The journal for the last day of the race has been long overdue, as are some closing thoughts about the experience of taking part in the race. Perhaps it’s better this way, to put some emotional distance between the event and the moment you write the closing thoughts. In my case it’s been one year and a half, and the past year full of personal changes which drove the memories of the race even further.
So let’s start first with the events of the last day of the race, including 8 hours of hike-a-bike, a crash and a rather emotional finish line experience.
When I hear the alarm sound I’m already awake and slightly cold under the thin emergency blanket which I used as a shelter for the two hour power nap. Todays resting place is also probably the most basic (or rugged one), a groove near a river, very close to the road where I found some shelter from the wind. The moon is still out and I can see it through the moving branches of the trees when I wake up by myself a couple of minutes before the alarm sounds (it’s still a mystery to me how sometimes the biological clock works this well). I pick up the mat and the blanket, have a quick breakfast while packing it and I start the last day of the race. After checking the spot map I see that the others have also made really slow progress during the night but I’m still hopeful that I can make it to the finish line without going through another night.
The sleep deficit which built up during the past days is huge, and it only takes 30 minutes on the bike through the night to feel the eyelids closing again. The headlight is almost out of batteries and my only hope is that the drowsiness will go away with the twilight. To a certain degree it does and the villages through which I go through provide some much wanted distraction. Unfortunately all the shops are closed and I can’t wait for them to open so I push on up the valley hoping that I have enough food with me to get me through the next passes and the next hike-a-bike sections.
I check the dot map one last time before leaving the village and it’s obvious that the next 40 kilometers will be slow. I’m in 7th place and while Sofiane, Axel and Adrien have finished the section the previous night Christophe, David and Lubos are still battling it and making very slow progress. David and Lubos are 2 hours in front of me, Arno is 1 hour behind me and this seems incredible after 9 days of racing. I don’t have any hopes of catching up with them if nothing unexpected happens and my main motivation through the next section is to keep a good pace and to finish the race before the end of the day.
For the past 10 days the motivation was almost always there and spare for a few moments when I was really suffering I really enjoyed being here. As with all adventures I find it interesting that during long efforts no matter how low you feel you almost always bounce back at one point and you usually just have to wait out the bad moment. And with these thoughts in mind I start the hike a bike section motivated and I look at this as an adventure within the adventure. I quite enjoy the 1500 meter hike a bike to the first 2400 meter pass, through a scenery which reminds me quite a bit of the Fagaras mountains: a pine forest at first, a mountain stream which I have to cross several times and a long climb up an alpine valley with a trail which is rideable for the most part even when going up.
I can’t say the same about the descent from the 2400 meter pass as the track takes me through some steep alpine bushes before I recognize that it must be a track error and I try to adjust things as it goes. The next section includes climbing to a 2700 meter pass, including several carry-bike sections and is followed by an incredibly fun enduro-style descent to the beautiful alpine lake which once again reminds me in so many ways of the Carpathians and the Alps. It was probably one of the few sections where my bike was completely in it’s element and it was obvious to me that probably on any other bike this section wouldn’t have been rideable.
However what goes down must climb it’s way back up, in this case to the last big pass of the race, a 3400 meter from which starts the long descent to Issyk-Kul. On the climb I alternate between carry bike and push-bike discovering than more often than not push-bike is certainly faster if I look at the vertical speed. On the final push-bike a Kyrgyz boy starts trotting along. We exchange a couple of words then we walk in silence for a while. He asks if I would give him my bike, I offer half a snickers instead, which we share during a short break, asking ourselves if the storm which was visible in the distance would reach us.
Then the clouds brake, the sun comes out again and the boy trots back to his sheep as I continue to push the bike towards the last pass. I really enjoy moments like this and I cannot help but imagine how is the summer for this boy and his family on these high mountain pastures. People stay here only for 2-3 months a year before the cold autumn closes in, months which overlap with the summer vacation and I quite envy in a way the freedom and the playground these kids have. It’s not all easy and there is a LOT of hard work involved but I think being out here compensates at least in part for this.It’s late afternoon when I reach the last pass and I start the long descent relaxed, the finish line is only 50 kilometres away.
The first part of the descent goes quite fast until one random moment on a high speed rocky descent when I find myself catapulted over the handlebars and hitting the ground really hard. I’m laying on the ground waiting for the pain to hit me in order to asses the situation. It hurts but not as much as I expected, I can feel my ribs and I have bruised knee but other than that I seem to be mostly in one piece. The pain from the fall wakes me up from my day dreaming and as this is the first fall of the race I realize with horror that a mistake like this one could end the race even here, so close to the finish line.
I get up and try to asses the damage of the bike. Besides various scratches and a destroyed handlebar grip everything seems to be in one place and breathe a sigh of relief. I also discover the source of the crash, a bottle placed bellow the frame which somehow got jammed between the front wheel and the frame. I get back on the bike and cautiously make my way to the main road just as the sun sets and try to rush towards Balykchy trying to make the most of the diminishing light. I’m completely out of batteries and I can’t find any at the first two shops where I stop so I decide to push on, taking my phone out and using it as a flashlight during the last kilometres into city. I make my way to the town center as I reach the finish line I find David, Nelson, Regina and Lubos waiting for me. It takes me a couple of minutes to cool down from the last effort and for the achievement to at least partially sink in.
It’s hard to describe how one feels at the end of such an endurance race.
The main feeling for most of the racers is one of relief. Relief that you’ve made it to the finish line, that no mechanical or sickness can ruin your race, that you don’t have to go through one more night and one more effort. Relief that you don’t have to focus 100% your energies on the race, the constant calculation of distances, of what lies ahead, of how much food you carry with you and how you stand with your energy levels. This relief brings quite a bit of happiness and exhilaration after you cross the finish line and you can see it in the faces of almost all the finishers in photos taken just after the finish.
But there’s also a secondary feeling of accomplishment which is linked with the spirit of adventure contained in such races. It’s similar with the typical feeling of accomplishment from other adventure stories, with a protagonist which is facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge, protagonist which goes through hardship, has to improvise and discovers newly found mental resources of will in order to see the challenge through. This secondary feeling is much more enduring than the first one and it also changes in many ways also in your day to day life giving you a boost in confidence when tackling problems which now seem small by comparison. The strengthened will also lasts.
The third feeling is a feeling of camaraderie with the other riders because in the end this is still a sport and a race and for the most of the past days besides the very real track of the race you also rode on a virtual dot map, alongside other racers each with the same similar but slightly different challenge. I say different because things go wrong in different ways at different points for different people and each one has to find it’s own solutions to these problems and this makes all the race similar but unique. This is also what makes sharing war stories after the race so enjoyable. This feeling of camaraderie compounds with the fact that such races (like many other modern day adventures) have no intrinsic meaning which is easily understandable by the society at large. The reasons for taking part in such a race are as different as the people at the starting line but there’s an underlying value proposition being asserted equally by all the riders: taking part in such a race has value and is an action worthwhile pursuing.