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 third part of a four-part blog series by Markus, recounting his incredible experience. If you have not read Parts One and Two, start here.
As in the nights before, the temperature at high altitude fell to about minus ten in the morning hours.
During day time forty degrees aren’t unusual. It is the difference in temperature that has driven my body over the edge now. Arriving in Naryn I find myself pushing my bike on the side of a busy road, shaking violently.
Stefano and I find a place to eat, but I am too sick to bother. Instead I spend about an hour sleeping on a couch in the restaurant, almost throwing up when I force two (!) cold penne into my mouth. Stefano offers his help, but this is still an unsupported race. Even when sick, I am stubborn.
Shortly after settling the bill I carry the remainder of my lunch in a plastic bag with me hanging from my drop bars. I have no credit left on my phone and I am too exhausted to make any decisions.
With the help of maps.me I somehow manage to find a guest house that was recommended to us in the restaurant. It’s almost two o’clock by now and there is no owner in sight, so I push on. I feel weaker with every step; I am seriously ill.
The dust from every car that passes, combined with inhaling unfiltered diesel fumes, make the situation worse. I stumble across the main road and stop a man walking past. He looks like a tourist, and advises me of a hostel just a few hundred metres away.
On my way I pass Bengt outside a pharmacy, who looks a bit shocked when he recognises me pushing my bike along the pavement: ‘Coffee?’ I stare at him. ‘No.’
A few minutes later I lean my bike on a wall inside a small yard and ask for a bed. Thankfully the owner of the hostel speaks pretty good English, but the place is fully booked.
Two months later I can’t remember the owner’s name, but I am still grateful. Thankfully it didn’t take much to convince her that I was close to collapsing.
She grabbed a spare mattress and made a bed for me in the storage room. With no windows, lying fully clothed under the duvet on a mattress that is at the most 1.5 m long, I am shaking.
Other guests walk up and down the corridor, while I lie crouched in my cupboard. There is no door to hide me while I use the last of my energy to google my symptoms. I am not sweating at all. Looking at the information online it is clear that I suffer from a heat stroke. In the moment there is nothing I can do other than resting. Shortly afterwards I fall asleep and wake up again in the evening.
By now other riders have arrived. While no one is in brilliant shape, I am by far the worst. I get up, stumble to the nearest shop, buy a bottle of water and return to the hostel. One sip of water and I feel sick. Carbonated water really doesn’t help the situation.
I try my best to have a conversation with Berten and Bjoern in the kitchen, but there is no chance I can sit upright for more than five minutes. Leaving my phone in the middle of the kitchen table I stumble back into my ‘room’ and fall asleep again. At 4 am I wake up in a cold puddle, completely covered in sweat. Sweating is good news.
While I still feel very weak, some life is creeping back into my body. I collect my phone from the kitchen table, set the alarm and go back to sleep, and postpone a decision about moving on until 8 am, when I finally get up.
In no other circumstances I would have cycled on, but this is still a race.
When I see Bjoern outside, he feels equally weak after throwing up all night. It is only later that I found out that Naryn is infamously called ‘Scratch City’, after loads of riders left the Silk Road Mountain Race here 2018.
Forcing breakfast into me, I have a quick conversation with a lovely Canadian family, pack my bike and aim for the next supermarket. Shopping is difficult, even the sheer thought of food makes me almost throw up. I settle on the usual: bread, white cheese, nuts & raisins, cookies and some chocolate.
The wind is violently shaking my tent for about half an hour. When the gale force winds finally calm down, torrential rain follows. For a while I expect my tent to be ripped into small pieces. To my surprise nothing happens.
I am camped at altitude, still recovering from the heat stroke two days ago. I add ‘stove’ to the list of improvements for future races, plug in my headphones, relax and enjoy the moment. The storm outside is over, and while I was expecting the worst, nothing bad happened.
The next morning, I wake up to an icy tent, with the rain drops from the evening storm solidly frozen on the surface.
It’s the strange mix of solitude and camaraderie that make the Silk Road Mountain Race such a unique experience. While I am, like every rider, out there completely by myself, I never feel lonely. At times other riders will whizz past or join for a short stretch. At other times I whizz past them.
A 44 tooth chain ring on the front makes me fast when I ride. It makes me feel stupid when I push up the remainder of the passes.
While the Kyrgyz mountains are vast and intimidating, most of the time yurts line the roads that wind themselves gradually up towards the alpine passes. In the distance the wild horses neigh cheerfully.
My Russian, learned at school growing up in East Germany, is almost forgotten, but I remember enough to have a short conversation with the locals. If my language skills aren’t sufficient, a big smile will do.
There are no echo chambers here. Instead big open valleys stretch endlessly towards the horizon, lined on either side by snow-capped mountains or pristine mountain lakes. At times big rivers break the calm, at other times golden eagles soar silently above me like guardian angels.
While the last stretch of the race is by far the most difficult terrain to pass, I stop more often. I slide down the steep slopes of Shamsi Pass after pushing my bike up for 15 km. One of the toughest passes in the race, it is followed by the ‘Bonus Hills’: three steep hills that could easily be classed as alpine passes each.
In the morning after camping on the top of the steepest of them, I almost get bitten by a farm dog. I push the bike between me and the angry animal and shout as loud as I can. A hit with a bucket from its owner saves me from the worst, but I feel sorry for the poor sod…
Picture: Antonio Abreu
To read Part Four, click here.