Migration Gravel 2024

Migration Gravel 2024

Posted by BigCommerce on 10th Jul 2024

The 2024 Migration Gravel Race

Lost in Africa: Hunting for adventure at the 2024 Migration Gravel Race

I pulled off the trail, came to a stop, and stared blankly at my Wahoo. There’s no way that’s right, I can’t be 1.6 miles away from the route. I’d been riding for 6 hours, and did not have much time to spare to make the time cut. While 1.6mi isn’t far by bike, it is if you are walking with your bike up a hill.

I gazed up at the ridgeline and saw where the GPS wanted me to go. There was no trail, no route, just dense forest and a general direction I should climb. Through the fog of fatigue, my only salient thought drifted back to the race briefing the day before: “If you go off course in the forest, please do not try to bushwack off the trail to return. It is extremely dangerous.”

Now, nearly broken by two days of racing in Kenya’s unrelenting terrain and completely unwilling to ride back up the thousands of feet I’d just descended, I bucked the race director’s words of caution, threw my bike over my shoulder, and started to hike straight uphill through the bush.  

Earlier this year, I was looking for a new challenge. I’d done all the usual suspects in the US: UNBOUND, BWR San Diego, SBT GRVL, Crusher in the Tushar, and many others. Something was missing; I wanted an adventure.

I’d heard good things about a stage race across the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The multi-day format was intriguing, the course was extremely difficult, and you raced through herds of Zebra and Wildebeest. What more could you want? I signed up for the 2024 Migration Gravel Race.

To get there you fly into Nairobi and then have a race-organized transfer to the Mara. Once you are at base camp, the four stages are predominately point-to-point with a moving camp most nights. The camping situation ranges from glamping at base camp, to actual camping for the other stages.

Confession: I had never camped more than one night before this trip. The thought of camping five nights whilst riding 370 miles was possibly more daunting than the actual race. I didn’t even own a sleeping bag.

Barrett Brandon, one of Ventum’s fearless leaders and self-identified novice camper.

Start line of the 2024 Migration Gravel Race.

What you quickly learn is that there is the scheduled time and then there is Africa time. An example: we had a 4-hour transfer from Nairobi, which in reality took over 8 hours and featured multiple road blockages. We drove there in what can only be described as a monster-truck 4x4 bus that was so big it would make the largest American truck-owners feel they needed to compensate (even more). The roads were so bad these monster buses still got stuck. This was the first sign this was no ordinary race.  

The four stages ranged between 140 km to 165 km each day. But that only tells part of the story — recent flooding had devastated parts of Kenya and severely impacted villages and infrastructure alike. While the effects were tragic, it also played an outsize role in the event. Roads that were reasonably well-maintained were now at best, extremely rough, and worst, entirely washed away.

Recent flooding had devastated portions of Kenya, severely impacting villages and infrastructure alike. For the Migration Gravel Race, it meant extremely unpredictable roads and water crossings.

Once actually out on the racecourse, the views were incredible. You are riding through high plateaus, lush forests, and rolling pastures. All surrounded by a mix of Maasai people, herds of goats, cows, sheep, and, of course, migrating wildlife.  

Each stage also brought its own challenges. Stage 1 went through a mud bog that went toe-to-toe with the 2023 edition of Unbound for bragging rights. Stage 2 was the Queen Stage with a length of 103 miles, endless single track, and nearly 10,000ft of vertical. Stage 3 was “only” 87mi but had a 9.5mile climb that took almost 2 hours. Stage 4 was a tailwind day, but the last 25 miles were so violently rough you could barely hold onto the bike. In the end, the four stages collectively covered 375 miles and about 23,000 ft of elevation gain.    

Back to Stage 2, lost and bushwacking up an African mountainside. I was alone, disoriented, and desperately scrambling uphill. It was the perfect time to parse through all my life’s decisions that had led me to this point.

Why on earth do I do this?

Part way up the hillside, I ran into a lovely family who undoubtedly thought that I was nuts. After a comical exchange — solely with hand gestures — they reinforced my hunch I should keep climbing. Or, perhaps, they told me I was going the wrong direction and that there was a lion around the corner. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

Eventually I rejoined the route, rode hard to the next checkpoint, made the time cut, and finished the stage. I was on the bike for 10 hours that day, and we still had two stages to go. While I typically aim for higher than just finishing, this race brought me to my knees, and I have never been so thrilled to simply make it to a finish line. To give a little frame of reference, roughly 40 of the 200 registrants were able to complete the full course. I was one of the lucky few who managed to complete every stage. Between the distance, altitude, lumpy terrain, and the roads in shambles, every inch of the course was earned.

Now that a few days have passed since the race, my swamp foot has dried out, blisters on my hands have now turned to calluses, and the pain and struggle you encounter softened. Glasses turn to a shade of rose, and you try to somehow frame what you just experienced. I’m still digesting the actual race, but the experience around it was almost, if not more, unique.

The Maasai people were gracious and warm hosts. They welcomed a group of spandex-clad aerobic lunatics onto their land and through their villages. They cheered us on when we rode past. Children were let out of school to come watch. They would scream “hello” over and over again, belly laugh, and then ask you for a sweet. A brief respite during long days on the bike.

Community is a word often overused, yet it feels apropos in this context. There is something special about endurance sport and the bonds forged through those experiences with others. Each night we would sit around a fire, or at the dinner table, and have a laugh. The multi-day format put people from all over the globe together for almost a week, in an intimate setting, and it was a formative experience. There are plenty of extremely difficult gravel races across the world, but the camaraderie of shared experiences in an event like the Migration Gravel Race is singular.  

Trying to sum up the experience is difficult — maybe impossible. It was the hardest race I have ever done, and I suffered more than I thought I was capable of. Yet, somehow there is always a sliver of “maybe again?” For this one, maybe the smallest of slivers.

I can leave you with this one small takeaway: for my next gravel race, I will be staying in a hotel. I think I am retired from camping.