This would be the last long day, and include several very hard climbs. Over the course of the trip, we had experienced raging heat and freezing cold. Today started with very low temperatures, but started to warm up quickly. We had a couple of long, hard climbs early on. At the top of one long (3ish miles) climb, I had the pleasure of seeing Stoff in my trademark cowboy hat. He looked good. He had given his sunglasses to a rider who drop his on Day 1, and was looking for protection from the sun. All that was missing was some boots and aviators to complete out the look, and he’d be full Texan. I was proud. This made from great photo opportunities throughout the day. Eventually, we passed the first sign to Pietermaritzburg. This was a huge moment for us. During the year or so of planing, and the 9 days of riding, Pietermaritzburg had become a Atlantis – a fictional mecca – but this sign showed it was real. Our journey was real, and it was coming to a close. We enjoyed an awesome lunch, and watched as Amanda was surprised by her husband. Tears were shed, hugs were shared, and we all saddled back up and set out for Umkomaas Valley. This was the legendary climb of Unogwaja. We had several climbs and big, beautiful descents on the sides of canyons before finally making it to Umkomass. I was with a front group of 3; we charged into this insane climb like a rogue pack of bachelor lions. It is only about 2Km, but it is very steep. I was in my lowest gear, pedaling as hard as I could, and I was only moving a couple miles per hour. Every time I tried to stand up, my tire slipped. There was no way I could have done this climb on Day 1. Somehow, we finally made it to the top, and there was a group waiting for us. We stopped and waited for the rest of the group to make their way up. It was an extremely emotional moment for all of us, and we wanted to be together, as a complete team. After our short celebration, we headed out on our descent to a massive 5Km climb. Again, I was with a front group, just trying to get to the finish.
About half way up I heard my name from a familiar, but out of place, voice. It was a voice I hadn’t heard in weeks, but had been forever branded into my heart over the last few years. Jessica (my then girlfriend, now fiancé, soon to be wife) stood there, waving an Unogwaja flag. While my heart was jumping for joy, my legs were stuck on auto-pilot, and my brain was a fog. I looked over, suffering on my face, and told her I had to keep going. I didn’t stop. I was mostly shocked that she was there, and it took a little while to process. After the last big climb, we waited for the second group to catch up. This was very difficult for me, because all I wanted to do was get to the end so I could see Jessica. My head space had gone from teammate to boyfriend in an instant.
We rode into a very emotional finish to Day 9, as crowds of family members saw loved-ones for the first time in weeks. Introductions were made, hugs were shared between former strangers, now extended family. Names and stories from the last 9 days became faces and flesh, and it was beautiful to see all the teammates become doting members of families. It was the best finish to a day yet. We loaded up and drove to Pietermaritzburg, where we would stay the night on a military base. We had an awesome dinner, and then party at the base pub, and celebrated the end of our last big day. We had drinks, ate bilton, and stayed up way too late. We went to bed looking forward to Day 10.
This was a short day. Only riding about 25 miles seemed so insignificant after what we had accomplished. Still, out of habit, we woke up early to maintain our routine. We had a very relaxed morning, something new to us. We all had a big breakfast, and loaded up mid morning to drive out to our starting point. There was a very specific time we had to be at the base for our welcoming party with all of the students. The vans made good time, and we got to stop at a park to take a break, to avoid arriving early. As we rode into PMB, to the base, we were filled with chills. This was the last time we would be on bikes together.
A huge corridor of singing students were there to welcome us. It was an awe-inspiring sight. We had a minute to reunite with family, put away our bikes, and changed into shoes we could walk to the Comrades start line in. Then, the parade started. Our group was lead by a fire truck and a band. We (yes, even me) danced our way to the start line. This is when the run became real to me. We had put in so much time to make it to the start, and we were finally here. There were speeches and dancing. We were eventually sent to start our preparations for Comrades.
We walked back to the base, changed and got ready to go pick up our packets. After a nice afternoon yoga session, we went to dinner. Then, we parted ways to begin our personal race day preparations. All we had left of this grand adventure was a short 89Km run. Just a tiny little footrace, on 10 days of trashed quads, hill-battered glutes, and lycra-chafed skin, and we were done. What would it feel like to be done? It was a question I was not prepared to answer, or even truly ask myself.