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Resilience through tough times: Chairman Nigel Payne on the Freedom Challenge

As a key financial market infrastructure, Strate has to be resilient, adapt to changes and manage risks to ensure financial market stability. Strate’s Chairman Nigel Payne has an in-depth understanding of resilience after having completed the Freedom Challenge, a gruelling South African mountain bike race, no less than five times. We asked him why and how he does it, and how he builds the resilience that helps him navigate the tough times.

What is the Freedom Challenge?

The Freedom Challenge is a 2 150km mountain bike race across South Africa, starting in Pietermaritzburg, in the east of the country, and ending in Paarl, in the south-west. Taking place in the middle of the South African winter, the race is unsupported and riders have to use paper maps and compasses to navigate their way to across the country. The race supports education by giving scholarships to children to attend private school. The race started 18 years ago, and at the end of July 2021, 298 people had completed the Freedom Challenge in the allowed 26 days.

Why do you do the Freedom Challenge?

It is fun, most of the time, and I am a mountain biker who loves the hard races. I race with my brother, who has been through some tough times. He made it through and together we have made it through the Freedom Challenge. I also love meeting the people of South Africa, who are warm, welcoming, unbelievably generous and very resilient! The Freedom Challenge is unique. You have to rely on yourself and your equipment. You have to prepare, learn from others and past races and mistakes, and you have to get up and do it, every day. No one else is there to complete the challenge for you.

How many Freedom Challenges have you completed?

Five. Four of those have been with my brother. I am up for number six, having entered the 2022 race.

What makes the Freedom Challenge such a tough race?

We have to find our own way around. This is tough because we are used to GPS and talking directions. On the race we have paper maps, a compass and descriptions that tell you to look for the spiky mountain and go around it anti clockwise! That’s a challenge. And, the race is unsupported. So we have our bikes, a backpack with a few supplies, and that’s it! We can send a few items forward to designated spots, but they have to fit into a two-litre ice cream tub.

How do you get through the difficult times?

You become resilient. Resilience comes from being prepared and managing the risks. Preparation is key. Without the right gear and the right bike and anticipating tough times and what we need to do to get through them, we wouldn’t be able to complete the race. Teamwork also matters. Even though we are on our own riding across South Africa, we have teams back home supporting us who have helped us prepare for the race, from sharing route ideas and information to showing us how to repair damaged bicycles.

Tell us more about the route you take?

We go over the Drakensberg and then across the Karoo. It’s all off road and very isolated. We climb a lot of mountains, some on foot with our bikes on our back. We spend about three hours a day walking – you just can’t ride through the more rugged terrain. We bypass the Addo Elephant Park, which is in the middle of the route. It’s too dangerous to bike there. Over the years we have learned to follow animal tracks, Eland in particular, who have been travelling the country for years. Their tracks are some of the best routes to take.

How do you deal with racing in winter?

You wear a lot of clothes, and make sure you have some waterproof gear to protect you in the rain. It does rain, it snows, and this year we experienced hail, which was really challenging. I wear six layers of kit, including snow suits and a balaclava. The temperature can drop to minus 14 degrees Celsius.

Do you carry on riding through bad weather?

Sometimes. A big part of the race is managing the risks. Humans can survive being cold or wet, not both. You have to know when to stop and take shelter if conditions are just too dangerous or your kit doesn’t offer enough protection. That’s a big part of the race, and similar to what we do at Strate. We have to identify the risks and assess them, and find ways to manage them.

Do you ride at night or sleep?

Both! Sometimes we ride through, although on our first race we didn’t because we were scared of riding in the dark. Sometimes we sleep – either by the side of the road, in a tent we carry in our

backpacks, or a bed kindly given to us by the people we meet on the route. At designated points there is a bed waiting for you – if you make it to the right place in time.

What happens if your bicycle is damaged?

You repair it yourself or ask another rider for assistance. We have no mechanics and cannot ask for outside assistance. The choice of bicycle is really important, it’s our infrastructure and system. Before we start we have to make sure it is in the best condition possible, and that we know how to fix the problems that might arise when they do. Just like Strate, we have to have the right infrastructure and systems – and keep them up and running all the time.

How tough is the race emotionally?

Very. We are out of contact with our families and work, unless there is an emergency. The race does track us via satellite, so the race organisers know if we are too far off course. But we are out in the country, on our own with our backpacks, and in my case, my brother.

When you’ve had a really hard day, been through hail and ridden through the night, you are exhausted. Your emotions can swing from high to low. The lows, though, are followed by highs. It helps to know that once we’ve climbed one mountain we will go downhill, which I love. We also know our families are supporting us, even if we are not in contact. I also follow the advice my daughter tattooed on her arm: “One day at a time”. Sometimes that is all you can do. When you do enough of those days, you become resilient and know you can make it through the tough times.

What are your favourite race memories?

There are so many, but two stand out.

The first – the people of South Africa. They are so generous and welcoming. Strangers will come out to greet us and offer us food and shelter, which we pay for. Vuvu, in the Eastern Cape, is one community that stands out. They have water rations of 20 litres a day, and yet when we arrive in Vuvu there is water for us, to wash and drink. It is humbling and inspiring.

The second standout is the beauty of our country. Our route takes us to some of the most remote places in South Africa, so we get to see some amazing scenery and wildlife, that is also amazing.

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