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On the morning of March 24th, 2022 I woke up to a message in my Instagram DM’s that read: “Hi Becky! Congratulations!! You are our winner.” It took a few seconds for my sleepy, dazed morning brain to register that I had won the raffle for an entry into the 2022 K2N Stage Race in Tanzania. My response was “What!!!??!!”
Fast forward two months and I was on a plane to Africa to participate in the 4-day event that marshalls riders up the slopes of Kilimanjaro (just the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, no big deal) and then down to the shores of Lake Natron.
Winning the raffle – which also included a two-night stay at a luxury safari camp in the Serengeti and a three-night visit to the incredible Grumeti Fund (seriously pinch me) – meant that I could choose a teammate to join me.
I knew immediately that I wanted to bring my dad. Not only are we known for our Timbers’ Epics, for better or worse, but I knew that, like me, no matter how much suffering there was, he wouldn’t give up. And I wanted to ride the whole thing from start to finish!
The whole experience was… incredible. My thesaurus doesn’t have a word that quite sums it up except for amazeballs. It was amazeballs.
I’m not a racer and probably never will be, but the K2N was more than just a race (although there were definitely riders there who went for the win). It was an experience with lots of highs and some lows and will definitely go down as one of the best biking adventures of my life. Who wants to join me next year???
Curious about the K2N Stage Race in Tanzania? Read about my experience and what to know if you sign up
About the K2N Stage Race
The first K2N Stage Race was held in 2018 and was conceived by Brett Harrison, an experienced endurance athlete and race organizer. Brett has lived in Tanzania since 2009, working with farmers and communities to implement sustainable agricultural practices, among other initiatives.
He started the K2N in part to showcase Tanzania’s incredible landscape and what it can offer for mountain bikers as well as a way to raise funds and awareness for community development work.
More than just racing
While a big event in and of itself, the K2N is just a small part of Brett’s multi-faceted approach to help accomplish good in East Africa. He and his team have formed three unique divisions to bring awareness and raise funds for projects in Tanzania:
- Red Knot Racing is the endurance racing company behind the K2N. It also puts on an annual Kili Trails Festival and Kilimanjaro Trail Run.
- Red Knot Safari is the safari branch of Brett’s operations which specializes in cultural learning, active holidays, and adventure. If you don’t want to ‘race’ the K2N, you can ride the course on a private tour.
- Red Knot Development is the registered non-profit community development division that helps to empower the local community through education and support.
“We do not exist to solve their problems. Our Tanzanian farmer friends are hardworking, intelligent, and competent, and understand their situations better than we can.
Rather than prescribing specific agricultural systems or promoting one-size-fits-all projects, we help farmers better understand agricultural science so they can apply it to their own specific contexts in creative ways. We believe it will be innovative Tanzanian farmers who ensure change is effective and lasting.”
Brett Harrison, Red Knot Development
2022 was the fifth year of the K2N Stage Race and the first year it sold out at 50 racers. At least 50% of race profits go directly back into community projects in Tanzania and that’s not even taking into account the number of local people and companies that are hired to put on the event (like AhSante Tours, who did an amazing job!).
The K2N course
Now let’s talk about the course! Brett is constantly tweaking and improving the K2N course, so each year is bound to be a bit different. Here are the stats for the 2022 event (see ‘My K2N Experience’ below for individual stats for each day).
- Total distance: 160 miles
- Total elevation gain: 13,450 ft
- Total elevation loss: 16,800 ft
- Elevation high: 12,500 ft
- Start: Simba Farm at the base of Kilimanjaro
- End: Southern shores of Lake Natron
- Number of days: 4 days of riding, 6 days total
The K2N is a stage race with four different stages over four days. Each day is consecutive, meaning there are no shuttles and we literally rode our bikes from Kilimanjaro to Lake Natron.
Everything is included throughout the event including a tent to sleep in, ground mattresses, luggage transport, water, food, beer/wine, and even bike mechanics (although it’s important to be self-sufficient and bring all the spares and tools you might need).
There are so many moving parts to put on an event like this and Brett and his team made it look easy and seamless!
Here’s a video that sums up the whole experience better than I can in words:
My K2N Experience
I was a little hesitant to do a write-up of my experience of the K2N because part of the magic of this event is not really knowing what to expect or how it’ll all go down.
But that being said, I know a lot of people aren’t going to sign up for this race and those who do will almost certainly have a different experience. Brett is constantly making tweaks to the route and there are so many variables like wildlife sightings, weather, group dynamics, etc… that make each year unique and memorable. So here is a little recap of my experience on the 4-day K2N Stage Race.
Day 1: Assault on Kili
- Miles: 43.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 7,044 ft
- Elevation loss: 7,044 ft
- Moving time: 9 hrs 3 min
My alarm went off at 5am, but I was already awake. I never sleep well in a tent, plus the fact that I knew I’d be pedaling my bike 7,000+ feet up the slopes of Kilimanjaro didn’t make for a great night’s sleep. I’d never climbed 7,000 feet on my bike in my life! Surprisingly, though, I felt pretty good, or as good as could feel after landing in Tanzania from California not even 30 hours before. (My dad had it even worse- their flight got delayed, so he didn’t get in until 4pm the evening before).
All the other racers were emerging from their tents as well and getting dressed and organized for what was sure to be a very long day in the saddle. We filled water bottles, downed some coffee, ate breakfast (and hoped it wouldn’t come back up a few hours later), and did last-minute adjustments to our bikes. It was organized chaos with an air of excitement.
We learned very quickly that Jason – the timing maestro – starts his races on time. The countdown began and we all moved toward the gates of Simba Farm to start our trek up the Kilimanjaro Service Road. We had 29 miles and 7,000+ feet of climbing ahead of us and then another 17 miles of bombing back down.
One thing I’m really good at is pacing myself (that means pedaling slowly). After a frenzied rush at the start, my dad and I slowly churned up pitch after pitch of dirt road.
The route cut through farmland then lush rainforest then heather and moorland and finally highland alpine desert. It was really cool to see how the ecosystems changed the higher up we got on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
After about 5 hours, we finally reached the top of the steepest climbing where we stopped for some food at the feed zone (my dad’s biggest regret of the whole trip is eating an entire plate of food here. We still had 12 miles and another few hundred feet of climbing to go).
Those last 12 miles were the most challenging. The road was a gentler grade, but sometimes that makes for even more of a slog. Plus, we were up at almost 12,000 feet and we both were feeling the altitude. But the scenery was incredible, especially once we turned off the main road and passed our final feed zone before tackling (aka walking) technical singletrack along the edge of Shira Plateau.
Somehow, for some scientific reason I can’t explain, the clouds stopped at the edge of the embankment and churned back into themselves, making for a mesmerizing experience. It was really cool.
The last bit of climbing was a horrific hike-a-bike up a solid chunk of rock. There were definitely curses. But once we pushed our bikes that final last stretch, we knew it was pretty much all downhill from there – or at least flat. ish. I still couldn’t get over the views and we were rewarded with a glimpse of Kili’s summit above us.
Descending back down over Shira Plateau on rugged singletrack was definitely a highlight. I felt more comfortable on trail (vs road) and just knowing that I was riding my bike in Tanzania on Kilimanjaro was a pretty awesome feeling.
We reconnected with the road after a few miles and then it was a long, long, long (!) descent back down what we had already pedaled up.
Our final stretch was an optional section of singletrack through the rainforest back to Simba Farm. We opted to take it and while it was fun to be on some forested singletrack, it kind of went on forever with a lot of twists and turns. At that point – hour 11ish – we were just ready to be done with the day.
Thankfully, drinks, hot showers, and food were waiting for us back at camp. Day 1 done!
Day 2: Enduimet XCM
- Miles: 50.2 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,467 ft
- Elevation loss: 2,615 ft
- Moving time: 6 hrs 19 min
If day one’s trial was endless climbing, day two’s tribulation was deep, powdery dust. We started our ride from the gates of Simba Farm for the last time, but instead of climbing up Kilimanjaro (thank god), we turned west and cruised downhill for almost 10 glorious miles of easy riding.
In fact, the pedaling on day two wasn’t hard, it was just long. This was our longest day at 50 miles and the last 5 miles were the longest 5 miles of my life (XCM stands for cross-country marathon).
Surprisingly, both my legs and my dad’s felt pretty good, so we kept up a steady pace. We passed through the Enduimet Wildlife Management Area, which is supposedly home to a lot of big wildlife, but I think the racers at the front of the pack scared them off before we rolled through (not super sad about this – surprising an elephant from my bike is not on my bucket list).
But let’s talk about the dust. For good stretches of this ride, we plowed through inches – or maybe even a foot in places – of soft, powdery, billowy, wheel-sucking dust. Not sand. But dust. It was like riding through flour. We had to stop and re-lube our chains several times to alleviate the grinding in our drivetrains. It was pretty ridiculous in a funny and absurd sort of way. If I had actually been racing, I think the dust would have been a lot more frustrating.
Hot, tired, and caked in dirt, we pedaled into our bush camp and those cold beverages never tasted so good.
Day 3: Ketumbeine
- Miles: 38.2 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,694 ft
- Elevation loss: 3,327 ft
- Moving time: 6 hrs 4 min
Day 3 was candy for the mountain bikers! After a short stretch of mellow climbing, we were rewarded with an almost 12-mile descent on flowy singletrack. As a devoted mountain biker who has ridden trails around the world, I even thought it was sublime. There were little whoops and perfectly radiused turns for much of the descent. So much fun!
Our final feed zone of the day was in Ketumbeine town next to the Naapok Women’s Project. This is a community group that empowers local women by helping them sell their beautiful beadwork. This year, K2N riders bought over $450 worth of beadwork items, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that one family typically makes less than that in a year.
The last 8 miles were a preview of what we’d face tomorrow, our last day: technical rock gardens with no clear lines, hike-a-bikes up and out of steep washes, more thorns, and still plenty of fun singletrack sections. One of the main things that makes the K2N Stage Race so epic is the diversity of terrain throughout the four stages.
Day 4: Bomba Traverse
- Miles: 28.4 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,251 ft
- Elevation loss: 3,816 ft
- Moving time: 6 hrs 11 min
Our last day! This was the shortest stage of the race and by far the most technical, especially the steep descent down the slopes of Gelai volcano near the end. Knowing we were closing in on the finish line was a relief and sad at the same time. My butt definitely needed a break from the saddle, but the last three days had been so amazing, even with all the ups and downs (mentally and physically). Part of me just wanted to keep pedaling west all the way to Lake Victoria and beyond.
This was also the day of thorns… Every day we were battling long, sharp, devil thorns, but the final day got us really bad, especially at the start. They could literally pull you off your bike, not to mention the blood and shredded jerseys!
Thankfully, the thorny bushes gave way to some of the most scenic riding of the trip with stunning plateaus sprinkled with Maasai bomas, dozens of volcanoes, a section over white lava rock, and glimpses of Lake Natron as we neared its shores.
Even though there were more than a handful of hike-a-bike sections, this final day was my favorite for it’s views and challenging singletrack.
The final descent down the slopes of Gelai were intense. I’m a good techincal rider and I rode about half of it. There were super steep pitches, lots of loose rocks (and boulders) and sections that I don’t think even the best trials rider could clear.
And just like that, we were done! My dad and I crossed the finish line of the 2022 K2N Stage Race after 29 hours and 35 minutes of pedaling (this includes the handful of stops my dad made to shop from the locals along the way and lots of snack breaks).
Our final camp was on the shores of Lake Natron with a perfect hot spring to soak our tired bodies in and little fishies to pick the the dead skin off of our feet.
Would I do it again? Absolutely 🙂
Planning Tips For your K2N Adventure
If you’ve read through this post and you’re thinking “that sounds like fun!”, first – who are you? And second, there are some things you need to know. (I say the former with complete jest – I had an amazing time and it was by far one of the best biking adventures I’ve been on. But it’s important to know that the K2N is not a cruise along the plains of Tanzania).
You will not come away from the K2N unscathed. As Brett said “We have thorns in sizes small, medium, and large”. While neither my dad nor I got a flat during the race (🙌) we did get pretty mauled by trailside thorns. Don’t bring your favorite jersey because it will get shredded.
Bring extra chain lube
It’s recommended that you bring extra sealant to the K2N and while that’s definitley wise, I actually found chain lube to be the more important elixer. Most days, we had to lube our chain on the course – sometimes two or three times – because of the dust and sand.
Salt tabs to the rescue
I was really surprised at how good I felt throughout the whole race. I typically don’t do well at elevation (we topped out at just over 12,000 ft) and I’ve never considered myself an endurance athlete.
That being said, my legs felt great each morning and I didn’t bonk at all. I attribute this to 1) keeping a slow, steady pace and 2) SaltStick tablets. I really think taking salt tablets every 30 minutes to an hour helped prevent cramping, reduce heat stress, and keep energy levels up, especially since I sweat a lot.
Be 100% self-sufficient
The K2N Stage Race traverses through some extremely remote and rugged terrain, so it’s imperative that you be as self-sufficient as possible. This means packing spare parts and fixes like a spare derailleur hanger, tubes, tire boot, sealant, chain lube, first aid kit, etc…
Once you sign up for the race, you’ll get emailed a packing list, so be sure to read it over and pack accordingly.
For navigation, the course was actually very well marked with ribbons and chalk arrows, but you still need a GPS of some sort in case you get lost. You can download the KML files to the free Maps.Me app, which works well, or I prefer having a GPS computer on my handlebars.
I use the Garmin Edge 830 and love it. In addition to being able to see the route in front of you, you can easily track stats like mileage, elevation gain, upcoming climbs, etc…
Make sure both your Garmin or GPS device and Garmin Express desktop app have the lastest software installed and are synced. My Garmin Express desktop app was not up-to-date and I kept getting a ‘route calculation error’ on my Edge 830. It still tracked the route, but kept giving me annoying error messages.
Final thoughts on the K2N
Before riding the K2N, I’d never really done anything like it on a bike. The closest thing I can think of was bikepacking across Washington, which was an endeavor in itself! To be fully honest, I wasn’t quite sure I’d be able to pedal up 7,000 ft on day 1. But I love a challenge and the K2N was a great way to push my limits and see what I’m capable of. We’re capable of a lot if we put our minds to it.
I had an amazing time not only because of the riding, but also the people. The other racers and the staff that worked so hard behind the scenes and supported us throughout the course are a big reason why I’d do it again. A huge thanks to Brett and his team and the other sponsors (including the Grumeti Fund!) that made this trip possible 🙏.
What questions do you have about the K2N Stage Race in Tanzania? Is this the type of adventure you’d be up for? Leave a comment below!