Conquering the Wild: Inside the Absa Cape Epic

Conquering the Wild: Inside the Absa Cape Epic

by Starla Teddergreen

Absa Cape Epic:
In the heart of South Africa's rugged terrain lies a challenge like no other – the Absa Cape Epic. Every year, this legendary duo mountain bike stage race draws UCI world-class athletes, thrill-seekers, and endurance athletes from across the globe to test their mettle against nature's toughest obstacles. Spanning eight grueling days covering approximately 700km with 16850m of climbing (381 miles, totaling 55,282ft elevation) of unforgiving landscapes, the Absa Cape Epic is not for the faint of heart. With steep climbs, treacherous descents, and relentless trails, it pushes riders to their limits physically and mentally. Yet, amidst the adrenaline and exhaustion, there's an undeniable allure to the challenge – a chance to conquer the wild and emerge victorious against all odds.

Years in the making:
The Absa Cape Epic has been a race that's lingered in my mind for much of my career. It was a distant ambition I never truly believed I could achieve. After all, my focus had always been on road racing, and it wasn't until four years ago that I even started riding mountain bikes.

The real journey to the Absa Cape Epic's starting line began in 2022, a year that changed everything. If you're not familiar with my story, you can catch up on the details in "Not What We Expected" on Distance To Empty.

Initially, the road to Cape Epic was about recovery, even though I didn’t quite realize it then. It was a journey of learning to be kind to myself as I mourned the loss of the athlete and person I once was. Coming to terms with my new reality meant acknowledging my limitations, reframing my mindset, and listening to my body in a completely different way. Throughout my athletic career, I'd been accustomed to pushing through discomfort, ignoring pain, and pushing myself to the limit. But since my MS diagnosis, I've had to redefine those limits, which seem to be ever-changing due to various factors.

Recovering from the initial attack required significant rehabilitation to regain mobility, strength, balance, and coordination in my limbs. It was a gradual process of recalibrating my body, gradually reducing reliance on medications, and understanding the nuances of this new, unfamiliar body that I inhabit.

The next challenge was returning to the start line, brimming with gratitude for being there and determined to prove my resilience. Along the way, I've experienced the exhilarating highs of standing on the top step of a podium again and the humbling lows of not finishing.

Being selected once more in 2023 to compete in the LifeTime Grand Prix marked the beginning of another pivotal chapter in my journey as an athlete with MS. It served as a poignant reminder of my capabilities and the unique hurdles I face. Heat intolerance emerged as the primary obstacle affecting my performance, with even slight increases in body temperature exacerbating neurological symptoms. Uhthoff's sign, a phenomenon familiar to many with MS, manifests as a temporary worsening of symptoms in the heat, including fatigue, weakness, numbness, and blurred vision. This occurs due to the impact of heat on nerve conduction in demyelinated areas of the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord. With each rise in core body temperature, the already compromised nerve function is further impeded, leading to a temporary deterioration of coordination, muscle strength, and cognitive processing. 

Despite my best efforts to mitigate its effects through strategic cooling strategies like wearing cooling vests and ice socks, I often grapple with its unpredictable impact. This past season, I experienced firsthand the emotional toll of navigating these challenges, ultimately leading me to reassess my approach for the 2024 season.

Recognizing the need to prioritize races that would provide meaningful experiences rather than focusing on the pressure of results, I decided to forego applying for the LTGP. Instead, I have sought out races like Cape Epic, where I could continue to push boundaries and thrive as an athlete on my own terms.

Realizing the preciousness of time, I've learned to embrace life to its fullest, unafraid of diving into daunting challenges. As the 2023 season drew to a close, I took a bold step and messaged Hannah Shell, asking her to join me as my partner for the 2024 Absa Cape Epic. With a few excited expletives, she enthusiastically agreed.

Now that we were set on racing Cape Epic together, preparing for the event presented several challenges that demanded meticulous planning and perseverance. Firstly, gaining entry was an obstacle as registrations were sold out. Additionally, meeting the qualifications to race in the women's UCI category posed a challenge since neither of us held current UCI points. However, with a well-crafted plea emphasizing the importance of increasing female participation, particularly at the UCI level, our intent to share our experience to encourage future female participation at Epic events, and proving our qualifications, we secured our place in the UCI women’s field.

Securing sponsorship was another hurdle. As privateer athletes, Hannah and I approached potential sponsors for support. However, due to the timing or misalignment with their marketing objectives, we faced difficulty garnering the necessary backing for such a significant endeavor. However, several sponsors, including Eliel, saw the value in what we set out to accomplish, and we secured partial funding. Eliel made my custom kit for the event. The breathability of the Diablo Jersey and Bibs played a pivotal role in helping me manage my core temperature. 

Furthermore, organizing travel arrangements, accommodation, transportation, mechanics, nutrition, travel health, and equipment introduced additional layers of complexity. It felt like taking on a second job, requiring meticulous attention to detail and efficient time management to meet deadlines. Thankfully, spreadsheets proved to be invaluable tools in keeping everything on track. 

Living in Colorado posed its own challenges, especially regarding consistent outdoor training during the winter months leading up to Cape Epic. Maintaining a rigorous training regimen with most trails closed became quite the task. Hannah and I opted for a month-long training block in Arizona. This intensive period proved invaluable, allowing me to achieve my longest week of training since my diagnosis. It was a testament to my body's readiness to tackle the grueling demands of the 20th edition of Cape Epic. 

South Africa:
After the hard work was done and we finally arrived at nightfall to a warm summer night in Cape Town, we drove to our first AirB&B located in Somerset West, a breathtakingly beautiful suburb town where the prolog would take place. South Africa is a land of beauty, where diverse landscapes unfold in a tapestry of colors and textures. From the majestic peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains to the golden savannas of Kruger National Park. However, beneath its picturesque façade lies a nation grappling with the legacy of apartheid and the vast disparities in wealth and opportunity that persist today. The scars of apartheid run deep, with townships bearing witness to decades of segregation and injustice. Despite progress since the end of apartheid, economic inequality remains a significant challenge, with the majority of the country's wealth still concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. Through the weeks that followed, we would witness this firsthand; at times, it was truly heartbreaking. I could tell a story of the race and a South Africa that is all beautiful, but that would not tell the whole story.

The challenges of the race extend far beyond the grueling courses themselves. In South Africa, clean water is not guaranteed anywhere, necessitating the purchase of bottled water for all purposes. Fresh produce is a luxury left behind, as only boiled or peelable fruits and vegetables are deemed safe. Even the simple act of brushing your teeth requires bottled water. As a result, the normal healthy diet was abandoned from day one, compounded by stomach issues that plagued us from the moment of arrival, culminating in a now unfortunate battle with E. coli despite our best efforts. Without the luxury of home washers, we scrubbed dirt-soiled kits in bathtubs and sinks after each stage. The absence of widespread air conditioning meant recovery was a constant struggle, as we were either sweltering in the heat or besieged by mosquitoes if the windows were left open.

Although we were fortunate not to be in a malaria zone, our one stay with air conditioning was nullified by South Africa's notorious "load shedding" – planned daily rolling blackouts due to the country's electricity infrastructure strain. Sleep, food, water, and recovery all went to hell. Crime is real, and reminders of it are everywhere. Homes have electric fences on top of 8’ walls. ADT officers are armed. The chance of being stopped on a trail at gunpoint and robbed of your bike and belongings is a real threat we were told of by the first local cyclists we met. During the race, we encountered the juxtaposition of riding through beautiful wine vineyards while barefoot children ran alongside us, asking for food. It all adds up.

Despite our myriad challenges, the Absa Cape Epic journeyed through some of the most breathtaking landscapes I've ever witnessed. Undoubtedly, it is the best-run event I've ever had the privilege to participate in. It's a logistical marvel with a staggering scale, hosting 4000 participants and relocating race villages four times. The race's coverage, as are its meticulously marked courses, is an astounding feat. An interesting note is that we don't rely on GPS files for navigation, as most of the route traverses private lands, ensuring the privacy of the course.

The Race:
Time and time again, Hannah and I found ourselves echoing sentiments of gratitude and mutual reliance: "I could not do this without you," "There is no one I would rather be here with." Racing as a duo elevated the experience to a whole new level of camaraderie. Throughout the majority of my career, I've raced for others, but this was different. It wasn't about sacrificing my race for someone else or pushing myself to the absolute limit to position another rider for a finish. Instead, it was about mutual support and overcoming challenges together. Hannah and I bring different strengths to the table; she's like a turbocharged diesel, while I lean more towards a punchy two-stroke. While Hannah might struggle on the downhills and punchy climbs, I often find it tough to keep up with her on long climbs and steady efforts. However, as a team, our strengths and weaknesses complement each other perfectly.

We raced under the Distance To Empty banner; not only is it the program my husband Gino and I run — a Colorado-based non-profit that aids women in overcoming obstacles to reach the starting line of races—but it also symbolizes how two teammates, through support and communication, can surpass their own "distance to empty." Reflecting on the race, we did just that. Each of us pushed ourselves to our limits at every stage. Sometimes, the course favored one of us, or the conditions allowed one of us to excel. Instead of causing conflict, these differences provided opportunities for encouragement and support.

More crucially, Hannah deeply understands my limitations in the heat. On the hottest day, temperatures soared to 115°F. With foresight, we devised a plan to utilize the three tech boxes on the course each day. Our strategy to keep me cool involved dropping a thermos filled with ice each night into the tech boxes to make ice socks. The first time Hannah pulled out the thermos at the tech stop and heard the ice rattle, the staff at the tech zone went from dumbfounded to ecstatic, witnessing our ingenuity in action. Additionally, we started each day with hydration packs full of our nutrition and frozen water bottles. As the bottles thawed in the first hour, they provided cold water to dump on my neck and shoulders. When the day's heat approached, Hannah would announce, "Water's coming," and spray me with water. Combined with the ice socks and the support from our husbands at the pro feed stations—providing cold hydration packs, bottles, and more ice socks—it indeed became a team effort to navigate the scorching stages.

Planning for an 8-day stage race halfway across the world required meticulous attention to detail. As privateers, Hannah and I have different bike and component sponsors, meaning we had to bring individual spares for our hired mechanics from Manic Cycles (absolute legends) to work on our bikes after each stage and to stock our three designated tech boxes. We had three sets of wheels: two rear (Shimano and SRAM) and one front, on which we would need to install a rotor (also different sizes) should we need a front wheel. Fortunately, throughout the 8 stages, we only encountered one front puncture that sealed itself with Finishline Fiberlink Sealant and one rear flat that required a quick wheel replacement. Every detail mattered as we planned for the worst-case scenario, ensuring no oversight would take us out of the race. The duct tape we carried in our saddlebags came in handy, allowing me to tape my shoe on to finish the stage after the boa on my shoe snapped, sending me down a cliff into the bushes on stage 6.

The last three stages brought cooler temperatures, allowing us to unleash more of our potential. Stage 6, however, proved to be one of the most challenging races due to external factors. Throughout the event, we had to contend with non-UCI men's categories catching up with us on the course, presenting a new challenge as many men showed little respect for the women's field. On Stage 6, we were pushed out of the women's field at a pinch point where the course narrowed from double track to a narrow section between trees and into single track. Battling for position with the women's field to enter this sector, we were crashed into by men from both sides, bringing us to a halt and separating us from the rest of the women's field. The rest of the day was marred by further encounters with the men, who would aggressively push through, hitting us with their bars and driving us into the bushes, often crashing themselves in front of us. The frustration and anxiety took their toll, leading to Hannah experiencing a panic attack as we continuously fought for space on the trail. Despite losing significant time and position, we persevered together.

The 8th and final stage marked our best performance. After multiple days of the women voicing their position on the disrespect and recklessness of the men and how it affected our race, the men were held back longer from starting. With cool temperatures, we were finally able to race freely. We had a stellar start and held on with the front teams for longer than expected, fending off chasing teams for 9th position. One memorable moment from this stage was encountering a white dog running beside my back wheel on a narrow single track. It had the sweetest face and ran alongside me, providing a sense of calm and joy like a trail angel. Eventually, at a road crossing, she stopped and looked back down the trail, and I bid her farewell with gratitude. Shortly after, we were caught by two teams, and we spent the rest of the day racing relentlessly to maintain our 11th-place position. Crossing the finish line of one of the world's toughest MTB stage races, holding hands with Hannah as a team, and meeting our husbands, who supported us every step of the way, was one of the most rewarding moments of my racing career. 

Weeks later, I am still processing the experience. It has been a highlight of my career and has brought Hannah and me closer as friends. My parting words are: If you have a dream, start by announcing it to the world, making a spreadsheet or two, and get to work. Don't let fear, naysayers, or self-doubt hinder your path. LFG.

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