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Sarah Atmore: My First Munga

How and when did you get into cycling?

I got into cycling a bit by accident. As kids every year we would go watch the Argus Cycle Tour on the side of the road with a picnic of bacon sandwiches that my father would make. I have such a clear memory of this. And I recall always saying that one year I would ride it. A number of years ago (maybe 13 or 14 I can’t remember exactly) my father had entered to ride the race but couldn't. So I decided three days before the event that I would give it a shot. Without having ridden in years I borrowed his bike (two sizes too big for me and I didn't know how to work the gears), and tried. I took forever to finish the race. By the time I finished literally everything at the finish line had been packed up. You never would have known it was there. But after that race the bug just bit. My father bought me my own bicycle and I got more and more into it. And now I stick with it because of the places I see, friendships I've made, the sense of freedom I get when I'm on a bike, the time I have to think when I'm many reasons.

Where do you ride mostly?

I mostly ride around the Southern Suburbs and the Cape Peninsula. The Block House, Tokai and the greenbelts are some of my favourite spots. That said, whenever I get a chance to take my bike some place further away I do it. Long open, traffic free gravel roads are my best.

Why did you choose the Munga?

I heard about the Munga the first year it took place and I loved the idea. That year I was quite fit and strong and it sounded like the perfect challenge. I had done the Half Ironman twice and the 360ne and I was looking for another, bigger challenge. Unfortunately that year I couldn’t afford to ride it so I volunteered to help out at a race village and in return got a free entry for the following year. For the next three years then I intended to ride but I was either sick, or not fit enough and I ended up volunteering each of those years, always wanting to ride it. Finally in 2019 I had the opportunity to get coached specifically for the Munga, and by the time the event rolled around there was nothing that was going to stop me doing what I had waited five years to do.

What did it take to get yourself to the start line how did you prepare for it?

So aside from the long wait, the main preparation I did for it was about a year of focused training. I had done a lot of riding prior to that and I was fairly fit, but I had never trained with much focus. My training for the Munga followed a structured plan that worked on building my strength and endurance and preparing me specifically for this race. On average I did three shorter more intense sessions during the week, usually in the gym and then two longer rides on the weekend. These sessions all built on one another. The plan also included dedicated rest which is hugely important and which was something I had kind of neglected in the past. Aside from the physical benefits the training helped me to be mentally prepared for the race. I really believe physical preparation is only about half of an ultra-endurance event like the Munga. Arriving at the start line knowing how well I had trained made me that bit more confident which helped get my mind in order. And then aside from training there was the thought that went into equipment choices, prepping the bike, and also planning a strategy for the race, and visualization of each section of the race to help the mind overcome challenges that are bound to pop up during a long race like the Munga.

What were your goals and strategy?

My goal was to finish within the cut-off. At 1060 kilometres this was substantially further than I had ever ridden before in one go. I knew that despite the training it would be a big challenge - that was the point. While I knew that I could do it, I also didn’t really know I could do it, if you know what I mean. So while I knew I could do it I also had to prove it to myself. The strategy was to go into the race well prepared and strong. Then while in it the strategy was to pace myself and keep moving forward from one point to the next, and also to enjoy the experience. While it was though, I never really thought "this is too much for me". And I was able to really enjoy it, even the bits where my body was aching. Next time my goal will be to do it faster.

What bike and packing setup did you choose for the ride?

I had an Apidura bag under my saddle with a change of clothes (shorts, socks, jacket for when it got cold, light loose shorts and t-shirt for race villages and sleeping in), extra batteries, some tools and spares and a first aid kit. At the front I had two feed bags (made by local CT company @natch_goods). Those had extra food mainly and my mobile phone. Then I had a small bag on my top tube with sunblock, anti-chaffing cream, more food and a print out of my race strategy. I had two water bottles in the normal spots and two extra on my fork. And a camelbak. I carried lots to drink which came in very handy in the heat. I remember getting to the end of the five litres I was carrying while riding to the water point at the Tankwa padstaal. I was very glad I had it all.

How did you reduce pre-race anxiety?

Being well prepared in terms of training. Having a solid strategy for the race. Visualization - literally imagining myself and how I would feel at different parts of the race. How would I feel when I was far into it and had minimal sleep? Trying to imagine how that would feel and then visualizing my response. I knew there would be tough moments, but beforehand I planned as best as I could, how I would deal with those and keep moving forward from start to finish. My coach Rafeeq had also done the race a few times before so it was great to be able to ask him about his experience and learn from that. Being as well prepared as possible helped reduce any anxiety.

What were the lowest moments, how do you get through them?

I didn’t really have any low moments, but there were plenty of tough moments. The first 100 kilometres was insanely hot and I struggled to eat. At one point early on I remember seeing a bunch of people riding off into the distance ahead of me and I thought "schucks!, I better push to keep up" but I quickly remembered my goal and that I would do best to stick to my own plan. When I saw them riding away from me I picked up the pace slightly for about a km, but then I got my head right, dropped back to what I was comfortable with and rode there. Remembering that I was there for my own race and not to worry about them. I am glad I did that because as I went on I caught up with many of them, and passed a good few, some of whom had even pulled out from the race. Riding at a comfortable effort for me also allowed me to keep eating and drinking in those first 100 kilometres and to deal with the heat. I think pushing too hard at the start would have been a huge mistake. I rode most of the race completely alone and while I love that, at some points I also just wanted someone to chat to. I remember a few messages that came at just the right point, where I wasn’t miserable or close to quitting or anything like that, but just knowing that there were people out there rooting for me was a nice thing to have, to give me something to think about or to distract me from aches and pains.

What were the scary moments, how do you get through them?

There were no really scary moments, but I do remember riding into Sutherland and my bum was in agony and my one calf was feeling sore. I was worried that I may not actually be able to sit on the saddle any longer or that I was injuring my calf and at some point it may become so bad that I couldn’t pedal. Either of those could have ended the race for me. When I got to Sutherland I saw a medic and explained my situation and she was very kind and helpful. I had a nice hot bath to warm up, a slow mag to try to help the calf and I think two hours of sleep. Waking up and getting going was pretty tough then. The bed was super warm and I was tired. Sleep was so tempting. Again here, encouraging words and visualization helped. Before the race started I had imagined this exact moment. I knew how tempting an extra three hours of sleep would be. But I had already made the decision to get up and keep going and I just had to follow through with that. Whenever I stopped to sleep I set three alarms also just in case, but I always got up on the first one. And then, now that I think about it, I was a bit worried riding over Bainskloof at the end. I was tired, really tired. Almost falling asleep on the bike and I remember thinking that I may fall asleep and ride over the edge. Thankfully I did not. I rode over the pass in the very early hours of the morning. It was still dark. At one point a bakkie that was driving the pass in the opposite direction to me came around a corner in the middle of the road. I had lights on my bike but I don’t think the driver was expecting to see anyone else using the pass at that time. Thankfully I was riding over to the left at that point as he was driving really fast and pretty recklessly. That was pretty scary but it was over in a flash and there was not really much to deal with. The shot of adrenaline helped wake me up a bit.

How much sleep did you manage to snatch?

I am still a bit confused about this, but I am pretty sure it is somewhere between 5 and 7 hours out of a total race time of 113 hours. I planned to sleep a bit more but each time my head hit the pillow my brain started going through things I had to do and remember when leaving the race village so if I could not sleep then I just got up and carried on. It was only really in Sutherland where I got a pretty good sleep and had to force myself to wake up. During the week after the race I slept like a log. And I think I was fast asleep within five minutes on the drive home from Wellington. Thankfully my father was driving not me.

What kept you going?

I love a challenge. I was in part motivated to keep going just to see how much I could handle, but also by the enjoyment of it. Yes it was tough and there were moments of pain and tiredness but I honestly loved every minute of it, including the hard bits, especially some of the hard bits. Also the encouragement from people along the route and watching at home. And it's a privilege to be able to take part in something like this. To get to ride my bike for almost five days solid and feel the freedom and happiness that comes with that, I wasn't going to stop short of doing it all.

What did you learn/discover about yourself when you did Munga?

I can cope surprisingly well with little sleep. I have gone without sleep before but never to this extent and it is really quite an incredible feeling. When you are focused on doing something your brain almost overrides your body and just does what is necessary to keep going. Once I stopped at the end, then my body was able to give in to the exhaustion. I also realised again just how many people are out there cheering me on and supporting and encouraging me, in their own way. I realised I am very lucky to have all of these people in my corner. I realised I really want to spend more time doing this. And I realised that I would love to share these kinds of experiences with more people. And I would also love to do more long rides like this, but slower and more as an adventure/exploration of our country and less as a race (though I do also want to race it and other races). We have some incredible things to experience here in South Africa.

What advice would you give to someone participating in an ultra-distance cycling event for the first time?

Take the time to train properly. While ultra-endurance events are largely a mental thing, it really helps to know that your body is prepared. If your fitness and strength are there it gives you confidence to do it and that confidence can help ease your mind and strengthen your resolve. Enjoy it. Enjoy the process of training and the race, if you are really not enjoying it what is the point? That also means embracing the tough bits and enjoying those too. Also sometimes it’s fine to jump in the deep end a bit and choose something that seems a bit crazy and challenging, again, that is the point, to push yourself to achieve more than you have done in the past.

How did it feel to ride a 1000 kilometres?

It was challenging but also an incredible experience and really very fun. When I got to the end I didn’t really want to stop. It’s hard to explain; parts of my body were absolutely aching and making me wish I could stop. But in my mind stopping before the end was not even an option I considered. So I was sore and tired but overall I felt strong and that in itself was a great feeling. The sense of achievement at the end was pretty great. About half an hour after I finished tiredness flooded my body, I thought I was going to vomit and very nearly did. I think my body just knew it was over and I could relax and then exhaustion from the physical challenge but mainly from sleep deprivation kicked in and I felt shattered. But also incredibly happy and content.

What did you enjoy about Munga?

The physical challenge, the insane heat. The sunsets and sunrises. The silence and stars at night. The very rare spots of shade to rest in. The water points and race villages and their hospitality and the food. The few people and communities along the route who looked at me like I was crazy but were always very encouraging. The leapfrogging with other riders along the route. The multitude of conversations I had in my head while riding. The times where I had absolutely nothing in my head while riding. The WhatsApp messages checking in on me and the excitement from people watching the dots move. I had one friend who messaged at every big point in the race and I am eternally grateful for that. There was so much I enjoyed that I can’t possibly write it all down here.

Would you do it again?

Yes! Without a doubt. I would like to do it again at least twice, once to race it and see how fast I could do it. And another time to do it with a mate/s of mine. I think doing it solo and doing it with company could be two very different experiences, both probably great in their own ways.

What would you do differently?

I kind of mentioned it above, but when I say race it I mean really push myself to see how quickly I could do it. As my goal was to finish I was careful to pace myself conservatively. I made sure I would make each section comfortably and while it was tough I never really pushed myself to the point where I thought I might blow. I was surprisingly comfortable throughout in terms of exertion and effort. I didn’t want to risk blowing entirely and not finishing. And then to ride it with a mate and share the experience - I would love that. To see them go through that experience and challenge. I love watching people push their limits, and this race certainly does that.

Follow me: @sarahamore


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