Sonya Looney Rides the Mongolia Bike Challenge: Part 2 – The Harsh Reality

Race Coverage Travel

I wasn’t excited with how the day was going, but I know that things happened and people were doing their best to figure out how to handle this sketchy situation we were in. After 3 hours of waiting in the ger, I was excited to ride in one of the vans. They look pretty cool and can cover some serious terrain.

We left our bikes for the race to collect and drive to the camp later.

In my van was Matt, Thomas Turner, 2 of the Chinese riders, and the German guy. I was disappointed that I didn’t have a camera of any kind. The driver did not speak English. We were told it was a 2 hour ride to the camp, and that lunch was waiting. I was ready to get some real food and get out of my dirty, recently soggy bike clothes.

The van ride was incredibly bumpy (no seatbelts). In the Mongolian countryside, there are no roads- just bumpy double-track. In this case, the doubletrack had extremely deep mud holes. It was entertaining and nerve-wracking to see how the vans would navigate. Some of the vans were rally racing across the tundra. Ours was more conservative – the helpful type. He would stop and wait for other vans to help them when needed. We were getting impatient because we wanted to get back and the other vans were so far ahead they were out of sight.

We all finally reconvened at a gas station in a small city. I had no money with me – just my stuff for racing. I was amused wondering if the gas station would barter some food for a multi-tool. Most racers were in the same boat so we could not buy more food. Another van had pretzels they floated to our van, so we all rationed the small bag not knowing how much further it would be. It has already been 5 hours…. (way more than the 2 hour estimate we were told!)

One of the vans broke down at the gas station. Suddenly, there was a frantic knocking on our door. A sick Australian guy had made a run for it from the broken van to ours. He was shivering violently and panicking. We let him in and he wedged in the 3 person seat next to Matt and I. We asked him if he was okay, and he was unresponsive. He had no shoes on. Finally he responded through gritted teeth, “I have never been so sick in my life!” That is exactly what racers with weak immune systems want to hear crammed into a van just inches away from the poor guy. Our van was the last to leave and had no one to follow. It also had to pull over many times for the poor sick guy to get out and either vomit or have diarrhea. I suggested that he trade with Thomas in the front seat. He said, “No, I’ll just puke in this bag.” I said, “No, you need to trade.” Thomas came back with us (and caught the sickness of the guy 2 days later). There was no room for me to sit so I had to sit on top of Matt and Thomas. The “road” was bumpy and I had nothing to hold onto and no seat belt. I tried to wedge myself in one place, pushing down off the roof so my head didn’t hit it and also trying not to whack my head on Matt’s head. It was very uncomfortable. By now it was pitch black. The driver was lost, driving back and forth in the middle of nowhere looking for a not so obvious dirt trail, talking on his phone on occasion. He would get out and flag down any vehicle we saw. There were a couple Gers out there owned by locals and he would try to ask for directions. The Chinese guys got out their GPS units and tried to figure out where we were. We couldn’t communicate with the driver or anyone over the radio. It was frustrating to feel so helpless. I was becoming skeptical we’d make it back at all that night. The driver was driving like a maniac to make matters worse, hitting huge holes. For someone with no seat, this was terrible. I was also afraid as were the other passengers that the van would break or flip over. It had now been almost 13 hours since we had a real meal other than nuts, a few granola bars, and a handful of pretzels. I was scared that we were lost and would have to spend the night in the van. I was even more scared for the sick guy. He was very sick and in need of immediate medical attention.

Finally, we saw the lights of another car. A van had come back from camp to find us and we followed it back. A 2 hour van ride was a 5.5 hour ride for most, and a 7.5 hour ride for us. It was 9:30 PM by the time we got to camp. At least there was some food left. Matt and I worked as a team. He would try to find the doctor for the sick guy. He searched through the camp asking everyone for the doctor, but no one seemed to know where he was. Matt said he also could not find anyone in the race organization for some time. The sick guy was freezing and delirious. Meanwhile, I searched for our bags. Peter and the Quail helped me find a vacant tent in the dark. I was insanely hungry. Matt and I finally got out of our nasty bike clothes that we had been in since 7 AM, baby-wiped off, and got some dinner. By the time we got to bed, it was 11 PM and there was no official plan for the morning other than breakfast was a 7 AM. We tried to sort through our bags for something to sleep in. We didn’t even try to organize our stuff to race the next day. People wondered if we would race at all, or what time we would start. I thought that the race would certainly give us time to get things sorted after a crazy day. We wouldn’t even receive our bikes till the next day. I tried to get comfortable in the tent, but we were sloped and on extremely hard, lumpy ground with nothing underneath our sleeping bags except the paper thin nylon of the tent. I closed my eyes and drifted off into a troubled sleep around midnight. 6:30 AM came fast. Bleary eyed and cold, I got dressed for breakfast, hit the nasty toilet and tried to figure out what was happening.

Around 7:20 AM while eating breakfast, we found out the start would be at 8:30. We had done zero preparation and still had to find our bikes and try to get the thick mud off of them and get them in working order for the stage start. It was extremely stressful.. Everyone was exasperated and in disbelief with how this was handled.

Everyone was frantic. I heard racers get frustrated and short tempered. People were packing their stuff as fast as possible. Race staff were walking up and down the tent rows with a loud speaker announcing a countdown every 2 minutes. They were trying to help, but it was just frustrating and make it more stressful! “15 minutes till the start….13 minutes till the start… 11 minutes till the start…” It did not help with the pressure and panic of everyone! We were trying to find a kit to wear, get nutrition ready, pack our sleeping bag, find our crap that we needed for 175km stage, pack the remaining stuff we had used, get the bags down to the truck, drop off aide bottles, clean mud off the bikes and lube chains– some had to change brake pads(no bike wash the whole race as we were told which made it trickier in this situation), and get your head into the race. It was very hard to get ready to endure the mental and physical suffering of a race after what had happened in the last 24 hours. Also, Stage 4 was supposed to be Queen Stage of 175km. I was a little anxious about feeling horrible on the bike (as everyone else) because sitting in a van all day with high stress with basically no food and no time to prep your bike. It is the worst case for such a long day… 4 days into a brutal race! Stage 4 would be quite the challenge.

I made it to the start line just 5 minutes before the start. I took some deep breaths reminding myself that I got everything done and it would be fine. I hit the mental reset button and tried to focus on the present and the future instead of the chaos. Others weren’t so lucky and didn’t even make the actual race start because they simply could not pack and get ready in such a short period of time with zero time for preparation the night before. I also learned that some people came in at 1:30 AM in the vans because there weren’t enough vans when we left earlier, and vans had to go back for another trip! Insane!

The start whistle blew, and I launched into action. Stage 4 had begun.

Continue reading for Stage 4 and full photo gallery.

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About the author: Sonya Looney

Sonya Looney is a world class ultra endurance mountain bike racer. She has competed in the hardest international stage races in the world, picking up several wins. She has three USA 24 Hour National Champion jerseys in her closet, as well as a Marathon World Championship USA team kit hiding in there as well. Her love is for big mountain adventures which helps her excel at her favorite race distance - 100 milers. Sonya's positive energy and love for life would never lead you to guess she suffers in her races and always is laughing with a grin on her face. She also prides herself in her taste for microbrews, red wine, and has a quick witted sense of humor.


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