Most would consider riding 1700 kilometres over the world’s toughest terrain in 15 days an impossible feat, but for 55-year-old Guy Jennings (Noordhoek, Cape Town), this was the ultimate challenge. And on Saturday, 31 August, Guy completed this mammoth undertaking, placing 34th out of 144 competitors in the 2019 Silk Road Mountain Race – the first South African to succeed in this adventure.
“The race was very, very hard – beautiful but brutal!” said an exhilarated Guy on the final day. “This is billed the toughest mountain bike race in the world so I had to try it. I was also keen to explore a new country and I love mountains, so it was the ideal challenge!”
The Silk Road Mountain Race is a fixed route, unsupported, single-stage cycling race through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Leaving Bishkek on 17 August, competitors followed long-forgotten old soviet roads with very little tarmac. Every cyclist carries food and kit and is responsible for their course planning so as not to run out before any of the three checkpoints. As a vegan competitor, sourcing food was an added challenge for Guy.
“You have to plan your rations and sleep along the course, so as to avoid sleeping on top of a mountain when it’s snowing – something I did! And any personal or bike problems you have to sort out yourself,” he explained.
The Capetonian adventurer has had a lot of experience with endurance racing, having competed in 11 Comrades Marathons and three 7-Day Desert Runs. His love for exploring new territories has also seen him completing the 230-kilometre Jungle Ultra Marathon through the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, as well as the world’s longest winter ultra-marathon – The Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska. Here participants compete on bicycle, foot or skis, braving extreme conditions for 30 days, unsupported.
After an injury which saw Guy undergoing double hip replacement, he swopped out running for cycling and started riding competitively in 2010. He has gone on to complete four Cape Epics and three Munga MTBs, a 15-day, 1000-kilometre race in the heat of the South African summer.
Discussing his preparation for the Silk Road Mountain Race, Guy said: “I did a lot of strength training including long rides and hill training. I would also do big weekends with eight to nine hours on the bike and then a two-to-four mountain run or hike.” However, no amount of training can prepare competitors for everything and a series of misadventures almost saw Guy missing his cut-off marks.
“My crank broke so I had to cycle 180 kilometres to the checkpoint with one pedal. I got a lift to town – a seven-hour drive – bought a temporary replacement and drove back to the check point, re-joining the race. Two days later, I climbed halfway up Tong Pass (4013 metres) and my pedal broke so I road back down to organise a replacement pedal. I managed to find a children’s pedal which lasted for the next 700 kilometres.”
The physical challenges are undeniably extreme, however it’s often the mental pressure that derails athletes: “This is especially true when your phone says on day two that you have nothing to listen to for 10 days! It’s just something you get used to. I was surprisingly calm during my challenges on this race.”
Explaining on his passion for such extreme racing, Guy said: “I love meeting fellow racers from every corner of earth, as well as experiencing a new country and meeting locals. I also enjoy the physical and mental challenge. I think I will try race in Costa Rica in January or Morocco in February next.”
His love for travel and natural beauty extend into his workplace, Wildaid, where Guy has been working as the South African consultant for the past 18 months. This conservation organisation focuses on scientific studies and anti-poaching efforts, working to reduce global consumption of wildlife products and increase local support for conservation efforts. Through more than 100 global ambassadors – Prince William, David Beckham and Leonardo Dicaprio among them – WildAid delivers high-impact, culturally sensitive campaigns that reach hundreds of millions of people each year.
Commenting on his upcoming Wildaid projects, Guy said: “We are officially launching our programme into Mozambique, working with Public Service Associations, in November. I will be filming a Pangolin rescuer and the rehabilitation programme in Gorongosa National Park, as well as documenting ‘unsung heroes’ – mainly women – who are doing amazing things in conservation.”