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Riding 1000km on Zwift, "Fast"

Updated: May 15, 2020

Willie Smit, Pieter Seyffert and the #1000kmZwiftChallenge

It's 3am and I'm in a dark hole. This darkness sweeps over me like a cloud, seeping into my every nook and cranny. I'm a physical mess, and my mind is starting to play tricks on me. My cycling partner Pieter and I have been holding a relentless pace for well over 700km now. This last quarter of our journey feels like it's going to take an eternity. Will we make it?

It's been over a month now since lockdown started here. To say that there has been lots of time to reflect on the past and think of the future would be an understatement. Crazy times indeed but one has to make the most of each and every day I guess.

My wife Mandé and I live in Soldeu, a small village located up in the Pyrenean principality of Andorra. While Soldeu usually gets quite busy in the winter ski season, spring and summer sees lots of cyclists out and about. Quite a few professional riders live here given the altitude, great training routes and tranquil living environment. But with lockdown in full force and stringent measures in place, life is confined to our apartment, with only occasional forays out to the local supermarket to buy basic living essentials.

Like everybody else, my training has been limited to indoor sessions. With no racing on the immediate horizon, staying focussed is challenging. Nevertheless, a daily routine is critical, as is maintaining a base-level of form and fitness. And while motivation can be a challenge at times, it's amazing how one can draw inspiration from the least expected of sources.

I've been studying Muhammad Ali's life story for the last month now. Hours and hours spent watching documentaries on him while plugging away on my indoor trainer sure has kept me motivated. But motivation and inspiration are two different things, and the story of "The Greatest" has the latter in spades.

My path to where I find myself presently has been chronicled elsewhere. Long story short, I grew up in a broken home. There were times in my formative years where I lived in poverty, not knowing where the next meal would come from. To say that I've had to overcome many obstacles would be true – it seems that I've always been "up against it". Fast forward to my cycling career and I've had many critics and detractors over the years. You won't amount to much, some would say, you'll burn out training as hard as that, scoffed others. But I always kept at it, managing to break through barriers time and again, even surprising myself along the way.

Inspiration and Cause

This is where my affection for Muhammad's story originates. His commitment; his determination; his flouting authority. The more I've learnt about Muhammad, the more I admire the man. I feel a true connection to him, and in more ways than one. Why? Well, he suffered from Parkinson's disease, the same illness that my grandmother developed in her later years. But it didn't stop him from being an active and giving member of the public, just like it didn't prevent my grandmother from taking care of me as a teenager. Then there was Muhammad's disdain for being held back. No, he wasn't afraid of exploring his limits, case in point his iconic "Rumble in the Jungle" and "Thrilla in Manila" bouts. It was as if something clicked inside my head, inspiring me to do something special.

Spur of the Moment

To tell you the truth, the #1000kmZwiftChallenge was a last minute decision. I was finishing off my training for the day after watching the Ali-Foreman title fight when the idea sprung to mind. I had already done something similar late last year, completing a 500km ride in South Africa. That was out on the open road, though, and in the company of others. The sixteen or so hours it took to complete that adventure redefined what I had envisioned as possible. Why not double the distance, I thought, as I climbed off my bike. And so the #1000kmZwiftChallenge was born.

To say that I experienced some pre-ride anxiety would be correct. I might be a professional cyclist, but I am certainly not an ultra-endurance athlete. There was so much of the unknown to contend with, not to mention the black dog of self-doubt.

'Would I suffer stomach ailments?'

'What if the Internet connection gave out?'

'Can an indoor trainer actually run for that long?'

All of these and many other questions constantly flew through my head like wildfire. Then there was the matter of cause. I had made it known that I wanted to use the challenge as a vehicle to raise funds for Cycling South Africa. Having come up through the ranks back in South Africa, I wanted to give back to the sport in some way. But what would the reaction to this be, I thought. Would people see this as authentic and genuine? Add in the fact that I was actually unsure if I would actually be physically able to complete the distance and there were butterflies indeed. But then good old Ali was often in uncharted territory, unsure of how much more he could give. No, there wouldn’t be any turning back.

The Human Factor

It all started the very next evening, at midnight to be precise. I enlisted several friends to join in the challenge. Mornay van Heerden, HB Kruger and NTT Pro Cycling's Jay Thomson all joined in for segments of the day-and-a-half trek. But it was Pieter Seyffert who was with me each and every pedal stroke of the way. Pieter was quite literally a world away, pedalling away at his home in South Africa. Not that we ever felt truly isolated. Social distancing is one thing, but contact with others is everything. And thanks to the ways of modern technology that we stayed in voice contact for most of the time. The Discord application is unique in that it is a voice channel that can be accessed via a personal link. Distribute the link to family and friends and they have access to the virtual conversation. Pieter and I were able to keep in real contact with people all over the world through most of the ride.

Needless to say that we laughed a lot throughout the 1,000km trek, particularly during those dark periods of extreme physical and mental exertion. Suddenly a voice would crackle to life in the background: 'Are you guys also doing the Everest Challenge? You might as well as you've ridden so far already.' Comments like this would crack us, lifting our morale and putting a spring back into our pedal stroke. It was this human interaction that made all the difference for us really, helping us maintain sanity all the while blocking out the pain.

We had made it known that we wouldn't exactly be taking a leisurely spin. Simply put, Pieter and myself would ride at a pace fast enough to be challenging, although too hard so as to inflict permanent physical damage. We also wanted to include a fair amount of vertical gain, which we capped at approximately 8,100m. An easier route would therefore have seen a much faster total time.

Then there was the small matter of altitude. With me being at close to 2,000m above sea level (Pieter located a little lower in Johannesburg), maintaining cadence and power output would be a factor to contend with. And while extra calories would also need to be consumed, cadence actually ended up being one of the more challenging and influential aspects of the journey. Bigger gears mean more muscle damage whilst lower ratios meant more pain from saddle sores. Also, an indoor trainer means there is no respite – a rider is "constantly on the pedals" so to speak. Even getting out of the saddle becomes a problem, the fixed aero road bike setup putting strain on all the bodily joints.

Home and Moral Support

Food and living essentials aside, living under lockdown means some items are in short supply. This is especially the case living in a small mountain village. So a little creativity and a ton of family support goes a very long way. With no electrolyte or energy drinks at hand, my wife fed me bidons of water mixed with salt and sugar. This evolved to the old school Coca-Cola-and-water combination towards the end of the ride. She also kept me fuelled with food throughout, constantly passing up self-made rice cakes, date bars and the like. Mandé even helped me up the stairs to our bedroom for a short nap after three-quarters of the way through the ride and made sure I stayed awake during the inevitable dark periods.

The spur-of-the-moment nature of the #1000kmZwiftChallenge also threw a few unexpected curveballs. No fan, for instance, meaning I had to consume more fluids, which in turn caused me to urinate more often. Thankfully the downhill segments allowed for time to urinate into a bidon, not that that relieved the sense of bloating I experienced for the first 500km, though. And saddle sores aside, I only had two sets of cycling shorts to use, my others packed away in my apartment over in Spain. The solution? A few quick showers to clean up and copious amounts of Vaseline spread evenly over the chamois.

By 770km, Pieter and myself were totally spent. Unsurprising I suppose! This is where one of the hallmarks of ultra-endurance sports comes to fore. It is a given that you and your partner will experience some rough patches, either collectively or individually. And you have to be able to manage that as a pair. Yes, a good human connection and rapport really is essential. So we got off hours at around 4am for an hour's nap. Needless to say that the benefits of this pause were incredible! From barely being able to turn the pedals we began to fly again, the final 230km passing by almost effortlessly.

It's been a few days now since our completing the #1000kmZwiftChallenge and I'm in a reflective mood. Thinking back, the journey seems both blurry and crystal clear. Things like each and every coffee consumed after 500km having no effect at all, or my duct-taping my shoe to a broken pedal along the way; these are just a couple of things that are highlighted in the memory bank. What really stands out, though, is the sheer amount of South African riders that joined us for parts of the challenge. And they set a fast tempo too, putting Pieter and myself on the limit at least a few times.

So where to from here? Quite a bit of rest and recovery, that is for sure! The COVID-19 pandemic means that we don't really have any clarity as to exactly when racing will resume. That said, if the professional cycling season ends up being cancelled, I would like to attempt a 2,000km ride in less than 70 hours. That is the idea for now and if it sounds a little crazy, that is because it is. These kinds of challenges change a person's perspective in ways that I'm not sure how to describe.

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