Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Going Solo.

Finally I get to share a title with Roald Dahl!

In the previous aviation post I mentioned that I was pregnant since the start of my flight training. I had an easy pregnancy and flying with the bump was really nothing different than flying without it. Except the minor privileges, of course... You know, when you park an aerie at the Avgas filling station and there is a queue, you switch off and you wait your turn. To move closer to the pump when it is your turn you have to push/pull your aerie closer, you don't 'drive' it closer like a car. Now normally you would ask your attendant or another pilot nearby to help you, but if you are pregnant, the helpers appear out of thin air, three at a time! Also, if you want to check your fuel levels you have to clamber onto the one wing strut, balance yourself while opening the fuel caps and dip your stick. Since this is quit difficult to execute with a big belly in front of you, the first time I got to check my fuel levels was after I could see my toes again, baby fully baked and born.

Balancing on the wing strut while dipping the fuel stick to check fuel levels.

So after a whole lot of flying exercises, including some emergency procedures like landing the aircraft after an engine failure (more on that in a while) and a whole lot of touch-and-goes to practice take-offs and landings, we were nearing the day that Mr instructor would kick this bird out of the nest to fly by herself. 

Now I did mention that part of the reason why I went ahead with my PPL training after finding out I was pregnant was that I knew time was of the essence. I only went flying or for theory classes while Zee was napping mid-day, and only while the Hubs (who travel a lot) was home, and in Swakop we also have the weather factor of fog, in which we can't take off or land. So that left me with very few available flying hours. But between my incredible Hubs, dear nanny and very supportive instructor (and a large window of good weather) I finally got to cram in a good few consecutive hours of flying to get me up to speed for going solo. 

Now to get your PPL in Namibia you need minimum of 45 hours of flying of which 25 hours should be dual flying and 15 hours solo. Full time students who are able to fly often, can go solo after about 10 hours (or less) of flying (in the olden days, some students went solo after three to five hours of dual flying - how, I ask you, they lived to tell the tale, I don't know!). For people like me, who only flew about 5 hours a month, it took a little longer. After not flying for a while you have to get the feeling back again, especially for the landing. Imagine when you first started driving a car, that coordination to get the feel right between the gas and clutch, not to let the car die when you pull off in first gear... now add the factor that you can't just turn off the plane and walk away once you are in the air. You have to get it right. Every time. So until your instructor is happy that you will get it right and return his aerie in a serviceable condition, he will not send you solo.

So finally after about 25 flying hours in 7 months, the day arrived. It was a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon. My favourite day at the Swakop airfield. I often took Zee (and now both boys) to the airfield over weekends to see weekend fly-ins arrive and the scenic flights to come and go for Sossusvlei. Lots of traffic, lots of activities, and usually a number of parachutes as well. I tried to book a training flight for 2 pm but my instructor was already booked for a theory class by one of my female student pilot friends. And then he called me an hour before and said we are good to fly that afternoon. I was still stirring a pot of soup for lunch, I remember, and I just got the heebie-jeebies. It was just weird that he would suddenly reschedule like that. At that time I had been suspecting that solo 'ing was close, but I didn't know exactly when (and really didn't want to push  the subject by asking, because I wasn't feeling all that confident yet). I raced out to the Hubs' office and asked him if he would have free time to look after Zee. He was looking a little nervous, but immediately agreed. He even said that he would bring Zee out to the airfield when he (Z) wakes up. Which I loved.

So just before 2 pm I drove out to the airfield. "She had the need to feel the thunder" by Garth Brooks was playing on the radio (music and smells... they move!) and I was excited like a race horse. And nervous as heck, although nobody still mentioned nothing about flying solo. I did my pre-flights, the instructor jumped in as usual and I had to do a whole lot of talking over the radio and waiting for incoming traffic while we were lined up. Somewhere during all this my instructor told me to calm down, because my nerves were all over the show, and it was obvious.

Finally I got to take off and did a circuit or four. We went over emergency landing procedures, and everything went smooth. The last radio call while you are doing circuits usually includes your intention after touch down (if you are a student). So if I intend to do another circuit I would say I am on final approach, doing a touch-and-go (immediately give full power again and take off) or full stop, meaning that I am done and will be vacating the runway. So after about 4 circuits I was sitting on final approach and called that I would be doing a touch-and-go, and my instructor said 'make that a full stop'. By that time my nerves were all calmed down and the idea of going solo was actually a little out of my mind. I was quite at peace with my flying skills at the moment and ready to do a few more landings, enjoying the afternoon with all the activity around us. And after we touched down he said I can go for a circuit on my own. 

Those words. That feeling. Oh my word. I remember I still asked him 'are you sure?' and he agreed. I can't remember my parents sending me off with the car alone for the first time, but this, THIS moment I will remember for ever. 

We taxied to the apron, and as we approached, the sun from the front, I could see my tall handsome Hubs standing there, extra tall with the small man-child sitting on his shoulders. The Hubs waived a normal 'Hi' waive to me as I dropped my instructor and carried on back to the holding point for runway 24. Turns out the Hubs knew about the plan to send me solo (the friend who's class was canceled called him at the same time as my instructor called me to tell me to come fly - hence his nervous face), but when we came over to the apron he thought it was not going to happen and he relaxed for about 5 seconds. And then HE got the heeby-jeebies!
At the run-up point I was going over my checks, took a few sips of water and ate a few sweets. Mentos. They still are my number 1 go-to sweets in sweaty situations, also while I'm running. I looked over to the empty seat where, by now, I was very much used to seeing my comforting instructor sitting. I leaned back to grab my empty headphone bag and put it on his seat to obscure the emptiness, and then I said what I knew the Hubs would say had he been there: "This is it, Bossie!" After that I turned on to RWY24, checked the wind, corrected the Direction Indicator according to the compass and made sure the landing lights were on. And then I gave full throttle.

Of the actual circuit I don't remember a lot. It went perfectly smooth, like predicted for a first time solo circuit. All conditions should be optimum and your instructor has enough experience to know that there is a very small window of opportunity to send a student solo. It is at a certain point where the student works him or herself up to a peak in performance, confidence and excitement. Once that window is missed, it takes a long time (if ever) to regain all those perfect peaks.  

After I landed the aerie I had the presence of mind to remember that a number of parachutes were dropped during my solo circuit. Their pilot still congratulated me over the air on my solo and I checked with him if all his people were on the ground before I proceeded to taxi over the general drop zone area. He confirmed that they were and then I think I relaxed for about 2 seconds. And a tear of utter elation ran across my cheek. I still get goose bumps thinking of that moment.

It was the 15th of March 2013. I will remember it, because the next day was exactly one month before Vee was due to be born. After going solo I only continued flying for about a week before I called a halt in training in anticipation of our new baby.

With the Hubs and Zee after going solo for the first time. 

With my brave, wise, instructor.
To have the Hubs and Zee there to witness it all was amazing. My husband was, and is still, such an amazingly positive supporter throughout the entire process of getting my PPL and flying regularly. I really am a very very lucky lady to have him by my side.

It  is still arguable, of course, if this was indeed my first solo, or if the first solo only came a few months later after Vee was born and not accompanying me in the cockpit anymore! 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Race report: Merrell Eden Duo Lite

Aaaand after that short interruption we continue with our normal program schedule.

We had the most wonderful time in the western Cape, South Africa! For active people that also love to spend a lot of time in nature, this is surely one of the best regions to visit. The diversity of scenery and routes and activities is just mind blowing. Not to mention all the attractions for little boys ...and I'm not talking theme parks or arcades... I'm talking rocks for climbing, streams for playing in and getting wet, logs for walking over, things to climb on and fields to run in. It really is so easy to keep children busy in nature. Also tiring, because man, they have hidden stashes of energy that we obviously don't have access to!

The Eden Duo was such an amazing experience. And no, we really didn't have an idea of what to expect until we had completed the race. The race started at 6 am, and since we stayed on a gorgeous guest farm outside of Wilderness, we had a 30 min drive and had to leave just after 5 am. I have mentioned how I love early mornings.... we were in our elements!

Arrived at the starting point just as all the participants in the Lite started to put on life jackets for the first leg of the race, which was a 5 km paddle down the Touw River. At that point we were still in two minds weather we needed wet-suits, as advised by the organisers, in order to stay warm during the kloofing section. Luckily, after chatting to some other galls we decided to leave the wet-suits and just brave the cold, which was a non-event in the end and we were really glad we did. Because we still had way too much stuff which we carried along. But this was the first race of its kind we competed in, so we learned.

Since we weren't wearing amphibian running shoes we were wearing old running shoes with a dry pair of shoes stashed in our little hydration backpacks. We both carried about 2 L of water (which I am glad we did, since I am not keen on drinking from mountain streams, no matter how safe they say it is. A mommy with a tummy bug is just not my idea of fun.) We also carried a few energy bars, a phone and a camera. But best of all I think was the dry pair of socks and baby powder that we carried to get our feet dry after the kloofing and before the cycling. Our feet thanked us for it. Most people that competed in the Lite actually just went with the clothes on their backs, even though there were no support along the race (although seconds were allowed, but we didn't have). They possibly had energy bars stashed with their bikes at the transition, but no water during the trail run/kloofing, which I suppose can be done.

The Hubs and I at the starting line, donning our event team shirts.

A total of 20 teams lined up in their kayaks. Since we were from way out of town we rented a kayak from the local Eden Adventure guys based at the starting point, and needless to say, this thing had the weight and shape of the Titanic compared to the other professionals we were surrounded with. It caused for a good giggle or two before we set off, but I was never too worried since my hubs rows faster than a Yamaha engine. He really is a machine. It would of course, have helped if my rowing could have made a tiny, tiny contribution to our forward propulsion, but alas. I am afraid that we practically went backward during the two short rest periods when the Hubster stopped rowing. I gave my all, but that little ship dropped its nose like an ostrich looking for cover. Stopped dead in its tracks. Needless to say the Hubs limited his rests to a few seconds.

In our little rented ship, ready to start.

At the starting line.

The rowing probably took us about 30 to 40 minutes, and the transition went pretty smooth. We rowed barefoot so during the first transition we powdered our wet feet and put on our running shoes for a very short trail run section (about 2 km) on the beach, before entering the kloof. 

The Hubs at the transition from paddling to running. The scenery on the entire race was absolutely breathtaking. 

I think one of the most important aspects of this kind of race is to be prepared as possible. For an adventure race I think it is most advisable to attend the race briefing. Different from a road race, you don't have the luxury of a wide, black tarred road with nice white lines down the middle, pointing you in the exact direction in which you have to proceed. On this race, once you leave the straight and wide of the paddling section, you are basically on your own. Especially if you are not in the front pack. We couldn't attend the race briefing since it was around 8pm, which is wayyy after our curve view. But next time we will most probably brave the dark and  make sure we attend the race briefing.

The Hubster, afloat up the Kaaimans River during the second serious swim section in the Kloof.

You see, we got lost. A few times. And it cost us serious time and a little frustration at some times. And I am sure most of it could have been avoided had we attended the race briefing. We did of course scrutinize the route on Google Earth and talked to the organisers the day before, but minor details had been lost and made us run back and forth in some places to find the way. Luckily we met up with a ladies team who had completed the route 
a few weeks before and that helped. Until we got ahead of them and seriously lost the track!

Taking a sip of water and a selfie after one of the swim sections.

Since we had our hydration packs with extra dry shoes with us, we had to take the packs of before every swim section in the kloof, put the packs in dry-bags and remove the lot again after swimming. The dry-bags did make nice floats in the river, but one could also argue that swimming might have been easier had we not have the packs to slog with us. We were, however, very glad that we didn't take the wet-suits, because the water wasn't nearly as cold as we had expected, and the suits would just seriously have kept us back. 

But all in all the the whole kloofing did take a really long time. Because you really proceed slowly across the boulders and streams and into and out of the river. Through the reeds, around some trees and shrubs, wondering if this is the correct side branch of the kloof to follow... you catch my drift. We spent about 3 hours in the kloof. Which really was a pretty and pristine place to be spending 3 hours of our Saturday! Really, we have been talking afterwards about how really nice it would have been if the race organisers had a few photographers in the kloof. The scenery is breathtaking, and the Bear Grills moves we executed were many, so photo opportunities were ample!

And then toward the very end of the kloof we really got lost. One of the mountain hiking trails just happened to open up at one of the places where we crossed the river, and since the well-used track was not closed off with tape (the organisers closed other no-access routes like this), we just assumed that we had to take the trail. By that time it had started to rain, and we seriously got the itch to start moving faster. Once again, I bet this part of the route was discussed at the briefing, since we were the only ones that took this wrong route.

But we really, really liked our private little wrong route! We were running on a leafy mountain trail with fresh legs that had a lot of built-up energy after only 2 km of beach run all day. The light drizzle also made it really exciting and we covered ground fast. Of course a good adventure race wouldn't be complete without a good old face plant... I was in front and my foot caught on a huge tree root. For the life of me I don't know what my arms were thinking because they obviously didn't get the memo to try and prevent my face from connecting with the mud. Full face plant, complete with a mouth-full of leaves and dirt! Of course then I was wasted for the next 10 minutes, I couldn't stop laughing! The more serious competitor of the team only mustered a quick grin and then it was back to running.

Once we reached the summit and exited the trail we didn't see any transition points where they were supposed to be and the serious route search started. By that time it was pouring down and we started to get a bit cold and uncomfortable. We approached a farmhouse with dogs that was really uninviting, and after a while we just decided to find the nearest road and try to make our way back to civilization. And then miraculously we met up with another couple coming from the other (correct) way, and bam, we were back on the route and about 5 minutes away from our bike transition point! We were really glad to finally be back in the race and actually on a route that took a little less navigation. 

And now it is confession time. I really sucked at the biking part, and I really wasn't all that crazy about it either. Why, for the love of all things comfortable, can't they make bike saddles softer? Honestly? Solid concrete with nails pointing upward can't be more uncomfortable than a (rented) bike saddle? Ugh. And riding down long, steep hills scares the life out of me. It may be a genetic thing, or a mother thing, but like my cuz Karien over at Running the Race, I also probably go faster on uphills than down hills. And boy, were there uphills and downhills! I regularly jumped off the bike and just pushed it (up, not down!), and then we just laughed because I was walking at the same speed as the Hubs that was actually pedaling his heart out! The bike section was truly quite tough (for us), and luckily it was only about 15 km.

Giving our behinds a breather halfway through the cycling leg. 

We finished the race in 4h52min, in 16th place. We were actually not disqualified, even though we missed a checkpoint (and I don't know how big of a chunk of the route was gained or missed). The total route, however, wasn't 50 km as is still claimed by the organisers but rather around 30 to 35 km. The cycling was much shorter than the proclaimed 30 km (thank goodness). But it still was a nice challenge for team Moto-Moto, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves up to the last minute! The wooden finisher medals we received was also quite nice and something different.

Nice finishers medal made of wood.

Back at the guest farm of course the two chidlers didn't even notice we were gone for that long! Ouma and Oupa played and pampered and entertained the two like nobody's business. We were so grateful to have been able to complete such an exciting event without any worries about the boys, knowing that they would have a blast with Ouma and Oupa. Love them all to bits!

Ouma with boys, doing what they love, playing in water. 

Oupa with Vee.

So now we are really stoked for trail runs. At this stage we have our eyes on the Crazy Store Table Mountain Challenge next year in September, a 40 km trail run on Table Mountain. We'll keep you posted.