It’s 4 p.m. and the sky opened up to a heavy rain. The elevation hit me like a brick wall. I slugged onward at a whopping 4 mph, urging my bike to carry me up the chunky gravel road leading to Kegety Pass. As the rain thickened, I passed riders frantically setting up their tents along the road to escape the sky. We were only at 7,000 ft and every pedal stroke was a chore. I pressed on. The rain turned to hail, and the daylight disappeared. At 11,500 ft, just a thousand feet shy of the pass, I found a slanted piece of grass next to the path to camp. Shivering and out of breath, I threw out my tent, jumped in and fired up the stove for a bit of food. I laid silent in my tent, curled up into my sleeping bag to escape the below-freezing temperatures, and closed my eyes for my first sleep of the Silk Road Mountain race.
About eight months ago, my roommate pitched me the stupid idea of entering a 1,054-mile, self-supported bike race that traversed the gravel paths of Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia I’d never heard of or could even pronounce.
I committed on the spot.
We filled out the application together and sent it off with low expectations of being accepted. A few weeks later, my roommate wandered out of his bedroom.“Have you checked your email?” He looked at me with a pale, knowing look on his face.
We were in. We had been accepted to race in the first edition of the Silk Road Mountain Race.
The Silk Road Mountain Race is an unsupported, ultra-endurance cycling race that traces sections of the ancient trade route. The main principle is that racers must complete the route as a single, non-stop stage completely under their own support – looking after their own gear, nutrition, sleep and anything else they may require to complete the race completely void of outside assistance. “Ride in the spirit of self-reliance and equal opportunity,” goes the final race rule. This format of racing makes for an event that goes far deeper than physical fitness and mental fortitude. It breaks into the riders in a way that is unique. During the Silk Road Mountain Race, I was at war with my mind. Discomfort and overall body breakdowns are inevitable over the course of 1,054 miles spanning nearly two weeks, though I wouldn’t make it to the finish line.
My experience on the Silk Road was extreme in every direction. Extreme beauty. Extreme discomfort. Extreme sickness.
I hit all the marks. Going into the second night, I was unlucky to find myself with a nasty stomach bug. After a quick camp next to what was certainly the only busy highway on the route, I set off to quickly find myself in a messy predicament. Whatever I had eaten the day before wanted out of my body and it wanted out immediately. It quickly became the most frantic moment of my life, sprinting to the side of the road, simultaneously ripping off my many layers of kit.
I failed. I wasn’t quick enough, and the race to the side of the road was won by the sickness making its way out. That became just another moment to add to my long list uncomfortable memories during the race. That mess was added to the growing list: bloodied blisters, 24 hours without water, camping with no food because I broke my stove, a day spent throwing up every 10 minutes while riding along a 12,000ft plateau, hours of pushing a fully-loaded bike up near 30% grades. It was all just a part of a day racing in Kyrgyzstan.
It’s easy to get in a rut of reflecting on the discomfort of my trip. It tends to stand out in my mind and provide the most interesting conversation now that I’m home. The truth is, at times I struggled to take in the beauty, even though I knew it was there. I’d be fooling myself if I said I fully appreciated it while racing. Sometimes the depth of an experience takes time to sink in. Each night, the day would wind down as I searched the trailside for a place to camp. The moments unloading my bike under a dark sky to crawl into a warm shelter brought me time to let it sink in. I’d lay in my quilt, unable to fall asleep sometimes for an hour with a racing mind. Slowly, I’d come to appreciate how incredibly special this adventure had become.
My time in Kyrgyzstan brought the most dense experience of my life. I learned more about myself and what I was capable of than anything I’d done prior. What I can handle, what I’m willing to deal with, how deeply I can commit, how long I can control my mental outlook.
I experienced the most beautiful place I’ve ever been from a place of great discomfort. That’s the magic combination I think adventure athletes chase. Mike Hall, the godfather of self-supported, ultra-endurance racing said “nothing that’s worth anything is ever easy.” The Silk Road Mountain Race was the most rewarding and worthwhile event I’ve participated in, but it wasn’t easy.
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Updated. Originally Published October 2, 2018.