Spoiler: I scratched at kilometre 1106 and did not complete the Silk Road Mountain Race.
I was under no illusions. I thought it was going to be hard I did think I could complete it though, so when the race started on Saturday, August 12, 2023, I started riding. I immediately settled in at the back of the park, which is where I expected to be for most of the race. I knew I wasn’t fast. I knew I wasn’t strong, but I do have endurance, and I can keep myself going for seemingly forever. As the day wore on, it got hotter, but I was still riding, reasonably well, a little under my usual power, but still reasonable.
Several of the top and Midpark racers, had announced plans to keep riding until checkpoint one. I did not think that this was within my abilities, and I didn’t think it was wise on my part to even try. I plan to race my own race and not get involved in the group think of go far burn out on the first day. I wasn’t feeling my best but I wasn’t feeling awful. my mouth had a taste of salt in it, so I diluted it down my electrolyte mix to give it more water. I didn’t feel dehydrated. I just felt sort of low energy. I also had less appetite than I thought I should have, but that’s common when you’re starting a race, it takes a while for the appetite to kick in and catch up to the energy output, shortly after dark, a hail, storm rolled in, and I decided to camp for the night rather than ride through the hail storm and risk, getting wet and cold. Unfortunately, in the dark, I chose campsite poorly. I was right next to a herd of sheep that were staked out for the night, some of the sheep sounded asthmatic and wheezed and coughed all night and kept me somewhat awake. I woke early in the morning to an urgent, urgent, need to go outside the tent. Unfortunately I developed what I had hoped to avoid, which was an intestinal illness, causing severe diarrhea and a nauseous feeling.
I was not about to scratch on the first morning just from having a bit of the runs and so I persevered throughout the day riding as much as I could, while taking frequent breaks. I also started course of antibiotics that I’ve been given for just such an occasion.
Getting over the pass required an hour nap at the top, and though I wasn’t pleased about it, I was still making forward progress, and I felt if I could attain some recovery, I could still finish the race.
Though I was moving slowly, I made progress towards the checkpoint in spite of following some other racers off route for 7 km I made it to the checkpoint with over 10 hours to spare.
Enylchek was a former mining town, now mostly ghost town. I stayed across the road from the checkpoint in a house. With the outhouse being through a gate, the barnyard, another gate, and across the road, it was not ideal for someone with intestinal distress.
The checkpoint one food was delicious. Unfortunately, I could eat only a couple of mouthfuls of it due to my stomach problems. I continued on in the morning my energy by now was very low since I hadn’t really eaten for over a full day I tried to force some food in, but it wasn’t really working, after passing the Kazakh border checkpoint, I crossed over a mountain pass. As we climbed, it got colder and windier. The most importantly it got colder. It began to snow here I was in my element. If I’d been feeling better I definitely would’ve thrived under the situation. As it was, I was feeling cautious, but optimistic. As night fell, I got to descend a pretty spicy pass in a snowstorm. This was just what I had hoped for.
Somewhere round midnight I was setting up in what appeared to be the perfect campsite, as far as I could tell in the dark. Suddenly a man appeared, and started packing away my tent that I was setting up, he let me know that I was to stay in his yurt, I would surely freeze outside (he did not know me).
The yurt was outrageously hot. I felt like I had entered a sauna, my bike computer read 45ºC, then, possibly because of the guest, the man then began to stoke the fire. Now I am a robust sleeper in the cold, but in anything over 25°C, I get no sleep. I finally drifted off around 4am when the fire burned down enough, but it wasn’t an ideal sleep. I’m not blaming I the yurt owner, or the culture, I was just not the right guy to fit into the mix. Also, grandma snored louder than seems humanly possible.
The following day was a descent into the Lake Isik-Kul Valley and should have been fast and easy, in spite of the washboard gravel. Instead, my lack of eating was catching up to me. I had nearly no energy, and was beyond slow. I was able to make progress through, and by the time I lay down for the night, I was out of the town of Saruu, beside a cornfield.
In spite of my lack of energy, and the lack of progress that came from it, nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for the climb, following the Djuuku river up into forested parkland, with waterfalls on the sides of the valley, was stunning. The climb up Djuuku Pass was not so much a trail as a lot of boulders to climb through, but it was still very pretty, at least while the sun was up enough to see by.
Camping beside a creek, by (as seen in the morning) a nice alpine lake, was definitely rejuvenating, I did manage to get some peanut butter and bread down before sleeping, and in the morning, I felt better, though my sleep on my thin mat over gravel wasn’t perfect. Even imperfect sleep provides some rest and healing benefits.
Healing benefits aside, food for energy was what I really needed, my caloric deficit was huge, and this was way more than I had planned. I knew that I couldn’t eat enough to complete the race at the same weight as I started, but I thought I could keep enough food coming in to trick my body into not restricting my energy output. It had been over 3 days that I hadn’t put enough calories in to make that happen, with 2 of those days being well under 200 calories (my goal was around 6000 calories, which is what I can normally digest during long day efforts).
I knew I had to eat, so that became a goal for the day. My power meter showed that I was putting out about 80 watts, less than half of what I could normally sustain, and I was not able to sustain the 80 for more than about 15 minutes without several minutes of resting. Food was not yummy still, so what would normally be a joy to me, eating, was more of a chore than I wanted.
At least I was eating, though less than normal, and though my effort was much higher than I wanted, and I had to walk sections that should have been an easy ride, I at least was making progress, and if it wasn’t quite as much progress as I’d have liked, it was at least on pace to finish. Finishing was the goal, and if I could move fast enough at my worst, I had confidence that a little bit of recovery would see me through the tough parts to come.
Coming down the valley I saw one of the trailer homes that are prevalent in rural areas on fire. It was well established, and on the other side of the river, or I may have gone to render assistance. I later saw the fire truck coming up from town (I amn’t sure which town, one with a fire truck) It was at least an hour since I passed the fire, so it may not have been a very effective emergency response, unless it was transporting people to a hospital.
I found a nice campsite next to a bridge, ate some food (my first full dehydrated meal of the trip!) and slept well.
The following day was going to take me through Naryn, the fabled home of the only hot showers along the race route. Sadly, I was not close enough the night before to be able to reach Naryn to check into the hotel, and I would pass through town with too many riding hours to go to make stopping there viable. I needed to miss out on the shower, and keep moving. I did grab some snacks at a store in Naryn, but I didn’t even see where the hotel was, so just as well that I was not going to stay.
The grade out of Naryn should have been easily rideable, but my energy output was still seriously limited, so there was a lot of walking on the only truly paved highway that I saw my whole time in Kyrgyzstan. After nightfall, a police officer stopped, popped the trunk on his Lada (optimistically), and told me to load up my bike. I told him that I was fine pushing. He then said, “but I am politzai and you must do what I say.” I told him I would have to call the race organizer on my satellite phone, a calculated bluff on my part as my InReach device only does satellite text messaging. As I guessed, anyone with a sat phone is too important to shake down for a bribe, and the cop scuttled back to his Lada and drove off quickly without saying anything further.
Shortly after the highway section, I found a flat, if not great camp spot for the night.
Next day was the cutoff for checkpoint 2, So I needed to boogie to get there by midnight, or ideally nightfall. Though I hadn’t reached full speed yet, at least I could kind of ride. My power had come back from rock bottom, and my rest breaks were getting further apart.
Beyond the Border Zone checkpoint, the weather had cooled enough that I could just ride, and that’s what I did. I was tight for time to make the checkpoint, (Narrator: He actually had hours to spare) but I was confident I could make it. A big thunderstorm moved in as night fell, and brought greasy trails, but even that was not enough to slow me down. I arrived at the yurt camp about 11pm, but the route was off (by 45m, I later found) and I could not tell which of the dozens of close by yurts were the correct one. I met some very drunk German girls, and a Kyrgyz yurt owner, and finally found the correct one after searching for 45minutes. Wet, and freezing, I ate, and checked into a yurt for the night.
The yurt was hot, even hotter than the previous yurt I had slept in. You would think I’d have learned a lesson, but I figured since these were tourist yurts, they would avoid the sauna effect. I did get my clothes dry, which made the following day’s sleepy start a lot less unpleasant.
I have two words to say about my navigation on this race, inadequate, and unprepared. I had planned on using my bike computer as navigation, with my phone and Komoot as backup. Several times during the trip, my computer would get confused in a thunderstorm (unless I turned on the rain lock, which disabled the touch-screen), and pause or end my ride. This meant that I would lose the blue line showing where I had been, and if the course crossed its previous path, I would not know which way to go. The computer would not always zoom out and in, so I had a great deal of difficulty to know the overall picture of where I was to go. Also, the turn-by-turn directions were not working on the computer, perhaps because I had loaded the entire route at once. I didn’t especially like Komoot, not because it was bad, but because the interface didn’t feel intuitive to me. I did not get as familiar as I should have, and as such, it was a poor choice to use as backup. My map studying had been cursory at best, so what I should have known well enough to navigate based on landmarks and estimates, was mostly a mystery to me.
My sleepy start began with some bonus km up the same road that I had come in on. It was dark when I came in, and I did not recognize the road was the same. Once I realized that I was supposed to have followed the vague impression in the grass, and not an actual road, I fared much better (though another hour later). The old Soviet road was, as promised, a gnarly hike-a-bike ascent. I could climb it, but I could tell I was still not at full strength. Once at the top, the road was pretty good though, with rolling hills, and some good views too.
My only issue on the Old Soviet Road flat and descent was a close encounter with some of the famous barbed wire. Riding rather quickly, I ran over a chunk of it, and it punctured my tire at least in 4 spots. The tire kicked the barbed wire up, where it then wrapped around my foot. Despite 4 barbs entering my shoe, my foot was unscratched. As for the tire, if I hadn’t had to untangle my foot, I would not have noticed the punctures – they sealed quickly and perfectly.
After the Soviet Road, the route returned to the Ak-Say Valley, which I had ridden through the night before in the dark, with turn-by turn directions. Since I no longer had the turn-by-turn, (the Komoot segment wouldn’t start, possibly the file got corrupted?) I was confused at the crossing. In hindsight it is obvious, but at the time, I had forgotten the left turn on the previous night’s ride, I didn’t recognize the landmarks, I was tired, and a local who spoke English insisted that the Silk Road Mountain Race went left (it did, but I had already done that part, and it also went straight).
After 5 hours, I arrived back at CP2. I realized what had happened. Another thunderstorm started, and I put my tent up to cry in as it rained. I knew I didn’t have that many hours to spare and that I had blown my race finish possibility. I messaged Tania, she was sleeping. I messaged Nelson, who thought I might still be able to make up the time. I took down the tent, and started riding.
I made okay time coming out, and felt okay on the Ak-Say road until I hit the peanut-butter mud. There were no trees around, which meant no sticks. I cleared my frame and forks a few times with my long-handle spoon, it was only an hour or two of the serious mud, but it was still annoying. I reached the turn-off, and walked through the gravel and mud to the river crossing. It looked potentially difficult, so I set up the tent to cross in the morning (again, hindsight says I would have shed a lot more mud crossing the river before my bike mud dried into concrete). I ate a dehydrated meal, and it was the first one of the trip that I could finish without forcing it down. Tania sent me some realistic, but discouraging math letting me know how hard I would have to ride to make CP3.
The next day, I had only the faintest hope of succeeding. Those hopes were dashed as the wind picked up. By Kkajgyr, the wind was strong enough that the kids selling milk on the side of the trail could walk alongside me. By Torrugart, I was walking my bike more than half the time against the wind. The highway was no better, and I often had to hike-a-bike downhill to keep on the side of the road as the aggressive wind pushed against me.
I saw 3 blown-over trucks before the turn-off toward Mels Pass, and this was on good highway. The border checkpoint exiting the Chinese border zone took over 45 minutes, but by this point, there was no hurry, there was no chance to make CP3 before the cutoff without a miraculous doubling of my average speed, and probably no sleep for 56 hours.
I messaged Nelson, letting him know of my intent to shortcut to Son Kul via the highway, and he insisted that going via Baetov would be quicker and easier. It wasn’t, but Mels pass and the surrounding valleys were totally worth the effort (thanks Nelson). Others found the pointless switchbacks through the valley to reach the canyon exit tedious, but for me it was a highlight of the trip. Most of the pressure to go quickly was off, and my body was feeling way better as I ate more each day, and didn’t have to depend as much on my body to scavenge fat reserves.
By Baetov, the day was hot, but I had a nice downhill stretch before getting to the ascent toward Son Kul. Jangy-Talap was a sweet little town where I witnessed some cowboys bringing a herd of cattle into town where a bunch of children were gathered, each child then grabbed between 1 and 4 cows, and headed off (presumably) to their homes. I thought it was a wonderful community sharing of work, if I’m wrong, don’t tell me.
Since I was done racing, I decided that it was kind of pointless to ride up the pass in the pitch black and so I flagged down a truck a couple of hours after sunset. With a stop to change a tire, the climb was still pretty quick. Like CP2, CP3 was not in the GPS location it was supposed to be, though the first person I asked was already there (250m from where it was on the map). This time, I secured an unheated yurt, and had a great sleep.
What I thought was a resurgence of my intestinal troubles made me nervous about continuing on the course. For the next 2 days, I made my way to Kochkor from Son Kul, and I still had fun, though I had entirely abandoned the framework of the race. Sadly, my last day of riding was long and fast, and I felt better than I had since the start of the race.
The Silk Road Mountain Race finish at Cholpon-Ata was nice, but definitely oriented toward passive recreation on the beach. I made the best of it, and hung out with other racers, got a shave, and ate a lot.
I have mixed feelings about this result. I’ll delve deeper in a future entry, but I will say this at the moment, this was a success. I don’t regret going, I don’t feel that my effort reflects poorly on me. I hoped it would be hard, I hoped I would be challenged, and I got what I wanted. I learned a lot, and I came back to a family that I love.