Jenny Tough explores the importance of fixing your own problems, and taking strength from others, at the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan.
My alarm goes off at 4am, and I wake from my sleep, the night still black around me. I feel very definitely ill, but I’m not sure if the culprit is the dodgy water I took from a roadside stream on the remote Chinese border road I find myself on, or the boil-in-a-bag camp food I force-fed myself for dinner. All I know is that this morning I feel terrible, and that I will continue to feel terrible because I am completely out of water. Even the little dribble of clean water I saved in my bottle from yesterday is 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 shuffle my way out of the drain pipe I bivvied in overnight and begin packing up. I have to slam my feet down into my frozen shoes in order to squeeze them in, and accept that it might be a while before I’m able to tie my shoe laces, but eventually I’m able to emerge out of the ditch and make my way back onto the washboard road to nowhere.
There are surely few places on earth that I could hope to be as far from any light pollution as I am here, in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and the glowing ribbon of the Milky Way lit up above me suggests as much. I’m still feeling wretched though, which combined with the frigid temperature of pre-dawn at 3,500m (my computer reads -8C), is making riding very difficult. I can’t feel my feet or hands, and every bump in the loose gravel track only serves to increase my nausea.
“Fix your own problems,” I mumble to myself out loud. The phrase has become a bit of a race mantra for me, because even when times are tough, there’s little out here that can save you. You are alone in the wilderness. Any complaints must be dealt with by you and you alone, and preferably swiftly before they worsen. As a result, “Fix your own problems” has become the cheery motivational line that I’ve begun yelling to remind myself of the fact.
In this instance, I need to fix a way to restore function to my numb hands. Unfortunately, I’m already wearing everything I own, and I really can’t stop moving – I need to get some water. I undo my Handlebar Pack 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. I then grab the handlebars, with both hands safely and snuggly tucked inside the sleeping bag, and keep going. The effect is instant, but I’m reduced to walking. Every now and then I’m able to scoot along with one foot on the pedal, but for the most part, I walk.
After an hour I hear the faint, but very definite, sound of moving water: the most beautiful sound in the world. I step off the route and drag my bike through the loose gravel of the riverbed, towards where the clear water is flowing. As it comes into view, I can hardly believe my eyes. I’m saved.
My water filter is completely frozen and of no use, so I get my stove set up and begin boiling water for a safely disinfected 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 during the process. After I eventually satisfy my thirst, I decide that my body is of no use right now; To try and ride in my current state would just a poor use of time, so I decide to get some more rest. I set my alarm for 40 minutes and instantly fall asleep. 40 minutes later, I set the alarm for a further 40.
By the time the second alarm goes off, the sun has begun cooking me inside my bag. It’s an incredible sensation, and I lap up the warmth as it seeps down to my bones. Ok, let’s try this again, I mutter to myself, and restart my usual morning routine of porridge and coffee, while packing up my bags and preparing the bike to ride.
Minutes after rejoining the route, another rider, Giacomo Maltman, catches up to me – sadly riding without his partner, Karl, who he says has just scratched. The sight of Giacomo, and the benefit of his temporary company, is enough to keep myself pushing on. After a few clicks on the trail, we both admit that had we not seen each other this morning, both of us would most likely be curled up and crying on the side of the road, searching for the strength to keep riding.
Ultra-distance bike racing is an intense solo challenge, and technically a race between riders, but the camaraderie that binds us as racers is a source of strength that we all call upon too. We are alone, but as participants in the race, our individual burdens become a powerful commonality between us. In those lonely, fatigued moments by the side of the road, the knowledge that there are dozens of other riders, strewn across the surrounding landscape, fixing their own problems, is incredibly uplifting. When one of them appears in front of you, it borders on euphoric.
Gradually, things get better, and we find ourselves laughing and finding joy in the experience again. Spurred on and distracted from my problems, I begin to regain my pace and rhythm, and reach Checkpoint 2 late in the afternoon, where I waste no time in enjoying the incredible banquet of food, warm beds, and congregation of riders that await.
The Silk Road Mountain Race would carry on testing me to the very last day, with an array of weird and wonderful problems to fix: sourcing food and water, dealing with altitude sickness, snow storms, wind storms, thunderstorms, computer failure, dynamo failure, injuries, mood swings, sleep deprivation, freezing nights and sweltering days. To finish it requires more than the ability to ride your bike a long way. Like any other endurance challenge, it requires a fix-your-own-problems mindset – and, of course, a little help from other problem fixers too.
Together, we help fix each other.
Jenny Tough is a member of the Adventure Syndicate, and the first female finisher of the 2018 Silk Road Mountain Race.