How do you put 402km of non-stop bike packing, 8500m of climbing and 28 hours of ride time into a short paragraph to share an experience with you? The answer is you simply don’t! Writing transforms the intangible of the motions and experiences into something more. A map to a future us with lessons, laughs and blessings. Nonetheless, all roads lead to this present moment and I wouldn’t change a thing as long as I am being the best version of myself every single day. It is both the big and the small moments that I write about and I acknowledge: “I am alive”.
With so much uncertainty in the past couple of months and ill health, I wasn’t sure if I would find myself at the start of the Burra500 race. Alas, there I was, ready to dig deep into my racing and cycling experience and…. suffer. Needless to say, that is exactly what I found myself doing for all 402km.
As I waited for 6:30 am to tick over to start Burra I thought, “Life is short - I am here to do cool stuff!” The start seemed fast and I was pretty quiet. I didn’t really have much to say… I was just there, going through the motions and probably questioning what “cool stuff” I had now got myself into. Burra was one of the many races on my 2021 race calendar that had been pushed out to 2022. I had convinced my riding buddy, Stu, to do a chilled coffee ride with me that would start on Friday and end on Sunday. For me, I was there to race. Having been familiar with parts of the Burra route, I kept waiting to recognise the next corner. But even with my front row seats, there seemed a lot of corners and climbs that were unfamiliar. I shifted my senses between the new sunrise showing off across the rolling hills and the idea of riding through the night. At the 7-hour mark, my mind went back and forth with some quick maths. We had only done 100km, but we were close to 3000m of climbing! Himeville was 180km and that was a good 7 hours away. The problem: the kitchen for dinner closed at 8:30 pm. This had always been a mini goal in a big goal, but as time passed the goal seemed equally big. Basically, this meant that our elapsed time needed to stay the same or Stu and I would be cold… and hungry! As we hit more familiar roads and admired the beauty of our country my mind eased as my sit bones, back and hands started to feel the discomfort of the rocky gravel. My bike was heavy and steering my Chappy was a full-body workout!
As the night sky turned from red to blue to black it was clear we were getting closer to Himeville. It was cold! Stu, silently suffered in the cold while we plodded on. We arrived at dinner and we sat in front of the fire at the beautiful Mooncroft Manor Boutique Country Hotel. Some motorbikers looked at us like we were mad, we probably are I thought, but I would be crazy to lose this opportunity. It was below freezing outside, our cheeks were rosy and our lips chapped. I took off as many top layers as I could to warm them up at the fire. Stu and I debated whether it was best to ride through the freezing cold night or sleep. I was wired, but Stu’s unusual work hours had found him ready for bed. With much convincing from my side and a chirp that I am a “tough cookie” we got dressed and ready to set back onto the route. But just as we were about to leave, Stu opened up his bag for his final layers only to find he had left it behind! My face dropped. “You have to be kidding me?” I blurted out. It wasn’t even a debate, we had no other option but to book ourselves in for the night. My evening ritual of cleaning my teeth and face was done and my mind had to adjust quickly to having a shower and to falling asleep in a warm comfortable bed. I know right, you must be thinking… adjust? See this is what adventuring does to you. You have to mentally dig so deep that a bed no longer sounds as exciting as sitting back on a bike after 14 hours with sore sitting bones. I am sitting here chuckling as I type. Well, it’s the truth! We knew the early morning would be coldest and so we debated the time of our next departure. As I let go of my expectations of riding through the full first night, I reminded myself of my “why”. I was doing these adventures for me… for the love of movement, the freedom to exercise, to be in nature, to push myself mentally and physically and to put life into perspective. Sleeping or not wasn’t going to change this for me. I do however have to admit that catching 6 hours of sleep, and having that hot shower certainly changed the early morning suffering score!
The next morning we set out. It was freezing despite my hand and foot warmers already doing their job. I struggled with the physical throbbing that moved between each muscle group in my body. I was so so sore - I no longer felt like a “tough cookie”. On a positive note, the Lower Loteni Road was a familiar stretch and I had four highlights along the way. The first was a spontaneous coffee stop which included a dehydrated chicken and rice meal at about 9:30 am. I sat on a rock under some shade and I was totally celebrating life! The second was on another mountain, just before we hit the tar on a stretch which I had once suffered going up. As I passed the cows, and their reflections in the water, I was reminded of just how different the body can feel at any moment in life. I felt good at this point and I was grateful. The third was when we finally hit the tar. It was an “ahhhhhh” moment. I had waited for all 250 km to use my tri-bars and shift my sitting bones. The tar was beautiful! This was a good reminder that not every kilometre is equal! The fourth moment was seeing my brother and his girlfriend on their home soil - this made for a pretty warm welcome into Notties. We sat down on the grass for some pizza. They couldn’t believe how quickly we could eat, and then how we managed to ride after all that food. It was about 45 minutes into our 30-minute break when I was starting to feel as good as new… well kinda!
It was that time of the day again, and the air began to chill as we raced through to Karkloof. This is a special place in my heart. One where my love for the trails had been scatted. For a change, we sped downhill, and I was loving it, well as much as I could with all the upper body joint pain and steering a heavy Chappy. We got to climb 28 of 33, we had passed the 5000m of ascent and began the 5km climb up to Benvie Gardens. I was struggling. Stu was ticking along and doing a lot of waiting and encouraging. It was dark and my watch was giving me trouble, and to top it off, we had also been chased by two stray dogs. I called out to ask Stu if we had done the next 10km yet, and he said, “no, it has only been 1km”. I thought to myself, “oh it’s going to be a long night”. It was just that. From about 9 pm to 11 pm, it was my turn for my eyes to fall heavy. This was a familiar feeling in all my night racing where my bedtime body clock kicked in. I told Stu I needed to sleep. He quickly reassured me that there was nowhere for us to stop and sleep. Finally, at 11 pm I gave Stu point-for-point instructions on what we needed to sleep. He had never had to sleep on the side of a trail before. I found myself in my space blanket, in a forest and sleeping. It was pure magic! My body was heavy and everything in me ached… even my mind. It was the concentration of all the accumulated hours that had finally caught up to me. Stu asked how many hours I needed to sleep. I laughed and said, “45 min will do”. The alarm went off and we layered back up, ready to start the next climb, 29 of 33. It was an 8km long stretch up to Karkloof Country Club. The night hit the day and the air-cooled more. Finally, we hit a couple of kilometres of tar and we could see the town lights up ahead. Once again, I sat on Stu’s wheel as we rolled into Howick Petrol Station. We sat on the floor and ate our last meal: a chicken mayo sandwich and chocolate milk. I was concerned that the tellers may kick us out of the shop, so I stuck my head around the aisle only to see the tellers sleeping on the countertops. It normalised me to feel this tired.
Back on our bikes for one last stretch with full tummies, heavy eyes, numb toes and running noses we were at kilometre 397 as we peddled towards Hilton. I was beginning to feel like I had got this adventure thing down when Stu turned to me and asked if there was any part of my body, that was not sore. I was going to joke and say my left pinky finger but just as I was about to say that, it cramped. With a chuckle, I responded, “everything is sore”. What amazed me at this moment is just how much the body can endure when you think it can’t. I was leaning into all types of discomfort. This moment taught me that to make a change in life we have to be willing to embrace the discomfort that comes with the growth. We ended Burra with no finish line, medal or spectators, just our own personal victories of adventuring. It felt different, yet there was something totally fitting about this moment. I was there racing just for me. For every Burra rider, it is a personal victory. One that is hard to explain the meaning of, or the small changes within you, or the lessons learnt along the way or the teamwork and encouragement shared, or the physical and mental grit, or the sheer adventure of not knowing what is around the next corner.
Inevitably, I will be back for more.
Photo credit: Rae Trew-Browne (photo 1, 12, 14, & 15)