In early August, Markus Stitz embarked on a journey to Kyrgyzstan to take on arguably, the most challenging race in the world; The Silk Road Mountain Race.
This is the first of a four-part blog series by Markus, recounting his incredible experience.
Step by step I navigate across the second landslide in the dark. The road has long disappeared. All that is left is a steep slope with loose rocks, covered by patches of snow, which are now frozen. Crampons would be a good choice.
In the absence of those I carefully balance my feet in the frozen footprints. Slowly but surely I move forward, one step at a time. The sun has set a couple of hours ago.
At almost 4000 m the temperatures plummet straight afterwards, even in August. I hold the bike firmly with my right arm.
So far my shoulder hasn’t dislocated, but I am aware that it can happen any time. This is an injury that travels with me for the duration of the race, with surgery scheduled as soon as I am back in Scotland.
Whenever my doubts flare up, I have to suppress them. This is an unforgiving environment, there is no place for negative thoughts here. Focus is needed, and perseverance. My torch is flashing every now and then, a sign that the batteries are running low. I have a backup light, but I would rather keep moving until I am in a safe place.
Not too far away from me I can hear a huge amount of rocks thundering down the steep slopes. I put my headphones back in, press play and keep moving. I am almost there. My breath is slowly dispersing in front of me as I reach the end of the landslide, set my bike down and move on.
Up here, in the enormous mountains of the Tian Shan, moments are all that matter. I don’t want to think what is next.
The voice of Mark Knopfler is loud enough to cover the sound of rolling rocks in the distance. ‘You walk out on the high wire. You're a dancer on thin ice. You pay no heed to the danger. And less to advice.’
I am almost at the top of Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass of the Silk Road Mountain Race. At 4040 m, with an empty stomach, it feels beyond tough.
Suddenly I see a red light flashing in front of me. I can hear voices. About ten minutes later I manage to catch up with Karl, Tobi and Ciaran.
The past is irrelevant. Forgotten is the start of the day.
At checkpoint three, 1125 km into the race, I spend more time on the toilet than in my bed.
Forcing myself to eat breakfast early the next morning, I stop 60 km later in Bokonbaev. Everyone I can spot is eating. So do I, after leaving breakfast somewhere on the first climb of the day.
Washed down with a litre of Coke I manage to get some rice and two eggs down my throat, the only vegetarian food available. By now I think I’ve left the worst behind me. But the joy doesn’t last long.
Just at the edge of town, a mere two kilometres away from the restaurant, I throw up and almost collapse in the heat. I stop, rest in the shade and listen to ‘Love over Gold’ from the Dire Straits on repeat.
‘It takes love over gold and mind over matter, to do what you do that you must. When the things that you hold can fall and be shattered, or run through your fingers like dust.’
A few hours later I grab my bike again. I am moving exceptionally slow, but I am moving.
A toilet next to a mosque, not much more than a few planks of wood, a hole in the ground and a metal sheet to cover it, is the next stop. I have to be quick, there is no time to overthink things.
Grabbing the straps of my bibs with one hand and holding on to a handle with the other, there is as little room for error here as there is on the mountain passes.
This is as raw an experience as I can imagine to have. This is racing at its most brutal. This is the Silk Road Mountain Race, the hardest bikepacking race in the world.
But there is much more to this race. Organised by Nelson Trees, two-time Transcontinental Race and Highland Trail finisher, and first held in 2018, it follows a route that is not short of beauty.
Kyrgyzstan’s high mountains, its location at the southern edge of the former Soviet Empire and the people that call this, at times surreal, place their home, make this an unforgettable experience.
Here in the mountains people still embrace a very basic nomadic existence, living in yurts and riding their horses with grace and skill over those vast landscapes. A place which is desolate and raw. The perfect environment to stop and let my mind take me on a journey. A place to dream.
People and landscape make up for the moments when my body goes into turmoil. While I’m physically at the edge many times during the thirteen days, seven hours and three minutes it takes to finish 1,710 km and 30,000 m of ascent, there are always special moments that remind me while I am out here.
While we sit in a warm yurt the next morning, I cannot hide my excitement.
What might seem like an average pack of cheap cornflakes to friends and family back home, means much more to us. Our eyes are fixed, the cornflakes light up my and Karl’s eyes while the packet travels to the table. We pour milk in and eat. We eat loads. Much to the surprise of the woman who serves us breakfast, the packet is gone in no time.
While I still can’t feel my feet, this is the first time I can eat without feeling sick straight afterwards. I pour the hot water into the cup with instant coffee, lean back, smile and relax. We make a lasting impression on our host, a woman in her forties with golden teeth.
Hours later in a small shop, by now I have edged away from Karl with the energy boost from the breakfast, she taps me on the shoulder while I am buying a bottle of Coke and a Snickers bar. Her teeth reflect the sunshine while she smiles at me as I turn around. I return her smile, covered in dust...
To read Part Two, click here.