Tour of the Dragon, Recap—a Doozy!

In short—for several reasons which I’ll share, I only completed 120 of the brutal, 160 mile course. The good news is that I am quite pleased at having experienced lengthy, sustained muddy/rocky conditions that I have never encountered before (I LOVE ‘firsts’) and how I performed in these conditions. And that I got to experience the people and geography of my beloved Bhutan in the meticulous manner one enjoys on a bicycle. I found myself saying out loud multiple times as I pedaled, “This is a f%&*ing gorgeous country! I am so lucky to be here now.” The multitudes of cheering kids along the route were a happy bonus. Despite my slow speed due to a couple of factors, and a crash that many hours later, landed me in the hospital for stitches, I felt like I rode quite well on insanely challenging terrain. Thats a really great feeling.

Here are the fun (and pretty long) details! Athletes out there: This info is also one take at problem solving during an event—a potentially useful narrative.

The ride starts in the beautiful broad, agricultural valley of Bumthang. We start at 2:00 AM so our focus is mainly paying attention to the road and dodging the various cows and ponies that also enjoy being on the road in the middle of the night. Most of the first mountain pass and descent are still on rough pavement, which allowed for a leisurely warm up. I rode this section with the founder of Hannah and his good buddy from Prague, as we rolled along enjoying the lovely calm one encounters when pedaling in the dark. I didn’t feel great and I didn’t feel bad, so I just decided to take what I did feel and make the best of the day. Then it started raining for the first of several times.

The climb up to our second pass, Yotong la, was a mixed bag of terrain, rough pavement, dirt, rocks, mud, slick rocks, but our first huge test would come on the descent from Yotong la to the village of Trongsa, about 20 miles of sustained downhill. They are working on the road on this entire section which means it is all torn up and gutted. To first place a road in this country they have to lay down a substantial bed of rock onto the dirt and mud (after the cut they road out of the side of the steep mountainside). With monsoon season there are regular mud slides with the incessant rain, so the combination of rocks and mud would be our riding terrain. One of the challenges is that generally, you can’t see the rocks, they are covered or mixed in with the mud. The objective becomes to try and pick lines that are a benign as possible, carry enough speed to get through, and hope it works out.

Sometimes the mud/rock combo was thin and watery, other times it is so thick it grabs your tires as if trying to suck your bike in. In the latter we’d find ourselves pedaling as hard as possible, downhill, in order to keep momentum going. I did this entire descent with the other woman in the race, a Bhutanese named Rinchen. She and I had both expressed our concern for this descent before the race and since we happily found ourselves together at the top, we decided to ride together on the down. We had a blast, loudly groaning and laughing through the particularly technical parts and hooting with glee when we got through the dangerous, exposed, sketchy sections unscathed.

When we got to Trongsa I was exhilarated in having not only ridden dramatically unfamiliar terrain for hours, but in doing so with another strong female rider. It will remain one of the highlights of my day. But the brutal challenges were just beginning.

From the start to the top of the 3rd pass is about 84 miles. Due to the road conditions this year, approximately 70% of that was mud or muddy rocks. You mountain bikers out there can well imagine how tough that kind of riding is. Imagine doing it for about 10 hours (that is how long it took me to get through this section). If you’ve never ridden a mountain bike, imagine riding your road bike through slippery, rocky molasses (for 10 hours), and you’ll get the gist. Besides the technical challenge, one expends exponentially more energy pedaling in these conditions. As well as being plastered from head to toe, including every inch of my clothing, in thick mud.

Despite my proficiency with being able to be in the right gear at the right time, its tough to judge unfamiliar terrain, and one stretch of muddy road would have several textures of mud. You pick one, and hope its the easiest to get through. But that doesn’t always play out well. So there were many pedals strokes where I would get bogged down and have to exert all my power to push through in the gear I was now stuck with. Think about putting your bike in the hardest gear available and riding up a hill—at high altitide. That is what this feels like.

The other challenge, particularly on the downhills when its impossible to consider taking your hands off the handlebars, is fueling properly. I use a bladder for this so I can quickly reach down and stick the nozzle in my mouth and at least drink while I’m negotiating the insane terrain. The main problem on this course if that the downhills can last a few hours! If you don’t take in additional calories during that time, particularly if you are half way to late in the race, a bonk is impending.

Which brings to the other issue I faced. For various reasons I’ve had on and off stomach problems this summer. I’ve noticed it come up on a couple of my longer rides. I get really nauseated and have a tough time putting anything down. This a new problem for me as generally I have an iron stomach and can eat anything when on the bike. About half way up the climb to the 3rd pass (which is about 40 miles long!) I started to feel quite nauseated. This shuts my stomach down and I struggled to keep feeding. The lack of calories negatively affected my pace so I felt like I was crawling up this climb, which goes on and on and on and on…snaking its way up the bright green and tree covered mountain.

By the time I got to the top of this pass I was feeling pretty bonked. I was able to take some liquids and force down a banana, but going into the next descent, which is about 2 hours on very rocky terrain, I knew I was in trouble. Before the stomach issue my pace was steady. I was doing what I could given my current fitness and the terrain so I was fine with it. The nausea slowed my 3rd climb dramatically, so I was required to run some numbers in my head on the next rocky descent.

When I’d reach the base of the descent, even if in my bonked state I could muster the energy to ascend the final 30 mile mountain, I would reach that top a few hours into darkness. It would take me another 1-2 hours to hit the finish line, so though I swapped out my light battery, I would not have enough juice in the new battery to get me to the finish line.

The cut off time at the top of the final pass is 6 PM. Even if I were able to ride that climb strongly, like I did in 2015, I would get to the top a few hours after the cut off time. And with not enough light to get me down the final big mountain descent and to the finish safely. I was only able to put down some liquid on the 2 hour descent, furthering my glycogen deficit, so the likely hood of even making that climb was quite slim, unless my stomach decided to make a miraculous recovery on the bumpy ride down (which is sometimes possible!).

Another issue, which up until this point I had made a non-issue, was a wound that needed attending from a crash I sustained around mile 50. I didn’t have enough speed on a slight uphill muddy/rocky section and my front wheel got wedged between two large slippery rocks. The impact caused my wheel and handlebars to abruptly get thrown sideways and I was slammed to the ground before I had time to even consider putting a foot down. The bummer was that instead of landing on the soft silty mud on the side of the road, I landed on a couple of rough rocks with my elbow taking most of the impact.

It was pretty painful so I did spend about 30 seconds writhing in pain, but then I just got up, shook off the thick mud that now covered the veneer of mud my bike and I were already sporting, and pressed on. I hiked out of that bog then had to take a few minutes to reset my seat and handbags that had gotten screwed up in the fall. My elbow hurt badly but I figured as long as I could keep my hands firmly on the handlebars I was good to go.

At each aid station the (amazing!) volunteers would point out the plethora of blood soaked into my arm warmer and would want to call for medical, but I knew that would take way too long and I was already too slow as it was. So I just pressed on. About half way up the 3rd big climb it started to get a bit warmer out to I peeled back my arm warmers and finally looked at my elbow. The f-word rolled out of my mouth when I looked at the wound. When I bent my arm a huge flap of skin would pull away, exposing the bone. It was apparent that I needed to get stitches, so I spent some time on the climb sorting out how this could play out. The hospital in a developing country is not a place us pretentious westerners want to end up, and Bhutan was no exception.

I will say that for a country with its financial stature (or not) They do have free health care here for all, including us outsiders. But the conditions are so far inferior to what we are used to I had to turn a blind eye to getting my arm stitched up there. The emergency room could be likened to a remote Mash unit in a war zone with all the seemingly random haphazardness that harbors.

That said, if I get an infection from getting a flap of skin reattached to my elbow in the Bhutan hospital it will not be due to medical incompetence, the doctor did a fine job. It will be because I rode for many hours through cow dung infused mud prior to getting the wound attended to.

When I finally made the call to pull out I sat on the side of the road waiting for my ride and one of the many roving ambulances set in place by the race stopped to check on me. The guy was a bit baffled that I had waited so long to attend to the wound and wanted to take me to the hospital straight away. In order for me to get my ride to the finish, we decided it was best I wait until I got to Thimphu and at that point it had been about 8 hours since I ripped the skin off my elbow. I’ll let you know how that plays out.

Retrospectively I feel quite lucky to be excited about taking on such an arduous event. Once the roads are complete I will have mixed feelings about the whole route being on pavement. The adventurer in me still loves a nebulous challenge, even one I am not able to complete. And to do this in culturally unique and gorgeous Bhutan, a place which endlessly warms my heart, I feel fortunate indeed.

And I’d do it all again if only to ride that first mud/rock infused downhill. When I complete something I’ve never done before, in particular if it feels slightly terrifying before hand, there remains a large sense of accomplishment. To do this with another strong female athlete, puts that icing on the cake. Thanks Bhutan for the gift that keeps on giving.

More to say on the event and the other work I’m up to here on this trip, but I’ll tend to that later. My heart is full today. Tashi Delek from Bhutan!

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