6 June - evening wrap up

Today turned out to be a good day on the trail.

The batch 1 RTR riders recovered from yesterday’d battering by the headwinds and rode steadily through to Ntsikeni. The first to arrive were Ernst, PJ, Trevor and Nigel, who were welcomed to Ntsikeni Lodge by Mr Ncgobo at 17h12, arriving comfortably before dark. Not far behind them were the rest of the group, Chris, Russell, John and Jeremy, who arrived at 18:13.

Batch 2 were a class act today: the first group of Carl, Dan, Walter, Frans, Russell and Murray arrived at Allendale at 16h00, well in time for sundowners on the deck. The rest of the batch arrived over the next 90min, first Sergio and Fabio, then Shaun and finally Rory just before 18h00. Compared to yesterday’s riding times, they were at least 90min quicker overall, proof that the headwinds yesterday were a major factor.

6 June - afternoon update

It's mid afternoon and time to catch up with some news from the trail:

Batch 1 are having a slightly better day than yesterday. They got away from Allendale well before 7am, got through to Centocow without too much trouble and are currently making good progress towards the start of the big climb up to Ntsikeni, the final hurdle for the day. Their swift progress today is confirmation that the howling winds from yesterday seem to have abated...much to their relief.

Batch 2 left PMB in a bit more of a hurry today and had all gone through Minerva by late morning, after having stopped for soup. They are currently all strung out along the Hela Hela climb and baring any disasters, should all get into Allendale before dark.

Clearly the weather has been kinder today and the forecast seems to indicate a few more days of the same - something these two batches will be hoping to capitalise on.

Why we ride the Freedom Trail

As a blanket wearer, Mike Woolnough is no stranger to the Freedom Challenge, his FC habit started way back in 2007. He tries to make some sense of what the attraction is and why people keep coming back:

"A few years back the FC promoted the race with the following sentence, "Discover South Africa, discover yourself."

The first half of that is very true, particularly for city dweller sorts like me. I had never ventured into the area known as the Transkei before and had no idea what inland Eastern Cape had to offer or truly understood the vastness of the Karoo. Back in 2007 the paucity of information around the event and conveyed experiences of previous participants made it a big unknown. Geographically speaking the event was spectacular. That initial sense of awe cannot be replicated in subsequent trips along the trail. The majesty of if however remains. 
The second component of the rallying call that refers to discovering yourself is an ongoing process. It is easy to remain composed in familiar surroundings facing the normal day to day grind of life. On the trail your ability to control your day is limited. You are often forced into reactive mode. There are days when the weather is on your side and your navigation is flawless. Then the weather intervenes and holing up until it blows over is not an option. It takes a lot of grit to leave a warm bed and head out into bad weather. It is in those moments that you start to discover what you are made of. You also find out what those around you are made of. I have had many surprises over the years as I have witnessed riders under pressure lose their veneer of politeness to reveal a person who is negative or intolerant. Even some who became abusive. Not all people react this way. Some withdraw deep into themselves and disconnect from the riders around them. We all cope in different ways. And I venture to suggest that we are capable of growing in our ability to handle tough situations. 
In my first race I just hung in everyday not daring to think beyond the next support station. Over the years I have allowed the "what if's" of my post race rumination to slip into my plans. I have watched riders do amazing things and wondered what it would be like to achieve those goals. Their achievements became my goals and those goals became my achievements. Each year I have amazed myself at my own ability to do the things of "giants". 
But why do we keep going back? 
There is no simple answer. When I ask other stalwarts of the Freedom Challenge I get a wry smile or a shrug. We are inextricably drawn back to the trail but are unable to articulate the reason. Why doesn't the Epic have the same draw? There are people who do the Epic every year but I doubt the attraction of that race is as visceral as the Freedom Challenge. 
I suspect it has something to do with the format of the Freedom Challenge. At times it seems a bit deurmekaar with what appears to be hands off management of the event. It is nothing like other formal stage races. There is no daily finishing line or formal daily routine. It's a line on a map and you are at liberty to go as fast or as slow as you like. There are certain out of bounds routes and a whole pile of optional bits and pieces.  
I suspect that the loose order is the attraction. In our daily lives we constantly conform to the various paradigms that direct our lives whether socially or familial. That is not to say these norms are wrong. However, when you are out on the trail you are stripped of the necessity to operate within the boundaries of these rules. There are few rules and no one is looking over your shoulder or directing your every move. You are on your own and the precepts that make us functional social human beings are for the main part put on hold. If you want to wake up at 2 in the morning and jump on your bike and ride off into the night you can. There is no one to stop you. By the same token you may choose to stop for the day after only riding for a few hours. If you fancy a 30 minute siesta under the shade of a tree halfway through the morning you can do just that. And there is no one judging you for it. The world and the events unfolding in it get put on hold. Your existence becomes the here and now. Dare I say it? You become selfish! Your whole world centres around yourself. Choices are made with only your own comfort and safety in mind. 
It's glorious. It's liberating. For a short while you get to do something just for yourself. Communication with the outside world is generally limited to a few minutes on the phone to loved ones and the occasional text message. As you stand on a mountain ridge overlooking a valley below, your life, your very existence is in front of you. And it looks like a single track heading off to the horizon. In that moment life is good, uncomplicated and completely satisfying."
from: http://www.mikewoolnough.blogspot.com - Mike's blog about his adventures.

6 June - the early bird report

Day 1 of the 2015 Freedom Challenge was a blustery affair. The first batch of Race to Rhodes riders fought strong, cold  headwinds on their way to Minerva and the pace was steady but slow. The depths of the Umkomaas Vallley provided some respite and they made the most of it by taking time out to brew up some coffee on a camping stove. But at the top of Hela Hela, the wind was waiting and the last 20km into Allendale were hard work. 

The result was a later than usual arrival after a long hard day in the saddle - Ernst was first to arrive just before 5pm, with PJ, Nigel and Trevor following soon after. The rest of the batch, Chris, Russell, John and Jeremy had their first taste of night riding and eventually got in just after 7pm.

The forecasts are for kinder conditions today, with the wind set to die down and the promise of clear skies - this should help Batch 1 overcome the tough stage to Ntsikeni and hopefully give them the chance of all arriving before dark this time.

It should also make things a bit easier for Batch 2, who are heading for Allendale today. 



Tomorrow, Friday 5th June, the first batch of riders will set out from Pietermaritzburg, some seeking the coveted blanket that comes as the prize for completing the arduous 2,200km Race Across South Africa from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington, while others will be attempting the shorter 500km Race to Rhodes.

The Freedom Challenge comes at the end of a very full 1st half of the year, which includes most of South Africa’s iconic endurance events in various sports, and starts from the Maritzburg Town Hall, the very place where the 1st Comrades Marathon started back in 1921, just a week after the running of the 90th version of that famous event.

“The Freedom Challenge, however, is very different from races such as the Comrades Marathon”, explains race director Glenn Harrison. “This year will be the 11th year of Freedom Challenge, so we are still a young race by comparison”. In addition, Harrison points out that the race is unsupported. “While there are so-called support stations every 100km or so, where riders can get meals and rest should they wish, in between these stations the riders are very much on their own. There is a predetermined route which they are expected to follow, but riders are expected to navigate by map, compass and narrative as the route is not marked. The use of GPS is strictly forbidden. They must also carry their own equipment and gear, and are not allowed to meet up with any supporters along the route”, Harrison explains. “Unlike the likes of Comrades or Ironman, therefore, Freedom Challenge can be a somewhat lonely race, as riders pass through some of the more remote parts of South Africa, often only encountering a handful of people each day.

The race is unlike many others in that it also possesses some sizeable technical obstacles which have to be “portaged”. These include a 4-5 hour hike-a-bike up a ridge called Lehanas Pass, in order to cross the Drakensberg just before Rhodes. Various others include the spectacular Grootrivierpoort into the Baviaanskloof Wilderness area, “Die Leer,” a rugged climb out of the Gamkaskloof and a final hurdle near the end, the 6-7 hour portage up Stettynskloof near Wellington.

The Freedom Challenge is considered by many to be one of the more extreme events on the calendar – the long distances; challenging terrain; unpredictable winter weather; tricky navigation; 37,000m of total ascent and the non-stop format all seem to confirm this. “It’s not uncommon for riders to get lost, and for a few that has even meant sleeping out for a night in freezing conditions under an emergency blanket” says Harrison. However, he is quick to emphasise that despite the daunting reputation of the event, completing it is very much within reach of the ordinary person, provided they apply common sense and bring with them a good attitude and a sense of adventure. “The key to successfully completing it is to focus on making steady progress and taking it one day at a time. With a cut-off of 26 days, there is sufficient time to pace yourself and actually enjoy the ride.”

At the sharp end of the field things are a bit different: “The exciting thing about the Freedom Challenge is that amongst those who choose to race it, it is extremely difficult to identify potential winners. While the contenders can be extremely competitive, the race is an amateur event, raced by people from all walks of life who have day jobs to go to. In addition, races of this nature are not that common on the calendar, so gauging the form of a rider is very difficult. That unpredictability makes it exciting, and there is every possibility that a relatively unknown rider could emerge from the woodwork to be a serious contender.“

The Race Across South Africa has had some illustrious past winners, the most well-known arguably being Martin Dreyer of Dusi Canoe Marathon fame, who set the current race record of 10 days and 15 hours back in 2012. He was chased that year by former winner and Everest climber, Alex Harris, who himself went under 11 days in the process.

Riders leave Maritzburg in batches of about 10 per day, starting on Friday 5th June, and continuing over the next 10 days. About 50 riders will be competing in the Race Across South Africa and 70 in the Race to Rhodes.

Following a race of this nature is interesting: riders will be carrying tracking devices and one can follow their progress as well as the regulare progress reports online at:

Event Website | Twitter | Facebook

Page 12 of 12

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2015 Freedom Challenger Blogs


Ingrid and Michael Talbot - Mike and Inky's Freedom Challenge

Lee Fuller - Adventure Guaranteed

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Chris Fisher +27(0)78 702 9178 (Race Director)
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