“The Silk Road Mountain Race is a fixed route, unsupported, single-stage cycling race through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The clock does not stop and prizes are not awarded. It will follow gravel, single and double track and old soviet roads that have long been forgotten and fallen into disrepair. There will be very little tarmac. There may be some walking and at times there will be great distances between resupply points.” (via https://www.silkroadmountainrace.cc/)
“I knew this thing would be hard, but it’s like… really hard” Brandon, a first-time ultra-distance racer, offers what’s on everyone’s minds. Appreciative laughter ripples through the eight or so weary, heat-exhausted riders who have congregated around this small magasine - the first shop we’ve seen since the last major mountain pass that took most of us since the previous night to tackle. Most bike computers are reporting temperatures between 35-40 degrees, and this small, off-the-map shop was probably unaware of just how much ice cream would be sold today. It must be an odd day in the central-Kyrgyzstan village, with over 60 racers whizzing through on loaded mountain bikes, desperate for ice cream and cola as nutritional staples but with little spare time to stop and chat. The village dogs are certainly having a great day out, with so much fresh meat to chase.
It’s actually the most riders I’ve seen in one place since the storm on the first night of the race, climbing Kegety Pass, spread us all out, and I’m grateful for the company - and to learn that everyone else is also 'feeling it'. I had been alarmed to feel so exhausted, dehydrated, and defeated as early as Day 3, but to see that everyone else is in the same boat has made me more comfortable with my discomfort. I suppose misery does love company, and by the end of my second ice cream, I’m certain that I’m enjoying the race again, laughing with the other riders as we recount disasters experienced trying to negotiate the last alarmingly steep and gnarly descent on loaded bikes with little sleep.
I set off for Chaek, the first real resupply since the start, with Philippa, delighted to be reunited with my friend and to finally ride with her a little. We both raced the TAW just two months ago, quite evenly matched in pace but never managed to pedal a single mile together, and I had been quite hopeful we would do better on this race. At the very least, it’s good to be with an additional target when village dogs and children all rush out to the streets to get you. We negotiate the hairy traffic together, enjoying the fast miles on the paved road after the intense and relentless difficulty the last three days have brought us. What have appeared on the map to be ‘easy’ sections have all turned out to be heartaches: washboard, storms, headwinds, drought, and more washboard. And then even more washboard. Just writing this now my wrists are shrinking in terror (you can probably tell that I’m new to gravel riding). The truth of the Silk Road Mountain Race, we’re slowly learning, is that there are no gifts: every single kilometre is hard fought. Checking the course profile will tell you little about how long things will take - pack more noodles than you think, and mentally prepare yourself to do some of the worst/slowest/most disappointing riding you’ve ever done. Strava will be ashamed of you. That, along with mind the altitude, wear comfortable walking shoes, and pack good outer layers, is my best SRMR advice in a nutshell. The rest of this will just be a race report.
My alarm goes off at 4am, my new standard. Groan. I’ve been feeling sick all night, not sure if the culprit is the dodgy water I took (filtered, treated, and boiled for good measure, but nonetheless gross) on the extremely dehydrated road along the Chinese border, or the awful tasting (potentially expired) overpriced boil-in-the-bag camp food I force-fed myself for dinner last night. All I know is that this morning, I feel terrible, and I will continue to feel terrible because I am completely out of water - what little dribble of clean water I saved in my bottle from yesterday is now frozen, as is everything I left out last night, including my shoes.
I don’t want to move, but I know I won’t feel any better until I find water. I had tried my hardest last night to keep moving until I found a water source, but eventually gave up as the washboard (yes, more) got the better of my attitude and I felt it was best to stop before I got too pissed off and made some bad choices. I shuffle my way out of the drain pipe I bivvied in last night and begin packing up. I have to slam my feet at my frozen-solid shoes, and accept that it might be a while before I’m able to tie my shoe laces - they may as well be concrete for how frozen they are. I make a mental note to start leaving my shoes in more accessible form if they’re going to freeze solid during the night so that it will be easier to get them on in the mornings (this turns out to be an important habit in the second half of the race). I crawl out of the ditch (yes, really) and back onto the washboard road to nowhere.
The stars are breathtakingly beautiful, but it’s far below freezing at 3500m altitude at this hour. I’m still feeling wretched, and that, combined with the frigid temperature (my computer claiming -8C), is making riding very difficult. I can’t feel my feet nor hands, and every bump in the loose gravel track is making me more nauseated.
“Fix your own problems” I mumble out-loud to myself. It’s become a bit of a race mantra - if things are going tits up, nothing out here will save you (that’s also the rules of the race). You are, effectively, alone in the wilderness. Any complaints must be dealt with by you and you alone, and preferably swiftly before they worsen. So “fix your own problems” has become the cheery line that I’ve yelled at myself frequently throughout the race so far.
In this instance, fix-your-own-problems means find a way to restore function to your hands. It’s so cold that I’m experiencing pain when I grab my brake levers, and I know that isn’t a good thing. Unfortunately, I’m already wearing everything I own, and I really can’t stop moving - I need to get some water. So, I undo my front roll bag and pull out my fluffy down sleeping bag, the welcoming cocoon that I begrudgingly hauled myself out of less than an hour ago, and wrap it around my shoulders so that I can grab the handlebars with both hands safely and snuggly tucked inside the sleeping bag. The effect is instant, but I’m reduced to walking. Every now and then I scooter with one foot on the pedal, but for the most part, I walk for nearly an hour until I hear the most beautiful sound in the world: the sound of moving water.
I step off the route and drag my bike through the loose gravel of the wider riverbed towards where the clear water is flowing. I can hardly believe my eyes (it’s still dark), but the water is, indeed, moving. Not a dodgy puddle. I’m saved.
My water filter is completely frozen and no use, so I get my stove set up quickly to boil a drink. While the stove is on, I set up my ground mat underneath me to keep myself warm. I curl up in my sleeping bag and watch the pot boil, falling asleep sitting upright three times during the process. After getting my first drink of water in far too long down my neck, I decide that my body is no use right now - to try and ride in my current state is just a poor use of my time. I’m better off getting a bit more rest and moving at a decent pace once the electrolytes I’ve just had do their magic, and the temperature warms up a bit. I set my alarm for 40 minutes and instantly fall asleep. 40 minutes later, I set the alarm for a further 40.
When the second alarm goes off, the sun is cooking me inside my bag. It’s an incredible sensation to feel the warmth seeping down to my bones. Slowly, I drag myself out of my bag. Let’s try this again, I mutter to myself, as I restart my usual morning routine of porridge and coffee while packing up my bags and preparing the bike to ride.
And ride we do. Minutes after rejoining the route, Giacomo catches up to me, sadly riding without his partner, Karl, who has just scratched, and his company helps me find the courage to push the pedals and reach CP2 late in the afternoon, where an incredible banquet of food, warm beds, and a congregation of riders await.
The checkpoints are nourishing in so many ways. The hospitable welcome from the yurt hosts, the first sight of real food I've had in days (and the crucial factor that I don't have to ration my intake), a warm place to sleep, and, most importantly, the company of racers and volunteers. Even if a racer wanted to keep tabs on the goings on in the race, there has been so little phone signal on the course up to this point that it simply isn't possible, so it's only when we emerge at these checkpoints that we find out what's happened. Who's still in the game, how far ahead are the leaders, where have the Bukhankas got stuck lately, etc. And so the best part of arriving at CP2 was Lee Craigie running out of the yurt with a hug that I desperately needed - a definite priority over getting my brevet card stamped. But while I was glad to see my friend, my second thought was that I shouldn't be seeing Lee - she should be way ahead. I didn't want to ask her - or anyone - outright, mostly because I didn't want to be told what my brain was already calculating: if Lee is out of the race, there might not be any women ahead of me. I didn't ask because I didn't want to know. Winning was never even on the table for me. New to ultra racing and off-road riding, this race was going to be an insane challenge for me just to finish - and to finish was all I wanted. Even picking up the Lanterne Rouge would be a great honour for me if it meant that I had actually finished, and I had to keep my focus there - just finish, and finish safe. The risk, for me, of being told that I was in "first" (there were at least a dozen riders already there, just none with ovaries, so my placing is debatable) is that I might do something stupid. There is a time and place to do something stupid to gain advantage in a race, but at only CP2 in a remote, hostile, rugged, and sometimes hazardous mountain course that was well outside of my cycling comfort zone, it just wasn't the time to start being stupid yet. So when I left CP2 before dawn in the pouring rain the next morning, I left without knowing for sure my status in the race, nor, for that matter, the answer to the bigger question: whether we were acknowledging a 'women's race' at all.
It's Christmas!!! I blink hard and even pinch my arm to bring myself back to August and the race, but it isn't happening: I'm definitely in a winter wonderland. Surrounded by mountains and glittering fresh snow, I'm transported back to the holidays of my childhood in Canada. If there really was a day just last week when we all suffered from heat exhaustion, it must have been a hallucination.
Josh and I bid farewell and a heartfelt thanks to our yurt hosts, who took us in minutes before the snowstorm started last night. Without their hospitality, I probably would have had to make an emergency descent from the 3800m Arabel Plateau. We pedal on together, our tyres slipping in the fresh snow, and my nerves are running high: in the next few kilometres we will finally reach the river crossing that has become so dreaded that the race organisers themselves sent out an email warning the riders (really, if they deem this dangerous, after everything we've been through, it must pretty much be a fiery pit of doom guarded by ravenous lions). Josh and I have stuck together in anticipation of this certain drowning, and waking up to freshly fallen snow is making me even more nervous - hypothermia had been my biggest concern (over drowning or, worse still, losing my bike in the rapids), and the clear blue sky means that the beautiful white snow will soon be a higher water level.
"I'm just going to take all my clothes off, get dressed fast on the other side" Josh talks out his game plan, both of us imagining neck-deep, glacial whitewater.
"Yeah, I'm totally not going to do that... but I'll get into my sleeping bag quickly if I need to".
Finally, we arrive. There it is: The River. Not insignificant, but no lions, either. We each pick our own line, and less than twenty minutes later, emerge on the bank on the other side. The water never even reached my thighs, and my feet were already frozen anyway, so the shriveling cold there hasn't actually changed anything. If anything, the muck on my cogs got cleared off, and I need to stop to lube my chain.
We stop for a coffee break on a large, sun-soaked rock next to The River to celebrate. By the time we've packed our stoves up, the winter wonderland has melted completely, and green, boggy plateau is left in its place. For the next five hours, we will be walking our bikes across this mushy, pathless, pointless, frustrating, why-would-Nelson-do-this, beautiful horrible “route”.
Josh's company saves me on this slowest section of the race. As my upper body shakes and eventually buckles under the relentless strain of lifting my loaded bike over rocks, streams, and bog for the majority of the day, Josh casually chats away, forcing my mind to focus on something outside of the discomfort and frustration. It's the middle of the afternoon when we finally mount our bikes for the first time since crossing The River, and I can hardly remember how to ride it. My arms are shaking and my cleats are clogged with mud and pebbles. Josh speeds away, hungry for CP3, while I try to negotiate some 'proper mountain biking' before hitting Issyk Kol. Luckily, I meet Tom, one of the race photographers and a ‘proper mountain biker’, and use both trying to keep up with his fresh legs and the threat of him catching my failures on camera as motivation to speed up to the lakeshore.
Reaching CP3 is a huge milestone. It seems more significant than any other checkpoint, even though it doesn't really mean you're 'home free' - not in the SRMR. There are still a few cruel mountain passes in your way, not to mention the turn in the weather we're now experiencing at high altitudes. Out of around 100 riders on the start list, only 35 ever get a stamp at CP3. And, sadly, only one female in the solo rider category collects that stamp. My attitude leaving CP3 is one of immense and unexpected pressure: suddenly, this ride is no longer just about me finishing. It's no longer just me against the course. Suddenly, my ride is representing womankind (or so Flo and I joke when I get the news). "No pressure or anything!". Gulp.
My 4am alarm goes off one last time. I'm too cold to move - I ignore it. I should be finished by now, but Peanut Butter Hill* (*shall henceforth be known as) ruined my victory lap last night. A day of rain turned the final segment of the race into sticky, heavy, impossible mud, forcing me to stop and wait for the frost, and so three of us have huddled in the (unlocked and free to use) Bukhanka for a night of shelter. It turns out that uninsulated soviet vans are just as cold as sleeping outside, however, and so I ignore the alarm and sleep another hour, resolving that it’s too cold to ride the downhill that begins just outside the van door. The truth is, my motivation is wiped. I'm 80km from the finish line. In the last twelve mornings when my 4am alarm has sounded, I've dragged myself out of my sleeping bag, weary but thrilled - thrilled to know if I have what it takes. At the start line of the race, I felt out of my league, over my head. I didn't know if I could make it. I had never raced off-road, and I worried that my skill level would be too low. I didn't have enough time to adjust to the altitude. I had never rode this bike with my new MTB setup (she had been a roadie for the TAW just two months ago, so the good folk at Shand swapped the gears and wheels to create a SRMR bike… voila!). So, for twelve mornings, I started my day stoked to find out how much further I might make it in this impossible challenge.
Today, that stoke is gone. Eighty kilometers. To a roadie, that's a breakfast run. I'm not worried. It's in the bag, I just have to ride these last eighty clicks. And then they will tell me that I'm the first woman home, whether that means something to anyone or not.
Without the thrill - without the fear, the challenge, the intensity - I have nothing to pull me out of my sleeping bag this morning. It's not until Josh and Ben finally wake up and the sun comes out to hopefully start warming me up that I make attempts at moving.
My bike, however, is incapable of moving, too. The clots of mud that made last night so impossible are now frozen to her tyres, and I have to break off chunks of iced mud with my frozen, bleeding hands before the wheels will turn freely. (Ben has it much worse - he slashed his tyre around midnight and left it to fix this morning). The race crew belonging to the unlocked Bukhanka - Jennifer, Flo, and Chris - discover us, and soon, via the snaps of Jennifer’s camera, I'm reminded of the task at hand: this bloody race. This impossible, horrible, beautiful, wonderful, frickin' race. If I can find it in me to ride these last eighty kilometres, it will be over. I'll get a warm shower and a cold beer. I'll get to wear something aside from these muddy shorts. I'll never have to force my feet into frozen shoes again. I can wash my hair. I can eat a vegetable. So much to look forward to!
I can't tell you that I found my mojo and smashed that 80km. It was a slow day, lacking motivation until the very end when I hit the pavement and, through the power of a good playlist, pushed myself to the finish line. But I got there. Despite the heat, the cold, the washboard, the altitude, the bad knee, the isolation, the dehydration, the fear, the pressure, the what-doesn't-kill-you, I got there. Thanks to the beauty, the mountains, the friendships, the steel frame, the amazing volunteers, the sunrises, the moonrises, the jailoos, the downhills, the uphills, the jaw-dropping views and the Kyrgyz people, I got there.
I don't care if I came first or fifteenth. I'm beyond delighted with either result. I got there, and I'm incredibly grateful for it.
p.s.: Mountains of Heaven 1 was this run in 2016.