The Desert Dash – 2011

DNF. The worst three letters in any cyclists vocabulary. A vulgar four letter word in three letters. DNF. Did Not Finish. That was the sad tale of my participation in the Desert Dash. And if I gave you fifty guesses at why I did not finish, you still wouldn’t get it – otherwise strong and physically in good condition after 233 km of cycling, I went almost totally blind!

But, let me start at the beginning …

The Desert Dash is considered to be the longest single stage mountain bike race run anywhere in the world, taking in 340 km of mostly gravel roads from Windhoek in central Namibia to Swakopmund on the Atlantic Coast, all to be completed within 24 hours. Participants take part as solo riders, covering the entire distance on their own, or in teams of two or four. In 2011 the race started on December 16 and I was entered as one of the 107 plus solo riders in the field of around 450 participants in total.

We set off from the Windhoek Country Club at 3:00 pm on Friday as scheduled and all 450 cyclists rode the first stage of 33 km. It was very hot and the road was quite crowded as there were just 10 km of tarred road to sort ourselves out before we hit the gravel road through the Kupferberg Pass. Very steep climbs, perhaps the most difficult climbs of the entire route, but of course coming so near the start meant that we were still fresh and enthusiastic for the challenge. There was much switching from the left side of the road to the right and back again, as the riders looked for the smoothest part of the road to ride on. This in spite of the fact that the road had been recently graded and was in better condition than I have seen it in a long time. But every smooth bit helps! No problems for me, except that I had forgotten my gloves and so was riding barehanded. I was riding very comfortably, but conscious of the distance ahead and not riding too fast.

I signed in and out of the first checkpoint and saw Jane just long enough to ask her to find my gloves.  She couldn’t find them immediately, so I went on without them. The road was far less crowded with cyclists now, as only one member of each team, plus the solo riders, was on the road. The dust was a big problem as all the seconding and team vehicles left for checkpoint two and had to overtake the riders. The second stage is 69 km long and is also very tough, with plenty of climbs and it ends with the hair-raising descent of the Us Pass down to the Kuiseb River. There was a steady headwind, which had picked up in force since the start, but did have the advantage of cooling the cyclists down a little. There was a water point about halfway through the stage and I stopped there for a few minutes for a bottle of orange juice and some water; keeping hydrated was a challenge in the temperatures that we experienced. It was getting dark by the time I finished this stage and I stopped for a few seconds with about five km to go to switch on my flashing tail light.

After signing in and out of the second checkpoint I found Jane, which was surprisingly difficult amongst the myriad of cars in the gathering darkness, I had a bite to eat and a couple of cups of coffee before setting out on stage three – on paper the last of the really tough stages as the route tracks across the Khomas Hochland.

Stage three is 65 km long and starts with a fairly steep climb up from the Kuiseb River, after which it provides a challenging ride as the road moves through a seemingly endless series of short by steep descents, each followed by a short but steep ascent. This makes for extremely tough cycling and plenty of gear changing! It was now very dark and although I had quite good lights – one on the bike and one on my helmet – I cycled quite a bit slower on the descents than I would have in daylight. It was disconcerting not knowing which way the road was curving until you almost got there.  As a consolation, the temperature had dropped and had reached a very good level for cycling. There are some really stiff climbs in this section and I passed several cyclists pushing their bikes, which is something that I did not expect to see. This, of course, was the first section in which the solo riders were up against the team riders who had rested during the previous stage and were somewhat fresher.

Once again there was a water point halfway through the stage which provided a short but welcome break. The 65 km passed relatively uneventfully, although I found it very tiring. The dark also took its toll as it increased the amount of concentration required to follow the road and there was simply no way to pick the best part of the road to ride on – you had to just push on and take whatever the road threw up at you. Which meant finding yourself in channels of slippery gravel quite often, patches which would have been avoided easily in the daylight.

It was a relief to reach the end of stage three, as from here the route would be easier and the gradual descent to the coastal plain would really begin. I went through the now familiar routine of checking in and out of the checkpoint and found where Jane had parked the car. I had a coke and a couple of cups of coffee, refilled my water bottles, had a bite to eat and I set off in good spirits on stage four. This was the stage that I was looking forward to, as during the drive over the course a week earlier I had identified this as one of the more interesting and easier of the six stages.

Stage four is 64 km long and for the first time, just 13 km into the stage, the cyclists and the support vehicles follow separate routes. The first 10 km or so includes some climbing, but the hills are fairly gradual and nowhere near as challenging as those on stages one, two and three. I rode quite comfortably and could feel that I was moving more quickly than I had been earlier, although there were several patches of very loose sand  that came upon one quite suddenly out of the darkness. Without the cars sharing the road there was little dust, which combined with some welcome gradual descents, made for pleasant riding. After the mid-way water point, where we stopped for just a few minutes, I found that I couldn’t follow the road as clearly as I had earlier, but I didn’t pay much heed. By chance there were very few cyclists around me at this time, but I managed to tuck in behind one of the few sharing this stretch of road and as long as I was following him it was fine.

But the cyclist I was following suddenly pulled over and stopped. I shouted to see if he was okay, and he responded that he was fine, but the rest of his explanation for stopping was lost on me. I carried on and within just a few kilometres of being on my own I realized how bad my sight had become, to the point where, with about 20 km of the stage still left to do, I couldn’t see the road ahead at all. I could see the pool of light from my headlight, which was still working perfectly, but everything else was lost in a thick grey mist. In spite of the fact that I slowed right down until I was riding at about 10 km per hour on a slight descent, I still went off the road several times and fell quite heavily. This was undoubtedly the scariest bit of cycling that I have ever done. I was weaving from one side of the road to the other in a thick fog of my own, just trying to find the road and it was getting steadily worse. Five or six times I fell, and probably twice that number of times I just managed to save myself from falling. I feel quite silly even writing this, but in all honesty I couldn’t find my way down a wide country road with any confidence at all. More than once I actually got off the bike and walked, but this was not really an option as I didn’t know quite how far it was to the end of the stage, so I climbed back onto the bike and edged forward again.

Twice after I had fallen other cyclists came along and asked if I was okay, obviously bewildered by the fact that someone could fall off a bicycle on a perfectly good stretch of road. Quite humiliating!!

You can imagine how pleased I was to reach the checkpoint at the end of the stage, but I still didn’t really know how bad my eyes were. I thought the major part of the problem was a combination of dust and bad lighting and that I would be okay when the sun came up. Reality struck at the checkpoint, where the lightling was quite good. I could still see very little. The clipboard that was handed to me to sign in was just a blur. I wiped my eyes with my handkerchief amd took another look; no improvement. I had to ask the official to place my hand on the block that I had to sign and I scribbled my initials. More humiliation!!

When I found Jane and the car I told her my sad tale of woe and my eyesight became steadily worse as we spoke, to the point where I couldn’t see my own knees as I sat in a chair. Jane went to the checkpoint to ask for help from the Medic on duty, and although he wasn’t immediately available, he arrived not too long after. He washed my eyes out with saline and examined them very thoroughly, considering  the circumstances. Although his first thought was that I had an allergy, perhaps to the mica in the dust from the road, and that an anti-histamine might sort out the problem, his examination showed a different picture. My corneas were clouded over and appeared to be scratched. He said that there was no quick fix and I was out of the event. In addition, he said that I should get to the hospital in Swakopmund as soon as possible to prevent any permanent damage to my eyes.

A very disappointing outcome. I had all the difficult riding done (233 km according to my reckoning) and just had the last two downhill stages left. I also had plenty of time in hand, having finished stage four by 4:30 am in spite of the very slow last twenty or so km, and physically I was in good condition.

On the positive side, my eyesight recovered slowly over the following 48 hours, and there doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage. The doctor who did a careful examination in Swakopmund didn’t find any damage to the cornea or to the retina, so I am confident that all will be back to normal within a few more days.

This is obviously good news for me, but equally so for Jane – she had already made a note to order me a white stick and a Labrador!

Just for the record – the winner of the solo category in the Desert Dash this year was Emiliano Ballardini of Italy, in 13 hours 52 minutes. The attrition rate amongst the solo riders was high, with 14 DNS, 27 DNF and 66 actual finishers.

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