Dutch athlete Nienke Oostra competed in elite MTB and Xterra triathlon until she was forced to retire from racing in 2017 due to chronic nerve pain. After being devastated by the decision, she shifted her focus to longer adventure challenges whilst still living in pain.
Last year she embarked on a world-first mountain bike traverse of the Himalayan Trail high route in Nepal and became the first person to mountain bike the 1800km journey from west to east, completing it in 8 weeks. When her adventure partner quit early on in the ride, Nienke forged ahead solo, overcoming extreme hike-a-bike conditions, vertical landslides, 12-hour ride/hike-a-bike days and temperatures as low as -20C. In total, she climbed 85,000 vertical metres of ascent during the 8-week journey, which she shares more about in the interview below.
A few years ago you quickly went from amateur to elite athlete, but overtraining left you in chronic pain. How did your life change in 2017 when you were advised not to race again?
This is a difficult question as it took me a long time to get my head around it. I struggled to let go of my goal-driven and performance-based mindset. I love racing and training, all my friends were athletes and we used to see each other at races. Not having that caused a huge void. I felt my life was falling apart and it put a strain on my relationship.
Living in pain can be all-consuming. I started to distance myself from my friends and resented my job as a veterinarian. My professional life as an equine vet was very physical, and that and the stress related to the job were huge triggers for the amount of pain I was in. It took me a good two years to accept and process what I needed to do. I was lucky with my coach and mentor, James McCallum, who would be brutally honest with me at times and say things like, “Stop being such an asshole to yourself and talking about yourself in the past tense”. He made me believe I could rebuild myself as an athlete.
How did you manage to do this whilst living in pain?
Through educating myself about how pain is produced thanks to pain specialist, Rob Friel, and working on desensitising my central nervous system with my coach, James, and physio, Morgan, I started figuring out what my body would tolerate. That’s how I started focusing on adventure projects and racing in very remote areas. I learned that I could tolerate long and slow things. High-intensity stuff was off-limits.
Through that, I also learned that I was mentally quite resilient and my strength as an athlete was being able to just keep going even when things got very tough. As a silver lining, I don’t think I would have discovered those things if I hadn’t gotten injured. I started looking at different ways of being a vet and found an online consultancy company who I work for now, which enabled me to move to the mountains – a longtime dream of mine. But if I am completely honest, I am still working it all out and managing my pain levels is still a balancing act.
Tell us how your Great Himalaya Trail MTB idea came about – you had already raced there for Yak Attack, is that right?
I fell in love with the Himalayas when I raced the 8-day MTB stage race the Hero MTB Himalayas in India the year before the Yak Attack [MTB race]. I started reading books of athletes having cycled across the Himalayas on road bikes and I was wondering if it was possible to do it off-road. I spent some days bike-packing before and after the Yak Attack and that’s when I started to really feel the passion for wanting to do it.
On my return, I accidentally stumbled on the film about Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel running the fastest known time across the Great Himalaya Trail high route in Nepal. It was then when I started buying maps, looking at it properly and presented the idea to my coach James to see what he thought. The whole idea was to ride the Himalayas following the high route through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, over 4 years. Starting with Nepal in 2019.
Ryan Sandes ended up helping me massively by sharing his experiences in Nepal and gave me his contacts in Nepal.
What did Stage 1 of the route that you completed in 2019 involve?
I wanted to follow the Great Himalaya Trail high route as much as possible, starting from the Western border with China/Tibet and riding towards the Eastern Border. Obviously, the passes which needed mountaineering equipment were not doable on the mountain bike so I found secondary trails still very high up to bypass them. The Great Himalaya trail is basically a network of hiking routes, but they are building new “roads” in places which in Nepal means really rough 4WD tracks. The route was a combination of very technical steep and rough hiking trails together with 4WD tracks.
The total distance was about 1700-1800kms and roughly 85,000m of ascent. I spent most of my time between 3000-5400m altitude. There were about 15 passes over 4000m and the highest pass was Thorang La in Annapurna at just over 5400m. Some days would start with a 50km climb with 4000m ascent in that climb, it was mind-blowing. The shortest day in mileage was 7kms of insane hike-a-bike and the longest day was 120km where I rode for 14 hours almost non-stop.
Temperatures ranged from -20C at night to +30C degrees during the day, and towards the end, in December it started to get really quite cold. I rode from dusk to dawn every day apart from 3 rest days in 7.5 weeks [which I took] to wash kit and get equipment charged.
You spent 10 months training for the ride. What did your training involve?
I worked together with my coach James and a lot of it involved strength and conditioning training. I was still dealing with regular pain flare-ups at the time and had just started a running rehab program. We did a lot of mobility work to make sure my spine was strongly supported by all the muscle groups alongside it, plus a lot of upper body work as I knew it would involve a lot of hike-a-bike. I had physio sessions every 3 weeks.
On top of the strength work, James made me mentally resilient by getting me used to riding my bike tired, and I would line up for 10-12 hour races having already had a 20-hour bike week in my legs. I did not race one race fresh in 2019; it was all about training the mind to be OK with a tired body.
I would wear a weight vest for some of my rides and chose hike-a-bike routes to get used to carrying my bike. In the last 6 weeks before heading out, I started doing high altitude sessions on the turbo trainer. James had the equipment for doing that wearing a mask attached to a machine which regulates the oxygen levels available which I had at home. I would do turbo sessions every second day combined with some strength sessions wearing the mask.
You completed the 1800km ride in 8 weeks. What were the high points of your trip?
Oooh, where do I begin? I have to stay the terrain is just incredible and simply looking around had a very uplifting effect on me. The people you meet along the way, both tourists and locals, making small gestures of kindness truly make you believe in the good in people. I never felt threatened by anyone in the whole time I was there. When my teammate was still with me early on, we arrived very late in one of the villages after a day from hell and one of the locals offered us a bed for the night. They then took us to an amazing hot spring with a hot waterfall where we bathed after days of no running water whilst looking at an incredible display of stars in the sky. I never forget that feeling of gratitude. There were so many high points, I could write a book about them.
What were the toughest moments of your ride?
The biggest low point was at the beginning of the trip when we realised that none of the route I planned on the maps and GPS devices correlated with each other or the terrain directly in front of us. I had mapped out the route the best I could but 50kms often turned into 100kms because we had to navigate around landslides or because trails just ended with nowhere to go. The amount of ascending was often double because the details on the maps were too small for me to have calculated it properly.
My teammate, Karin, was having a really rough time and I felt responsible for her unhappiness. When we both ended up with gastro and she decided to leave, I felt devastated. I had to really rethink why I wanted to do this. I simply did not have good enough reason to give up. So when Karin left, I started to compartmentalise what was ahead of me. Every step, every pedal stroke, every mountain pass further East was a win. I was focussed only on the here and now, moving forward every single day until I ran out of time. I never expected to reach the East and suddenly I was there!
For me, the scenery had such a positive effect on me. Even on the really bad days, a stunning view would be so comforting and fill me with energy which kept me fuelled to keep going.
Can you describe the conditions you experienced during the ride?
The first two weeks in the Far West (which Karin completed with me) were the roughest, and there often was no electricity, no running water, no toilets. Locals had never seen bikes before so we also got a lot of attention passing the little villages which at times would feel a bit intimidating. It was so isolated, the nearest bus stop was a 5-day hike away. It is very difficult to explain how basic people live and how little they have there, but at the same time, they cook you their food, offer you a spot to sleep in the best place in their house – often on the floor or on wooden beds. It was really amazing how friendly people were.
I call Annapurna the 5-star area of Nepal. After 3 weeks in the west having nothing, a toilet and running water was pure luxury, also having a menu with more than Dhal Bat on it! From there, going further east it became very basic again. You learn to appreciate simple luxury items such as shampoo or a piece of chocolate!
How technical/hike-a-bike was it?
The hike-a-bike section was madness in places, especially the Far West where we had to navigate vertical landslides and sometimes would not cover more than 1-2kms an hour. The loaded bike weighed about 40kg at the start but when I continued solo I decided to get down to real basics and got it down to about 34kgs. Still a heavy weight when navigating technical terrain!
I think I rode about 60% of the journey. Some of the single trail was very cool to ride – riding down from Thorong La to Manang in Annapurna must be one of my favourite single trails of all time. Some days, I would have a couple of hours of riding amongst a mainly hike-a-bike day but it would be so spectacular in that in my mind the hike-a-bike was worth it!
Did your bike stand up to the technical conditions of the ride?
My bike was second to none. I had it set up by my bike shop and we researched the most durable components, and I went for flat pedals for all the hike-a-bike. I had two punctures and my back brake had a few hissy fits due to the change in altitude all the time, but that was it. Truly incredible considering what I put it through. I rode my full suspension Specialized Epic on which I raced all my MTB stage races, so I was used to spending long days on it. I am absolutely in love with that bike!
Physically, how demanding was the whole experience?
Every day I would think, “I can’t go another day” and then I would get up and keep going. The physical demands were relentless; I lost about 8kg in weight in the first two weeks. I would ride from dusk to dawn because the terrain was too dangerous to attempt in the dark on my own, and on top of that, I wanted to see the beauty of the Himalayas!
In Manaslu, I encountered unexpected snow and it was 10-hour, knee-deep hike-a-bike up to 5100m. One of the local Nepalese mountain bikers had joined me for that part which for safety reasons was a really smart move! I see pictures of me carrying my bike up and down incredible rocky terrain and I wonder, “How on earth did I do that?” It is the hardest thing I have ever done.
Did the experience change your perspective on your own life back home?
The experience changed me hugely as a person. It changed the way I looked at myself. I had been so disappointed in myself as an athlete and I had been so angry with my body. And in Nepal, that same body kept showing up day in, day out and it was an amazing feeling that I could feel that strength again. I started to value me again.
Through the whole expedition, I had so many encouraging messages from friends but also fellow athletes and adventurers I really respected, or people I would meet along the way who understood the magnitude of what I was doing. I suppose in a way, I regained my self-respect. The experience also humbled me, seeing how happy people can be having very little. I realised I was lucky that I lived in a society where I was in control of my happiness and it inspired me to feel more gratitude towards the life I was living and the people in it. And if I was not happy, to do something about it, because I was fortunate enough to be able to do that.
What items of kit did you use and did you have any sponsors?
I had help from Terraventura and got Acepac bike bags and tyres sponsored. I carried quite a lot of bike spares including a chain, 4 spare tubes, a cable, brake fluid, bleeding kit, spokes, and multi-tools to fix the main things. I carried a Garmin Inreach Satellite phone and GPS device with me. I had Kora as a clothing sponsor and carried one set of base layers for off the bike and one set for on the bike and a mid-layer hoody.
I had a sponsored Jottnar down jacket and Gore Goretex overtrousers and I carried a Goretex Jacket. Madison gave me a pair of awesome MTB shorts, which I wore for 7 weeks straight and are still in one piece! And I wore Salomon Goretex Alpine S lab trail running shoes. I had a bivvy with me and a small camping stove. I carried a first aid kit with me including a course of antibiotics. When Karin left, I decided to send most of the camping stuff with her and cut the first aid kit in half to save on weight.
What’s next on your challenge list?
Nepal was stage 1 of the 4-year plan to ride the whole of the Himalayas. India would have been stage 2 in 2020, but unfortunately, Covid put a stop to that and then, of course, there’s Bhutan and Pakistan still to do. I would love to do a running adventure now my legs let me do that again and Katie L’Herpiniere and I have signed up as a pair for the Atlas Mountain bike packing race which will be held in 2021.
With my move to the French Alps I am very keen to learn proper mountaineering skills and add some alpine challenges on skis to my ever-growing list!
Although I am doing a lot better than a couple of years ago, dealing with chronic pain is still an ongoing battle and I can still have very bad days, so that is also on my challenge list; to keep on educating myself on how to improve my symptoms and hopefully one day I will have it beat!