Testing yourself beyond the limit

2009-10-07 00:00

ONCE in a while, a remarkable sports story slips under the radar.

Imagine running 85 kilometres upstream alongside the Dusi Canoe Marathon route, from Durban to Pietermaritzburg­, getting on your off-road mountain bike at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall at 6 am the next day and traversing 2 350 km of the most unforgiving terrain over 15 consecutive days in the saddle in an unsupported non-stop mountain bike race to Paarl; having a 10-day break and then completing the four-day, 250 kilometre Berg River Canoe Marathon.

Pietermaritzburg property developer­ and family man Andrew Barnes (35) did just that, and in so doing won what is known as the Extreme­ Triathlon.

The word “extreme” in this context seems a little tame. To illustrate, four competitors started the race and only one finished — Barnes. After almost 11 hours, he finished third in the Dusi run. Then, after just under 15 days riding, he came second in the mountain bike segment. And Barnes was the only one to complete the third leg, paddling 18 hours for 108th place in the singles Berg River Canoe Marathon. “I wasn’t canoe fit, but general­ fitness carried me through,” Barnes said.

As friend and fellow mountain bike enthusiast Terry Thompson said: “The mind boggles at Barnes’s strength of character.”

And why is it that this incredible feat, accomplished just over two months ago, has gone largely unnoticed? Perhaps it is in the personal nature of such an accomplishment in which man is largely pitting himself against his own inherent frailties, a supreme test of character in the face of near-impossible odds.

Perhaps it is also in the publicity-shy nature of the man himself. Perhaps this is why it took Barnes’s friend, John Robinson, to contact the writer as to this awesome achievement. Bare statistics aside, it is in the detail that one begins to appreciate fully what this superhuman effort entailed.

A reluctant Barnes told The Witness­ that the Dusi run “was all about keeping my legs in suitable shape so that I could get on a bike the next day”.

The two-week mountain bike odyssey­ saw the former Alexandra High School man riding an average 150 km a day, which equated to about 14 to 16 hours of riding — each day — and 12 of the 14 days on his own.

“My longest day was 240 km (18 hours’ riding) and the shortest about 60 km,” Barnes says. “At some points you can only travel one kilometre in an hour because of the terrain and having to carry your bike.”

Carrying a 10 kg pack on his back, the 60 km day saw Barnes trapped in snow in the area around Die Hel, just beyond Swartberg Pass, near Sewe Weekspoort.

“I stopped in order to prevent hypothermia, having been in the rain and snow for five hours. It was so incredibly cold that I couldn’t feel my hands and feet.”

Other hair-raising moments? Near Molteno, in -13ºC conditions, Barnes’s water bottle froze. Near Matatiele he was dehydrated and without food, and was helped by villagers from a local kraal.

“They got me back on track, the same in Baviaan’s Kloof where a farmer arrived out of the blue and gave me a bed and a meal; I met incredible people along the way.”

Cycling from Willowmore to Prince Albert, the previous year saw Barnes ride the 160 km stint over eight hours. This year, it took him over eight hours to traverse 80 km.

“There was a strong headwind,” he says, with typical understatement. Barnes was blown off his bicycle a dozen times due to gale-force winds. A few times on top of the Drakens-berg, he was blown off his feet. “I had to hide behind tufts of grass until the wind abated.”

“That was a four-kilometre portage section with the bike; it took me three-and-a-half hours.”

Why does he put himself through what would be an ordeal to most people­?

“The scenery is amazing, it’s nice to be out there and you meet such incredibly nice people.

“Testing yourself physically and mentally is in essence what life is all about; understanding your body and what it is capable of is also a lot of fun too.

“The whole day revolves around your health. Are you too warm or cold? Have you got enough of the right food and liquid; what time is the sun going to rise and set; what the terrain ahead of you is like; and where you need to be before you start to lose sunlight.

“Knowledge of the weather is vital, and where your fellow competitors are is always interesting as there might be 1 000 km between you. I had a friend constantly updating me on the weather, another informing me where my rivals were.”

To Barnes, the intellectual challenge is as big as the physical. He clearly relishes the planning. He took time out before the triathlon to investigate the Freedom Challenge route (the mountain bike event) to meticulously mark out his route and strategy.

“I rode to a specific plan; the quicker you get to your overnight stop, the more rest you will have ahead of the next day. I found I got stronger on the cycle trip every day.”

Will he do it again? “We will have to see,” Barnes says.

One can’t help feeling that the innate lure of the Extreme Triathlon, or other challenges, won’t keep this man idling in suburbia for long.

“The Freedom Trail goal is to establish a publicly accessible mountain bike trail running from Kilimanjaro to Cape Town.

“It will not be achieved without the co-operation of local communities and the support of a number of individuals and organisations,” said Freedom Challenge director­, David Waddilove.

The European Union has donated R2,5 million for developing the Eastern Cape section of the trail, while the Alfred Nzo Municipality near Matatiele has given R250 000.

The Freedom Trail programme was a finalist in a United Nations development competition to uplift communities.

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