Monday, July 17, 2006

One Tough Cookie

Appearances can be deceptive. I’ve done a bit of swimming and cycling with this diminutive redhead from the Vrystaat, so I thought I had a handle on just how tough and determined she is. Ina’s been on the cover with her husband (and their mountainbikes) of a local outdoor magazine, she’s done 4 Ironman races and if that wasn’t challenge enough, she’s just returned from participating with Team Powerade Cyanosis in the world’s most grueling multiday multidisciplinary event: the Eco Primal Quest. The Primal Quest is no ordinary adventure race. It’s a monstrous 8 day 800km slog through desert and dust. Interview by Nick van der Leek.

N: Tell me about Utah.
I: It’s a combination of our Richtersveld and the Fish River Canyon. It’s very rugged and dry. The sun sets at about 8pm, and when it does everything turns red. Red red red, and pink. There are huge, huge boulders and canyons all over the place.
N: And rivers?
I: The Colorado River.
N: So did you have to swim across…?
I: Yes.
N: I went onto the website today ( and I saw a picture of a guy with his bike, and he looks quite high up on a mountain. If you go up the mountains with ropes do you take your bikes with you?
I: At one stage you have to go down the canyon, down a steep 400 foot cliff. So you have to abseil down – the Americans call it rappel – and put your bike on a zip line.
N: What was the hardest part?
I: The sand. The sand in your shoes. The sleep deprivation. (Pause) …And also the heat. 35-40 degrees Celsius from 9am to 6pm. The temperature remains constant for most of the day.
N: Can you drink the river water?
I: You can. We take along water purification tablets. But you carry it with you. You carry 7 litres of water with you.
N: Each?
I: Ja. And you consume a litre an hour, at least.
N: So if you want more water what happens?
I: If you run out of water before you get to the next water station you’re in trouble.
N: Where are the water stations?
I: You’ll find water stations twice in a day. The first is more or less halfway through the day and the second at the end of each day.
N: Do you have to carry something like a sleeping bag?
I: You’ve got compulsory gear. A space blanket, a waterproof lighter, whistle, knife and a wag bag.
N: What’s that?
I: (A flicker of a smile)I’ll tell you in a moment. You also have a headlamp.
N: So the space blanket is just a foil covering?
I: Yes, it’s a thin, lightweight blanket.
N: Are the nights cold?
I: No, not really. It’s a bit cooler higher in the mountains.
N: Ok

I: Now a wag bag…(chuckle)…In a little Ziploc bag you’ll have a bigger bag, more or less like a dustbin bag. The dustbin bag is filled with crystals which you also find in baby’s diapers…
N: Oh. Oh!
I: You have to do everything in that bag, close it up, put it in the Zip Loc, and take it with you.
N: Geez.
I: And you take it with you to the next transition point.
N: I hate to be graphic, but how do you (clearing throat)…get your waste products in the bag? Do you use a spade?
I: You squat over the bag, and then fold up everything neatly (laughs).
N: I suppose by the end of the race very little is going into the bag.
I: Very little towards the end.
N: And you’re probably very conscious of what’s going in and what’s going out, and what’s happening to you.
I: Ja no, you know (laughs).
N: So as the only women in your team, were there bushes to crouch behind, or rocks, or did your teammates cover their eyes?
I: I think adventure racing is different. If you want to go you just go go. No one-
N: Everyone’s too tired to notice?
I: It’s part of the game.

N: Ironman’s like that. Everyone gets underdressed in the tent and-
I: Ja.
N: You’ve done a few different things [4 Ironman races and plenty of other adventure races], how does this rate in terms of degree of difficulty?
I: Each discipline?
N: The whole event.
I: Definitely the most difficult I’ve ever done. It’s all about endurance. It pushes you to the very end. You have to slog, through the desert, in 40 degree heat…and you just have to do it.
N: Mm.
I: The heap of sand that you empty out of your shoes every 10km, is this high (demonstrates with two fingers).
N: Did you get blisters?
I: A lot of people got blisters, and not just blisters, blisters that got infected. Afterwards their feet looked like pizza underneath. It’s something you can’t imagine.
N: And yours?
I: No. I think the South Africans have different feet. We’d get a blister here or there, but nothing serious. There are people [in this race] who can’t walk, but they still carry on, they’re still making the top 10. You can’t believe it.
N: I saw the team that won was Nike.
I: Nike Powerblast. They’re professional adventure racers. After this one they’ll go and do world champs, two months after that they’ll do another race.
N: So I heard someone got hurt or injured [in your team] and didn’t finish.
I: One of our teammates, Gert-
N: Yes
I: -He got dehydrated.
N: Do you think he was so sleep deprived he forgot to drink enough water?
I: I think the distance through the gorge between the two water stations was just too great.
N: Where?
I: It’s a rocky area called Hell’s Canyon. And you know even the water you’re drinking is as hot as this coffee. When he came in to the transition he sat down and sort of collapsed. And then the medic team took over. When they decide you can’t go on, you can’t go on.
N: Oh really? Did he want to go on?
I: Even if you want to [waiter brings her a plate of chips and my burger and chips] – thank you – they won’t allow you to. Two years ago someone died.
N: Really.
I: That’s why there wasn’t a race last year.
N: [Glancing at her plate of chips]. Do you normally eat that?
I: Yes.
N: [Seriously]Are you still hungry from your trip [she’s been back exactly a week now]?
I: Might be (laughs)

N: Okay. Was there a point where you felt you were handling the stress…for example the lack of sleep better than the guys? Because I’ve heard women are capable of enduring a lot, especially when you reach the extreme limits of what you can handle. So was there a point where it felt like you were starting to cruise and they [the men] were starting to struggle?
I: [Answers diplomatically, obviously in deference to her teammates]Everyone reaches a lowpoint. Hopefully when that happens the others are on a high. Usually the women start coping more towards the end. But everyone has a lowpoint.
N: When was yours?
I: We did an orienteering section on day 6 or 7. That was my low.
N: Why?
I: My feet hurt. I was very sleep deprived.
N: And that was day 6 or 7 of 8 days. Did you cover 100km a day?
I: I think more. More or less. Yes, probably 100km a day. Sometimes we were moving at night, and at night you think funny thoughts. Negative things. Because you’re sleep deprived you can’t think straight. You become a zombie.

N: To me, that’s the aspect that prevents me from even thinking about doing these races. I like the adventure part. I mean, I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro [requires climbing and descending from 1am to 3pm on the second last day], and done the Tour [cycling 1000km in about 10days] and the sleep deprivation makes you miserable. But these adventure races are all about sleep deprivation. It becomes chronic doesn’t it? I love my sleep and I function pretty badly when I haven’t had enough sleep, especially if it goes on for days. So I’m not sure adventure racing is something for me. How do you handle it?

I: You’re sleep deprived from day 2.
N: Did you decide beforehand to sleep 2 hours a night, or did you go by feel?
I: Because you’re four individuals you make an agreement beforehand. We decided to sleep from 2am to 4am – more or less – each day. And we adjusted it from there based on how we were feeling and what was happening.
N: So who struggled the most to get up?
I: [Guilty pause] I think I did.
N: So what’s the first thing you do? Do you drink coffee?
I: No, there’s no coffee. You don’t drink coffee for 8 days.
N: (Chuckling). Okay. So what do you do for a kick in the morning? Do you eat a chocolate or a sweet?
I: No, nothing. You just get up and go.

N: So what was your main source of nutrition?
I: We drank Gatorade. I drank about 5 bottles a day. 750ml.
N: And eating?
I: You’ll eat Powerbars, PDM bars, that sort of thing.
N: Any food-food – potatoes or-
I: No. You can’t prepare it, you can’t cook it. You do get a food box, and you can put whatever you want in it. In our food box we had Coke, Ice Tea, ravioli, sweet corn, sliced peaces (all in tins). You can’t pack fresh fruit or buns because it quickly goes bad in the heat. You can’t ask for your food box either. They decide when you’ll get it.
N: Does everyone get their food boxes on the same day?
I: Yes. So you see, you have to carry three days worth of food with you. We got our food boxes on day 3 and 6.
N: Don’t you find the Powerbars become difficult to consume after a while? Especially since that’s all you’re eating every day, and they’re so sweet. I know in the Ironman, after a while, you feel you’re resisting them, they’re harder to ingest and you want something else, something less sweet.
I: You don’t want to, but you know you have to [consume them]. That’s your energy. I won’t eat them now. No way. I won’t drink Gatorade again either.

N: What were the highlights of the trip?
I: The ropework. You do it every day, and it requires extra concentration.
N: Are you ever paralysed with fear? Is it really dangerous?
I: It’s not that dangerous. You’re in a protected environment with people around you who know what’s going on, and your teammates are there to help you if you need help.
There are marshals at crucial points keeping an eye on what’s going on.
N: The combination of being sleep deprived and doing rock climbing: isn’t that a bit like having a death wish?
I: You do have a carabineer. It’s designed for ropework. It attaches to the rope and you’re attached to it so it’s quite safe.
There’s a screwgate and an autolock. You may not use the screwgate because, being sleep deprived, you might make a mistake.
N: Was there a point in the race where you thought you can’t go any more?
I: No. The dream was to get there [to Utah, to the event], to be there, and there we were.
You pay R12 000 for your air ticket. You’ve spent so many hours training, you’ve made so many sacrifices – after everything, you know you have to finish.
I think if it was a local race, things may have been different. But when you’ve gone so far, you know there’s no way out. You’ve just got to do it.
N: Did you have a special moment up there? Something that stood out for you?
I: We had a traverse, on the last rope section. For some reason we were one of only two unranked [incomplete, because Gert had to quit] teams allowed to do this roped section. It was a traverse of about 50 metres in length and about120 metres from the ground. [Points to two chimney-like pinnacles in a photo attached to a map].
N: Oh, this is like the beginning of Cliffhanger.
I: Exactly. So they fasten you here [gestures to chest]. And there you are, hanging in the air. It feels like flying. And because you’re so high up, the clouds are next to you. The sky is blue. Blue blue blue. And then I started crying.
N: Mm.
I: It was just so awesome. Hanging there, so exposed, so vulnerable. You’re between the two pinnacles and you’re safe. Nothing’s going to happen. You realize how far you’ve come, and I just enjoyed it. And that was on the last day, 7 hours before the end of the race.

N: Describe the last hour.
I: From that traverse we had to cross the desert towards the river, all downhill. The closer we got to the finish, the faster we started running. We were swept up in a sort of momentum, and the possibility of finishing just made us fly. Flying over the rocks. And you’re going and you’re going and everything’s just picking up speed. We were moving over loose gravel and loose rock so sometimes one of us would slip. And we’d just keep on going and going –
N: You’re running, right?
I: Running downhill through the desert.
N: Mm
I: You’re still high up and your backpack is bouncing around. You’re above everything, moving down towards the finish. You’re moving down the ridge, and you see all the boats waiting for you. We paddled through a few rapids and then the last section was clam.
N: So the last bit was paddling?
I: I think the last 3km.
And then you get out, run 400m and they give you your flag…the South African flag. And they’re playing music, and it’s just one big deal.

N: So [after finishing] when do you sleep?
I: (Chuckles) You don’t. You cry again. You’re so high; obviously you’re so glad you’ve made it. And then there’s a big party. You drink champagne, and you get a food bag and everybody chills. You give interviews. Everybody talks about it. You can’t sleep. The first night you don’t sleep that well because you’re over-exhausted, and you’re sore. But the night after that you do.
N: Are you still sore now from the whole thing? [one week later]
I: No. Nothing. You’re not stiff like after the Ironman. You’re just exhausted. I think if I go and run now I might feel it.
N: Did you get sunburnt?
I: No.
N: Not?
I: No.
N: But you’re in the desert for 8 days.
I: I burnt my hands.
N: I saw Gert’s face was completely white with sunblock. You just see this white face, glasses and a cap. I can imagine if you get sunburnt on a day out there in the desert, it makes the whole thing even tougher. That’s at least something you can prevent. Did anyone get sunburnt? Someone from other teams?
I: One guy did get badly burnt. You put on sunblock whenever you remember to. 3 times a day.

N: So what’s next?
I: Umphkane. There’s an adventure race at Umphkane, in Clocolan.
N: And would you do the Primal Quest again?
I: Yes. I’d go again.
N: When did you start this?
I: Adventure racing? 2002 was my first one.
N: What was it?
I: The Magaliesberg 100km Scramble.

I: At the start of the race, one of the commentators said to us, ‘Half of you aren’t going to make it. The other half are going to have blisters. The other half are going to cry…”
N: Did that come true?
I: (Chuckling). Half of them didn’t make it. 90 teams entered. Only 29 teams completed the whole course.
N: Did you guys do the whole thing?
I: Yes.
N: So you’re one tough cookie?
I: (Laughs)
N: But seriously, you’re one of the toughest women in South Africa aren’t you?
I: (Seems to blush) I wouldn’t say that…
N: In terms of endurance, there can’t be more than a handful, literally, that could or would do what you did last week. I’ve been told that there are only about 5 top adventure racing teams in South Africa.
I: Okay, in terms of endurance I’m one of the strongest women in the country [she concedes, gracefully]
N: What are all the various disciplines?
I: Mountain biking, mountain trekking, rope work, paddling, canyoneering, horseback riding, white water swimming, desert trekking.

Possible alternate intro…
N: When did you start this?
I: Adventure racing? 2002 was my first one.
N: What was it?
I: The Magaliesberg 100km Scramble.
N: Tell me about Utah etc…

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