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Kim Ward, RTR 2023

When you start a Freedom Challenge event, you know you are going to get scratched – rocks and branches are part of the path and will spring up to surprise you all the time. Gates and barbed wire fences need to be crossed, as do icy rivers with water that is soothing balm to scratched legs that tingle.

But it is the other ‘Scratched’ that I am writing about here – ‘Scratched from the race’ – the one that no rider crosses the starting line thinking ‘it will be me’. Thirteen days into the event there were 19 confirmed scratched riders – in a field of around 75 riders, 46 going the full 2000km to the Cape, and 29 going quarter of the way to Rhodes. A fairly impressive attrition rate of about 25%!

Illness, injury, bike issues, weather, just plain bad luck can throw a rider off course .

On our ride to Rhodes we had great weather all the way till very high winds on the final day which literally stopped us in our tracks at the top of Naudesnek pass – scratched with just 25km to go to Rhodes. We enjoyed the usual incredible views, highs and lows of leaving and finishing in the dark, navigational errors, a night out in bivvies just 2km from Ntsikeni Lodge, amazing camaraderie between riders, such warm welcomes and nourishing meals from hosts along the way… it was tough but we were nailing it!

On the final day, the wind howled at us all day! This made the 4-hour hike-a-bike up Lehanas impossible for us and we opted for the longer round trip. I think probably only one hour of actual riding was possible and the 10 minutes or so the wind was actually behind us felt like we were being boosted (must be what an e-bike feels like I remember thinking). One hill I didn’t even pedal up at all! But mostly we were holding onto the bikes which frequently got snatched away and flung onto the ground. Sometimes I got flung too!

We were shattered by the top of Naudesnek pass… darkness fell, the wind picked up and there were still 25km to go. We stopped to put on all our warm clothes, getting colder as we did so, and still unable to brace ourselves sufficiently against the gusts to move forward to round the top of the pass. We had signal on the phone, a button on the tracker to ask for help, our car and Rhodes were a mere 25km away. A rescue was doable; riding did not feel like it was.

We probably pushed the Help button when others would have pushed on. When you opt to stop, you replay the decision time and time again… could you have gone on, surely just a few more kilometres? It was helpful to read Charl Van der Spuy’s article – I loved the title: Naudesnek: A monumental pass and potentially a place of broken dreams – and he described the reality of the wind and cold, making me feel better about our decision to end our race where we did.

So I learned that finishing is relatively easy, or at least so much less difficult than not finishing! We have sewn all our other race badges onto the blanket Mike rode for in 2015. I had longed to sew on the last two RTR badges and now were not going to get them.

I thought often about how much more hard core all the other riders seemed to be… I was getting caught on the 25km we hadn’t done and not the 460 we had… then all the empathy, care, concern came flooding in, from unexpected corners, messages from friends, dot-watchers I didn’t even know, riders we had ridden with in other events – balm to a bruised spirit! The day after, tears kept appearing unexpectedly; even these I realised eventually washed away all the windblown grit in my eyes.

When Janine Oosthuisen, who also withdrew at Rhodes from RASA, posted her question on the FC WhatsApp group: “While everything is quiet and dots are slightly on track. Could we possibly discuss how to deal with disappointment? Is it normal to feel emotional?” there was a flood of heartfelt responses. I am copying a selection here for those not on that group, and simply as a record of the huge empathic community out there that knows and cares, for all those who find themselves on the next ‘Confirmed Scratched Rider’ list – really hope it is not going to be you, but if it is take some comfort from the experience and wisdom here:

Fiona: One experiences loss (In this case loss of a goal) so there is always going to be a level of grieving. So for everyone who has had to bail, there is going to be big emotional swings.

Sarah Watermeyer: Thanks, Janine, for putting this message out .... it's incredibly hard... but as Julia said to me .... sometimes, the universe is not aligned. (Thanks for that, Julia 💥)

Liehaan Loots: I had to withdraw in 2019 and it was incredibly disappointing,… One of the things I learned from 2019 was: I was really focused on the racing aspect, and I feel like I lost the mental game of just enjoying being out there. That made me sad because there wasn't the payoff of completing the goal to make it worth it…. The lesson for next time is. Main goal: Enjoy the journey. Secondary goal: racing, number of days, or whatever your personal performance goal is.

Alex Harris: The trail exacts a heavy price. But it gives equal in return. Like all things in the universe, an equilibrium exists. A harmony, or balance if you will. A give and take exchange, of blood and sweat poured out, hours training to push the bike and body up a hill, memories created, stories told and retold, scratches and scars. Conversations and friendships made in forgotten places. I believe the emotions we feel are our way of trying to reconcile this seeming imbalance. We feel maybe we didn’t get enough, or push enough, or gave too much. We long to be back out there and we long to be back in here. A constant tussle. But there is a peace to be found. An end where we know that things are and will always be in balance. Because the universe deems it so. It is the nature of the trail. Although, sometimes it feels unnatural. So don’t be too hard on yourself. The gift you have received might take some time still, to open.

We made the choice to stop. We can’t make that choice again differently, no matter how many times we replay it. Now we need to accept the decision, focus on what we did finish, rather than what we didn’t. We have a choice again, sometimes it feels as hard as the one that ended the race, to think of it this way rather.

As the scratches on my legs and body fade, so does the sense of ‘scratched failure’ – they are all only temporary scars. There is so much more to the journey, so many different ways to end it. I am feeling enriched by the experience of NOT finishing, probably more than if we had. The empathy and support were amazing.

There are still such emotional ups and downs about not finishing, wondering if we could have done things differently and how... but also savouring all the many kilometres we did cover on such an incredible journey. Mike reckons with some of our detours we probably did cover the whole distance! Our plan is to return to 5-star Tenahead Lodge at top of Naudesnek pass one day, stay there as a treat, and ride down to Rhodes when the sun is shining and the wind is not blowing to finish those missing 25km... all that remains for me to complete of the whole Freedom Challenge route from Pietermaritzburg to Cape Town!

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Outstanding read Kim. I scratched in my 1st RASA2014 due to a bike crash and blown knee 10 days in. I finished RASA2016 and the absolute bliss was replaced with the desire to want to go back all for the positives you mentioned in your post. Then I scratched again 13Days in - RASA2021 due to a mystery illness at the time but got clarity thereafter. The scratching yes,The 1st time taught me resilience but only after 6mths. The absolute desire to do my1st RASA and what it came down to, that blew my mind into a depressive state. I knew I had to go back armed with a different outlook and perspective. After all, our lives are determined by…

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