Harris wins hardcore test of spirit

Alex Harris carries his bike during the Freedom Challenge Race, on his way to a new race record of 12 days 15 hours. Picture: Erik Vermeulen

Alex Harris carries his bike during the Freedom Challenge Race, on his way to a new race record of 12 days 15 hours. Picture: Erik Vermeulen

Published Jun 29, 2011


So, what is the toughest sporting event in South Africa?

The Argus Cycle Tour? With about 30 000 people finishing that cannot be. It may be hard, but cannot be regarded as exceptionally tough. Ditto for the Comrades with 15 000 runners, although up to 12 hours on your feet can be pretty hardcore.

The 200km Fauresmith Endurance Ride is tough for horses, but probably not quite as bad for the humans in the saddle. What about the Southern Shamaal Surf-Ski Challenge, where paddlers take four days to traverse the 250km of ocean between Port Elizabeth and East London?

Both are certainly tough, but probably not as bad as the Salomon Skyrun, a 100km mountain-trails run, or the Cape Epic, where riders struggle through some of the country’s toughest mountain-biking terrain for eight days, or the 500km non-stop Expedition Africa adventure race which involves trail running, navigation, mountain biking and river and sea kayaking.

All of the above are certainly difficult and provide an extreme challenge for most competitors, but surely the toughest of them all must be the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa.

This 2300km non-stop race is about as hardcore a test of fitness, skill and, most of all, mental strength you will find.

For this year’s Freedom Challenge, there were 53 starters in Pietermaritzburg, all with the aim of racing non-stop to Paarl in the Western Cape - and on Tuesday defending champion Alex Harris finished after a little more than 12 days and 15 hours of racing, smashing the record of 13 days, 15 hours and 50 minutes set by Tim James in 2009.

Harris completed his journey with two tough stints. On Sunday night and Monday, he rode 220km and then, after only a couple of hours of rest, about another 180km to the finish on Tuesday.

He left Montagu at 8pm on Monday and rode through the night to get to the finish at Diemersfontein and claim the new record.

During his 12-day journey, Harris has had to ride in minus-zero temperatures as the snow fell around him, struggled into the teeth of gale-force winds and battled through the enemy of all mountain bikers, pelting rain, which also means swollen river crossings and lots of sticky, slippery, energy-sapping mud.

On Sunday, Christoph Sauser won the 116km World Marathon Mountain-Biking Championship in Italy in 4hours 28 minutes at an average speed of 26km/h and ended up basking in the glory of thousands of cheering fans as the media celebrated his exploits.

During the race, Mount Everest conquerer Harris took six hours to complete the final 10km into the tiny Cape settlement of Cambria - an average speed of less than 2km/h.

But his efforts were no less spectacular than Sauser’s as he struggled to the end of yet another tough 27-hour overnight stint on the bike.

Sauser, who started his race at 10am and finished before 3pm, rode on superbly manicured tracks and had his route clearly marked out.

Harris, who left at 4am and rode 203km to reach Cambria, had to navigate with maps (no GPS was allowed) through deep bush, often along barely discernable trails - for much of the time in the dark.

He arrived in Cambria at 7am with those final 10km involving some extreme riding in pitch darkness.

While out on the trail, he sent a revealing tweet that showed his state of mind and gave an insight into the mental strength needed to complete this event: “Descending into Baviaanskloof! Battling with demons and dark places … Tired ….”

And then a few hours later, after negotiating the river crossings: “Baviaanskloof flooded and trashed! Madness … I gazed into Mordor!”

Harris finished with Eugene Nel, who was in one of the first batches to start and spent three more days to reach the finish. Riders depart from Pietermaritzburg in small groups of about five or six each day for more than a week.

And the reward for Harris? The same as for anybody else who finishes: a blanket, a pizza and a sense of achievement.

While the Cape Epic and other mountain-bike races offer hundreds of thousands of rand in prize money, the Freedom Challenge is a race in its purest form - you race for a little bit of glory and personal satisfaction.

Race rule No 10 states: “The rewards for completing the Freedom Challenge are entirely personal. At present, there are no financial rewards for the winner or any challengers completing the Race Across South Africa. All challengers successfully completing the Race Across South Africa will receive a Freedom Challenge blanket and be admitted to the Illustrious Clan of Blanket Wearers.”

And an extra rules adds: “All challengers who have completed the Race Across South Africa will be entitled to a pizza sponsored by the race director.”

Somehow a blanket and a pizza do not seem enough reward for the toughest sporting challenge in South Africa, but then the personal satisfaction of completing a challenge few can even dream of will last for a lifetime. - Cape Times

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