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Beyond the Light - Freedom Challenge

Alex Harris, mountain biker

On 21 October, at 4am, 49-year-old Alex Harris crossed the finish in the race across South Africa. He'd set the fastest time for the Freedom Challenge - moved from June to October by lockdown - completing the 2 150km self-navigated solo race from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington in nine days and 22 hours. He recounts his battle against the clock to achieve his longheld goal of a sub-10 day finish.

The most selfish thing we can pursue is our perfect self. It is also the most beautiful. The elegance of potential is unmatched by any competitive construct.

To chase someone else is noble but falls short of the single, self-absorbed obsession of chasing oneself. I ride hard because the picture I chase is of me, formed and moulded over the last decade. I see myself at the finish line under 10 days. I see myself riding stretches in

the middle of nowhere at the pace needed. I see myself afterwards relaxed and smiling, knowing all along I was right. What is this clean version of me that is untainted by the dullness of a normal day? Where does it come from? And why can I not push it away?

Sitting on an airplane many years ago I was flipping through the in-flight magazine and found myself strangely drawn to an article by Tim James. He had just set the record for the Freedom Challenge, somewhere around two weeks.

As I read through the captivating piece, I was drawn in deeper by many aspects.

The name ‘freedom’ was both mysterious and exciting. The pictures of Tim in remote parts of the country with his bike were intriguing. But most of all, the instant, arrogant conclusion that this was something I could do left me with questions.

And not the kind of questions that can be ignored. Questions that speak to the deep part of our souls. The part that makes sense of the world and our place in it.

I believe all of us to a greater or lesser degree make this instant summation on a daily basis.

We judge our lives by it, set our goals, measure ourselves against our peers, and ultimately, find peace, or a lifetime of scratching in the prison of ambition. This is the why. The easy part. The how on the other hand, is another matter.

Working out 'the how'

Ten years later and I still hadn’t figured it out. I’d had five Freedom Challenge starts with only three finishes, and every time something had gone wrong. On occasion, plenty had gone wrong. I had lost maps, been shocked by electric fences and almost lost a shoe. I’d ridden through a heard of buffalo with a body so infused with bee venom that I thought they were docile buck. I had broken bike parts and more. All part of learning what the FC is all about.

On paper, it is pretty simple. Ride at 10km/hr for 20 hours and repeat for 10 days.

That’s it you might ask? Yip. That’s pretty much it. The challenge with the Freedom is the length of time. The distance. The continuum. The timeline. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are going, but over that continuum stuff will go wrong.

Most of us carry this perfect picture of ourselves, our potential, like a balloon on a long piece of string. As soon as the wind picks up, it’s easier to let it go. For us and our perfect self to connect requires much to fall into place. The perfect race so to speak.

Years of doing increasingly difficult things had refined a number of key processes.

One was discipline. I knew innately that the timeline was my enemy, and so time would make or break this. Every minute would count. When I set off from Pietermaritzburg I had refined my gear to the bare minimum.

Alex Harris, mountain biker

But it included a cheap stopwatch. I would count every minute if I had to, but not one would go to waste.

Taking on the reps

Day 1 would be the biggest day of them all. To get to Glen Edward is about 250km and almost 6 000m of climbing. But it’s important to start strong so I keep a steady pace from the go. Cresting Cunningham’s Castle three hours in, my self-talk turns to REPs (Race Ending Pieces). This is normally a rocky descent or a tricky portage where you could break your bike or injure yourself badly. REPs are simply parts of the race I have identified as being potential race enders. Here I intentionally back off and talk myself through the piece. Now, in the beginning, it’s easy to back off a REP, but later on, when the mind is mush, it will take every effort to force myself to stand down. The Umkomaas is the next REP. Up Hella-Hella, through SS1, on past Centacow and across the Gwangwane river, scene of much mayhem in the past. In 2010 I lost my maps crossing this river and blundered on blind for a day until retrieving my next set of maps. In 2012 I dropped a shoe and watched it float downstream, just clutching

it before it disappeared.

Every time I get off my bike, whether it’s to pick my nose or to pee, I start the stop watch. I give myself one hour to mess around each day, including time eating in the stations where I won’t sleep. Just 60 minutes. Day 1 goes by without a fault. My lines are good. My nav is spot on. I’m two hours ahead of schedule and I’ve slept three hours at Glen Edward.

Day 2 is similar and I arrive at Vuvu way ahead of my schedule so I give myself one extra hour to sleep. Leaving sometime around 3am, I start making my way up the infamous Lehanas Pass in the dark. Just a light breeze disturbs the night air, but as I push and carry my bike higher, the wind picks up. By the time I get to the shepherd’s hut three quarters of the way up, it’s pumping. Overall it’s not as bad as last year, but the absolute strength of the wind and the venturi effect through the gap near the huts is gale force. I stop as I approach the

roar. The sun is about to make its entrance. I stand and I’m instantly blown back and

down, my bike almost flying off like a kite.

For the next 15• minutes I leopard crawl and drag my bike over those 100m, not convinced that it’s passable until I’m across the gap, with battered shins. Soon I’m over the Drakensberg and heading towards Rhodes fighting a head wind.

The race to Baviaans

A key part of the sub-10 plan was getting to Romansfontein in four days. This would setup a familiar back half and also ensure many of the tricky portage sections would be done in the dark. It’s to this end that I push hard these first few days.

Day 4 sees me cross the tricky Slaapkrantz and Bonthoek portages in the dark. I’m feeling strong but sleep monsters are crawling out of the woodwork, and, surprisingly, the hallucinations have started early. I take a 10-minute, an eight-minute and another eight-minute powernap during the day and roll into Romans on schedule.

Just. But my clothes are a bloody mess.

I’ve been battling blood noses the whole day in the heat so I throw my clothes into a

machine and jump into a shower. It’s a big concession. Apart from the allocated

three hours sleep at each stop, I’ve also given myself 30 minutes before and after. This is for meals mostly, and general admin.

Day •5 and 6 pull me inexorably towards Baviaanskloof and the realisation that if I am to make the compulsory gate time, I will have to skip on my sleep. I have no choice but to leave Bucklands late on Day 6 and forgo any idea of sleep. The plan is changing. I have a mostly hate relationship with Baviaans. Twice before I have gone through during the night, once just after a flood. It was a nightmare beyond what my vivid imagination could conjure up, and it was dubbed Mordor, a name that has stuck.

It is a long forgotten 4x4 track that involves nine river crossings through one of the most

remote wilderness preserves this country has. When you exit the infamous Osseberg, you have two opportunities to make the gate at Cambria and the compulsory Buffalo escort, 6am, or 1pm. Miss the 1pm bus and it’s a 17-hour wait for the next window.

Aerobically I’m on fire. I came into the race 8kg lighter and I feel the difference on the hills. I cross the Groot River and push hard up the monster hill on the other side, hoping to claw back some time for the kloof. When I finally drop in I have about five hours to the gate.

The first crossing goes well, as does the second. The third is a dog show. The Covid-19 lockdown has pushed the race from June to October so there is much more growth in the kloof. Towering forests of reed not seen in the winter block the old track across the river and it’s a mess. There are also way more cacti and thorny things.

As I hack across the third gap, I’m being torn apart by a myriad sharp things. I’m looking at the watch and I start to doubt, too much of this and it’s over.

The fourth gap is better, as is five and six.

Things are improving. Seven is normally the bad one. I find the line quickly and make sure it’s right. The rest flies by and I exit the kloof with an hour to spare. It is a major victory and I’m immensely relieved.


Battling the monsters

At 1pm I enter the gate to the reserve under the escort of a vehicle and begin the long trek up through the Baviaans. It’s smoking hot and my head is boiling. I stop at every stream and fill up as well as dunk my head.

All I need to do now is just keep the long days ticking over and not make too many mistakes.

Soon after darkness the monsters are out and my mind is mush. I go into the wrong entrance at Dam se Drif, unable to work out how far 2km is or read my bike computer. I steal three hours sleep then head into the night. It’s a long crawl to Willowmore for breakfast.

Then the interminable flats to Prince Albert and another scorcher of a day. I’m on autopilot now. It’s dark again and I’m climbing the Swartberg Pass. Plenty of other riders are out tonight. Or are they?

Sometime around midnight, I make the turn into Gamkaskloof and start the long maze to hell. This section is strangely fast as my mind fights to reconcile two dimensions. My Christian faith understands it as the spirit world but it’s damned frustrating. There are people everywhere.

Plenty of people. Most of them seem to be helping me in some or other way. Some are

helping with decision making. Others with logistics and admin. There’s even someone

helping me pedal. Then there are random people waiting for me to open a gate so

they can continue on with their existence.

Now and then an ash-coloured demon flirts with my shadow.

The two hours of sleep I swallow at Gamkaskloof will be my last in the race. I leave with no breakfast and head towards the ‘Ladder’.

Brain mud

In the back of my mind is this plaguing question as to whether I’ve gone too hard and whether I’ll still have enough for the final push. I shovel down a waffle at Rouxpos but spend too long. My stopwatch is spitting venom at me. It’s past an hour damn it, long past. I grovel through the masquerading roads of Anysberg cursing the heat, and wasting time stopping at

spinning windmills. As darkness falls I start another game to stay awake. Is it a TV game, radio host, spinning class? I can’t recall. Two, maybe three powernaps bring me to Ouberg and the drop to Montagu.

Time stops. I’m not sure if I’m repeating myself or I’m lost. I know the trail intimately but my sleep-deadened brain has no place for intimacy. I’m in and out of Montagu and into the Winelands. Again, I strike brain mud. I can’t seem to make a turn across the Breede. It’s like raking candy floss out of wet concrete. I know I need to turn but I just can’t. Finally I’m across and claw my way towards McGregor. The night stinks. I cannot tell if I’m going up or down.

Hours and hours and hours it seems to do the 4km to the sneaky left.

Finally I’m at McGregor as the sun comes up. A big group of riders doing the Race to Paarl congratulate me and head out the door. I’m in a funk. But I know it’s almost over. One more hard push. McGregor is like a garage. Fill the tank, move on. I push hard through the new section even though it’s muck. Then it’s open roads and soaring hills.


I catch up to the big group and enjoy the company until they stop for water. I have one

goal now. Make the take out in Steynskloof before dark. I push hard and am surprised

by how much power I sill have even though I am nursing a truckload of pain.

I arrive at Touthaven, the final support station, and quickly rip open one of my

boxes. Nothing of interest. They take frustratingly long with lunch as now I’m counting the minutes. I still have 17 hours left but the final kloof is gnawing away at me like a jackal. At last I’m off. As soon as I’m at the dam I take my wheels off and tie them to the frame, bike on my back. It’s almost pm. I head up the path and into the kloof.

It’s way more overgrown than I’d hoped. As I go higher, the bush is thicker, the proteas more menacing. I’m moving as quick as I can, but time is moving quicker. I’m wasting so much of it checking and rechecking lines but I have no choice. As the sun finally leaves the stage, a dark, unsettling sense fills me. I will not make the take out in the light. I hit the final forest of proteas and grind to a halt. I’m as lucid as can be but absolutely smashed to pieces. The tank is almost empty. All around is thick bush. I sit and formulate a plan. It’s simple. I will

hack a tunnel to the river, cross it, then beeline straight up and out.

I’m no more than 150m away from the river but it takes me three hours to carry out my plan.

The problem is I’m so tired, physically drained. I flatten one or two branches then sit down for five minutes and recover. Twice I lose my bike and it takes me 15• minutes to remember what the process was to not lose my bike, and what were the rules. The alternative to this nightmare is to lie down and sleep. Pull out the space blanket and wait till morning. Kiss the sub-10 goodbye.

No way, I remind self. An old mantra keeps playing through my head. Something I learned while walking unsupported to the south pole. This is the best chance I have of pulling this off. Right now, right here. Keep at it. One step at a time. Don’t throw it away.

Dirt roads and ghosts

At last I’m across. I know I am still down range of the normal take out, but I also know this line will get me up. It’s steeper than I’d hoped. I try and pound as quick as I can upwards, but small pine trees pick at me like precocious kids. My shoulder blades are skin and bone and the bike digs in making me wince. Finally I’m up, and along the old track, and through the gate, and across the N1 onto the old pass. It’s just 6km of gentle tar then a final downhill. It’s sometime after midnight and my mind enters one final pool of tar. All along the road are

people. They are not cheering me but are just standing around playing music. Every two minutes I stop and pull to the side and climb off my bike. Right. The training ride is

over. Let’s go home. Get on your bike, you idiot. You’re in a race. Oh yes. Off I go. Two

minutes later, I repeat the scene. It takes me almost 90 minutes to drag my way up that pass before I slip off the other side. Dirt roads and ghosts. Stones and dropped sins litter the road. Why are you here? Go home, dammit. Skulking shapes and past habits seem to line the track watching me closely, suggesting that I cock it up.

I find the power lines but just can’t find the gate, the back entrance to Diemersfontein and the finish line. I slip off into the darkness and find myself in a quiet town. Somewhere in the kloof I’ve left my brain and it’s just involuntary muscle contraction now. I loop around and through the front entrance to Diemers, across the dam, through the trees and over the line. The time is nine days and 22 hours. Just two hours left. A handful of people clap and cheer as I roll to a stop. In me a silent crescendo is building up, and still now is rolling on. It’s over. Finally.

The question is, are you going to let go of that balloon?

Photos by Llewellyn Lloyd


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