Among the sights of the Knysna Marathon this year was a man sporting the fetching pink shorts of the Hout Bay Harriers running club. Little would the casual onlooker have suspected that Eric Tollner had cycled all the way from Cape Town to take part in the race!
What on Earth would possess someone to cycle some 850km only to towel down and complete a full marathon? There were a number of reasons, Tollner shares. First, sheer lust for life: “Doing the Freedom Challenge really opened my mind to what is possible out there and it was very difficult to adjust coming back afterwards. I think it’s important to keep that experience and the lessons learned alive, to detach yourself once in a while from your routines of safety and comfort and get out there and live simply, or simply live!”
Tollner sees the bicycle as much more than a mere means of exercise– it is “also a way to journey, to travel, to see and experience things. The Knysna ride, among others last year, was part of that progression, and paved the way for this year.”
To this add the strong desire to do something for others. For several years, Tollner has been raising funds and public awareness on behalf of the CHOC Children With Cancer fund: “They do truly inspirational, valuable work, and being able to ride as one of the Cows is a big motivating part of the journey.”
It is certainly a journey that affords time for reflection, usually taking eight to nine days, depending on the route and conditions on the ground. “Some of the days are short in distance but can take a good 12 hours plus because of the terrain. The shortest day was around 70km and the longest 130km; the Greyton MacGregor hike, for example, is only 16km but will take at least 5 hours to portage.”
Asked what gets him through the day on the road, Tollner quips: “A whole lot of pedalling, and cappuccino sachets!” Mention of cappuccino might bring to mind images of caffeine overdose, but it seems the reality is very much more Zen: “As the ride progresses you gradually get really tuned in and at peace with your surroundings. It takes a few days to adjust and to get there, but I am happiest when those new routines become second nature, when you can just go without thinking. There is a lot of time to put life into perspective out there, especially when on your own and you don’t have conversation. The last few days were hard going this year but the thought of seeing my family at the lighthouse at the end gave me a lot of strength.”
Among the many memorable moments of this year’s journey can be counted “enjoying coffee at 4am in absolute perfect stillness on the top of the Swartberg pass, reaching the lighthouse in Knysna, hiking to get above the clouds on the portage, flying down the Homtini Pass, and the sunrises in the Karoo”. Unsurprisingly, the trek was not without its mishaps: “Going flying off my bike was also memorable, but for all the wrong reasons!”
Tollner may impress as light-hearted, but his description of the preparation for this epic makes it clear that he takes his training seriously. “Because of the marathon at the end of the ride, I usually do a lot of running training in the first few months of the year, then get onto the bike. I try to train heavy, with a pack of around 15kgs plus (rocks and wine bottles make for good training partners!). I try to find as many hills as possible to train on, and sometimes including a hike to train for the portage.”
Unfortunately, the fund raising aspect of the journey was not all that Tollner had wished for. “I ride very proudly as one of the Cows to raise funds for CHOC, an amazing organisation providing assistance for children with cancer, and I’m very honoured to be involved, but I find it so difficult to go about fund raising and really struggled this year. It didn’t quite turn out as hoped.”
That doesn’t mean he’s given up, though. On the contrary: “I am always looking for interesting routes and areas to explore in our country, so the maps are out and planning for the next journey is under way!”
Count on seeing this indefatigable athlete’s flashing pink trunks and cow outfit on the road near you soon!