Craig McKune
Craig McKune

Dispatch from behind the Portajohn door

This morning I peered with trepidation from behind the Portajohn door. The signs were good, though I don’t think you want to know precisely what they were.

For four days I had suffered the effects of some sordid little stomach bug, and on each day I had climbed on my bike hoping to finish another stage of the Cape Epic mountain bike race.

The bug hit on Tuesday night, after three days of riding.

Wednesday was the first of these, and it was a failure as I reported in my previous blog post. A little less than 1 200 riders had set out from Tulbagh for a grizzly journey on loose gravel and grated climbs and descents to Worcester. With no food left in my belly, and none going down my throat, I pulled out nauseous and ashen-faced, leaving my teammate Justin to finish probably the hardest Cape Epic stage to date on his own.

This earned me a blue number board and an effective disqualification, although I was allowed to carry on riding with Justin for the rest of the race.

Thursday was a short time-trial through the spectacular Worcester Botanical Gardens. At dawn I pushed a piece of toast around my breakfast plate and swirled a small tub of yoghurt, swallowing a spoonful.

“If you can’t eat, you can’t ride,” the medic had said the day before.

I couldn’t eat, but I climbed on the bike and pedalled slowly around the hills with Justin. It was a short day. The sky was moody with dark blue clouds and light drizzle. What a blessing. Still the cramps grew and I rode slower and slower until finally, I stormed across the finish line to the line of grey boxes that would become my home away from home: the Portajohns.

Friday morning I woke up petrified. Pulling on my riding kit and leaving my tent was like a horror movie because the intention was to ride 140km to Elgin, climbing the big, wild Groenlandberg Mountain on the way.

I made it, but it was torture. Every 15km the cramps would build and I’d have to dash off into the bushes. This made the going slow.

Saturday morning was much the same. Pushing food dejectedly around my breakfast bowl. Climbing on my bike malnourished; riding through gorgeous, wild, far, far away terrain like I haven’t seen in years; dashing for the Portajohn at every stop.

On the Saturday ride I even gave up trying to eat while riding. At one water stop I ate a pretzel. I have no idea how I kept going with so little fuel.

But this morning as I sat on the Portajohn, everything seemed a little brighter. As I said, no details. Just 65km to go — an easy day — I even managed to scoop down half a bowl of porridge before the ride started.

The back hurt a little, and the bum chaffed from the saddle, but to be able to notice other pains aside from my stomach was heaven. Again the ride was mind-numbingly beautiful, and for once I could appreciate it.

Topping the edge of the mountain for the descent to Somerset West, we were sent down another old wagon trail. My god: the thing was vertical, climbing over smooth, polished slabs of rock worn through with ruts from the wagon wheels.

And to cut a hurriedly bashed out blog short, Justin and I raced across the finish line with big smiles on our faces, which was our only real goal. Blue number board notwithstanding.

As for my whinging, pain, etc: I am one of 1 200 people who set off on this race, and every single one of them will have a painful and inspired story to tell. But like me, they’re probably doing a bad job of it on Sunday night because they are falling asleep as they try.

Now I can go surfing again. Yay.