Exploring The Limit
Jack Thompson (@jackcyclesfar)
The mountain had fallen over. As far as I was concerned, it may as well have had. I was stalled some 1,000m into my first of four ascents of the world’s toughest climb, The Taiwan KOM. At 105km in length, starting at sea level, you rise to the peak at 3,275m having battled gradients of up to 27%. Any sane cyclist would consider completing it once in their lifetime to be a great achievement. So naturally, I had flown into Taiwan early in order to complete the climb four times, nonstop… The first three would be completed prior to the TAIWAN KOM event itself with the fourth being completed as part of the race. The stats are frightening, roughly 700km and 15,000m of elevation gain. Or, the vertical height of Mt. Everest plus an additional 6,000m. I’d walked away from my traditional nine-to-five life almost three years ago in order to pursue my passion to become the world’s most extreme ultra endurance cyclist and this particular challenge had been a major bucket list item for quite some time.
I looked down at the grey road and then up at the grey sky ahead. The road workers told me that the road would remain closed due to a rockslide, and that they’d be opening it for just ten minutes every hour to let traffic through. I frantically ran numbers in my head: A two-hour delay (at best) on each trip could seriously jeopardize my expedition. I looked up at the heavy cloud cover and remember thinking to myself, that’s assuming the weather cooperates and everything ese goes to plan…The weather was forecast to be miserable with rain scheduled non-stop for 48hours. As part of my preparations I had planned both a ‘Wet weather’ and ‘Dry Weather’ schedule. The wet weather schedule had me departing some six hours earlier than the dry schedule in order to account for the reduced speeds that would be required on the descents. One wrong turn or miscalculation in the wet could see me plummeting hundreds of meters to the gorges below. Naturally, we agreed to embark using our wet weather plan given then forecast.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of the fresh air. I knew I was standing on a narrow road on the side of a mountain deep within the Taiwanese jungle, but the moisture in the air and the leafy scent it carried belied my senses and a wave of tranquility washed over me. I put my faith in the stability of the mountain and clambered into the van.“Well we’re stuck at the side of the new peak,” I joked. We all shared a nervous laugh while we tried not to think about what this delay might mean. “It’s alright,” I reassured everyone. “We’ll just have to see.”
My faith was soon rewarded, and I was off up the mountain again. The remainder of the first ascent went without fault, and by three-thirty I was at the mountain peak, looking down at the clouds meandering below. The air was different; cool, crisp, and refreshing. I sucked in a lungful of the oxygen depleted fuel and tore myself away from the view. I’ll be back in no time, I told myself as I set off for the first of three steep descents.
The sun had just set as I reached the bottom, some three hours later, and fittingly, I enjoyed a romantic dinner at a mountain-side 7/11. Spaghetti Bolognaise, peanut butter sandwich, Snickers bar and Coconut Water. Nutrition plays an enormous role in a ride such as this and as part of my preparations, my nutritionist and I had had lengthy discussion around how I was going to remain well fueled for the entirety of the vert without losing my appetite through palette fatigue (too much sugar!!). The plan was to consume 90grams of carbohydrate every hour. On the ascents, I would consume sweet foods high in sugar and on the descents I’d switch to savoury foods whilst still meeting the 90grams of carbohydrate requirement in order to keep my bodies fuel tank topped up. It was important to arrive at the bottom of the mountain with enough fuel on board to immediately start climbing again.
I managed to complete the second ascent without any issues. The road blockage had long since been cleared and I was able to push on to the peak without the need for stoppages. I’m usually a huge fan of riding at night, but the nature of this particular climb, without shops, stalls and small villages was so calm and quiet, eerily quiet, that I found myself somewhat bored. I was crawling up the mountainside with no way to gauge my bearings in the dark, I felt like I ought to be reaching the top quicker than I was. It felt as though someone kept moving the finish line further and further away from me.
I reached the summit at two in the morning, I had covered 315kms, but was not even half way. The wind had picked up considerably. Blowing at around thirty knots, the subzero temperatures had me shivering and eager to make my way down and below the exposed wind line. I threw on my winter layers and scurried back down the mountain through the cold gusts and artic air.
Upon reaching the bottom I completed a 180’ turn and shot right back up again. Feeling invigorated by the rising sun as it threw long shadows across the Taroko Gorge, I was once again reminded of the balance between the landscapes beauty and harshness. It was upon commencing my third ascent that I realised the weather had in fact cooperated, that there hadn’t been and wouldn’t be any rain, we were ahead of schedule by 5 hours and that if I pushed just a bit, maybe I could even complete a fourth ascent ahead of the race… Perhaps I was getting ahead of myself and needed to concentrate on the original plan, although I had 420km under the belt, I still had 340km to go
Film crew in tow, we decided to concentrate on completing the third ascent— with bad weather now forecast to arrive later in the day there was no need to risk completing a fourth ascent prior to the race. I’m not sure where the energy came from, but I shot up and down the mountain in no time at all. Whether it was the mental boundary I’d just conquered having now crossed the halfway line or the deep desire to secretly want that fourth ascent pre-race, my ascents were getting faster and faster, even with the enormity of fatigue in my legs. Back at the bottom, eight hours before the race, legs feeling good, the rain begun to fall, and thunder clapped from afar. We made the tough decision to get some rest, eat a few big meals, and prepare for the main event.
The gun went off and 600 plus riders erupted into chaos. The first eighteen kilometres of the KOM are a warm up and consist of relatively level riding along the coast until the first turn off the “Taroko Gorge bridge”. As is the nature of any ‘race’ the riders around me were jockeying for position, trying to get ahead of the pack instead of saving themselves for the steep grades up ahead. Inevitably, there were crashes and angry words exchanged between riders. I was content to ride conservatively—my priority was reaching the top, and any sort of crash or equipment failure would’ve been catastrophic in achieving my goals.
As the ascent geared up, I began to pass many of the riders who had gone hard out the gates. I was feeding off the energy of the race. I was anxious nearly the entire way up, worrying about a mechanical issue, or a myriad of other things that could go wrong, but I was also buzzing with excitement. The adventure’s nearly over, I told myself and I’ll have completed something that’s never been done before, something that people told me just wasn’t possible. Before I knew it, I was fighting the steep gradients of the final 10 kilometres. Gradients of 20+% are the norm and this section alone accounted for close to 20% of the entire ascent time. I passed ‘riders’ who were now walking their bikes to the peak. I took a deep breath of the mountain air, and remembered that rock slide on the first ascent. A wave of tranquillity washed over me again. I put my faith in the land one more time and pushed on.
The first person I saw at the summit was my father. Then the film crew. As I shook my old man’s hand and looked into his eyes, we shared a quiet moment together. Our mission was complete and I’d ticked off one of my biggest goals to date. I felt good, high on the energy and the accomplishment that we’d just achieved. We spent some time chatting about the race, the difficult parts, the crashes in the beginning, and the tricky passes. We then shot down about twelve kilometres to a less-crowded cafe and sank our teethes into the most delicious pork bun’s we’ve ever had. Challenge now complete, I could now stop worrying about endurance nutrition and concentrate solely on recovery and re-fueling.
Three hours later, back at the hotel, I had an irresistible craving for bubble tea. I was yet to shower and my taste buds were drawing me to the sugar goodness that is Taiwanese bubble tea. The four of us wandered across the street, my father the photographer and the videographer and I into the nearest café. We had all been awake for 40 hours and were pretty exhausted, adrenaline was keeping us awake. The reality was now sinking in and the scale of what I had achieved. As I took that first sip, a wave of contentment washed over me. I had mentally prepared for the challenge to be hard and it was, but I knew I was capable of even more, so immediately began thinking about the next challenge. It was at this moment, as my phone went crazy with messages from friends, family and fellow riders from around the world that I knew my life was on the right path. I want to inspire others to push themselves, to surprise themselves with what they’re capable of doing.