoned there after being convicted of armed resistance against the National Party government. Much of the guided tour revolves around Cell B5 where Mandela lived for some 15 years of his incarceration. As we arrived on the island, we left all our kit, including our watches, on a truck at the docks.

The Race is unlike any other that I've heard of. It is not based on speed, with the first across the line taking the honours. Instead, it is based on one's ability to maintain a predetermined pace. One has to nominate a time on the entry form. The difference between this nominated time and one's actual running time becomes the basis for determining one's ranking. Although topnotch runners routinely maintain their pace to much less than 1% of their intended pace and therefore still have the upper hand, this system does give the perennial also-rans a chance to make it into the upper portion of the field. I nominated a leisurely 1:30:00 for the 15 km. The associated pace of six minutes per km (9:36 per mile) is so relaxed that I knew I could maintain it without hurting myself. My strategy was based upon one fact only: If I felt pain or fatigue, I would know that I was overdoing it, and would slow down.

The race itself was wonderful. The bright blue sky and ocean, the white sands, the towering mass of Table Mountain in the distance and the constant bantering with other runners all helped to make it special. Occasionally we would pass barbed wire fences with guard towers, just to remind us why the island was famous. Much of the discussion, of course, revolved around the natives' passionate hatred of Gauties (previously known as Valies), the likes of me who come down there from Gauteng Province as tourists and disturb their peace. The remainder of the discussion consisted of responses from the Gauties, tut-tutting the protests peacefully while quietly wondering why they continue subsidising the leisurely lifestyle despite the total lack of appreciation... I also stopped at several points to read plaques next to the buildings, and even near the 9,2" (234 mm) guns once guarding the entrance to Table Bay.

At the finish, the event became even better. Despite my relatively slow pace, I still had to wait for almost two hours for the prizegiving. This time was spent eating and drinking the complimentary fare, and soaking up the sunshine by the poolside. During this period, I was amazed to learn that perhaps a quarter of the runners were also planning to ride the cycle tour the next day! We all received a Goody Bag, the likes of which I have not seen elsewhere. The bag itself is a very useful shoulder bag, and the contents included a nice T-shirt and a variety of useful samples of sponsors' products.

The prizegiving was in itself a great event. Apart from the fact that no-one had any idea of the outcome, there were around sixty spot prizes. Few of us came away empty handed! The winners had errors of 2, 3, 3 and 8 seconds. Some had done the 10 km route, and others the 15. I was 38th out of 370; they had managed to convince the authorities at the last moment to admit another 100 entries. I was happy; even at the height of my distance running, I don't recall ever having finished only 10% down the field! What I find most remarkable, though, is that even though I had run only 1% too fast, I still ended up well down the field. Clearly, a lot of runners really know their stuff.

We ended the day with a guided tour of the prison. Our guide had spent five years there in the Seventies. He spent much time relating their experiences with relish, and making "meaningful" remarks about how horrible the facilities were. At risk of sounding flippant, while I appreciate the emotion about some aspects of the ordeal, the facilities were at least equal to what I had to endure as a conscript in the Defence Force, and much of the "demeaning" treatment also sounded very familiar.

The ferry ride back was tedious but relaxing. I found myself having to be woken up as we docked, as the sunshine, the gentle rocking of the boat on the waves and the throb of the Diesel engines had conspired to make me nod off.

The Cycle De-Tour

The Tour is a major happening in Cape Town. Around 40 000 cyclists entered this year. Although the race is not unique, its picturesque route and some efficient publicity have pushed it to unparallelled prominence. When its scenic route around the Cape Peninsula was marred by rockfalls two years ago, the Tour was re-routed to double back on itself. Instead of going around Table Mountain, cyclists now cross the peninsula from west to east along Ou Kaapse Weg, and return around the eastern edge of the mountain. Apart from having to retrace a substantial part of the route and not seeing some of the spectacular scenery along the west coast, one now has to face a slightly longer route and the 310 m (1020 ft) climb across Ou Kaapse Weg. The route has gone from 105 km (66 miles) to 113 km (71 miles), although official literature maintains that it is only 109 km (68 miles). The medals have been redesigned to carry the title Cycle De-Tour, instead of the previous Cycle Tour, to reflect the changes. Organisers are hoping that the original route around Chapman's Peak Drive will be back for the 2002 event.

I inherited an entry from someone who would be out of town. I had decided not to officially substitute the entry, so that I could ride with Linda and Eddie. My benefactor just happened to be seeded to start in the same bunch with them. The start is something to behold, as around 40 000 cyclists set off in around sixty bunches at three minute intervals. Bunches are seeded to allow the faster riders to start first, but each rider is individually timedwith a radio transponder.

Along the route, traffic is fierce. Because of the mixture of skilled and novice cyclists, one has to be ultra-careful. Despite my lack of recent experience, I was happy to notice that my basic skills were still there, and I managed to survive the first 50 km with no mishaps and no signs of fatigue. I had also lost Eddie and Linda, as my road bike's light wheels provided an unexpected but huge advantage on the downhills. Although I had been duplicating my running strategy of the previous day and avoiding any strain at all, I was on track to finish under five hours. I was pleased, as the cutoff time is 7:15. I would definitely make that, unless there was a major mishap.

My first nemesis was a hill around the 55 km mark. I had been carefully following my running club coach's recommendations, and keeping my blood sugar levels where they belonged. However, at one point I simply could not keep the pedals turning. Perhaps if the first gear had been a little lighter I could have kept going, but in the event I got off and rested. Of course, I could have continued with a bit of determination and tooth-gnashing, but I also had to be mindful of the longer term effects. It was no good surviving one hill non-stop and inflicting damage that would show up later. It was the first time I have ever had to stop on an uphill, but it was not to be the last. Along this and Ou Kaapse Weg hill, I stopped about half a dozen times. Unfortunately, I could not walk during my breaks as I was wearing my old-style track cycling shoes. Their wooden soles and high cleats make it impossible to walk. However, on each occasion I would rest only half a minute and continue. Such a short break was always all that was needed.

Around the 100 km mark, I completed the last major climb. As I rounded the mountain, I could see the city and the finish. Only one short but nasty climb remained. I was home and dry! It was clear that I would not make five hours, but that was a minor inconvenience. I had achieved my goal, against all odds: After years of not running or cycling much, I had completed a 15 km run and a cycle tour of over 100 km on successive days. Perhaps only someone who has suffered the frustration of six years of ill health and an inability to exert oneself at all could appreciate the sense of accomplishment, and the gratitude about the fact that this chapter of my life was clearly finally over!

Eddie and Linda finished around twenty minutes behind me. My time was just under 5:20. It's not great shakes, with a placing of something like 23 000th out of 42 000, but it's good enough for me.

We spent some time with my colleagues at the Prism tent, and then retrieved our bikes from the bike park. Seeing around 20 000 bikes parked together is quite a sight! Workers were already packaging several thousand Gautie bikes for the trip home. Only on the way to the car did my first and only side-effect manifest itself: My saddle hurt so badly that I cycled all the way to the car standing up.

After a hearty meal and a short nap, I left Eddie and Linda behind to find my hotel. I had to make an early start the next day.

The Aftermath

On Monday, I attended a conference. I was amazed to learn that more than a dozen of the 200-odd delegates had also done the cycle tour! The evening, I was hoping to take in a talk by Dr Chuck Brady, a NASA astronaut who had just returned from a three month trip to Bouvet Island. He is involved in the planned Mars mission, and had taken the opportunity to monitor the behaviour of four people in a small tent in a hostile environment, to contribute to ways to allow people to travel and work in confined spaces for extended periods without working on one another's nerves. Chuck had also taken the opportunity to make over 20 000 amateur radio contacts. A contact with Bouvet is very desirable indeed, and Chuck must have made thousands of individuals happy.

He spent the evening showing around 150 pictures, taken straight off his digital camera without any prior selection or editing. The talk was very informal and personal, and much was said about the unquestioning support he had had from the South African radio amateurs. I'm afraid the evening has had a rather strange fallout for me. I have only ever had one serious career ambition: I wanted to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, when I enquired about the application process, I was told in no uncertain terms that a South African passport would not make the grade. I was very disappointed, and the vision faded over the years, but I never lost the sense of wonder or the fascination with things connected with space. Over the years, I have taken university courses on satellite communications, I participated in the amateur satellite programme, I read an assortment of books on the subject and always perked up and took notice when new-fangled toys were launched. I have also become a highly qualified pilot and an engineer, and have spent the past few years studying aviation psychology at university. However, I have not had any real prospect of making the grade. Chuck changed all that, as he feels that neither my passport nor my age is a problem in the current Nasa environment, and that my qualifications and experience would probably stand me in good stead. I clearly have some serious thinking to do...

After another day at the conference and a day visiting three more companies in the Cape Town area, I headed home. I must admit that the overwhelmining feeling on the flight home was that the mountains would look much nicer from 700 km up than they do from 10!

The weekend had another interesting spin-off. I have decided to tackle some duathlons. The variety appeals to me, and it appears that the physical requirements are not beyond reach. The first one I have set my sights on is the Powerman in Pretoria in November. It involves a 10 km run, followed by a 60 km cycle and another 10 km run. Survival is clearly not a problem, but I'm hoping to aim for a respectable time. Hmmm; I've never really thought of myself as Powderman...

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