Taking On 'The Toughest Race On Earth'



Throughout the history of mankind there have been numerous accounts of people pushing themselves to the physical edge, testing the body's ability to near breaking point. In fact it has often been said that a journey is of no merit unless it has tested you, which goes some way to explaining why in recent years we have seen the rise of ultra-endurance events as a select group of individuals challenge themselves to see how far they can go can, both mentally and physically.

But what happens to the limits of suffering when you add in the extra incentive of money? How far can, or will, people push themselves when there is a million dollars at stake? In December those questions will be answered when the Munga gets underway in South Africa. Billed as the 'toughest race on earth' it will see teams of two riders take on a gruelling 1000km route through the very heart of South Africa with one goal, to be the first across the finish line inside of the five day cut-off point. When you rest is up to you, but chances are as you rest someone else is pushing themselves that little bit harder, driven on by the desire to claim the prize.

As the event organisers say the Munga 'could change your life, or it could end it'. So why then, other than the lure of a million dollars, would you enter such a race? According to David Higgs, South Africa's current Chef of the Year and mountain biking enthusiast, it is more than just money, it is about taking on the challenge of the unknown.

"I think essentially I love a challenge," Higgs told The Essential Cyclist. "I have been riding quite extensively now for the past year, since completing the Cape Epic (an eight-day stage race that covers over 700km), and this represents the ultimate challenge in a way. I think what makes it so difficult is that it has never been done before, so nobody fully knows what to expect."

For some the fear of the unknown is just that, a fear, but for others it is the driving force behind taking chances in life. For Higgs, who until last year had never done anything like this, the latter is true, it is the fear of the unknown that drives him forward, that makes him wan to meet the challenge head on and overcome it. The Namibian-born chef will not be alone when the race gets underway, he will be joined by South African artist and friend Richard Scott after thew two met riding the Cape Epic last year.

"I was approached last year by a friend of mine who said why don't I ride the Epic with her, and I thought 'why not'," Higgs explained. "And it was a case of the bug that bit, as once I got into it I loved it. They talk about cycling being the new golf, and it really is. It's an incredible sport and you meet some incredible people. The connections and networking that happens within these races is quite unbelievable, and it's through the Epic that I ended up meeting Richard.

"Also, through entering the Epic ended up I doing a bunch of other races. I did the longest one day off-road race in South Africa, the Attakwas, which is about 135km. I then did the Garden Route 300 as part of the build up to the Epic, and then obviously the Epic itself, which was fantastic, a really incredible race. After the Epic I did Sani2C and now next month (September) I am doing Lesotho Sky, which is six days in the Lesotho mountains and is probably going to be one of the toughest races out there."

Clearly no stranger to mountain biking, or pushing his body to the limit, Higgs is excited to be a part of race that has never taken place before, knowing with that comes a new set of challenges to overcome, including how to prepare for such an event.

"We are definitely not leaving it up to ourselves to do, we both have the same coach and she is coach to many top cyclists and trains a lot of people for the Epic," he said. "But in that this has never been done before not even our coach and trainers know exactly how we should really be preparing for this race. The biggest thing is guys are going to try and spend as much time in training on the bike as possible, and in my opinion I think this is a mistake.

"I've read a book recently called Beyond Training by Ben Greenfield and basically it goes into black hole training for triathletes. Be it running, cycling or swimming they spend a long time, six or seven hours, at an inefficient heart rate. So basically we have gone to the Sports Institute here and had serious amounts of testing done, including things like body fat and lactic thresholds. The guys then break it all down and give you specific zones at different heart rates, and what they are saying is that when you are doing this sort of high endurance training you have got to do a lot of stuff at a low zone, so your heart rate sitting at about 120-130 bmp.

"It's a very low rate, and it's important to stick to that as if you go above it it isn't as beneficial and you go into a different zone and work rate. At the weekends we are doing the longer slower stuff and then during the weeks doing high impact VO2 training, which is more the interval stuff where you are putting yourself into the red zone. On top of that I also do bikram yoga once a week which I really find helps, and then one day lower body and one day upper body strength in the gym with free weights. So as you can see it is quite intense, especially fitting it in around work."

Unlike in more traditional races where riders know exactly what they have to do each day the Munga represents an altogether new challenge, in that it is up to you when you ride and when you stop. With that in mind the race will test much more than just the rider's physical resolve, a lot will be down to their mental toughness too.

"It's quite an interesting thing you know, other than the fact it's one hell of a ride, how do you actually prepare yourself for something like this? I think the big thing is the mindset," Higgs said. "Alex Harris (one of the race's organisers), who is an adventurer himself, said it's 80% mindset and you have just got to battle through. We know we can cover the distance, so you have to average 200km a day, and during that time the heat in the Karoo will be quite a big factor, so basically we have got to try and sleep during the intensely hot periods and then get on and ride when it's cooler.

"The whole mindset of riding from point to point never happens. I think they say the points are 160 to 170km apart, but you've just got to decide how long you're going to ride for and then just see if you carry on or not. It's also an unassisted race as well, so you've really got to back yourself all the way and know that other than the food and sleeping points you are on your own. There are water points but I think we've got to be carrying enough food and enough water to be able to last the distance.

"Although the points are a certain distance apart there are set villages. The thing with the set villages is you've got to actually decide whether or not you're going to be sleeping at those villages. Because if you get to the village at three in the afternoon you're not going to want to be staying there, because that's when it is cooler and you will want to push on. But this will leave you in sort of no mans land for the next check point and you will be sleeping on the side of the road. So these are the unknowns that you've got to get your head around."

With such a lucrative prize on offer it is no surprise that the Munga has attracted some of the biggest names in the mountain biking world, and as such Higgs knows his and his partner's race is not one for the money, but merely to finish the course before the cut-off point. Should the due do that it will be an impressive effort in itself and that is the goal that will keep them going when the going doesn't just get tough, but really tough.

"I think the goal, taking into account the unknown and the standard of the field taking part, is to finish the race," Higgs said. "To be competitive in terms of the prizes is not a realistic goal for us. We have 1000km to cover in five days in the heat of the summer in the Karoo, which is one of the hottest areas of South Africa, so realistically our aim is just to finish. Cycling 200km a day is not to be laughed at and we don't quite know what's going to happen in between all of that. To finish this is going to be an achievement in itself."

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