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A Journey to the Freedom Challenge

In a world of distractions, it’s important to do something for yourself. For Adriaan Giessing that means getting on a mountain bike and cycling across the country. On the 15 June, Adriaan’s Freedom Challenge adventure kicks off. We’re always interested in the endeavours of our tribe, and asked Adriaan about his journey and he shared a few words with us.

8 min read

It’s amazing how sometimes we just know we want to do something but we haven’t really taken the time to articulate the why to ourselves…

To give you a sense of my Freedom journey, I have to start at the beginning – please bear with me. My first exposure to part of the Freedom Challenge started in 2010. Little did I know at the time that I would absolutely fall in love with this style of adventure riding and still be involved with the trail 12 years later.

I remember doing a couple of endurance events in period 2006 to 2010 (Duzi, Comrades, Iron Man etc) and wondering, “what’s next?” Friends from my Iron Man group recommended the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) (a seven-day unsupported run through the Kalahari desert) and the Freedom Challenge. I started researching both and the Freedom challenge immediately grabbed me. 

I ended up doing KAEM in 2012, it was a wonderful race, but a story for another time. 

Back to the Freedom Challenge

Ignorance is bliss and I entered what was the “full” Freedom Challenge, consisting of a trail run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg (PMB) (Comrades + distance) followed by the Race Across South Africa (RASA) (the mountain bike ride from PMB to Diemersfontein), followed by the Breede River canoe marathon. 

After duly submitting my entry, I received a phone call from Meryl Glaser a couple of days later. She and David Waddilove ran Freedom Challenge in those early years. After chatting for a few minutes and her asking me if I realize that I would be racing for the better part of a month, we came to the very sensible conclusion that I should perhaps start with the Race to Rhodes as an introduction to the Freedom Challenge.

I convinced my old endurance race buddy Jaco Retief to join me for Race to Rhodes. We found him a good second hand mountain bike online and a few weeks later we were in PMB ready to start our adventure. 

I must just mention that as a novice to the sport of mountain biking this was to be Jaco’s first ever mountain bike race – ignorance truly is bliss 

Day one of the race saw me fall down a goat track leading into the Umkomaas Valley about 70km in and break my left shoulder and tore all the ligaments in the AC joint. I was so excited to be on the trail and did not want to withdraw. There was no cell reception in the valley so I carried on, crossed the Umkomaas River and rode on up Hella Hella to the top of the escarpment. From there I was able to call my doctor friend, Bruce Grant, who did a couple of checks with me over the phone and concluded that if I can bear the pain I should not do too much extra damage by carrying on, so that is what I did.

Getting undressed and dressed in tight lycra gear with one arm was interesting. 

After a reasonable night of rest, we headed out at 4AM from Allandale farm (the first official overnight stop on the trail). I was switching between resting my left arm on the handle bar and the front pouch of my back pack. 

Unfortunately, on a technical animal track, I hit an warthog hole in the ground – normally no problem but my hands were on the handle bar at the time and the impact on my shoulder caused what was left of the ligament joints to tear off. My shoulder was now “hanging” a few centimetres lower and I knew this meant trouble. 

A couple of hours of riding later, light snow flakes started to fall just before Donnybrook and I decided it was time for another call to the doc. This time, the outcomes of the tests were not so great and I was strongly advised to end my race. 

Disappointed, I said goodbye to Jaco, wished him well for the rest of the race and jumped on the back of a farmer’s bakkie to catch a lift

Racing to Rhodes…

Two shoulder operations later I was back in 2012 and successfully completed the Race to Rhodes in six days. There were eight of us who started in our group; only three of us managed to finish.

The snow at the top of Lehana’s pass was waist deep, making for an excellent adventure and I was hooked – the seed to do the full RASA was planted. I returned again in 2013 (successful) and 2014 but sadly had a to stop just before halfway with flu that year. I remember every time I got to Rhodes I felt like I was just getting “into” the ride and was so disappointed that I had to stop when fellow group members continued on to the Cape. 

RASA was firmly on the bucket list and it was not a question of if, but when I would be doing the full race.

Untitled_RASA 1

I told my adventure mates about this amazing event and slowly got most of them involved – including Rowan Matthews who did his first Race to Rhodes in 2014, now a two-time Freedom finisher and back this year for his third one. 

Simple distractions

My little family started growing and with the arrival of first Leo (2013) and Noah (2015), my adventure racing took a back seat for a number of years. Every morning I had the choice – go out and train or wake up and have some early morning cuddle and play time with my boys. It was an easy decision and I am glad I made it. I still ate like I was training and slowly but surely my shape started resembling less of an athlete and more of a beer barrel. 

Fast forward to August 2021 and a post covid lockdown body now fast approaching 100kg (I aways said that if I ever weigh more than 100kg I must be put out to pasture and shot…). I jumped on a scale one night and got the shocking reading 99,7kg – something had to be done. I called Rowan the next day and told him we are doing Freedom together in 2022.

So here I am now a couple of weeks before the adventure kick off, weighing in at an almost fighting weight of 83kg and the excitement is growing day by day. A major dream and bucket list item of mine is about the become a reality and I can’t wait. 

Here is why:

I have always loved being out in nature, just enjoying God’s country and His amazing art pieces that mother nature displays for all who dares and cares to go and look for them. Modern life is great, but if it is one thing, it is fast paced; during any given day we balance so many things between family, work, training, social life, community and personal time. It is sometimes difficult to hear ourselves think and to just be still and hear God’s whisper in our lives. 

As a family, we love camping and have done a ton of it over the last couple of years. One of the many reasons I love it is the dedicated family time in nature. I also find it very relaxing because for a couple of days my world becomes very small – and I mean small in a good way. My focus is on our camp set up, making a fire, making food, playing with the kids, going for a hike – all simple things in a narrow environment. I found with that comes peace and relaxation.

Exactly the same happens when I do endurance racing: I find it incredibly relaxing. Yes, it is physically challenging, but I find that my body works well with slow and long. When I am out there my world becomes almost microscopic – my thoughts go to getting my body and my equipment from A to B every day, navigating the route and the journey as well as enjoying the “show” when your body goes through its phases is fascinating to me. 

Let me explain what I mean by “show”. 

I remember on my first Comrades run, how I was fascinated by the different cycles my body went through. I realized about five hours into the run that there is a very interesting cycle happening in my body with duality between my brain and the rest of my body fighting for supremacy. I noticed that I would get a cramp in my left hamstring – my body trying to tell me to stop. As my brain over rode my body signals and kept going, the most amazing thing happened: my body almost “accepted” that my brain was not going to let it stop and adjusted itself so the cramp would go away and I would have a few minutes of blissful running. Then my body would try something else, a bit of nausea maybe or a cramp in the right calf this time, the brain would say no way, the body would adjust and so the cycle continued. 

I remembered observing this almost as a third party and really enjoying the show. Only when we put ourselves in unknown situations do we discover new things about ourselves.

Back to relaxation

I have also found from longer races that by about day five or six, the thoughts and stresses of the outside world truly fade away and by then I am really starting to concern myself with deep and meaningful thoughts. 

The sixth day of my run through the Kalahari was physically the toughest, but mentally and spiritually the most amazing. My body felt tired and my legs were sore, so I ended up at the back of the trail on my own for most of the 44km run that day. I prayed, I sang, I made a few commitments to myself on how I would be a better husband, son and human being, I even cried once or twice – happy tears, full of emotion but free. It was such a special day in my life, one that could only have happened because of the journey the previous five days in the desert…

In the focus and the isolation of endurance racing there is peace.

Follow Adriaan’s journey. Click on this link to watch his progress live.

Completing the full RASA will be a dream come true for me and a personal bucket list item ticked. But I know it will be so much more than that; being away from my family is one of the hardest things for me. Even after a three day business trip I cannot wait to get home and be with Shana and my two boys. 

Freedom will take me away from them for longer than two weeks, but I believe it will be one of the best investments of my time. It will be a time to speak to God, embrace nature and the adventure of navigating my way through her various show pieces, to wrestle through getting comfortable being uncomfortable, to find a few answers and pack a few “boxes”, to think about how I will be a better husband, father and friend when I get back and to also to love just being in my micro cosmos of relaxation for a few days.

The initial plan was for Rowan and I to start and finish the Freedom together this year. Rowan has done really well in previous years, finishing both races near the top end of the field in 14 days. This year his plan is to do either 13 or 15 days, “just not another 14 days” he said – Freedom riders are strange people. 

Unfortunately two different strains of Covid and a bad flu in between for good measure has caused me to lose valuable training time and form. I am still feeling some of the effects of the last round of Covid, but am getting stronger each day. Seeing that we are on different performance curves currently, Rowan wisely suggested that I start a few days before him and “ease” into the race with the hope that we will meet up on route later in the race. I spoke to Chris Fisher, the current race director, and he gladly assisted with the change in plan.

I know it is going to be hard, it is going to be cold (in 2013 we had -14 degrees on day four) but I also know I am going to love it and I can’t wait.

Wishing you well, from the INN8 team!