Climbing for Qhubeka: Everesting Old Howick Road, 20 September 2014
On 20 September 2014, Kevin Benkenstein attempted and achieved an Everesting fundraiser for Qhubeka when he rode Old Howick Road in Pietermaritzburg (PMB), KwaZulu-Natal 17 times. Everesting is when a cyclist chooses a hill of his / her choice and rides it repeatedly in a single ride until ascending the equivalent height of Mt. Everest above sea level – 8,848m. Kevin has raised far more than the amount he was originally hoping to raise for Qhubeka, and here he shares his thoughts on the ride, the support he received and what he learned.
If you’d like to make a donation to Kevin’s fundraising project to mobilise more people with bicycles, you can do so through his secure Given Gain page.
I awoke, very early and many hours before I had planned, to a feeling of nervousness that I had not previously experienced. The nerves were unlike those before a race. I knew how huge the ride would be. I had calculated the power required, factored in the altitude, and looked at the time the ride would take. I knew that it would be the biggest day I would ever have had on a bike. I was determined to finish, my head was never going to give in, but I had no idea what my body would do after 10 hours of continuous punishment.
I rode steadily on the early laps. Watching my pace and making sure that it always felt easy, knowing that what was easy on lap 1 would feel like ‘full gas’ on lap 17. Knowing the climb made a big difference and I had target splits for the 3 sections of the climb: 11 minutes minimum to Athlone Circle, 21 minutes minimum to the ‘flat section’, 35 minutes minimum to the top. I knew these times would get slower as the day, and the laps, wore on but I knew that going quicker on the early laps would make the last laps nearly impossible.
The first five laps went smoothly. Easy up the climb, a quick food/drink/warm clothes stop at the top and then descend and do it again. My Dad was always there with a bottle, food and my jacket for the descent. My Mom was there from lap 3. She joined Twitter that morning to see ‘what all the fuss was about’ and from that realised that the ride had become about far more than me doing a big ride. Other people’s excitement excited her. My parents were there the entire day looking after me with food, drink and most importantly just being my ballies (South African slang word for parents or anyone older than oneself).
On lap 6, Brendon Davids joined me at the bottom of the climb. It was good to have someone to laugh with and it was a team effort from then onwards. On lap 7, James ‘Spoke’ Burne joined the party. That boy is made to go uphill. Lap 7 was hard; it wasn’t that slow but it just felt horrible. When we got to the top I needed some alone time. I had a little chat with myself, checked Facebook and Twitter and saw all of the support that we were getting, and I was back in the game. When I got outside my Dad had bought Chelsea buns for us, I ate four and then I was really back in the game. Lap 7 was the only time I doubted myself the entire day.
Lap 8 got going and I felt like myself again, maybe it was the Chelsea buns, maybe it was the messages of support, maybe it was my Dad just being my ballie and telling me I was killing it, maybe it was my mates having no doubts. Likely it was all of that, but I ate a Chelsea Bun after every ascent after that just in case. I am convinced that those Chelsea buns are a super food. They were that day. Brendon rode four laps and James rode six laps. The entire time we were laughing. By the time they were ready to head home I was past halfway, I had ridden for longer and climbed higher than I ever had before. It was now the ‘downhill’ stretch and fatigue was starting to appear.
On Lap 10, Jaco Pelser joined in. He had never ridden Old Howick more than once in a day, and on that day he rode it four times. What a champion! Phil Rutkiewitcz drove all the way from Hillcrest to join on Lap 12. He had never ridden Old Howick in his life. He rode it 6 times and was still flying on the last lap. Some people just love to climb hills. Craig and Meghann Paul came to support us. I have known them for 13 years and it was only right that they were there for a while.
The third quarter of the ride felt good. We were still below 40 minutes per climb and my legs felt decent, slow but decent. The top of the climb each lap always had a story and a laugh. We would check Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and be both amazed and motivated by the support coming through. I still can’t believe how people have gotten behind #climbingforqhubeka, it has been very overwhelming.
As darkness fell, Jaco departed and it was just Phil and me left, until Rob du Preez arrived unexpectedly for the last two laps. Rob is my training buddy in Durban and had joined me for most of the really hard rides I had done in preparation for this day. He had track racing on that afternoon in Durban and wasn’t meant to be able to make it, but did. What a mate. He is a bundle of energy and positivity and he arrived at the right time. It was good having him there.
Lap 15 was the start of the 40 minute-plus laps. I was starting to get really tired, but it was a good place to be. I knew I was earning the ride: if it was easy everyone would do it. This lap was also when my body started to say no. I could only just eat and drink at this stage. Chelsea buns were being forced down and my sips of energy drink were getting smaller. The only thing that wanted to keep moving was my legs and my head. I think that they had forgotten how to do anything else.
Lap 16 was emotional. When I was at the 2km to go mark on the climb, I knew I would finish. It was just a descent and a climb to go. I started thinking about the day, the response, the mates, my parents, and my family. They had supported me in such an incredible way. I could never have done it without them. I was going to ‘Everest’, but more importantly it seemed to really strike a note with people and donations to Qhubeka were starting to come in thick and fast. I sat on the floor at the end of that lap, almost unable to talk. I could no longer eat as it took too much energy. I downed a Coke, my first one, knowing it would get me home.
Lap 17, the final lap, it was nearly over. It was dark, but we pinned that descent like we had all day. There were no secrets left on the road, every bump had been memorised and every cornering line well worn. When we got to the bottom I took the front light off my bike, the thought of an extra 500g frightened me, and gave it to Rob. I clicked into my 32-tooth and it was time to go. “Let’s do it again,” I told the guys, as I had every lap since lap 7. Phil said, “Just once more,” and we laughed. We started the climb one last time, determined to finish, but also determined to take it all in.
I went through the 8848m mark somewhere just after Athlone Circle. I pumped my fist. The 9000m barrier was conquered soon after and I then asked the guys to go ahead. I needed to be alone, to hear my breathing, the gears rolling over and the wheels turning. I needed to watch the mist rolling in and to think of all the times I had ridden that climb before, from when I was a 16-year old school boy rushing to get back to the boarding house before the hot water ran out, until this year when I just wanted to go fast up a climb, to bury myself in pain. All those times I had been unknowingly preparing for this day.
With 2km to go I asked my Dad, who was following me in the dark, to come chat. I reminded him of when I was 17 and quit a race, and he told me that was the only time I would do that out of choice, but in less words. I thanked him for that lesson. I told him I loved him and he told me how proud he was of me. No words have ever meant more.
He drifted back behind me and I took out my phone to take a photo, to remember this perfect moment in the cold and dark. It seemed right that the mist rolled in, as it always did when I was riding back to school. Every moment of my riding life went through my head, 13 years of memories. The thoughts that I had in those moments are a bit fuzzy, but the emotions aren’t. I was broken, empty and full. Everything that happened that day was beyond my expectations. It was perfect.
When I got to the top I clicked into the Big Ring, I wanted to finish with some speed. I think that I sat up for a second and raised my arms in the air, celebrating like I had won a race. I turned into the parking lot to see everyone from the day there.
My first reaction, when I came to a stop, was to photograph my Garmin and save the ride. I needed that proof. I needed proof of the Cycling achievement.
My Mom came over and hugged me, in tears. I hugged my Dad. I hugged the guys and I thanked them for getting me through and for being my mates. We took photos together. We had our Chocolate Milk for Burry; how could we not? We laughed and couldn’t believe what we had just achieved, together.
Soon after we all went our separate ways for the evening, but the memories will last and we will always have that bike ride to talk about. “Remember that day we rode up Old Howick Road all day? What were we thinking?”
I could barely walk ten minutes later. I could have kept riding, but walking felt so foreign. I wanted to eat but I couldn’t. It would take three hours before I got anything down. When I got into bed my body was starting to lock up.
After the Ride
I woke up, not four hours later because of the muscle tightness. I decided it was as good a time as any to read the messages I had received. Then I saw how many there were. My mind blew a little right there. Support had flown in throughout the day and night. Mates, competitors, people I had never met, all of them had got behind the Qhubeka cause. Donations flew in, and they still are. This is the best part of having done the ride. I still haven’t come to terms with the response that we received on the day and since. Donations have reached enough for 10 Buffalo bikes now, and one amazing person is going to double whatever gets raised, so that is actually 20 bikes. 20 lives that will change because of the kindness of others. People are awesome.
Physically, the fatigue of the ride is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I was just slow, tired and slow, for two days after the ride. My body was completely exhausted from the physical effort and the emotions on and since the ride. I could barely sleep I was so tired. I still don’t feel quite normal.
The support I/we received was incredible and overwhelming.
Mom and Dad – They spent the entire day with us. Following us in the dark and when the road was busy/dangerous, preparing bottles for each lap and giving us the food we needed, and running to the shops when the Chelsea bun supply ran low. Most importantly, the encouragement they gave me, never doubting I would finish.
Mates – Those who rode with me, stopped by to say hello, or sent me text and WhatsApp messages of support. They all believed in and encouraged me and I could never have done it without them.
My Sister – She couldn’t be there, but sent messages. They were so motivating and helped keep me going.
Social Media – You go into a funny place, mentally, during a long ride like this. At the end of every lap I would check all the social media and just have so many notifications. Those provided me huge encouragement, knowing how many people were supporting those of us on the ride. I read every single message the next day and they were just awesome.
Qhubeka – From day 1, the whole Qhubeka team was so supportive. Knowing how ‘into’ the ride they were really helped. I knew they were excited by what we were doing and that was always in the back of my mind, keeping me going and adding motivation.
I have never considered myself an exceptional person, and still do not, but I have seen through this event that we can all make a difference in the world.
Those of us that were involved in the event all used our individual abilities to create a group effort to achieve something very difficult. The process that lea to and the final achievement of ‘Everesting’ ignited some interest from others. That interest has created a platform to encourage donations from people who might otherwise never have even considered donating to Qhubeka, and through those donations we have been able to make a real difference to 20 people’s lives. A group of people came together for one purpose and not only achieved a goal, but surpassed it five-fold. I consider that to be a great thing, maybe only in our small world, but for us it was special and an achievement that we can be proud of.
I hope that people see that we all have some sort of ability and we can use that to better the world we live in. We do not have to sit idly by and be frustrated by not seeing the change that we want we can create that change and make a difference. All of us who were involved learned that along the way.
I also learned that thinking small serves no purpose. Aim big, give your best. Failure only exists if you do not try.