May 22nd Phounkhoun outskirts 01435 am
The jungle can be the darkest place on Earth,
at night with just a moonbeam through thick clouds,
vaguely dislocating from the smoke of the melting tarmac,
the broken road,
it doesnʼt break this man,
the sounds came up a little more,
screams and songs from the sleepless jungle,
the law of Laos…
A snake comes slowly on the way unaware,
everywhere, fallen branches and lakes of rain,
the storm keeps turning around us,
a moving trap in the shadows,
even his drivetrain is discreet and heʼs breathing quietly,
the relentless Irish is going through the night,
heʼs catching up quickly.
Itʼs been fifteen days since he last slept or so it feels,
but he did catch some sleep earlier in the afternoon,
another guesthouse, another roundabout,
cause he couldnʼt do so on the side of the road
although he tried so many times
to fight the exhaustion, the dizziness, the heat,
it felt he might have lost control.
Usually hard as a nail
but then beaten like scrambled eggs.
Fried like fish sticks laying around in a pan on a hot summer day but donʼt trust the looks of it, the Irish bends but never breaks.
The storm is coming back on Jason Black and thatʼs ok, heʼs used to storms, he is the storm.
May 22nd Phoukhoun 01456 am
Last night, Jason and Michael were in it together Another jungle, another broken road.
They went at it all night.
It wore him down but he never showed it
He looked closely at the Aussie
But then let him take off in the morning
he stumbled and fainted.
There is a roundabout in Phoukhoun
with two guest houses facing each other
Michael is in one of them.
Heʼs laying down in there
waiting for the storm to end.
Catching some sleep, charging batteries
getting ready for the last part at dawn.
When he stepped off the bike,
He had a good lead
Jason was over 80 km behind
but now Jason, he doesnʼt stop
he takes the rain, the winds, the storm,
the thunder and the flying branches all at once
and he sure is catching up.
On that roundabout, we park the car and wait.
We think weʼll catch Michael leaving in a hurry before the Irish comes about but weʼll never see Michael again.
The night is so quiet on that roundabout.
Even stray dogs remain silent.
The storm has passed and turned around.
Only Jasonʼs drive train is bombing on that street.
Thatʼs where the win takes place.
The Irish bends but never breaks.
Heʼs having his revenge now.
But he doesnʼt even know it
cause he never looks at the live tracking.
We crawl down in our seats,
first row to witness the glory
Jason just cruised passed us, unaware and to ourselves, we whispered:
“This is it, heʼs going for it.”
Back to the start.
Luang Prabang and Luang Prabang outskirts May 20th 05400
“The start is neutralized for like 20 km, which means in essence, they donʼt really drop the flag on the race until they get us in an environment thatʼs safe so we generally leave a large town or city and then we get to the suburbs, they drop the flag and the race starts. So the flag was just dropped and then all of a sudden there was a herd of cattle in the middle of the road, I popped my hand up to alert some of the riders behind me and Marcus Leach collided with me and it was my fault, it was not his fault. My line on the road changed when I popped my hand in the air, and unfortunately for him, he clipped my rear wheel, he broke two of his own spokes and I single-handedly sabotaged his race.
I carried that, pretty heavy, for a lot of the race, and then my wheel got damaged in the same collision so I had a pretty badly buckled wheel and I think that was exaggerated with the punctures later on. The punctures really exaggerated that to the point that whenever the wheel is active, it was hitting off the left and the right brake pads so I had to have the brake calibers fully open and that caused its own issues. Then I was only relying on front brakes and then we were dealing with some of the gradients that were from 12 to 15 percent and they were 25 to 30 km long, you know my hands were really sore, from trying to brake the bike and then I was conscious as well that I was running a rim braked wheel that was carbon and if they get overheated that has the potential to pop the tire. So all this is running through my head and Iʼm trying to keep one hand open and one hand closed so am trying to move the brake pressure from front brake to rear brake, rear brake to front brake on and on…”
BikingMan Laos is a 780 km with some 12.000 meters climbing on the way. It’s basically never flat and it goes up in brutal ways, especially under the heat, some 42-celsius nightmares during the day and at night it doesn’t really ever get cold unless you’re at Check Point 2 up to the mountain over Kasi. Cause 20 celsius is the new minus 6 here…
Eventually, Jason catches almost everyone, Rodney, leader of the race, collapses at Check Point 1, when he tries to leave, he ends up vomiting on the side of the road, exhaustion, overheat, theyʼre just understatements. Heʼs about to scratch then, he turns back and decides to catch a good night sleep, most likely cause he thinks heʼs out of the race, eventually heʼll go back at it the next morning to finish the race in fourth place.
Jason arrives third already there, he knows heʼs catching up so he storms through the CP, stamps his card, plugs his devices in and hammers down some pasta. When he jumps back on the bike he takes the lead for a short time, Michael Duane and he are gonna go shoulder to shoulder all night. The last food stop before the jungle section is decisive, you canʼt miss it cause youʼre going for the hardest part of the race and there will be nothing along the way for a good 100 km unless you learned to hunt bats like the Lao people and donʼt mind taking the time to set up a bbq. Jason wonʼt find that only noodle soup shop you can find in Hongsa at 1 am. Instead, he sees locals having a smoke and beers in a parking lot and invites himself for cold leftover rice and some Pepsi bottles, even the kitten looked intrigued.
Did you come here with the intention to win?
“Hundred percent, yes. I had a mixed bag of emotions this year already. When I came to Oman, I came to win, I ended up being second to Rodney. Shortly after leaving Oman, I lost my brother in law, very tragic situation, he was my best friend in a sense that we shared a lot together, he was sniffed out of this world and I took it really bad. He had four wonderful kids and a beautiful wife so I came to Corsica shortly after that but to be honest Corsica was more like therapy. I came away from Corsica really really strong, you donʼt ever forget but I came to Laos to be really competitive and at the start line I just knew you know, I am gonna give this one a hell of a rip and then the race started to unfold and within the first 50 km I had three punctures and I felt “well there is my race starting to fall apart.”
I was somewhere in limbo-land there because the race had moved away from me at that time, the top racers were out front and they were going for it, it was a big task to get myself back in the race, and then I found myself between the guys at the back and the guys at the front, itʼs a horrible space to find yourself in and you donʼt really know where you are in the race, you have no yardstick because itʼs completely unsupported, you have no team to tell you that you are five kilometers behind, or your pace is good youʼre catching people, but thatʼs the beautiful thing about unsupported racing, itʼs you as a human being, thereʼs no engine apart from yourself.
So then I got into Check Point 1 and made great progress. I felt really strong, I felt really committed, I felt really focused, I felt really determined and I left CP1 in first place. Rodney was having some difficulties with some vomiting, I think he was struggling with the heat so I picked up one of Rodneyʼs steps which is to get in quick and get out quick of the Check Point and that kinda throws a cat within the pigeons with your competitors cause they donʼt really know where your headspace is at that moment in time. Myself and Michael Duane left together and then the race unfolded, he became an incredible athlete during the night, super strong and I could see it in his eyes that he was pulling a real poker face cause I couldnʼt work out where he was mentally or physically.
I didnʼt know was he was struggling with the heat, was he struggling with the tiredness and we went through the jungle section together which was horrendous, the map didnʼt show the gradients or the toughness of it and the exposure of that 100 km but it certainly was the toughest part for me so Michael wasnʼt gonna give me an inch and I wasnʼt gonna give him an inch and so we raced toe to toe till we got out of the jungle. Then I just couldnʼt deal with the heat, I was really struggling, I was feeling nauseous, feeling like I was gonna vomit and I was ready to sleep at the handlebars so I became quite dangerous to myself and I needed to get off the bike. I foolishly made a decision to pull over at the side of the road but Iʼve done it before, I canʼt sleep at the side of the road, I should have known from my mistakes in the past but Jason being Jason and Jason being Irish, he decided to be bull, bull-headed and pig-headed so I should have made the decision to pull over, pull over in a guest house, get my head down and get a proper sleep.
Eventually did do it and woke up in super condition, felt like a completely different human being, got some food into me, got started in the climbs and had this attitude like letʼs go, letʼs just go, one pedal stroke at a time, letʼs really keep pushing and pushing and see where this goes, I didnʼt believe that the race would come back to me, I honestly thought that Michael had the job done and that he was well enough ahead but I didnʼt realize he was struggling with the tiredness as well even though I thought heʼs superhuman he can do another night, another day on top of what weʼve gone through. It turns out he had to stop and the first sign of it was in Check Point 2 when I got in there I asked the question – how was Michael – they were reluctant to say anything but they mentioned he laid down for a bit and that was indicating that he was struggling a bit. That gave me hope, then it turned out he had to pull over at that guesthouse and get his head down, he wasnʼt prepared to ride through the storm which was just about blowing through and I ceased the opportunity to push, I was quite comfortable with the storm, I am used as an Irish rider to dealing with high winds, from debris from trees falling and from the skylight lighting like Christmas and I was totally at home with the rain.”
We followed Jason during the night, from afar most of the time, but then in the morning while having yet another noodle soup breakfast we found our front left tire was about to give in, metal threads were coming out, the wheel was bent sideways, we were literally riding on a thread wire, so we had to go slower, we couldn’t catch up with Jason descending like a mad man on a perfectly mint condition bike although he wasnʼt. We had to patiently catch up on hills to get a shot or two before the next downhill. And thatʼs when we understood he didn’t yet know he was ahead of Michael, in the gorgeous sunrise, Jasonʼs smile was only due to pure enjoyment, he had ridden all night steadily through the storm and he was just happy, we bluntly asked him where Michael was, thinking heʼd get the joke and he replied “not far I hope” at first we thought he wanted Michael to fight him back but then when he asked us “how good am I doing?” we got it, he had no idea he had the lead, so we told him “not bad at all, youʼre doing good” and we left him to finish the race and find out he was winning it…
May 21st 05438 am
Jason holding on after the jungle section during the night.
May 21st 06415 am
May 21st 0618
May 21st 11401am
“It was just like somebody plugged me out. ”
“Beaten like scrambled eggs, fried like fish sticks laying into the pan on a hot summer afternoon”
I thought Jason won the race on that roundabout in Phoukhoun but here is the story, Jason won the race when he seemed at his lowest, when he struggled and lost control, when he was about to give up, trying to sleep just anywhere before surrendering to the need of a room, a bed and a shower, before taking some five hours of a break in that guesthouse, when he lost his mind, thatʼs where, in the middle of his weakness, thatʼs where, with all hope gone, thatʼs where he was the strongest, the bravest. Jason transformed in that mountaineer, that sailor, whose job is not to perform but to survive, not to be a winner but to be a fighter, till the last round. He kept his eyes open for as long as he could, he held that handlebar with all the strength he had left and then he collapsed in a room but never ever did he give up the fight.
-Tell me about that very moment, the doubt…
“Youʼre seating there, youʼre in a very desolate place in your head, youʼre like “Oh my god, am I ever gonna recover from this?” and your world is falling apart, youʼre watching it like sugar going through your fingers, it would have been so easy at that time just to throw the towel in, Iʼm glad I made the decision to put the head down, I didnʼt know where the race was gonna be when I woke back up again.”
-What was going on?
“It was just like somebody plugged me out. Thatʼs exactly what it felt like, and just like that, I went on from being in the green to being in the red and it was a desolate space, it was soul-destroying, it was just horrible, youʼre there and your body is strong, your legs are fine but just the engine is gone. Itʼs overheated, you know, I tried for two hours beforehand to catch some sleep at the side of the road.
I made a big mistake there, you wanna blame everything but yourself, that’s the obvious thing to do in life, you wanna blame the heat, you wanna blame the temperature, you wanna blame the cars passing, you wanna blame the photographers that wanna take photographs of you, you wanna blame everything and anything but the reality, the bottom line is you, you have to make the right decision of what’s right at that moment and time.
I suppose thatʼs what makes ultra-endurance racing different, when youʼre forty hours into a race, and youʼre exhausted and youʼre depleted and youʼre dehydrated, your mind, itʼs on the outside looking in, and youʼre trying to take control of it, and youʼre trying to make a conscious decision: “What should I do? How can I go forward? Should I give up? should I push on? Youʼre feeling down in the dumps. You wanna blame everyone but yourself. You donʼt have the courage to look in the mirror and pull yourself together.”
So whenever youʼre in doubt, whenever youʼre about to give up, think of Jason Black lost in Laos.
May 21st 09426 pm CP2
-Do you believe in Luck?
“Yeah I do, I do, am not an overly religious person but I believe in another being, Iʼve lost too many people in my life to not believe that theyʼre there, I lost my mom when I was seventeen which was at a very difficult stage in my life. I had been traumatically bullied through school for six years and I had lost an education completely. I walked out of secondary school with no education at all, you know it was a very dark road for me, I fell into drinkin’ and drugs. It was a very dark road for me, I lost my way through life, I tumbled through life, pretty bad and losing mom was tough. Like any good mother in a family, they are the glue, they are what sticks it together, you know it was tough certainly cause back in Ireland, you know in the eighties.
I was dealing with a youthful depression and it was something that wasnʼt talked about, it was pushed under the mattress, it was pushed aside, it was never dealt with, you know, the elephant in the room was never addressed and my dad didnʼt have the coping skills to handle it either. He didnʼt have the mechanisms like what is today, you know, the different solutions to mental health and even itʼs an incredible world that we can live in today and that we can say look am struggling through life and I need help which was not accepted in the early 1980s and I lost my brother on a motorbike accident, we were both on the bike, together and crashed in a corner. He got it wrong and he was killed so yeah, I believed in their luck as in I believe that they keep me safe and so you know if there is a good day today, make it be a good day, keep this wheel.
The back wheel was banjaxed from 50 km, I had three punctures, the back wheel was in bits, if anything was to go wrong, my race was over, I just didn’t want it to be that way, I wanted a bit of luck, I wanted a bit of success, I wanted a bit of structure and I wanted a result to all the hard work not only by me but to my family, to my children, I want to show people through my actions that you know, actions speak louder than words. If youʼre prepared to fight for what you believe in and if youʼre prepared to stay focused and committed. If youʼre prepared to train hard at whatever you chose to do, for me whether itʼs in the mountains, thereʼs a lot of times when I climb big mountains, I canʼt see the summit. The clouds were usually down but I know itʼs up there, I know itʼs there in the distance and I have to have the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other and the bike was the same this weekend.
You know I couldnʼt see the finish line and as dark as it was when i was in that very dark, desperate place you know with 300 or 400 km to go at that point, I just needed to believe that with this one pedal stroke I was gonna get to the finish line, yeah luck is something I believe in, in life, thatʼs something I wear on my sleeve, I talk about it in schools, I encourage young kids not to let dreams stealers get in the way, to remove obstacles and be incredible.”
If you donʼt ride with your legs, ride it with whatever else.
“Yeah, look, again, I come from the mountains and when youʼre climbing 8000 meter, high mountains, itʼs all about how strong you are mentally and not how strong you are physically because youʼll get to a point, like most people are able to climb super high but youʼll get to a point that there is no return and you cross a line and when you cross that line, youʼve got to really believe in yourself as a person. You know I constantly train the brain, you know, in a modern society, I witness people, young and old, going to the gym and theyʼre training the body and I often ask the question: “Do you do any brain training?” and they look at me like I have horns on my head and I believe thatʼs the next opportunity in the world to open gyms that are focused on Brain Training.
Itʼs to condition peopleʼs minds to be incredible so that when they come up against an obstacle when they come up against a wall when theyʼre met with dream stealers, theyʼre met with “you canʼt do this, you canʼt do that.” Like the bully in my life, then you can rise above it and you can be unbelievable, you can be unstoppable, and I just bring that same philosophy into anything I do whether iʼm a father, you know, I wanna be the best father that I can be, I wanna be full of love, I wanna be full of empathy, I wanna show that with hard work, dedication, commitment. You can achieve anything in this world and I believe as well that, you know, each individual should have the courage to walk in their own shoes in life and not sign up to societyʼs jigsaw puzzles. That you must drive this car, you must wear these clothes and itʼs the same when it comes to my bike, whether itʼs a carbon frame or a steel frame or a titanium frame, its got two wheels on it, itʼs got a handlebar, itʼs got a saddle and a set of brakes and the thing thatʼs the difference is the monster thatʼs sitting on it and if the monster is unstoppable, then youʼre unstoppable.”
the Greatest Yardstick
“For me, the greatest yardstick of success isnʼt my bank balance, isnʼt the car that I drive, isnʼt the clothes that I wear, the greatest yardstick for success for me is to be the greatest human being I can be. I feel the great responsibility that the greatest gift I have as Jason Black is to make a difference in somebody elseʼs life and if thatʼs a young kid at the side of the street whoʼs struggling to get up from his knees then I want to be the person to put my hand out and reach for them and lift them up. I think society is too quick to close the fist and punch them or kick them when theyʼre dying. Iʼve always believed in that and it was galavanted and reinforced through my climbing and through my biking, you know, I get an opportunity through my travels to get to really challenging environments, really impoverished environments. No more than where we were racing those last three days, some of the villages we went through, you could see the despair, you could see the lack of hope, you could see the lack of infrastructure and money and yet they were happy, smiling, they were welcoming, they were shouting at us, praising us in their own language when we were coming through. Sometimes in modern society, weʼve got everything, weʼve got all the bling, weʼve got all the money, weʼve got all the cars and theyʼve got nothing so whoʼs the happier. Sometimes I think that we have everything but we have nothing and they have nothing yet they have everything…”
Day 1, May 20th, 385 km 5230 meters elevation moving time 18h21
Day 2, May 21st, 228 km 2730 meters elevation moving time 15h55
Day 3, May 22nd, 162 km 3240 meters elevation moving time 08h48