Having ridden every edition of the 575km non-stop, self-navigated race over the past five years, he found that being able to cope with little sleep is key.
“There is a delicate balance between sleeping and moving forward,” he explained.
“At some point lack of sleep translates into slowed progress. The trick is figuring out when to sleep and for how long.
“For Race to Cradock, I knew I could get away with a short power nap. I was targeting 500km before having a quick snooze, which would have been around 38 to 40 hours into the race.”
As it turned out, he was only 24 hours in when he needed to get off the bike. He set his countdown alarm on 20 minutes and lay down next to the jeep track.
“It was still dark, so sleep came easily. A braying donkey woke me up when I still had 13 minutes left on the timer but I had banked enough to allow me to get to the next support station 90 minutes up the road.”
He had an interesting encounter 30 hours in on a 15km section featuring a slight uphill gradient and with the wind in his face – a stretch he has always struggled with.
“It wasn’t terribly difficult, but it lacked stimulation. Lack of stimulation is the playground of sleep monsters.
“At one point I ‘woke up’ still riding down the dirt road. I hadn’t actually fallen asleep but it was one of those moments when you are not present.
“I was crawling along and realised I needed to get off the bike.
“I lay in the shade of a thorn tree and closed my eyes. I hadn’t set an alarm and reminded myself that I was only resting my eyes and couldn’t afford to waste time.”
After two minutes, while listening to a tractor labouring across a distant field, a weird word popped into his head.
“It was something like flobbydenobbledy. It struck me as such a bizarre word that I opened my eyes and got back on my bike completely refreshed.
“It must have scared the sleep monsters off because I wasn’t visited again for the rest of the race.”
His time was the third fastest in the race’s history and his personal best.
“For the last three years I have wanted to race to Cradock in under 48 hours. A few years back Alex Harris suggested that a sub-48 was possible.
“After seeing him achieve that it became one of my lofty goals. I don’t have his athleticism or speed but it was nice to have an audacious goal.”
In preparation, Woolnough said he had focused on speed work over the last two years.
“If you race with very little sleep the only way you can finish faster is to ride faster, so I’ve been working on that.”
The 59-year-old said he knew he was far from being the fastest kid on the block but, if he carefully combined his speed, route knowledge, navigation skills and the ability to outride everyone in terms of continuous hours, he should be able to prevail.
“Not that I was racing anyone else or chasing anyone’s record. I wanted to beat myself and go under 48.”
He said he enjoyed the solitude of being out in the vast and beautiful Eastern Cape.
“The route threads through the mountains, drops spectacularly into the flat Karoo and then crosses the Fish River before making its way back into the mountains.
“More than anything I enjoyed riding at night. Once or twice I stopped to look up at the night sky lit by a full moon – hard to beat that.”
He said one odd sight that was uniquely South African was seeing the horizon go dark as load shedding took hold of Cradock on the other side of the mountains.
Woolnough has been doing endurance events for 13 years and he isn’t about to stop anytime soon.
“Giving up is not a thought that crosses my mind but, while riding, I do question why I’m doing it and remind myself that it’s probably a good idea to call it a day on racing.
“But I’ve been thinking that for the last 10 years and I still find myself on the start line.”