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A Paddle in the Works

Updated: Jun 11, 2022

Many years ago, David Waddilove set the Freedom Challenge Extreme Triathlon in motion. After running from Cape Town to Durban, he turned West and ran the Comrades Marathon from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. The very next day he began a mountain bike ride and portage over mountains, through farms, along cattle tracks and gravel roads across South Africa back to Paarl, and then he paddled along the Berg River to finish his return journey in Velddrif, on the West Coast. I hope to emulate his journey from Durban to Velddrif. This Sunday, on the 12 of June,I will run solo along the Comrades routefrom Durban to Pietermaritzburg. The next day I hope to start the 2200km Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa (RASA), an extreme, off-road mountain bike race from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl which I expect will take about 21 days. Then, after arrival in Paarl, I hope to paddlethe four-day Berg River Canoe Marathon(240km from Paarl to Velddrif) which starts on the 6 July. This is an extreme triathlon from the East coast to the West coast of South Africa. I am not the first person to attempt this triathlon. To date at least 16 people, one of them a woman, have successfully completed it so my dream, although difficult, is certainly not impossible.

When I conceived of my year of 12 extreme challenges, I was looking for an ultimate challenge to take me completely out of my comfort zone and into a new realm of self-discovery, both physically, emotionally and mentally. I usually do feel stressed, nervous and emotional just before a big event and the last few weeks have been an emotional roller-coaster ride ranging from excitement to fear. Will my body cope? Will I be successful? What if I fail? Will I disappoint others? Am I being responsible? Am I a bad mother? At the outset of my 12 x 12 journey, I had no idea of the catharsis of emotions that lay ahead! The old adage: “be careful what you wish for”, now rings loudly in my head. I am being pushed way out my comfort zone and am learning many things about myself, both good and bad. I am a work in progress.

You may have noticed I love superheroes, and wondered why I sometimes wear a Spiderman or Superman outfit. This escapism allows me to become some-one else: some-one braver, wiser and stronger, and deny my fears. Now, I am slowly learning that it is OK to just be me. The experience of being healthy and alive is more than enough. I am learning that while I lean towards perfection, in many areas I tend to disregard the detail: like navigation, cooking, bike maintenance and cleaning.

My preparation for the Freedom Challenge Extreme Triathlon has been far short of what I had hoped. As usual, the best of plans get thwarted by uncontrollable variables like the weather and illness and the natural busyness of life. I always knew that with 12 extreme challenges, one each month, injury and illness would be my biggest threat and impact my training. For example my running. My right leg has been giving me some pain, so my running mileage has been much less than hoped. It seems this is because my right tibia (shin bone) is 2cm longer than the left. I can only think that this pesky anatomical deviation stems from a communication error during my conception and that I was conceived in Springs. This now explains why I sit skew, stand skew, walk skew and run skew. Perhaps it also explains why I can't navigate very well and why I was rejected from the drum majorette squad in grade 2 (a failure that has haunted me for most of my life). Luckily my parents did not call me Eileen. I went to a podiatrist and now I have a shoe insert, so Noleen might be more appropriate.

Consequent to the nifty shoe insert, my pelvis seems to not like the responsibility of being on the straight and narrow and defiantly convinces the right leg to do its own unique deviation quite befitting of a limb born on the East Rand and raised in Benoni. So, despite not having sufficient kilometres under the shoe to tame the wild insert, come long leg or short leg, skew pelvis or straight, I will be doing my very best to make my way in a relatively straight line from Durban to Pietermaritzburg on Sunday. The last time I ran further than 50km was many years ago, so 90km is going to be a big ask. I have, however, been doing a lot of leg and core strengthening. Hopefully there will be some muscle memory lurking in my legs. If not, I will be creating some very new memories! What does give some comfort is knowing that 5pm on Sunday is not the cut off. I can finish at midnight if I must. I just have to be on my mountain bike at Pietermaritzburg Town Hall at 6am on Monday morning to start the Race Across South Africa.

I believe I know what to expect on Monday. I know that my leg muscles will be very sore (and stay that way for 3-5 days). I know that the two woman I will be cycling with, Rebecca Sands and Omphile Motaung (the first black woman to attempt this race) will have to wait patiently for me as I cycle or hobble up the many hills. I also know that my leg pain will soon be masked by another inevitable pain from the saddle. I have not been able to ride my bike very much and condition my body. (I have been paddling). So, both my bums (the front one and the back one) are going to suffer. Especially with the extra weight of a heavy backpack squashing delicate tissue onto a hard saddle surface. Eina. But I KNOW that the discomfort will be over-shadowed. Just like with childbirth, the physical pain will soon be forgotten thanks to the surges of oxytocin and dopamine dished out by the Freedom Trail. Add to this the hospitality of the support stations, the pleasure of interacting with the people along the trail and the privilege of making history with Omphile as we journey together across many rural and remote parts of South Africa.

I mentioned that instead of running or cycling, I have been paddling. That is because I know how to run and I know how to cycle, but I have only recently started learning how to paddle.The sport of paddling is very technical and probably best learnt at a young age when the plasticity of the brain is still amenable to learning a new motor pattern. I have been paddling up and down the calm Milnerton Lagoon trying to accustom my body to the intricate task of this very new motor pattern.I have notched up a couple of 35 km paddling sessions at an average pace of about 8.5km per hour. That is considered slow. You may be wondering how this prepares me for the Berg River. Well, it doesn’t. The daily distances on the Berg River Canoe marathon over the four days are 60km, 56km, 75km and 57km respectively. If my maths is correct then I will take about 7 hrs, 6.5 hrs, 9 hrs and 7 hrs on each respective day. This is not factoring in the potages, tree blocks, tumbles, headwind, the cumulative fatigue, numb legs, and hand blisters. I am preparing myself physically, emotionally and mentally for some very, very long, hard days.

BUT, let's address the elephant in the room; the one stirring, not paddling. Herein lies the main reason for my emotional roller coaster trip. The weather in the Western Cape this year has not been kind to the paddling community. By mid-May, the Berg and Breede rivers are usually flowing strongly thanks to the onset of good winter rainfall. As I type this blog (10 June), the Cape is experiencing un-seasonal heat and very little rain. Lovely for tourism, but not great for paddlers who need to get river experience on the Berg River. The Berg River Canoe Marathon is a technical race and only open to AR rated paddlers. I am BR rated and need to have done five B rated river races (on the Berg itself) to improve my canoe rating to AR and qualify for the race. Unfortunately, three of those races have been postponed because of poor rainfall and I have run out of time. I have only done two of these races and I may not be allowed to enter the Berg River Canoe Marathon. The safety officer at my club will be required to vouch for my technical capability, and I will have to arrange that an experienced paddler remains in close proximity to me. The safety officer has said that I will not be competent to do the race if it rains too much in the lead up to the event. A very full, fast flowing Berg River will be unsafe for my current skill set: tree blocks, rapids and weirs become extremely dangerous. So, I will be hoping that in the next 4 weeks (while I am cycling) that it does rain, but not too much! The paddling racing snakes will be hoping for lots of rain. The director of the Freedom Challenge Extreme Triathlon has advised that it is permissible to paddle the Berg from Paarl to Velddrif after completing the cycle leg, outside of the official Marathon, to successfully complete the Triathlon. So, if needed, my paddle may be like the run to PMB...on my own without fellow competitors and a supporting crowd...only an experienced paddler alongside to keep an eye on my safety.

So for now I stay focussed on the upcoming extreme triathlon with the mindset that I WILL be paddling the Berg River early in July. I have to embrace the uncertainty AND that I may fail this challenge. I am hoping that I will learn and accept that my sense of self, my identity as Ingrid, the uniqueness of ‘be-ing’ me and my right to take up space in this world, is not tied up in the outcome of an event completely out of my control.

What will be, will be-ing.

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