Going the Distance | Kevin Benkenstein and the Rhino Run 2023
November 07, 2023
In 2022, CIOVITA Ambassador, Kevin 'Benky' Benkenstein experienced the kind of setback that might break a lesser spirit. To push oneself to the limit, to traverse over 2,700 kilometres of demanding terrain, only to fall short in the final push is a harrowing experience. It is the kind of moment that can linger in one’s mind, casting long shadows of doubt and regret.
However, for athletes like Kevin, such moments are not endpoints but beginnings. They serve as powerful motivators, the fuel that drives them to return, to try once more, to conquer not just the physical distance but the inner terrain of disappointment and doubt, and emerge stronger than before. Read on to get the full story from the man himself.
The Rhino Run 2023 v2.0
The Rhino Run is a 2,712km Self-Supported Bike Race/Ride from Plettenburg Bay to Windhoek, via Stellenbosch. Self-Supported means that riders must carry all of their own gear, and can only use commercially available services that are available to all riders. It is the purest form of bike racing, for me, and as the clock starts and then does not stop it is also the most intense as every minute counts, day and night.
In 2022 I came second by less than 20min after an intense battle with Abdullah Zeinab from Australia. In the end we sprinted it out until 20km to go, where he finally had more legs than me. When riding the same road this year I realised I was 500m away from the top of the final climb when that elastic snapped.
I had no intention of coming back this year, I thought there was nothing left for me on this route, but as I trained for the Entree (The Plett to Stellenbosch section) something inside me clicked and I felt that maybe there was more to give of myself on the course.
To start with I wanted to be faster, prove that I had what it takes. As the event came closer though it became more personal, I wanted to experience the course in my own way, not have the experience dictated to me by racing it and focusing solely on that. These two competing goals seemed to be in conflict with each other, but needed to become complimentary. It was a litmus test for me, too. If I cannot enjoy racing in my way, how will I have longevity? It is something that tortures me at times, because my racing ambition and love of just riding are often in conflict with each other.
On Wednesday 18 October at 6:22AM we, myself and the 30 or so other riders taking on the Entree and Main Course, set off from Plett. After a short neutral section of 7km out of town, where pleasantries were exchanged and jokes made the ride-real started.
I set off with the same urgency that I always do, intent on having a positive start to a long ride. You only have good legs for one day, after all. I was soon alone, climbing out of Plett into the forests above and across to Knysna before heading on to George and then up Montagu Pass, where the effort first started feeling like an effort. It was hot, humid, hard and I was alone. “Is this what it’s going to be the whole way?” I thought to myself. It seemed silly, what is the point of just riding alone for 8 days?
I phoned my wife Mikayla when I reached Oudtshoorn. “What am I doing?” I asked her. “What is the point?”.
We spoke a bit and she put some sense into me. “You’ve trained hard, know the route, you’ve sacrificed so much already. Have fun and ride fast.”
My mind was now in the right place and I could ride with some peace. I set off again to Calitzdorp, where I picked up some dinner to take onwards to Van Wyks Dorp where I booked an AirBnB. A late night check-in was graciously provided, “I’ll leave here at 4am, is it easy to get out?”. They were ever so kind and let me do so, and onwards I ride, to Riversdale and then Swellendam, Riviersonderend (with an Ou Meul stop of course) and then Greyton before climbing over the dastardly Rusty Gate and onto Franschoek and Stellies, where I had another good sleep and early departure to the bemusement of the hotel receptionist.
The real ride was about to begin, the ever harder Main Course from Stellenbosch to Windhoek that traverses so many different areas and biomes that you get a full lesson in Southern African culture and biodiversity in just a few days.
A day later, after sweating through the Cederberg and freezing through the Tankwa I was in Calvinia, after a brief stop at the aptly named Traveller’s Rest, and at the centre point of the infamous R355 that goes from Ceres to Springbok and never gives you an easy moment. I cleaned out the Spar as best I could, explained to some patrons what on earth I was doing, and headed off to Loeriesfontein, the first of the towns you’ve never heard of along the route.
Being a Saturday the Spar closed at 1PM, and of course I arrived at 1:15PM. Tops it was, for water, which I would now carry a lot of, and the local Restaurant was luckily open for a big plate of chips and a burger and chips to go. I had some waiting time there, and the first chance to just relax with nothing to do, so I called home for a bit and spoke to Miks and the girls. That was needed.
I left Loeriesfontein with 6l of water on my back, 3l on my bike and a few Cokes too. It was a long haul ahead, first to Kliprand where I would sleep and then to Springbok. 250km, just a skip and a jump.
The road to Kliprand was rough and the wind strong and across me. I reached the town, a very small one, at 7PM and managed to find a bed from the Agri-Mark owner. That Burger and Chips and a 3hrs sleep did me good and I was on my way at 11PM. A long haul through the night ahead.
My first snake sighting kept me awake for a bit, it was a big one, but my eyes only had so much fight left and eventually a roadside nap against the wall of a Wind Farm entrance was needed. 30min is all it takes sometimes, and it did the job. I was on my way, minus my Sunglasses I would later realise, and made quick work of the road to Springbok. I was feeling good, after 1,500km, and that was very strange for me.
I was too early for the Spar so I grabbed a snack from the Engen and spent the 20min or so before Spar opened sorting out my bags, they became a mess, and speaking with my family back home. I over shopped, but cleaned a tray of Sushi in about 5min and topped up on Chocolates, Jam Sarmies and water and was off.
The day only got hotter from there as I made my way through the fields to Steinkopf, where I once again loaded my back with water, and headed off into the Richtersveld. The Richtersveld is as unforgiving as it gets, first with open sandy roads and later with rocky 4x4 tracks politely named ‘Helskloof 4x4 trail’. It is as inviting as it sounds, but much better in daylight than it was in the night a year before. I made it through unscathed, other than a burped tyre, and was now on the humid banks of the Orange River heading towards Vioolsdrif. The headwind struck, sapping me of my last energy for the day and instead of crossing the border I stayed on the SA side in a lodge. Another Chicken Burger and Chips, a good shower and a comfy bed in an Air-Con’ed room, safe to say I overslept my alarm by two hours and woke in a panic!
Crossing the border was quick, and I headed into Namibia after a quick Engen shop to make sure I was equipped for the 160km ahead. This section follows the Orange River along one of the most beautiful roads I have ever ridden, and even into a slight headwind was an absolute joy. Having slept 3-4hrs every night (as opposed to the standard 2hrs) I was feeling good mentally and physically and I reached Rosh Pina full of stoke. Spar was closed, for good, which Google failed to mention but no worries there’s always a Spaza shop and a good plate or two of Chips from the local Restaurant did me well too. I was well prepared for the 165km dead straight 1% gradient ahead, and it went well.
I reached Aus later that day tired but ready for the really hard parts to come. Stefan, the local fuel station and general dealer owner, had expected me and had yet another burger and chips waiting for me. My burped tyre had been losing air slowly so I asked if he maybe had a pump. He did, so I went ahead and put some air in my rear tyre. It turns out you can be too hard on these things and I blew the tyre straight off of the rim, disaster!
Stefan is, however, the ultimate trail angel and had sealant for me and we managed to re-fit the tyre. I was good to go, and ready for the 205km ahead of me. I was now thinking about my previous time, and wanted to stay ahead of myself. I headed off into the right with no sleep.
The first 60km were sandy and challenging, I made it 30km before having my first road-nap. 30min later I was off again. I made another couple of hours before it became too much. 30min again, then 30min of riding and then another 30min nap. I can’t do this much longer, earphones in and music on! A burst of life struck me, I was flying (probably not, but I felt it) and signing along out loud. What a life!
As the sun rose I hit the sand, “never mind it’s just a few km” I thought, remembering 2022. It was, but what came after was soul destroying corrugations that sapped your speed and your will at the same rate. I barely moved, it felt, for the next 5hrs and eventually reached Betta Camp after a 15 hr slog with tired legs and mind, knowing that more of the same was ahead.
Egg Sarmies, Hot Chips, Fanta, Ice Cream, Water. Please, please help me recover! The tourists sitting down for lunch were worried, “You are going out in this heat? Are you sure?”.
It was reaching 45 deg when It was time to get dressed again and my own trepidation was getting stronger, to the point that I could feel my eyes fill with tears. I left the safety anyways, my urge to be riding winning over my fear of the heat.
THE MENTAL BATTLE
What followed was the hardest 9 hrs of my life on a bike. The road, for the first 100km, was corrugated, sandy and slow. The heat, unbearable at 50 deg. There are no trees, there is no shade, there is no respite. Sossusvlei is without a doubt the hardest place I have ever ridden a bike.
At the peak of the suffering I sat down on the side of the road and shouted. I cried, because I was scared. No tourists had passed for what felt like hours, I was done and it was too hot and too slow and I was running out of water as my dry mouth begged for more. I didn’t know how I would get to safety, but I had to. I had promised I would always keep safe and now was the time to fulfil that.
I got back on my bike and edged forward, slowly.
It wasn’t pretty but I made it to Sesriem. As I pulled into the Engen the owner, a dot watcher, was there waiting. He was worried if I was ok and I couldn’t tell him that I was. I lay down on the cement outside with my shirt off and I didn’t want to move. I was done, but I had to look forward and find a way to get going again in just a few hours. After getting some food and water from the Engen shop I lay back down outside. I ate the sandwiches, and salted chips, drank maybe 3l of water and spoke with Oom Willie. Like Stefan’s conversation before I will forever be grateful that I had an hour to talk with him and not feel so alone.
The campsites were barely 200m away but I couldn’t move, so I asked if I could sleep on the forecourt. Willie graciously understood and left me there. When he left I pulled out my Bivvy Bag, took off my clothes and closed my eyes. 2hrs later I woke up, a new person.
As I got dressed and packed for one last slog I realised I was again alone, and would be for the rest of the ride. I accepted what it was and reminded myself to be conscious to the tricks my mind would play on me. Sleep monsters had been replaced with loneliness monsters, and podcasts would make me feel like someone was talking to me. A little respite from a maddening mind. My shadow was not another person, but it felt like one, and I rode with it but avoided talking to it. My last grip on reality remained.
I passed Solitaire, a fitting name for what I was experiencing, just after the bakery opened. An energy top-up with some fresh Chocolate muffins was perfect. Onwards.
THE RACE HEATS UP
The ride to Rooisand Desert Ranch got progressively hotter. 20-30-40-50deg! It must be an over-read? As I reached Rooisand I put my bike in the shade, and again lay on the floor. Could it be any hotter? I dipped my feet and head in the pool, life saving, and ate three plates of Spaghetti which barely touched sides. We, the manager and I, made an Ice Sock and I filled my bottles and my back with ice and water. 164 km remained and my Garmin read 49 deg in the shade. This was not going to be easy.
As I left Rooisand I took my first sip of water, the ice had melted in barely 5min and my Garmin was reading 54 deg. Inhumane, but onwards I just go.
34km of climbing ending with an 8km Pass was the first step. I rode as easily as one can ride, aware that even the smallest effort would blow me up. An hour and 10 minutes for 8km, ridiculous. I crested the Pass, 130km to go, looking for water sources. Farms, maybe a car, anything. Some Namibians appeared from nowhere a while later. Cold water and a coke, perfect! I was ready to go on.
THE FINAL PUSH
The road to Windhoek feels like it should be short, after the Pass, but it is not. Endless rollers, turning into climbs that bite your legs, go on and on and on. Where is Windhoek? Finally the lights appear in the distance, they’re just there but it is still 35km to go!
One last burst of energy is needed, it has to come from my head because my legs are empty. I remember the year before and tell myself I’d have the energy this year to win that fight. The final climb is crested and it’s almost all downhill to the finish. Some fast descents, now with Drikus and Pierre from Windhoek riding with me. I am in a city now, watching for cars and traffic lights and all the other things that a city brings. It feels surreal.
As I ride the last few km alone I try to go through the previous days. The good and bad, the excitement and the fear. It’s a journey of self-discovery again, finding new will and new limits but also a journey that I did my own way. I am proud that I rode fast, and happy that doing so gave me time to meet and talk to people. I am glad that I slept and that doing so gave me the presence of mind to truly appreciate where I was. I made connections I hope to revisit, not by bike I think, and experienced the kindness of people that you can only experience when you are at your most vulnerable. The riding enabled the moments I remember now, the pain and the joy and that is why I ride: to feel these things in a pure, unfiltered, unplanned and real way. To grow, to know what I miss and what I don’t, to do what I do best.
I arrived at Christuskirche, the finish, full of joy and with no regrets. I rode my heart out, shared the journey as best I could with my family and friends back home, overcame my mind and my body as well as some of the worst riding conditions I have experienced. I saw two beautiful countries in new ways and met good, kind, caring people too. It was the ride I’d dreamt of, setting a new course record, and the experience I wanted too, felt with a clear mind. I was, I am, fulfilled.
THE APEX SENTIERO BIB SHORTS
Benky completed the race wearing a prototype of our new Apex Sentiero Bib Shorts(pictured above after 9 months of use). These elite bibs have been designed specifically for mountain biking and off road cycling. The bibs are constructed from Ultra-Megno Woven Lycra, the main body of the bib shorts is not only flexible but extremely durable, maintaining its shape ride after ride. This fabric works in harmony with a completely re-engineered 4 Layer Comfort Chamois, specially designed to provide extra cushioning and support on rough terrains. Here is what Benky had to say:
The Apex Sentiero Bib Shorts have become my go-to’s on every ride, and I’ve been lucky enough to wear them for 9 months now. From the first ride the fit, feel and comfort was exactly what I was looking for. That was only proven again during The Rhino Run, where they were both comfortable and provided that feeling of fit and forget that I have loved all year. Most impressively they held their shape, fit and grip for the full 8 days despite not being washed even once, something no other Bib Shorts have ever done for me. These are, simply, the best shorts I have ever ridden in.