Early Morning Risers

The muffled phone alarm wails. A submarine from the deep. An orb flickering in the mist. Tugging the darkness from the eyes.

I ignore the pleading that I return to bed. My automaton mode activates. I switch off the house alarm. Tip toe past the sleeping feet peaking out from duvets. Down the stairs. Switch on the kettle. Get a cup. Fill it with a spoonful of coffee, a dash of milk. Some honey for marginal gains. The water rumbles as my PJs drop to the floor and I step into my cycling shorts.

The lights of the basement switch on and I carry up the turbo trainer. My bare feet recoil at the coolness of the tiles. Another trip to bring up the bicycle and placeholder for my front wheel. I unravel a towel across the handle bars, plug in the turbo trainer and place the small yellow screen onto my bars. I click buttons so I can see wattage and speed.

The kettle switches itself off.

I pour and stir. After removing all evidence of the ritual (milk back into the fridge, honey and coffee onto the shelf, teaspoon into the sink), I walk behind my coffee mug to the lounge and switch on the TV.

We are thousands. Early risers. Treading silently to the task at hand. Stealing a few pre-dawn hours to prepare for whatever may come. Choosing rituals over sleep. It makes me think that authors of vampire novels had their inspiration from such people. Night walkers.

My cup of coffee allows a few minutes of respite as the brain cogs settle into position. I look at the piece of A4 paper with notes of the bike session. 80 minutes of cycling at race pace. Followed by 10 minutes of race pace running. My emotions fail to react. The session is the session. No need to overthink it. I select a movie and mount the bike.

The cranks begin to turn.

The escape from the vainglorious platitudes begins.

And soon pools of sweat begin to fill.

In between, there is a moment in the movie: Hell or High Water. It seems important. I don't want to miss this. I stop pedaling and wait for the noise of the wheels to stop. Sweat drips onto my top tube.

Two cowboys are in a coffee shop. Bank robbers. Brothers.

Tanner: I never meant nobody get away with anything, ever.
There's a pause.
Toby: Then why in the hell did you agree to do it?
Tanner: Because you asked, little brother. 

The quote buries itself inside me. That there is pure power. I think of my brothers and what I would do for them. What I wouldn't do for them. The crimes that we would commit. And the cranks begin to turnover once more. Like the words in my mind.

Because you asked little brother. Because you asked.

Soon the sun makes its presence known. Light streams its way through the leaves and against the back wall bearing family pictures. I hear noises upstairs. The others are stirring. Not much time left until the day begins.

I jump off the bike, take off my top and open the sliding doors. The dogs come in, happy to be inside and scurry upstairs. I tie a pool noodle around my waist and jump into the pool. It was raining earlier so the grass is greener. The water is surprisingly warm and steam rises off the water. The water is warmer than the air. It feels as though I am pool running with ghosts. I pump my legs and arms and mimic the road. Anything to save the Achilles, my fickle old friend.

The 10 minutes are soon done and I head to the shallow end. A puddle forms underfoot as I towel off the water. The sun is now around me. I can hear mumbles upstairs.

As the blades of sunshine whittle away at the dark, and I start on breakfast, it occurs to me that we - despite much evidence to the contrary - are not alone. There are a pantheon of others out there. Friends, competitors, family, strangers. Rising in the dark ahead of the sun. Fighting the night. Building universes out of air and toil.

And with the pitter-patter of feet on the stairs, I inhale deeply and smile.

The miracle that is the day has begun.


Because you asked little brother.
~RobbyRicc

Lords of Destruction - East London 70.3 Half Ironman

East London's 70.3 is a half Ironman distance race: 1.9k ocean swim, 90k hilly bike, 21k run in which they have embedded a hill named Bunkers Hill which needs to be summited twice.
Pistolero and The Revolver (no caption required)

Hordes gathered in mock solemnity on Orient Beach. Muscles sheathed in hearse-black neoprene and apprehension. Thousands of eyes fixed on the ocean and the horison's edge. I could barely see over the shoulders of all the Johnny Bravos. My feet clawed at the warm sand which squeezed between my toes. Toes digging deep to get better traction. Preparing for the fury that lay a few feet away.

Shaun sneaking in my SIS nutrition
(Race Day Ammunition) from PE
East London Baywatch
We were all here for the same thing.

A shot at the slots for World Champs.

100 of those suckers awaited to be given to the best of the 2,000 age groupers.


To the best of the best.

The marshals corralled us into gates and loaded us every ten seconds. An electronic beep opened the marshals' arms to the water's edge and released us to the great beyond.
 
Roxy, The Warmonger and I left together. We all ride with the Apocalypse Cows, so we were in good company. A few dolphin dives and we were beyond the waves. A gentle rolling ocean, heaving and breathing in its salty buoyancy. Green and deep. Bubbles from the feet ahead hovered for a moment before rising gently to the surface. Around me I felt calm. Roxy's rotating arms to my left, Warmonger to my right in his sleeveless wetsuit. I could see his smiling teeth.
 
My intentions were to jump onto a robust pair of feet and cruise the swim. But the shifting ocean made this difficult and I swam most of the course on my own. I settled into my big swimming gear with nice tight swimming lines, flexible shoulders, the occasional flutter kick and pulled at the water.
 
I exited in 28.55*.

Position in age group - 6th.
 
*This equates to 1m24s per 100m which can only mean that the shallow water entry, wetsuits and salt water are much faster than none. Last week I swam a comparable distance in fresh water without a wetsuit and could only manage 1m34s per 100m at maximum effort without a subsequent bike or run.   

 
Stealthfighters Roxy and Kelly


Pistol Pete

Through the soft rain and mist, I held back. A pace of composed civility while tormented hellriders rode by on the storm. Marco Stichini swooped by like a raptor. We hollered each other's name in the small amount of time that our relative speeds would allow.

"Robertooooo!!!" "Marcooooooo!!!"

Marco would go on to a well deserved 4th place in his age group. Cream always rises to the top.

The rain abated and I made way for the misguided hopefuls on suicide missions. They'll come back to me, I thought. If not, they're better than me.

At just after the half way mark, a wild rebel yell came from up behind me. It was The Warmonger on a one-man rampage. I could see he was in full Big Chain Only mode and tearing open a path through the riders. His turnover was impressive. His bike twisted at the force he pushed through the pedals. Not as smooth as Stichini but highly effective.

Despite my quadriceps' protestations, I sucked up some courage, cranked the wattage up to the 230's, lifted my speed to the 40s and went after The Warmonger. As soon as I was a fistful of bike lengths behind him I settled in and held the distance. He can pace from here. I have faith in his ability.

The rollers were upon us and we held 30s on the ups, 50s on the downs. At some full tilt stage I saw 70kph on one of the longer Hot Wheels descents. Soften the back and wrists. Relax. Enjoy the speed while it lasts.

After a gearing malfunction on one of the hills, Warmonger stopped to adjust his chain and I moved ahead. The heat was beginning to percolate and a cauldron awaited at Orient Beach.

Bike 2h49m 32kph

Position in age group - 22nd.


The Hunt...

...for....

...more scalps.
I have a confession. It's not an excuse. In mid December I was chasing my boys on their bikes down Hobie Beach to go hook up with some mates and I overcooked my Achilles. The slight injury meant any light tap to my left heel would leave me in tears. So instead of smashing the Achilles further, for the next month I opted to swim and bike lots intermingled with very easy runs and one or two very fast aqua jogs. Yawn. 
 
So I was not precisely sure what would be waiting for me once I jumped off the bike. Would the Achilles hold? Would it disintegrate within a few metres and leave me in a writhing heap on the pier? 
 
I had faith that it would bear my body's weight. It's been through worse. And there's nothing a bit of adrenaline and brain fuzz can't mask. 
 
I managed the first k in 4.38. My heart rate was probing the 160 bpm range and it was getting hot. I touched the brakes to 4.45s and held it there for the next few k's. The Achilles felt great. My time off had allowed some healing. However the quads objected to their predicament. It wasn't exactly what was promised in the brochure.
 
But it was a beautiful day and I was happy to be out in the sun. So I focused on rhythm and the ocean which both kept me company. The first loop went by without too much drama.
 
And then I encountered Bunkers Hill on the second loop.

It would shred the quads even before I was half way up the leviathan. Its gnarly teeth clamped onto the adductors. I sucked down a Rennies and started my power walk. Early. Control, or be controlled. My heart rate looked at me and barely dropped a point as I made my way up the dragon's back. I felt the first tug at the fabric of my reality. People lining the hill stared at me in silent screams like an Edvard Munch painting. And in between them I could see smiling faces. Familiar eyes looking on at me. Love in their eyes, nodding. I had seen them before. Ancestors from family portraits. People long gone to other worlds acknowledging my efforts. No judgment, just love. The whites around my eyes dilated and the tunnel ahead began to blur.
 
It occurred to me as the road turned to treacle, and later taffy-quicksand, that the mission was beginning to resemble one of suicide. A complete burning of the bulb down to its bare filament. I was the misguided hopeful. Betrayed by flesh and fantasy. My heartrate peaked at 183 and I received a roundhouse of magnanimous proportions to the temple. Depletion set in. The body shut down and I fought the sludge to the finish. 

Later as I dry heaved on the finish line and tried to realign my wobbling frame, I consoled myself: how do you know where your limits are if you don't pursue them?

The Warmonger et moi
Hindsight is a fine thing. We found out later that there were about 10 or 11 slots in the 45-49 age group. Some people didn't take their slots and so the slots rolled to number 17 in the age group.

I later discovered I was 6th in my AG out the water, 4th onto the bike, 22nd off the bike and I had run myself into 11th position in the first half of the run. From my fuzzy recollection, I felt I was close to the action at that point, however I was not prepared to settle for top 10. I was after 5th spot. What I thought was required for a guaranteed slot. Somewhere sub-5. And that meant going to the edge. Go big or go home.

At about the 15k mark, I detonated. All gains haemorrhaged. Stronger legs came by me and I was unable to respond. A communication breakdown between the mind and the body. I finished in 21st position. 3 minutes off the last slot.

How do you spell gutted in East Londonese?

We have ourselves a reader

4 x Apocalypse Cows and
a future world champion
28m55s Swim
3m39s T1
2.49 Bike (148HR ave)
2m33s T2
1.47 Run (170HR ave)
5.12 Total

The Warmonger shared something with me a few days post-race. Something appropriate to conclude the report. “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

Never lose your enthusiasm,
~RobbyRicc

Cows of The Apocalypse - The 2017 edition of the Telkom 947 Cycle Challenge

19 November 2017

09h07 - As my wheels flipped belly side up, and gravity released me from its gentle embrace, my shoes unclipped from their pedals and I floated. Chewbakka was on my right. Also airborne. As though the Millenium Falcon was experiencing zero g.

The Angry Kenyan was on my left. In his stormtrooper black and whites. Exertion had drained the blood from his face. A tell-tale vein snaked its way beneath the skin of his temple. Two stormtroopers to his left heaved and sighed behind white teeth. The finish line had arrived.


Chewbakka and Han
We would hit the deck, Han Solo and Chewbakka, in a twisted embrace of steel, tyres and road rash. Cartoon characters sliding on tar to an inglorious lament of oohs and oh nos from the crowd.

The sub-3 had permitted us entry once more. It was a duck and a slide underneath a closing roller door. Han sliding on a hip, his spacegun drawn in one hand, Chewie rolling under with his crossbow in check.

But before we hit the black of the tar, I thought of my comrades: The Apocalypse Cows.

The riders ahead.

Those fallen behind.

I thought back to the alarm clock.
 
Princess Leah and her stormtroopers

03h00

Alarm clocks don't lie. It was 3h00. Soldiers call that time oh-3 hundred. Mosquitos had been at my throat all night long. I kept cranking up the fan until they evacuated the room and my palate was dry. Sleep before a day like today was pointless. It's a jumble of neurological impulses going through a million permutations of what the day might bring. Ready for the mishaps, the challenges. Ready for fate. Ready for destiny. Mosquitos could circle. Like helicopters in Apocalypse Now. But they could not prevent the day that was before us. I sensed its inevitability. And I love the smell of inevitability in the morning.

Jake and Han
03h45
Things happen in threes. George forgot his race number at home. Brooksie crashed his car into his garage. And Ben's car wouldn't start. Our 15 minutes leeway was eroding. The sun was not yet up and the day had already begun. But we would not give in that easily to misfortune.

George woke his wife up. Brooksie's got his car mobile. And Ben ditched his car and started riding to the meeting point. My brothers, Alby and Mucky, detoured to pick up Ben's gear. We were on the move but we were officially late.

The crew was waiting for us at the Sasol. The East Rand posse. Rock solid and reliable. Like Navy Seals. A quick team picture and we were on our way.

4h00
05h45 - DL batch
Nearly 6h08

Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge is a war film which follows the exploits of a pacifist soldier, Desmond Doss, at the Battle of Okinawa. Against all odds, Doss - who carries no rifle - remains behind to save his fellow soldiers and single handedly belayed 75 injured men down the Hacksaw Ridge cliff face. For this he was awarded the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty. This superhuman feat took Desmond 12 hours and each time he would go back into the warzone, under heavy enemy fire, repeating the words "Lord, please help me get one more". 

20 minutes in
We were 20 minutes in. The first ridge had been cleared. We were in one piece. Pete Moravec was in pieces. Breathing through a straw and yo-yo'ing off the back. The peloton exhaled. There was a snap. And then a ripple in the fabric. Something black was off the group dragging its chain behind a rear wheel.

10-15 minutes in
"I'm out. I'm out." A shout emanated from the pack. It was Darth Vader.

Darth had snapped a chain. The group was suddenly 54 strong and unruly. Without a leader reigning in the thoroughbreds, the pace had increased. Surreptitiously so. The legs creaked with the strain. The breathing became ragged. The salt began to lean on the eyelids.

There was another shout into the wind. Nigel - who was in the thick of the frontgunners - turned his beard toward the sound.

"Obi. Wan. Kenobi." The sound was gruff and loud above the noisy ruffle of the group's speed.

"Darth's gone. Snapped chain. You are captain til he gets back. Your team!"

Nige nodded.

Nige aka Obi looped a long rope around the frothing steeds, jumped on the brakes and bit his heels into the ground. But the beast would not heed and it surged.

Radio communications came through by Kyalami that Wookie's chain-link had mended Darth's chain. A team of five - including Darth, Wookie, Yoda and a pair of stormtroopers - was powering behind to catch up. Obi dug his heels in once more and the group succumbed, tapping off for the few minutes for Darth and the boys to catch up on the hills of Woodmead.

Francis dances
We were close to the highway, and the team, for those who were able to hold on, was composed. The early hills had taken out one or two riders early on. One to a puncture. Another to fate. But the core was together. 50-strong. Once we are on the highway, we can relax.

As the thought entered my mind, Francis's front wheel hit the back of Jayde's and he did the left-right-left-right downward shimmy into the tar ahead of my front wheel. Hitting another ACs back wheel is not permitted. I noted the fine. In addition, an AC is not permitted to fall off one's bike. A second transgression. Things were not looking good for Francis.

My fingers grabbed on my brake levers as soon as I saw Francis's wobble. His face-plant left no room for my wheels which rode over him and his limbs. The impact flipped me onto my stomach like a whale coming in for a beach landing. A third transgression for Francis and one with serious consequences because of my connections to the High Command.

Francis fractured his wrist during the fall. A fourth infraction. ACs - as we all know - are not permitted to break bones. But Francis endured and made no mention of the fracture. He remounted, sorted his twisted brake pads, and rejoined the team.
Four fines for Francis
It wasn't soon enough as the ponies up front began drilling a hole into the highway's ozone. The rest of the team hid in the vortex, sneaking a drink from their bottles when the angle of the road permitted. Workers at the back nudged weaker riders back into the safety of the peloton's core. A stiff hand on a lower back was the glue that kept things tidy. Energy shared, lives spared.

Captain Oates
"I'm at my limit, " Alan one of our new AC's called out to me as we rode above Wits University on the M1. "I'm good. I'll drop off in a bit. No need to let anyone stay with me. Thanks. And good luck."

I thought of Captain Oates in the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition, stepping outside his tent into a blizzard to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. "I am just going outside and may be some time."

That was the last anyone saw of Alan.

We manoeuvred the highway's sharp u-turn towards the Nelson Mandela bridge. The group splintered into components up the hill, each team sprucing itself for the bridge photographers. The next few kilometres allowed for the usual attrition as the tar rolled past the Johannesburg Zoo and Jan Smuts. Each incline took out a soldier. The small climbs and rises, jabs to the solar plexes, would break the will of riders on the edge.

I could feel the strain up Randburg: riders' knees groaned at the pedals; quads taking in shrapnel; lower spines absorbing the flack. But we knew Randburg's top, where we could settle our lungs on the flats, was close. Enough time to regroup before the gun-run past the tequila stand.

The Ridge
It was here that I had a memorable conversation with Ben Burnand. He had been at the rear all day. In the trenches. He looked strong. A composed stormtrooper. He had done a magnanimous job so far. Pushing anything that came towards him.
Ben
RobbyRicc: We're the back. That's it.
Ben: Is there anyone behind us?

I looked back down the road. All I could see was tumbleweed, shell holes and death.

RobbyRicc: There's nothing left for us. They're 100, maybe 150 metres back. But they're done for.
Ben: I'll go back.
RobbyRicc: There's nothing there left to put together.
Ben: With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don't seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together. 

I looked at Ben, his eyes dancing like assassins.

RobbyRicc: You may believe that Private Doss. But they're all done for. Done for I tell you. Better to save yourself man - to live and fight another day.
Ben: RobbyRicc, you go ahead. I'll go back. Because I don't know how I'm going to live with myself if I don't stay true to what I believe.

And with that he pulled over to the side of the road turned his wheel around and headed back into the fray.

All I could hear behind me was Ben's mutterings. "Help me get one more. Lord, help me get one more."
"Help me get one more"
The bridge too far
After speaking to Ben, I noticed the chasm between me and the crew had opened. They were moving on. My legs were not. I took a drink from my bottle. Depletion was setting in. I needed more oomph. More sugar. I sucked back on one of Keith's SIS gels (AC ammunition he had said) and waited for the cells to recharge.

In the Witkoppen doldrums, with the gap still ahead, I dropped as much energy as I could to bridge back. The group held its distance. My speedometer read 52kph, and still the gap loomed. I held my head down and pushed. Sweat and sunscreen dripped through my glasses and onto my bike's top tube.

I looked up. The gap was holding. I needed to find something more. But what? And from where?

"Come on RobbyRicc!" a voice hollered behind me, a hand placed itself on the base of my spine and skyrocketed me up the hill. "Yeehaa!"

It was Spartan. A man amongst men. He had lost us about 20k's back. A piece of plastic caught in his wheels. It took him several minutes to remove the debris from his chain. He had been time trialling back to the group since Jan Smuts. His nudge returned me to the pack. I was back from the dead. And indebted to Spartan for all eternity.

At the last hills of Malibongwe, I took a look around. The silence of the ascent had returned. The race had taken some, spared others. Whoever was left now, was not going without maximum effort. Riders paired up. Arms across shoulders. Palms on lower spines. The bodies exuded groans and agony. The sweetness of the descent down the Lion Park was yet to come. Minds knew that the pain would subside. It could not remain like this for much longer. How could it? It too would have to pass.

Charge of the Light Brigade
For this moment, the sky would go off like a flash bulb, etching the image of the riders into grey, black and white. Flecks of sinew and muscle. Grimaces. Teeth clenched. Mouths open. Gasping at the air. An image forever chiselled into the synapses.

Our Normandy landing. Our planting of the flag into the ice of the South Pole. Our axe into the hide of Everest. Our charge of the Light Brigade. Only in black and white.

All that was left were the bumps over Steyn City, and a nasty little leaner to the finish line. Ten to fifteen minutes of suffering. At most. And as always Steyn City would deliver. Riders, knees wobbling, held for the sub-3. Relying solely on Darth's pacing. This was his crew, his pace, his ride. And aside from the chain break, Darth don't make mistakes.

The Climb
For the second time of the day, up the last climb, I was overwhelmed. To my left were three stormtroopers: the Angry Kenyan, Kim and JP. To my right was Chewbakka. My old friend Chewie. Good for any battle. The suits had been designed around Chewbakka. And only one guy would be worthy to wear the Chewbakka suit: The Warmonger. A one-man vortex to my Han Solo. The key piece linking the Force and the Rebel Alliance.

The five riders crossed the line behind the core of the ACs. 2h59m and 27 seconds. And we basked in it, smiling broadly, bracing ourselves for the confetti and rock music. And for the long finish line. And for the groupies. Lots of groupies. Intergalactic groupies. Star Cows groupies.

And then Chewbakka's bike tangled with mine and we flipped.

And for the split second in the air, I knew we had made it.

My wheels spinning in the air like Saturn's rings.

Chewbakka twisting and turning - his crossbow strapped to his back - like a comet entering orbit.

And - for a moment - I swore he looked at me, smiled, and gave me a wink.


 

09h30 - Loop 2

After pizza and cool drinks, served by Karyn (Princess Amidala, Luke Skywalker's mom) and my brothers, Alb (the other Darth) and Mucky (the other Chewbakka), we restocked supplies and headed out for a second loop.

The Brothers Riccardi - moulds broken at birth
And the second loop, a whole other adventure, became our blue sky moment. Summed up best by what Chewbakka sent to me the day before the ride:

Once more into the fray...
Into the last good fight I'll ever know.
Live and die on this day...
Live and die on this day...

Chewbakka, Angry Kenyan, Jeffrey, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker



Chewbakka 3 - Han Solo 1
~ RobbyRicc

Notes:
Of the 54 Apocalypse Cows who started:
  • 37 went sub-3 hours;
  • 15 finished but failed to make the sub-3; and
  • 1 did not finish due to a broken spoke. (A fine will - of course - be incurred as ACs are not allowed to break spokes).
Ben Burnand finished in 2h59m57s.

Nine Sherpas - My 9th Comrades

Sherpa. 1. a member of a people of Tibetan stock living in the Nepalese Himalayas, who often serve as porters on mountain-climbing expeditions.

 
Between episodes of the Walking Dead with the sound of waves lapping at the apartment's ankles, I noted a few thoughts about the race at hand. Writing before an event can be quite an eye opener for afterwards. It narrows the distortion between expectations and reality. We all lie to ourselves I guess. Taking notes helps keep you honest.

After my last sing-it-to-the-mountains post on the real meaning of Comrades, I chose to move away from linking Comrades to an alien invasion of earth in a blog post. There are parallels with District 9, sure. Probably too obvious. Too cliched. And I really wanted to write about Sherpas.

Sherpas you ask? Yes. Sherpas, I respond.

It was triggered by the thought of the Comrades bus drivers. The runners who forego their own race to pace a running bus according to a set time goal (sub-9, sub-10, sub-10.30, sub-11, etc). Selfless saints of the road.

And also by the thoughts of my brother, Alby, and I. Swapping the mantle of Sherpa every time the other imploded on the tarred road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The road is unforgiving we have found. Any weakness is exposed and magnified and brings you to your knees. As for any attempt up a mountain, having a guide is helpful.

And so with a flurry of finger tapping, I opted for a new blog title: Nine Sherpas.

*******

Sagarmāthā means "Forehead in the Sky" in Nepalese.
Some sherpas call her Chomolungma: "Mother of the World".

Hardly anyone summited Mount Everest in the 2014/2015 climbing seasons.

A 2014 avalanche killed 16 Sherpas closing the climbing season on Mount Everest before it had begun. 3 more perished: one of altitude sickness, one in an accident, one by lightning.
 
In 2015, an earthquake epicentred 8kms below the Himalayas triggered an avalanche claiming 18 climbers. The earthquake was the worst natural disaster to ever hit Nepal. Around 9,000 deaths.
 
Mount Everest was closed for business.

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary
 
Some Sherpas had already called the bad omens years before, convinced that Sagarmāthā didn't want them there. Without routes and ropes up the summit, it was doubtful whether future climbers would ever get a chance to climb. Some feared their attempts were gone forever.

In 2016, nine Sherpas headed up Everest to clear the snow and lay down fresh ropes to the summit. To cross the snow and ice laying across the 12 metre high Hillary Step which ridges to the top took the climbers four hours. Their valiant efforts opened up the route to the top. Madame Everest, unmoving and unperturbed, allowed many to climb her that season and in return took 6 climbers to her deathly bosom. 

Sherpas and mountains and quests to the top. It all reminds me of runners and hills and the Comrades.

Queen of all asunder

 Race Predictor

Beer Miler and that weak ankle

This would be my 9th Comrades. My 4th up-run. My race predictor function (which I found on my watch whilst uploading my stats to my smart phone in exchange for a free smoothie at the gym) told me that based on its internal calculations I was capable of a 19.35 - 5k, 40.37 - 10k, 1.29 - 21.1k and full marathon of 3.07. That's all good and well saying maybe-you-could maybe-you-might but until you do, how do you really know? I treated the information with caution. My gut told me that those figures were about right. Maybe could knock a few minutes off the 21k and 42k. If I got angry enough.




My running season volumes were unimpressive. 86k (January), 78k (February), 93k (March), 246k (April), 228k (May). A total of 731ks, ensuring I didn't even make the 800k-minimum on the Comrades predict-you-performance chart. Based on my speeds, the chart predicted I was capable of a 9.27 Comrades.
Bah humbug, I muttered to myself. What do the data scientists know? Should odds be stacked against you, even overwhelmingly so, is it not one's prerogative as an athlete of semi-intellectual yearnings to ignore those odds?



Cankles

Lynotherapy track marks
In order to maintain a factual record (in case I try this again in the future), I need to come clean. My physical condition in the lead up to the race was not stellar. The ankle and calf had been through minor incidents, incidents elicited by:

(i) a shot at the African Beer Mile record (where for a few blessed minutes I was the new record holder until I realised - in a beer induced haze - that I had forgotten to complete the last lap);

(ii) a suburban accident where a boom gate had prematurely descended onto me, pushing me off my bike. At the time I was steering Ben's bike with one hand to Cub Scouts to pick him up; and
 
(iii) blowing out my right calf at the Soweto Marathon. 
 
Creaky ankle aside, I was in good nick.

 
 
  
Many things were still in my favour: brain had seen it before. Stress levels read Camomile green. Legs purred. Plus pacing will be easy:- walk often and early; don't mess with the hills; conserve energy. And - importantly - the Riccardi Brothers don't fold. Often. The Riccardi Brothers don't fold often.


The plan was simple:
4h12 first half (4.05 for first marathon)
4h36 second half  (4.28 for second marathon)

That's an 8h48 minute Comrades at an average of 6mins5secs per k.

Lyndsay Parry (official Comrades Coach) suggested a half way time of 4h22 to 4h27 for a Bill Rowan. Alby and I think that those times are better suited to someone who has done higher volume training and not suited to guys going in half baked. If you are confident in your speed and not your endurance, better to get yourself ahead of the game at half way to allow a conservative second half. It's either visionary thinking or the thinking of idiots. Suspicions suggest the latter.

So we used the 4h27 as our fall-back position. Worst case scenario and all.


More airbrushing required

Keith

The last time Alby and I had the pleasure of running the Comrades with a Buhr, it was with the twins, Steve and Keith. It was highly memorable watching the twins turn on each other every few minutes for some reason or other: the pace is too fast, the pace is too slow, the hills are too steep, the running buses are too close; the running buses are not close enough. Alby and I kept ducking to avoid the handbag swinging. A highly memorable run.  

For this year's edition, Keith "The Blur" Buhr would be the sole representative of the Buhr Clan. He was in good condition having completed a few long runs at 5 mins per k pace. However in the few days before the race his inner demons had surfaced and would not keep still. Self-sabotage was afoot. Keith decided to braai the day before the race - barefoot - and stepped on a hot coal. For  the rest of the day he walked around with his thousand-yard-stare and wearing only one sock.

The burn was not too serious. But it added to the mind games.

Keith, we agreed, would run with us until half way. After that he would be unleashed onto the course that remained towards his first Bill Rowan.

Last good luck wishes

What it Takes to Get up a Mountain
 
In 1953, the 38-year old Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and 33-year old Edmund Hillary were part of the expeditionary team led by Sir John Hunt to be the first to summit Mount Everest.  Tenzing had 6 previous attempts notched on his belt dating back to 1935.  Hillary, the 6 foot 5 beekeeper from Auckland, had recce'd Everest only once before.
 
To get them to the summit required 350 porters, 20 Sherpas and 10 climbers.

Expedition Commander

 
The Expedition Commander

My second eldest brother, Stef, is the key piece of the puzzle. He plays the role of expedition leader to the Riccardi Express. He honed his running skills from being privy to our various Comrades' attempts, including numerous bomb craters and sparse moments of running greatness. He is renowned for his annual gate-crashing of the highly-secured Green Number tent at the Comrades expo.


Stef tells a great story about Comrades. One of my favourites.

Every year we have an annual pre-race lunch with good friends, the Boakes, and are reminded by Doug Boake of his sub-7 hour Comrades. His sub-7, he swears, was done on a few hundred kilometres of running, and because he had a train to catch to get back to Joburg. His time? 6h58 in 1976. Incendiary.

 

The Boake's, The Riccardi's and Keith Buhr.
Doug is far left.
 With all the Boake-Riccardi talks of running lore, the rivalry inspired Stef to throw his hat into the ring. He contemplated running Comrades. 2 things over the weekend changed his mind.

1. Getting a crick in his neck looking up through the clouds to the cliffs of Inchanga. It was like sniffing smelling salts he recalls.

2. Bowlegged runners, broken from their race, leaned up against wee-walls, unable to step onto the ledge to relieve themselves. They held onto the wall with one hand and angled their pelvises inwards in order to hit the target. Stef watched on in amazement.

The events left him scarred. He knew then he was cut out more for commanding expeditions, than running. With Alb on his 14th, me on my 9th, Stef was lining up for his first 20+ run, having earned his double green the year before.

 
Ernesto and G-Man - The Porters




The Cyclone

G-Man, the Angry Kenyan
Up in Joburg we run with a great salt-of-the-earth group of runners at Bedfordview Athletics. Two of our running partners, Ernesto "The Cyclone" Ciccone and Graham "the-world-famous-Angry Kenyan" Parker, drove down to support their team mates in the Coelho Club (a club for runners who eat rabbits). T'was a noble gesture. Camaraderie at its finest. They would keep an eye on us throughout the race and would not judge us too harshly when they found us walking and eating ice cream lollies up Drummond.
 
The Race (in a nutshell)
 
Two things of note occurred. Both within the first 30k's.
 
Thing of Note #1
 
Keith missed his gels at the 20k table. He had relied on his accounting background to precisely calculate his nutrition consumption: 1 gel every 45 minutes. 3 pristine gels awaited his arrival, but no table could be found. And, ever so gently, Keith began to unravel. 
 
Keith (his voice warbled with emotion): - Did you see the table? They have my gels? I've trained on these gels. Without them I am screwed.
Rob:- I've seen nothing. Don't place too much hope that you'll actually find them.
Keith (emotions kaleidoscoping between extreme despair and violent flare up):- I'll never make it. Where's the table? I'm dead. Dead I tell you. I'm not feeling well. Are you guys feeling woozy?
Alby:- We don't take gels. We scavenge. Keeps us in touch with our primal senses. Just take some sugar. That's all gels are.
Keith:-  Forsooth! My gels don't have sugar. They are isotonic carbo gels perfectly designed to cater for my first attempt at the Bill Rowan. Without them, all is lost. I have no chance. No chance at all.
 
Keith would break out into a soliloquy of Shakespearean proportions. To gel or not to gel. And so on. Alb and I picked up jelly babies, dropped by grubby children with sweaty palms, off the road. Try one, we would encourage Keith, revelling in the brief sugar quanta that would kickstart our neurotransmitters.
 
Up ahead we saw the Bedfordview Tent near the 30k mark.
 
Keith: A gel! A gel! My kingdom for a gel!
Rob: Withdraw my lord, I will find you some gels.
Keith (considering his wilting Bill Rowan attempt): Slave! I have set my life upon a cast, and I will stand the hazard of the die. 
 
Keith grabbed his gels, smiling like a child in a Roald Dahl book. Immediately his youthful exuberance returned, alleviated by positivity and the blessed gloop from the tubed casing.
 
Alb and I looked at each other and nodded. It was time to have a chat with Keith. He was strong. Way too strong. It was time he be nudged from the nest. Despite his protests of never abandoning his Italian brothers and some nonsense about standing on the heads of giants, we convinced him to use us as a slingshot to his Bill Rowan.
 
Keith would leave us at about the 35k mark and endure a magnificent run to bring in an 8.58 Bill Rowan. His first. Which he barely remembers as his memory sort of went black and he found himself in the medical tent with a drip in one arm, not quite remembering how his fist had ended up clutching the silver-bronze medal.
 
Thing of Note #2
 
I knew something was wrong the moment I looked to my right. We were in the thick of Comrades' chunky thighs. 30k's or so in. 60 more to go. Keith had taken off and was a glimmer up the road. The sun's rays were angling out of the sea misting the air with a thin layer of salt. It tingled the nostrils. And it struck me.

Where was Alby? 

Normally my wingman is on my right. Not ahead of me. Not behind me. But on my right. I know that he is there without having to turn my head. Our foot strike and arm swing are pretty much in sync. And now I was forced to turn my neck and saw that he had fallen back a foot.
 
The plan had been simple. Alby had relinquished the pacing duties to me. I erred on the side of caution. After 20 minutes of easy running, we employed a run-8 walk-2 minutes protocol. My watch kept an eye on the pace and slowly brought us down from a 6m20s to 5m55 average pace after 25k's. Every few k's or so I gauged Alb's heart rate and the sweat trickling down his temple. His heart rate in training had been pretty low, which was good. Mine a bit higher, which was not good. As the Shosholoza singing of the runners in the starting paddocks had died down at the start of the race we compared heart rates. Both read 72. A propitious omen.
 
The pace was sensible. Sensibilish. And we allowed the race to come to us. We were ready and engaged with what she had to offer. Her camber, her turns, her descents, the angles that lean to the heavens, her Afrikaans named roads pronounced with English accents (Kloof rhymes with hoof, Botha rhymes with motor) and her mountains sounding like the battle cries of Zulu warriors.
 
Inchanga, they tell me, is the sound a spear makes as it is taken out of the body.
 
Alby, I know, is famous for suffering in silence and has been known to implode like a nuclear bomb detonated below the Pacific. Whereas I whimper like a hungry puppy in a kennel (and let you know the immense pain that is permeating through the body, how it is like steel-ed knives penetrating the quadriceps, like child labour for men, allowing tears to freely stream down the face to extract pity from bystanders), Alby says nothing. Even when probed, he'll deny the pain because he thinks to do so will jeopardise the team effort. His selflessness is as noble as it is delusional. And therefore it is clear that he cannot be trusted.
 
Alb's falling a step behind was a sign of apocalyptic proportions. Although less than a ruler length, it was a chasm. And to me, tantamount to mutiny.
 
I turned to look at him. Sweat rate? Good. Relaxed shoulders? Good. Hands? Unclenched and relaxed. Mouth? Slightly open sucking in air as though it was his first no-oxygen Everest attempt. That aside, he looked like he was out for a jog.
 
Rob: What's your heart rate? Mine is 160.
Alb:  Mine's 135.
Rob: 135 is good. 160 is a bit rich. I feel good, but let's tap off. Still early days.
Alb: The watch says 135, but my heart feels like its 220. Could we have a quick walk?
Rob (voice breaking): 220? Walk?
Alb (starting to walk): I wanted to ask you, for next year's silver, how do you think we should go about it?
 
His last sentence was a bright light, flashing white-hot to reveal a black and grey globe of smoke and doom. The wind, hot and radioactive, caused me to wince and squint. No sound. Not a f*#$ing pin drop. And like that, I knew he was toast. And that meant I was toast. And that we could stop now. And the voices would leave me alone. And it made me happy.
 
Halfway and Beyond
 
Alby and I hit the half way mark at 4.32, 5 minutes off the 4.27 target. It sounds pretty close when I look at the numbers now, but really that 5 minutes is The Grand Canyon.
 
There was a significant slow down. We walked lots and spoke to everyone and anyone we could find. I told Alb about a few good books that I had read about human exploits and of how we are all powerful if we need to be. On the harder sections, I hummed an Arcade Fire song in my head We're just a million little gods causing rain storms turning, with my lightning bolts a glowing, I know where I am going. 

At some stage I saw my mate Jamie Wardell. Jamie had a cool looking kid with him. I said hello and told him I looked forward to his comeback once he had finished his breeding years. People laughed. And as I ran off, I smiled. And then I thought again and wasn't sure if what I said was as funny as I had meant it to be. And I worried about that for a bit. 
 
Up Inchanga, where spectators are few, the only sounds you hear are the chants of the running buses as they come past you like Zulu warriors in battle formation, heaving and shedding heat. A solitary runner looked at Alby and me and asked if we were brothers. He slowed down to walk and talk with us.
 

Lolly loving attention from her sweaty family
"It's good to run with your brother. I had a brother. We were twins. He died in 2001. We ran together for many years. Sometimes we ran a 6.28. Once a 6.29. Always together. Lots of silvers. Next year, I will be 60. And it will be good that I still run. But to run with your brother is good."
 
We shook hands and before he left I asked him for his brother's name. Fred is his name, he said. I am Derrick and he was Fred. That conversation stayed with me for a while.



 The clock would turn as it always does and we stopped caring about the time or the running. We were on cruise mode. And fully engaged in experiencing the day. Our eyes scanned the crowds for Stef and Lolly and Ernie and G. And for the Bedfordview tables. And for friends. 
 
Michael Peter, an old school mate who we had overtaken earlier that morning, came by us again and pulled us out of the doldrums. Come on boys, let's run he said. So we did. 



There was a bit of running. Not much.
 

Finishing strong: me, Alb and Mike

Dusk was closing in as we neared Pietermaritzburg. We had agreed to push for the sub 10.30. An arbitrary dangling carrot of time. We put the walking behind us and started running. Really running. Striding out. Chests heaving. Passing people. Chewing up the road. The strength was still in the legs and the hearts were strong. Michael was running like a champion. Alby and I were just running. Happy to have the opportunity to obliterate ourselves one more time.

The clock would welcome us in with a 10.27. Just a few arbitrary hours off our target time.


Done!
Later I thought about Sherpas and how they help other climbers and that it's sometimes a calling and sometimes just a way to make money. And how people help each other in tough times. Brothers. Friends. Family. And I thought of how competition is good, but sometimes it is not everything.
 
Norgay and Hillary, the first climbers to summit Everest, were asked who was the first and who was the second to summit the mountain. Their expedition leader, Colonel Hunt, was quick to reply "They reached it together, as a team."

Edmund and Tenzing

 With my lightning bolts a glowing, I can see where I am going,
~RobbyRicc