Gary Davies of Team Endurancelife talked us through the team’s race at Expedition Africa 2018, the 530km adventure race held in South Africa in May, including the moment when he managed to fall asleep while walking... The course, which involved kayaking, mountain biking, ropework, canyoning and of course hiking, ran from Namaqua on the Atlantic coast and inland into the Cederberg Mountains.
It was an unexpected race, both for the organisers – after months of drought it rained the day before and then during the race – and for Team Endurancelife themselves, who after a mechanical failure unexpectedly found themselves near the back of the field. Their considerable adventure racing experience and some superb navigation from Tom Davies helped them to climb back up the order. Eventually they finished in 7th place.
What makes Expedition Africa special?
Gary Davies: The reason we went back to Expedition Africa is because the race is so special. The organisers are great hosts: Heidi is the people person and she makes sure you are well looked after from the moment you arrive at the airport. You almost feel as though you’re on holiday… Stefan puts on very good quality courses and that was the case this time.
His courses feel like a proper journey: for instance there was an abseil with the bikes at one point in 2018 – 50 metres down to a ledge and then another 100 metres to the valley floor - but they weren’t there just for the sake of a spectacular abseil (in some courses you would just ride back up to where you were). They were there so that the cycling could continue along the next section of the course.
What was Expedition Africa 2018 like?
We were expecting a dry race. This area of South Africa had been through a drought for months - the grapes and other crops weren’t growing for lack of water. And then, the night before the start, it began to rain, which it did on occasions throughout the race. So Expedition Africa 2018 turned out to be quite wet. And that meant it was quite cold too, amazingly. Some teams even suffered hypothermia in the Cederberg mountains.
Our race was defined by a problem we hit early on, on Leg 4 (about 200km of mountain biking). It started when we chose a route that was much longer but which would have been faster because it had plenty of tarmac road. However, it fell outside the organisers’ permissions, and we were told we couldn’t use it. This meant that we had to change our route on the hoof, and we opted for another route that nobody else considered, down a dry riverbed. Normally this would have would have been fine, but after the rains, it was incredibly muddy and hard going.
Then we suffered a problem to the rear mech on Phil’s bike; first the hanger snapped as we traversed a very muddy (dry) river bed and then in the mud the whole rear mech broke. We tried to create a single speed to enable us to continue on the stage, but that failed and so we had to return to the transition - asking every team we passed if they had a spare in their gear box (our boxes had already been moved on). Eventually Alec Rust from South African Team Rustproof kindly gave us his spare, which he was carrying with him. We very much appreciate his generosity for sacrificing their team spare part to enable us to continue.
All in all it wasn’t a great start. Despite the good luck in getting the rear mech, we had lost 6 ½ hours and we ended up down in 35th place. We considered carrying on in tourist mode – sleeping plenty, enjoying the view, taking photographs – but two of us were particularly keen to race and in the end that’s what the team did. Tom (Davies, but no relation to Gary Davies) and Phil did a spectacular job of the navigation and so for us the race was all about climbing through the ranking.
Did you get your training and race strategies right?
We hadn’t trained together much. We identified our individual weaknesses and then worked on them on our own. I did a lot of mtb, with lots of turbo training, high power and short intervals, but others were more focussed on trekking.
Training was our biggest unknown, but it turned out that we were pretty equal, certainly over the long distances. Nobody bonked or had to be dragged. Possibly this was down to our sleep strategy, which worked pretty well.
We started out with me as Team Captain and bike nav, and with Phil as foot navigator, but before the race I handed over the primary nav to Tom. He was up for the foot navigation too. On one leg we leap-frogged six or seven teams because his route finding was so good.
How long did you sleep?
We went through the first night, slept 2 ½ hours the second night, 2 on the third and then an hour in the canyon, so 5 hours in total, which was fine. Often in a race someone will have a really bad night, but it didn’t happen this time. Perhaps we know how to deal with the lack of sleep better after our years of racing.
We still had our moments, though… Natalie would sing to keep herself awake. And I had a strange thing where I actually managed to fall asleep while I was walking, holding onto Natalie. It was a fairly smooth track and I would wake up each time I kicked a stone or something, but I managed a whole series of micro sleeps while walking. After 10 minutes I was feeling fresh again.
What was the most challenging moment for the team?
Definitely Leg 4 when the rear mech broke and we lost so much time. That and the end of the canyon, after hours of fighting our way through the vegetation in there – at times you had to burrow down and push through and then drag your rucksack behind you. Once we were out we headed off on our chosen route, but lost confidence, worrying that we had gone the wrong way. Heads dropped. But then we met a leading team and realised we were doing well and on the right track. It gave us a boost and the heads came back up again.
Was there a particularly special moment?
For me the most special moment was in the canyon. In the middle of the night, after about four days, when I saw this huge pair of eyes glowing in a tree above me. They seemed as large as headlamps. Later I was told that it was a bush baby.
Was there any kit that turned out to be particularly useful or you realised you needed?
We took some high quality Montane waterproofs, which we didn’t really think we would need in South Africa, but as it turned out with the cold weather in the canyon they were really useful.
I had a moment of good luck. On a skype call before leaving, the team all agreed to bring an extra set of brake pads each and I didn’t actually do so. And then with the gritty wet and mud, I was down to the metal half way through the race. Which was potentially embarrassing - as I might have had to walk my bike downhill… But Expedition Africa has a mechanic on call and so I left a note on my bike box asking them if they could fit new brake pads – and when we saw the bikes again my brakes had been fixed!
What did you learn?
Be open and honest within your team. You’re bound to have a few disagreements under the stress of racing. Vent them early. At the start I didn’t know whether Tom and I would get on – we’re both quite macho types – but we did get on and we worked together well.
Also, never let your head drop. You have to get back in the race. As it turned out, from position 35 we spent the race climbing the order and this gave us a good feeling as we went along. Through Tom’s navigation we were climbing four or five places per leg at one stage. By the finish we had climbed to 7th overall and, you never know, if we hadn’t lost the time at the start we might have been pushing top 5.