My left ear was filling with sand and debris.
Much earlier in the week we'd given up on being clean to any degree while on the bike. Faces rarely were wiped, lips simply stayed dry and caked with dust. Forget limbs...justification was easy - it was a losing battle and really when you get pragmatic about it, dust is nature's sunscreen.
But in my ears? Come on, man...
Dry grass. Actual pieces of dirt. Sand. Bits of whatever is launching out of these barren and obliterated fields were being picked up by the gale force winds, from our left, and filling my ear. It was the kind of side wind that sucks the drool out of one side of your mouth due to the vacuum that's being created on the leeward side of your body.
This wind was also attempting to suck the soul out our bodies, but that had already been sold on the used market yesterday in stage 3, and then repo'ed today, a few times over.
I was on a rear tire with 20psi, wobbly from being unevenly seated, a two-inch gash was patched with three gel wrappers and still bulging with the pressure of the tube, when suddenly it went flat again. Four flats in, this was number five.
On that damn road. In the wind. Sand filling anything it could infiltrate.
My shoulder hurt. Not from the pumping action of our loaner micro-mini pocket pump, but from four (or was it five now?) hours earlier....feeling good and climbing at the front of the pack, I crashed.
Crashes when climbing would typically be called "falling over". This was a crash. Riding next to Thomas Dietch of the Bulls 2 team, a stick was kicked up and went straight into my front wheel. I was already out of the saddle and cresting a sandy knoll, leaning over the bars. We were going fast. Immediately tires were skidding towards my face and bikes scattering. I was upside down, still clipped in, trying figure out how I got here.
I used to call certain "epic" endurance or stage races IQ Tests. The more you do a certain race, the lower your IQ score. "Friends don't let Friends do XYZ race, twice," we'd say.
Scarily, I think I'm figuring those people out, now. Over the top events such as La Ruta or the Absa Cape Epic are really and truly about finding the emotional and mental breaking point of a human, in sport anyway. Its not so much about what happens after that point, but more about figuring out where it is. Only quitters quit, which is true enough, so we're removing those folks from the equation. But, where is that point where you say "OK, this is the point where I'm really maxed?"
Maybe that's the whole point. The destination is THE journey for those folks. The quitters have quit, remember, so now we just need to take the finishers, push them to this metaphysical and literal point, just so they can experience and savor their time there.
We hit that today. The failure to maintain performance due to flats. The tortuous nature of the route. Indefatigable sand and wind. A scope and scale of endless barren Earth climbing unimaginable to most North Americans. If you thought you needed to bail out at checkpoint 1 in yesterday's stage, good thing you didn't ride today's route. There was no bail out. It was up to each man and woman to go internal, wrestle with their psyche, and figure out how to keep pedaling. Because you were going to have to.
Two men enter, one man leaves.
Internally at least.
The two videos below are courtesy of Jason Sager. The first is helmet cam footage from the stage 4 while the second is a mid-race interview with Jason and Justin as they recount how just how many flat tires have marred their day's experience.