16 Feb, 2017

Munga Marvel


The experts will tell you that female long distance endurance athletes actually get stronger and more competitive versus men as the distance increases, but it is still unusual for a woman to leave literally all the men in her dust… and yet that is what Jeannie Dreyer came close to doing at the Munga MTB event in early December. – BY KYLE DEELEY

When it comes to South African endurance sport, Jeannie Dreyer is pretty much ‘Royalty.’ She has excelled in every sport she has attempted, with wins or podium finishes in such prestigious events as the ABSA Cape Epic (second in the mixed category), XTERRA triathlon SA Champs (second), Otter Marathon trail run (winner) and AfricanX Trailrun (winning team), Powerman Duathlon (winner) as well as numerous adventure races.

She also represented South Africa at the IAU Trail World Champs in running, and earned herself a slot at the XTERRA World Champs in Hawaii (finished 12th), as well as the Coast to Coast Challenge in New Zealand, the unofficial world off-road multi-sport champs, where she finished fifth. She even finished on the podium in several canoeing races, although she is quick to point out that paddling in tandem with her husband Martin Dreyer, the seven-time Duzi Canoe Marathon champion, did rather give her an unfair advantage…

With that incredible roll of honours in mind, it should come as no surprise that Jeannie’s mom has always loved telling people her favourite story about her daughter’s famous sporting prowess, specifically about the fist time she participated in a race at school. “I apparently came home from playschool, saying I ran a race that day and won, and beat all the boys!” says Jeannie with a big smile. And with that in mind, it seems her second place overall in the recent Munga MTB race shouldn’t really come as such a surprise, but don’t let that detract from what was an incredible performance. In fact, she very nearly won the whole thing!

The Munga is affectionately known as the world’s toughest race, a gruelling non-stop semi-supported 1080km race across the Karoo from Bloemfontein in the Free State to Wellington in the Western Cape. Some people have joked that overall it must be a downhill race, since Bloemfontein lies at a higher altitude than Cape Town, but ask anybody who has ridden this event and they’ll tell you otherwise – and this year’s race was still tougher thanks to pretty much constant headwind that the riders had to battle for three days.

Unsurprisingly, it is an event with a high rate of attrition amongst entrants, some of whom have technical issues with equipment that knock them out of the race, and others whose bodies or minds simply cannot go the distance. That’s why of the 79 riders who started this latest Munga, only 39 finished. It is also an event that requires a long build-up of both physical training and mental preparation, and Jeanie says she actually felt undercooked before the start.

“I was not as well prepped as I would have liked to be for the Munga. Suddenly it was nearing the end of November, with old school activities and new school organising to take care of, while Martin was away from home for a bit, but life happens and a mom’s job is never done, and maybe being so busy was a blessing in disguise, as I started with no expectations,” says Jeannie. “I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take on a race like this. It was a great opportunity to be able to test myself and give it my all.”

Much to her surprise, Jeannie found herself at the front of the race right from the beginning, riding alongside or near to male leader Heinrich Visser most of the way. She says they didn’t talk much, but it was still pleasant to have some company. They left the halfway point at Pampoenhoek together and continue to stay close until right near the finish, when Jeannie had to stop 18km from Ceres to attend to a tyre that was going flat. That saw Heinrich push on alone, even though Jeannie says she tried to catch him again in the final 70km.

When asked what highs and lows she experienced during the long ride, Jeannie says the highs included “Those beautiful times of day when the sun sets or rises and creates that soft light, and having that time all to myself, with no responsibilities, and just getting to ride my bike for another whole day and night. Another high was coming across a clumsy lolloping aardvark in the path at night. But something not so nice was not enjoying eating, as the inside of my mouth and lips felt burnt, and I also hated that feeling of being energetic one second, then fading badly as sleepiness takes control, wherever you may be. That in turn was balanced by the blissful feeling of getting back on my Canondale Scalpel”

“One of my other lows was riding into Sutherland at midday and the baking hot tar seemed relentless... but that was far from a bad low. I honestly loved the entire ride. My biggest memory is the unexpected beauty of the route, but also the heat – and the dry mouth and throat – and an 800m section of a proper tailwind. The rest of the way it was non-stop headwind, and I literally had to pedal all the time!”

Having pushed hard in the final section to try close the gap on Heinrich, Jeannie came home a mere 13 minutes after him, clocking a finishing time of 2 days 23 hours and 14 minutes. Of that, just 12 hours and 36 minutes had been resting, and the rest of the 2 days 10 hours and 37 minutes she had been in the saddle, averaging around 15km an hour. If not for the slow puncture near Ceres she may even have won it, although she concedes that Heinrich is better at downhills than her and probably would have pulled clear anyway. Understandably elated at her overall second place, Jeannie says she experienced an awesome endorphin high from crossing that finish line, more so than a normal race due to there being so many uncontrollable factors and natural elements to deal with in the Munga.

With the Munga still fresh in her memory, Jeannie is typically already looking ahead to her next big challenge, riding the Absa Cape Epic. “It really is an epic race, one that I find so hard, because it requires an entirely different way of training for me. I’ll be partnering with Samantha Sanders, a phenomenally strong road and mountain biker. I said to her I was actually aiming for the stars by asking her to ride with me, but what better way to be motivated to up my game?”

“I’ll always be searching for the ultimate adventure, because I want to explore places while getting to challenge myself, and at the same time enjoy the silence with pristine views, like those I experienced during the Freedom Trail and the Colorado Trail. There are some radical endurance adventurers doing really extreme things that I would love to try if I didn’t have my kiddies to be responsible for, but I really am just a very ordinary person taking on very doable endurance events, and I thrive on pushing my comfort levels in long events, just so that I can once again be awed by how amazingly resilient our bodies are.”