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Epic Persistence

2019-12-09

How many times would you start the Absa Cape Epic without earning a finisher's medal? Once? Twice? How about fifth time lucky? This is the story of Kevin Wright. The man who became an official finisher at the fifth time of asking, and who will be attempting to improve his record of five starts one finish, to six starts and two finishes in 2020. 

  

Due to the entertaining nature in which Wright told the story, we have used his words verbatim… 

 

Cape Epic Number 1: 2007

I was approached by George Holloway in mid-2006 and he invited me to join him on the Absa Cape Epic adventure. George had already completed an Epic in 2005. At the time I had no idea what the Epic was all about! I accepted the offer and proceeded to clock up the mileage in preparation.  

At first, it involved road miles, culminating in the Double Century in November 2006. Once that was done, I went off to Willie Engelbrecht's bike shop and bought my first Giant 26'er on December the 6th. That was then followed by a five-week vacation in Canada … no training! 

Upon my return, George and I started to clock up some serious miles on our mountain bikes. The narrative at the time suggested that we should invest 20 hours of training per week. My work commitments would not allow for this and so weekends witnessed me spending 6 to 7 hours on my bike to close the gap. 

Knysna here we come… Stage 2 was our nemesis. George rode with tubes and suffered the consequences thereof. Over the last 15 kilometres, he had two or three punctures, which we were all thumbs in trying to repair. Knowing that we did not have much time available we stormed towards the stage finish, in Oudtshoorn, at full speed! Well, we missed the cut off by 45 seconds! Our race numbers were quickly snipped off our bikes and replaced with blue numbers. 

And so, we bashed on. George and I completed the rest of the 2007 Absa Cape Epic with no further interruption, finishing in Lourensford.

First failed attempt. 

 

Cape Epic Number 2: 2008 

George and I resolved to tackle the next Cape Epic. We had the mileage in our legs and started to prepare a lot sooner than the previous year. We holidayed in Knysna that December and I was able to put in some good mileage in the surrounding forests. We were both in good shape and a lot more confident than the year before. 2 to 3 weeks before the start of the Epic, George was obliged to withdraw from the Race for deeply and understandable personal reasons. I had to find a new partner, at short notice. 

I was introduced to Ryan, a youngster at 26 years old, who claimed to have a resting heart rate of 45. He had played rugby for Western Province, was a former Springbok water polo player and had clocked up 20 training hours per week. This terrified me. His Dad had had to withdraw from the Epic for business reasons and so he needed a partner as well. Ryan and I became riding partners. 

Knysna (again) here we come… Stage 1 was our first challenge. Off we went… but at the 30-kilometre mark tragedy struck! My bike broke after rumbling through some very rocky terrain. The bolts connecting the back wheel to the frame snapped off and the rear derailleur also seemed destroyed, as I could not get the pedals to turn full circle. I instructed Ryan to push on and head towards the first water point, where hopefully we could summon some technical support. I tried and tried to get my bike going but to no avail. I eventually sat on the side of the trail and cried.

I was now officially stone last. For some reason I got up and kicked my bike; several times. Each kick directed at the rear derailleur. Success! I got the wheels and pedals to turn. It was 12 kilometres to the water point and surely there would be technical help? 

The fact that the nuts had broken off resulted in my back wheel not being properly connected to the bike. If I picked the bike up, the wheel dropped down and hung. This meant that as I rode through uneven terrain, the back wheel slammed into my seat post. 

I arrived at the water point. 5 or 6 riders were finishing up and heading out. Ryan was sitting under a tree, with his head resting on his arms. "I can't do this he exclaimed!" "Whaddya mean you can't do this?" I asked. "Get on your bike, you have a resting heart rate of 45, you played rugby for Western Province, you were a former Springbok waterpolo player and you have clocked 20 training hours per week! We're going to finish this thing." 

In short, Ryan dropped off the pace and I was soon riding on my own. I slowly made my way through the field and finished the stage in 9 hours and 45 minutes. Job done. The mechanics weren't able to fix my bike though, so they had to find a new frame overnight and transfer all the bits and pieces over to the new frame. 

Ryan finished that day in 12 or more hours and was accordingly blue numbered. On Stage 2 he dropped off on the way up Montagu Pass on our way out of George.

Stage 5 became my next nemesis. We overnighted in Swellendam and had a monster ride scheduled for the next day. 144 kilometres (if memory serves) from Swellendam to Bredasdorp. When I swung my leg over my bike and seated myself, I realised that I had a problem. Adjacent to my rectum, I was sitting on an abscess the size of a thick baby marrow.  

At first, it did not hurt at all. The start was pretty straight forward on the tar road out of Swellendam. When we hit the gravel road, it became corrugated! This did not help. The corrugations became a problem as the pain of the abscess became increasingly unmanageable. Around the 50-kilometre mark, one of the medic vehicles passed me. I stopped them and asked for some help. The Chief Medical Officer was in the vehicle and he climbed out to take a look. My cycling shorts were stripped down to my ankles, while the doctor proceeded with a thorough inspection of my "nether region". He came up for a breath and announced that I had a "deep-seated abscess". I was instructed to abandon the race. The Doc explained that if the abscess burst it could be very damaging to my health. There we go, that was me out of the race. 

Second failed attempt 

Skipping a Year: 2009

In August 2008, while sitting at the top of a mountain (at Bergplaas on the Baviaanskloof MTB route to be exact) in the dark, cold, night; I looked at George and our mutual riding friend, Jacques van der Westhuizen and said: "we gotta stop this mountain biking stuff. We should do an IRONMAN or something else." 

And so, in 2009 we did the full IRONMAN in Port Elizabeth. 

 

Cape Epic Number 3: 2010

Here we go, another Epic on the horizon and we were in. This time we entered as follows: George Holloway and George Taljaard (who became known as Groot George and Klein George) and Elizabeth McCaul (my life partner, then McCaul and since December last year, Osborne-Wright). As we had done for the IRONMAN, in 2009, we trained together as a foursome (Team KEGG). 

Elizabeth is a legend. She is a Comrades gold medallist, World Champion over 100 kilometres for her age group etc. And Elizabeth could ride a road bike, really well! She was a bit of a nervous mountain bike rider but could still ride competently.

Stage 2 was our nemesis that year and Eselfontein was the challenge. Before the Race, we had gone to Eselfontein and familiarised ourselves with some of the tricky terrain. However, on the day, things did not go to plan. Elizabeth fell all day long. 

Her falls were damaging as she had several cuts and bruises. She was eventually covered in duct tape and blood. Even the last few kilometres back to Ceres posed a challenge and we had to wrestle our way through some very soft river sand. We fought hard to get to the finish on time but to no avail. We missed the cut off by 15 seconds. The best 15 seconds ever! I was able to pack us up and take Elizabeth home. We were not going to ride with BLUE numbers again.

Third failed attempt.

The Epic Free Years: 2011 to 2017

No Cape Epics … only a few Wines2Whales etc. Very busy at work etc. etc. Regular casual riding to maintain general fitness. 

 

Cape Epic Number 4: 2018

The bug was starting to bite again. I entered the 2018 Absa Cape Epic but had to find a partner. George Holloway was no longer allowed to ride long multi-stage races and so I had to look elsewhere. I approached Jacques. He had completed the Epic in 2007 and swore to never do it again. Thus, he was the perfect partner. 

His wife gave him the all-clear and training commenced. Jacques is 10 years younger than I am and built, to boot! He had been a lot more effective in maintaining his fitness levels generally and I really had to work hard to get my fitness levels up to match his. To do so we entered a few shorter races together but ended up finishing at the tail end of the fields. Eventually, to kick my training up a gear, I appointed John Wakefield as a coach and began to follow his daily instructions conscientiously. My fitness improved and we got into January 2018 with our fitness levels on par with each other.

As we got closer to the start of the Race, both Jacques and I were worried about our health. The phenomenon is well known. Improved fitness can also be accompanied by a weakening of the immune system and an athlete can get sick. Jacques was not 100% at the start. 

Off we went. This time Stage 4 was our nemesis. We were wrestling ourselves over the rocky Slanghoek trails and Jacques was increasingly falling behind. He had no strength in his legs and was becoming more and more despondent. Eventually, he said to me that he was going to stop and that I should carry on. This I did. The finish was in Wellington and when I got there, Jacques was sitting with his wife, Theresa, and Elizabeth. We chatted for a while and eventually got up to go our different ways. Elizabeth popped up with a suggestion: "Kevin, why don't you go for a saline drip?" Recharge the batteries as it were. This was easy to do in 2007, 2008 and 2010; no big deal! 

Well, not in 2018. I went to the medical tent and requested a drip.

That's when the trouble started. They took blood and stuff and eventually a doctor approached me and declared that I had "acute renal failure." He went on to say that there was an ambulance ready to transfer me to the Vergelegen Hospital's ICU!  

"What?!" I said. "I'm fine, I feel okay". The doctor then said that if I wanted to be on dialysis for the rest of my life I should carry on. That was enough to scare the living daylights out of me. I went into ICU on the Thursday evening. By Saturday morning all seemed to be returned to normal and I was good to go. Except, obviously not back to the Epic. I was out. Jacques was out too. His wife, like many others I am sure, issued an ultimatum. 

He was out permanently. 

Fourth failed attempt. 

 

Cape Epic Number 5: 2019

Now I have to finish this thing. I turned 62 in 2019 and there were not many riding years ahead of me, I felt. Partner selection, for attempt number five, was going to be key. My daughter Megan knew of a guy, with whom she had studied, who might be interested. Adrian Nasson was/is an elite bike rider who had also done 6 Wines2Whales races. He seemed like the perfect guy, fit and just 44-years-old. And of course, John Wakefield was again prepared to get this old guy over the finish line. 

Adrian and I were a good partnership. He had lots of advice and I listened. We bonded over many different rides leading up to the Cape Epic and rode well together. I got better as a mountain bike rider under his instruction. He made it clear that there was no chance of us winning the race and so it just didn't matter. All that we needed to concern ourselves with, was to finish. And that is what we did.  

We plodded and plodded and plodded. We did our best to stay safe and did just that, despite a couple of falls and one mechanical. Eventually, the day of the last stage dawned. We were still in the race and had only to finish the 70-kilometre route from Stellenbosch to Val de Vie…  

The Grand Finale. We were in our start batch, in the chute, right at the back of the field. There was lots of excitement amongst my fellow riders. These were the folks who we had been riding with since Stage 1! We might not have spoken to each other, as we plodded and suffered in silence, but there was recognition amongst ourselves. This is it; the final stage, we were going to make it! 

We were called forward to get our starting orders, and then we were off. Adrian didn't say a word. There was no hint of what was to follow.

He went out of the gate like a mad man; turned around once and barked at me: "Stay with me!" We raced to the Jonkershoek road and into the mountains like men possessed. The climb up Jonkershoek's Never-ending Story on our way to the Land Rover Technical Terrain, Armageddon, was transformed into a long snake of mountain bikers slowly making their way to the top of the mountain.

I began to notice that we were riding amongst folks that I had never seen before. Adrian had dragged us into the middle of the field and there we stayed. We overtook two women from New Zealand, and I told them that I had just spent the last seven days doing my best to catch up with them and welcome them to our country. They were happy I had made the effort. 

With 10 kilometres left in the race, we were cruising. I sat behind Adrian and let him set the pace. I didn't want him to see the tears.

Val de Vie lay ahead, nobody was racing. We were all approaching the finish as if we did not want it to end. But eventually, of course, it did. We rounded the penultimate bend, onto Val de Vie's polo fields and then turned the last corner onto the finishing straight. There on the finish line, our loved ones waited. It was an emotional experience and there was no point trying to hide my tears anymore.  

I'll be eternally grateful to Adrian for his steady hand in getting us through the 2019 Absa Cape Epic. 

 

Cape Epic Number 6: 2020 

My son Cameron; is 27-years-old and a very capable mountain biker, much more so than I. We are in the process of building the foundation and getting the training miles in. And of course, John Wakefield will be overseeing our training program. We still need to work on getting our pacing sorted and for him to synchronize with my steady slow pace. This will come. He is enormously patient with his old Dad and it is my dream to finish the Absa Cape Epic side-by-side with Cam.  

I can't wait for March 2020. 

The Unsuccessful Epics Club

There is one particular Absa Cape Epic list you do not want to be on. Fortunately for Kevin Wright, he does not quite top it. 

First Name Paulo Kevin Luiz Graham
Surname Brandao Wright Gatti Collins
Nationality Brazil South African Brazil New Zealand
Epics Completed 1 1 1 1
Epics Entered 6 5 5 5
First Absa Cape Epic 2008 2007 2008 2012

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