Before The Race – The Road to Gobi
One of the things I come to expect 4Deserts™ Gobi Marchcompeting in running races is to expect the unexpected. However, unlike other races I have done thus far, 4Deserts™ Gobi March was everything I expected, read about, and more. Unfortunately, no amount of training and simulation can fully prepare you to run in such weather extremes as the Gobi Desert until you experience it for yourself. How can one train to run in 50+C (120F) heat (without using expensive equipment)?!? During the 6 week downtime between our last race in Namibia, Paul and I travelled to Australia to seek refuge and recuperate from back to back races in the Sahara Desert and the Namibia Desert. Our last blog, The Road to Gobi, covered our Australian adventure in great detail, so if you want to know more about what happened to Paul and I during that time, just read up on what you may have missed!
Getting to the Start Line – Is Half the Battle
In order to get to the starting line in all of these desert races, one must travel far and wide to reach these desolate parts of the world where few people visit. For us, that means starting off with a 20+hrs flight from Brisbane, Australia to Urumqi, China via 2 connecting flights. This is followed by a 40min taxi ride to the high-speed train station in the early hours of the morning. After another 5hrs waiting for the train station to open, we got in a 3 hrs, 600km (350miles) high-speed train ride before we finally arrived in the host city of Hami in the northwestern frontier of China bordering Mongolia. Just when you think it’s all over, another series of security checks at the train station ensue. Finally, once we got out of the station, we flagged down another taxi to get to the hotel where other fellow competitors check-in. We did all this while carrying over 100lbs of gear with us (2 x carry-ons, and 2 x 23kg check-in bags) because we are the only crazy people doing all of our deserts races without ever going home to re-supply! Some call us crazies, but I would like to think we are daring 😉 What’s the point of taking a year off to break the World Record if it isn’t an adventure? I’ve spent too much of my time, money, and energy not to make this the most memorable experience of my life. After the rest of the competitors arrived, the organizers gave us a race briefing and performed mandatory equipment checks on everyone before we board a bus for a 3hrs+ ride to our first campsite. That’s just for ONE race. Now do that seven more times … Forget running! Lol.
For this race, we traveled so far into China that we had left the Far East and gone into Central Asia. We had lost track of the number of times we were security checked by custom officials and the local police. It was mentally and physically exhausting just getting an opportunity to run in one of these races. During our short stay in the city of Urumqi, we found out that it is farthest city from an ocean in the world. To be that far inland, you can imagine just how little air circulation there is in that area. It was an arduous journey, but when was the last time someone traveled to Central Asia and not have to go to great lengths to get there? The host city of Hami is so far in the outskirts of China that most Chinese in the country have never visited there themselves! The city is comprised of both Han and the indigenous Uyghur minority, so a lot of the signage in the region is in both Chinese and Arabic! This experience is very different from any other countries that I have ever visited, and I have been to many places in the world!
To put everything in perspective, one of our fellow competitors got sick prior to boarding her flight to China and was denied travel. Another competitor did some sightseeing in Africa prior to coming to China; he contracted Malaria and was forced to withdraw from the race. In order to break the World Record, Paul and I need to be on top on our game in terms of our health and our well-being between races. Something as simple as catching a common flu can derail our World Record Attempt. This is no small feat for one entire freaking year!
Training Preparation – Far from Ideal
Our training preparation for the Gobi March was far from ideal ever since my right knee gave out in the latter stages of the Namibia race. After 3 weeks of rest, my wonky knee started to feel like normal again, but stability of the knee is still not quite where it should be. I have done enough running to know when I’m “100%”. I made some adjustments to other areas where I have more control over, namely my arms, shoulders, and core strength. Paul and I spent 1 hour every day in the gym doing a series of circuit training exercises ranging from shoulder shrugs, military presses, biceps curls, tricep curls, sit-ups, and planks among others. I can feel my arms starting to fill out my shirt. The hard work definitely paid off in spades because I experienced no upper body aches or pain throughout the entire week of running in Gobi. Unlike standard running races where leg speed and pace is king, running through the desert carrying an 18lbs (8kg) backpack reward athletes who are rugged, durable and comfortable with rocky terrains. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make much improvements due to my knee injury but that will change with our time off between now and September.
Stage 0 – Getting To The First CampSite
The first two days of the race was all about passing through the Tian Shan Mountain Range. This mountain range is one of the largest in the world and extends from Western China to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for over 2,800km with the highest mountain going up to over 7,400m (24,000ft). It has spectacular glacier-capped peaks, forests, meadows, rivers and lakes with adjacent desert landscapes that will take your breath away (well, it could also be the altitude!). It’s unreal. Definitely one of the most unique places that I have ever visited on earth. One side of the mountain range is full of wild life while the other side is the Black Gobi where temperatures can soar to over 50C (120F) during the hottest time of the day. I can attest to that. There’s nothing like it in this world!
We were greeted by the locals on our first night in camp at 2100m (7000ft) followed by some dancing and some horse riding demonstrations. I can see why the Mongols conquered half the world over a millennium ago. These guys can ride a horse at full speed 60+kph (40mph) with one hand! Anybody else would of probably fall off the horse and died a bloody death. Very impressive indeed. Make no mistake that while the local attractions are very entertaining, figuring out how to navigate through the mountain range which goes from 2,100m (7,000ft) to 2,900m (9,600ft) is still on everyone’s mind. There are sand dunes, forests, rocks, river crossings and massive climbs at high altitude and freezing cold temperatures ahead over the next 2 days. One thing of note is the daylight here during the summer hours is very long much like Canada. The sun rises at 6am and sets at around 10:30pm. This means that when the temperature goes up, it will stay up … for a very long time!
Stage 1 & 2 – Altitude Sickness and the Tian Shan Mountain Range
At the start of Stage 1, we were greeted with overcast skies with some drizzle and cool temperatures. Some people decided to put on gloves, tights and windbreakers for their run, but Paul and I chose to stick with shorts and tees because we plan to run most, if not the entire 34km distance. The whole region feels a bit of a cross between a desert and alpine country. There are trees that looked like evergreens and grasslands that stretch for miles and miles. At the same time, massive sand dunes were seen just across from our foot paths not too far away. A very special place that I will not soon forget. Although we had to run up and over a number of sand dunes along the way, we didn’t have much trouble navigating through the course because the sand were hard packed due to the wet conditions.
What hampered us the most in this stage was actually the altitude. This affected Paul the most and he was unable to perform anywhere close to his ability. It was hard for me to hold back for much of the stage, but altitude sickness is no joke. Dehydration, shortness of breath, headaches, are all symptoms that needs to be addressed before it gets worse. We took plenty of rest breaks between checkpoints to keep Paul’s headaches at bay, and I made sure Paul took extra water to help with dehydration and the rapid rise of his heart rate.
Stage 2 saw Paul adjusting to altitude, but everyone was affected by the effects of going up a mountain pass where each competitor climbs over 400-500m (1400-1700ft) in as little as a mile to reach the top at 2,900m (9,600ft). On the way up this massive climb, we strategically took rest breaks every few minutes and pace ourselves because one cannot tell how many switchbacks there are before we reach the top. Some competitors made a mistake of sizing up their efforts based on their initial assessment, but upon reaching “the top”, they realized that they are only half way there … or less! Many slowed to a crawl and some even screamed in agony frustrated by their inability to move at a decent clip. Fortunately, we were rewarded with some National Geographic worthy scenery on the way up the mountain pass though it was hard to stop for too long to take in the view. At this altitude, wearing shorts and tees means you need to get moving or you’ll become a popsicle! Some competitors even got hailed on once they reached the top!
On the way down, we raced through 10km (6miles) of steep downhill including a few water crossings, which would make for an enjoyable run … if your knees held up! My wonky knee, however, was starting to feel the effects so I slowed down to minimize any chance of it blowing up. I had to pick my battles and running downhill is not one of them right now. About 5km into the finally stretch, Paul and I felt a sudden rise in temperature and it came at just the right time. Freezing your ass off is no fun, so being able to feel you fingers again is very welcoming indeed!
Stage 3 & 4 – Weakness Exposed
The course profile for Stage 3 & 4 did not favor runners like Paul and I. Although we’ve passed the hardest part of the Tian Shan mountain, we must now navigate throw the rocks in The Foothills of Tian Shan. We were severely hampered by the rocks and many people passed us in the early 3km (2miles) stretch of Stage 3. We slid from top 15 all the way down to 35th position during that span. I felt quite useless running through rocks. We need to add rock running to our repertoire if we want to stay competitive as well as keeping our ankles from breaking! To be a good trail runner and a multi-stage athlete, one must learn to run in all different types of terrain.
The Heat Is On in Stage 4. The temperature is starting to rise and in the latter part of the stage, it reached 40C (110F). What made it really difficult was the stale air in a number of sections of this course. You are just begging for some air circulation but there wasn’t any to be found! Many competitors started having problems ingesting their nutrition and Paul was one of them. Everyone’s appetite started to change and their usual “delicious” dehydrated meals now tastes disgustingly foul. Some competitors exchanged their meals with other competitors in their last-ditch effort to keep their belly happy.
We lost a lot of steam going through some hills and sharp declines. I felt silly getting passed over by a number of competitors. I was frustrated with myself for not being a better runner through the rocks and treacherous terrain, but alas. On the final 6-7K stretch of the race, we finally got onto a stretch of road where we made up all the time that we lost and possibly more! In a span of about 4km (2.5miles), Paul and I passed over 10 competitors. I guess being marathoners has its benefits! 😉
Paul barely survived this stage because of his inability to ingest nutrition. Everything unraveled for him at Gobi, so we need to re-tool and re-strategize if we are to have any chance of succeeding in breaking the World Record!
Stage 5 – The Devil City: The Dream Lives On
Stage 4 ended with a taste of what’s to come and the sweltering heat didn’t die down late into the night. Nobody slept very well because it was very uncomfortable falling asleep in 40C heat with the sun still up at well past 8pm. It was so bad that you can literally burn your hands just touching the top of our tents. Our air mattresses felt like a heating pad. It was almost unbearable. Having other competitors share your pain was very welcoming because you know you were not alone.
Everyone was in this together.
There’s nothing really technical about Stage 5. It all comes down to 80km (50miles) of “running” in the 40-50C+ inferno on a relatively flat terrain. It favours runners like Paul and I if we can handle the heat! Unfortunately for Paul, this was not his day. I knew something was wrong after we hit CP1. We were cruising in 13th place but I can feel that Paul is starting to struggle with the early pace. There isn’t much anyone can do if you are unable to hold down nutrition and the water given to us on course is at ambient temperature. It’s like pouring boiling water into a car’s radiator and expect it to function. I started to worry for Paul when he couldn’t come get to CP3 35k (22miles) until 30mins after I arrived even tough I ran with him for most of the way between checkpoints. I made the decision to stay with him because the chances us finishing this race could be in jeopardy.
To give you guys an idea of what is like, many athletes actually stayed at various checkpoints for up to 4hours at a time to get their core body temperatures down. A few competitors even threw up multiple times, unable to ingest any nutrition or the hot water given to us on the course. With nothing in their gut, they had to resort to “running” (well, more like deadman walking) on empty for majority of the stage distance.
Many runners (including yours truly) made the only sensible thing to do on this race course: abandon their goals and help fellow competitors who struggled. It was simply dangerous to have a runner leaving a checkpoint alone in the latter part of the course. Two competitors who stood out for me in this race was Dion Leonard from Australia and Filippo Rossi from Switzerland. Dion was leading the stage when many of the lead competitors were starting to falter under the sweltering heat. Just when he was pulling away with the potential of winning it all, he saw a fellow competitor, Tommy Chen, the overall race leader, wavering side to side on the verge of collapse from heat exhaustion. Without hesitation, he did the only thing he knew: guided Tommy to safety under a shaded rock, left all the water with him, and took off to the next checkpoint to seek help. Not only did he risk his own safety running in 50C for 5k (3miles) without water, he also blew all his wad just getting to the checkpoint in one piece. It takes an incredible sportsman to do what he did. What a badass! Filippo, an unbelievable sportsman himself, eventually found Tommy and helped him to the finish line.
At about 2:15am, in the early hours in the morning, 19hrs after we started this stage, Paul and I crossed the finish line moments before they had to shutdown the course. The cutoff for this stage is pretty generous at 28hrs or so, but due to an incoming sandstorm in the early hours of the morning, the course had to be shutdown for safety reasons. In order to break the World Record, it meant a lot for us to have completed every stage, and run/walk every step in whatever means necessary. What makes this World Record quest so challenging is not because there are some performance metrics we had to meet or we have high aspirations to podium in every race, it is because any unfortunate circumstance can put an end to our quest.
I broke down in tears after we crossed the finish with Principal Alman from Hong Kong and Thanh Vu of Vietnam welcoming us. I didn’t know why it happened, but it just happened. I think these types of races take you through a roller coaster of emotions that sometimes you just need to let it all out. It took every once of energy out of Paul and I in the last 4 miles to make that cutoff. After reaching the last checkpoint (CP7), with only 7km (4.5miles) to go, I ran out of gas. When you planned for a 12hour day and ended up taking over 19hrs, nothing good can come out of it. Paul woke me up after I took a 45mins nap at the last checkpoint and encouraged me to get my butt off the ground to give it one last go at the can. I was mad at myself for feeling so weak, unable to muster that one last surge that I desperately need. Sensing that the weather has started to turn for the worse, I knew this was the moment that I had to take control. I had no choice but to rise to the occasion and not let my mind wander off into the sea of negative thoughts. There’s simply too much at stake for us to fail now. I angrily got my ass off the ground and took off into complete darkness with Paul, not uttering a single word. I power walked faster than I ever did before like our lives depended on it. I found a way to tap into my last energy reserve. Run Angry.
As I write this blog, I am convinced that if we hadn’t picked up our pace and Paul hadn’t encouraged me to keep going, we never would have made it to the finish in time before they closed the race course. Luck was on our side on that fateful night. I would like to believe that we make our own luck, but maybe it was good karma 😉
“Off Day” and Stage 6 – Live For Another Day
Suffering usually stops (well, at least until the next Stage!) after crossing the finish line, but in the case of Stage 5, it never really did. Upon arriving at our assigned tent, we saw a few of our tent mates passed out on their air mattresses. It was unbearably hot in there. Many competitors decided to sleep outside of their tents to get relief and we wisely joined them. If you think the situation was bad, things were about to get worst. A sandstorm had swept into the area earlier in the night and another one was coming. One competitor who finished the race before us had their sleeping bag and air mattresses blown away by the wind. Just as we were about to get some real rest, Mary, the founder of 4Deserts Race Series, instructed everyone (may I say forcefully :)) to quickly get up, pack our gears, and wait for busses to come to take us to an emergency shelter. Apparently, a real serious sandstorm was here. All competitors who are stranded on the course were picked up and driven to camp. It was quite a scene to behold. The entire sky was turning yellow and it was definitely the right decision to ship us out of there!
The emergency shelter turned out to be a local museum just 20mins drive from camp in a place known as Devil City. It was named after the shapes of the rocks that resembles various animals and the sounds made by the howling wind gusts in the region. The extreme temperatures probably contributed to that name too … hahaha. We totally looked like refugees: a bunch of filthy, hungry, exhausted runners looking for a place to stay. If there was any relief to be had, it sure wasn’t inside the shelter! A woof of hot air hits you right into your face as soon as you step into the building. Naturally, virtually everyone camped outside under the “stars” (with a yellowish tint and zero visibility). A celebratory party ensued later in the day to commemorate this race, which happens to be the 50th race held by the 4Deserts organization. There was a huge cake and some local cuisine to fill our bellies. It was very satisfying especially after a dramatic Stage 5 that left a sizeable number of competitors with symptoms of nausea.
Stage 6 was a bit of a blur to me. I took off with the leaders right from the start, trying to get to the finish as quickly as possible to get my well deserved post-race meal. I just wanted the race to be over. I was physically and mentally exhausted having done 3 desert races and flew over 50,000km (30,000 miles) around the globe-trotting and racing virtually non-stop since April. Paul and I need a break!
Post Race – Going Back To Where Everything Started
The Gobi March offered multitude of terrain, scenery, and physical challenges very few races can ever match. Any weakness you have will be exposed during the course of this race. I will miss the Gobi Desert for the out-of-this-world adventure! I knew I was strong, but there are people who are stronger. With 3 months between our next race, Paul and I will need to re-tool, become a better version of ourselves, and be more prepared than ever to have any chance of breaking the World Record. Come September, Paul and I will embark on the most daring challenge yet: 4 Self-Supported Desert Races in the span of 6 weeks over 3 continents to break the World Record … and beyond!
We are traveling from Hami to Iten, Kenya where we will give ourselves the best possible training necessary to acclimatize to the high altitude of the Bolivian Salt Flat (4000m, 13,000ft) and the Atacama Desert (3400m, 11,000ft). What better way to train than to train with the best! There isn’t another place on earth with more talented and serious runners than in Iten. The number of World Record holders, World Champions, and Olympic Champions found in this region is unmatched, not to mention easily accessible. I will bring everything I learn into our next challenge, as well as checking off a couple of things on my bucket list: visiting the Serengeti and climb the Kilimanjaro!
When I say the Adventure of a Lifetime, I really mean it!