© Jeff Liu
In August 2018, 100 seasoned adventure-loving endurance cyclists gathered for the start of the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race, a fixed route, 1700km unsupported bikepacking race across the mountains of Kyrgyzstan via crumbling old soviet roads, single and double track gravel, remote mountain villages and 26,000m of mountainous ascent. Only 29 riders finished, including Canadian endurance adventurer (and former blog guest) Jenny Tough, who battled through snow blizzards, altitude and hike-a-bike terrain to finish in 13 days as first solo lady.
As someone who’s run solo and self-supported across Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan Mountains, Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and, most recently, the Bolivian Andes, Jenny is no stranger to demanding endurance challenges (as you may remember from her last blog interview). So what was her Silk Road Mountain Race experience like? And was it as brutal as it looked? Jenny spills the beans below.
P.S Registration for next year’s SRMR is open until 31 December. #justsaying
In a nutshell how was your SRMR experience, and what did it involve?
The SRMR is a truly tough race, and I was in it just to finish. I had no ambitions of racing the other riders – I simply just wanted to get through it! As more and more racers scratched (in the end, 29 out of 100 finished) I probably became even more careful, even walking my bike around technical bits that could cause me a mechanical, for example. At the time, it felt like the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but looking back, I can only remember it being lots of fun where I got to ride some amazing routes through the beautiful mountains, meet lots of nomads, and ride with some awesome people who became great friends.
In your blog you said you felt out of your league on the start line. Were you apprehensive going into it?
I was shaking in my boots! I knew a lot of the other riders, and felt quite strongly that I was not in the same league as them and shouldn’t be there. As I also knew the Tien Shan [mountain range] pretty well, I was quite scared of the mountains, too.
What was a typical SRMR day like?
I had a routine to wake up at 4am, which was usually pretty cold, make some porridge on my stove, pack up, and then ride, ride, ride until midnight when I would bivvy down again. Your day is pretty basic: follow the route on your computer, filter water when you need some, and eat lots of dry biscuits. A few days passed through civilisation where we could stop and resupply or even get a hot meal, but most days did not have any amenities.
You’ve said that SRMR racers should prepare for ‘the worst/slowest/most disappointing riding you’ve ever done’ – was this down to the terrain?
Yeah, some of the tracks were pretty gnarly. I remember joking with some riders that even on downhill sections we were doing paces that were so slow our dynamo hubs couldn’t charge. There was a lot of hike-a-bike.
Have you had your fill of gravel roads now?
I am completely traumatised by washboard gravel.
The weather went from extreme heat to snow blizzards – how did the cold in particular affect your race experience?
In the second half of the race, I woke up to frozen solid shoes every morning. I couldn’t even tie my laces as they were so frozen. It wasn’t very pleasant to crawl out of a bivvy and put those on! I definitely got less sleep when it was so much colder at night, which probably cost me a bit of time in the race.
It all looked brutal, but was there a day or moment that sticks out in your mind as being particularly challenging?
I blew my knee just after Naryn, and couldn’t push any hard gears or go uphill. The uphill section from Naryn lasts about a day, so that wasn’t great news. I stopped for a while and was actually invited into a yurt for a nap, where I had to face the realisation that I might need to scratch from the race. In the end I continued, but taking a lot of drugs for the pain and walking my bike up every hill, really slowing me down and hurting my confidence. I was really scared I wouldn’t finish the race and even have lasting damage [to my knee], but the pain decreased enough in a few days to let me finish.
A lot of other riders got sick, either from food poisoning or altitude sickness – did you escape it?
I definitely felt the effects of altitude as I didn’t have time to acclimatise beforehand, but luckily I escaped the gastro issues.
Physically, how did you feel during the race?
Shattered, cold, wet, exhausted, delusional… All of it. But the hike-a-bike sections provided off-bike recovery time, so I think they actually helped.
You had a mantra, ‘Fix your own problems’. Did this help you keep going?
If you ignore a problem and hope it will go away, it won’t – it will probably get worse. My race strategy to be really careful and make sure I finished meant that I was really focused on not letting any problems get out of hand. If the bike was squeaking I stopped right away, and if something was chafing or hurting I tried to fix it immediately, too. You are completely alone out there in the mountains – often literally, but also in the rules of the race – and to be safe and successful you need to be diligent and fix any problems.
I often give myself a lot of tough love in terms of mental strategies, but I think gratitude is also really important. Racing through a country like Kyrgyzstan, you’re forced to recognise just how fortunate you are. To have the time, the fitness, the equipment, and the freedom to get to fly around the world to compete in such a race is an incredible luxury and I spent a lot of time reflecting on how lucky I am, and therefore how important it is that I give this race the best I’ve got.
Did you experience local hospitality during the race?
Yes! The Kyrgyz people are some of the loveliest in this world. Even though it’s a race and you can’t waste time, I usually accepted offers of tea in yurts and made time to say hello and chat to nomads who went out of their way to come meet me. I was also very fortunately taken in to a yurt with another racer (Josh Rae) when a snowstorm hit us on the Arabel Plateau. It snowed about 10 inches while we were safe inside, next to the fire.
You didn’t pack a tent – where did you sleep and did you escape the blizzards and the rain?
I only used a sleeping bag, not just to save weight but also time. In the first half of the race, when the weather was good, I just slept wherever I stopped, usually looking up at some incredible night skies before falling asleep. In the second half, when the weather turned, I usually found really sheltered spots, including two drain pipes. I also slept at checkpoint 2 and checkpoint 3, one guesthouse, and spent the final night in one of the race vans with two other riders – it was left open, so was fair game to use.
Did you manage to fuel yourself enough to not feel hungry or did you have to ration your food?
I had a lot of noodles. And dry biscuits. It was a huge luxury to find fruit or vegetables. I definitely had to be careful as resupply locations were so far apart, and there isn’t a guarantee you’ll find anything even when you get there, so I was pretty hungry by the end!
What was on your pack list?
Sleeping bag (hydrophobic down), ground mat, puff jacket, warm gilet, rain jacket, gloves, tuque (bobble hat), neck warmer, 2x base layers, knee warmers.
– bike tools, spare tyre, 2x spare tubes
– Small stove, fuel and titanium mug
– 2x front lights, 3x back lights, 1x head torch
I started the race with a tub of peanut butter. It lasted halfway through Day 2.
If you did it again would you do anything differently?
1) I won’t! 2) Not really. My system worked well and I loved my bike and kit. If I did it again (seriously, I won’t), I would try to speed up a bit. There are lots of areas where I was indulgent with my time, so it would be fun to see how much faster I could go if I switched my strategy from ‘surviving’ to actually ‘racing’.
Registration for the 2019 Silk Road Mountain Race is open until December 31st– feeling game? Check out www.silkroadmountainrace.cc