Rob August 2019
Two years ago my Brother and Sister-in-Law bought me a book of the 25 must do races; instantly captivated I read cover to cover but particularly noted the Gobi March, a 250km, six stage ultra marathon. The landscapes of the Steppe, Gobi Desert and Orkhon Valley mixed with covering the equivalent of six marathons in six days, self supported, instantly appealed to me.
Fast forward to July 2019 and I found myself in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, sitting in the pre-race briefing with the race director stressing the need to look out for yourself and for your fellow runners whilst the medical team drilled in the importance of calorie and electrolyte intake… This is a seriously well drilled race organisation and I started feeling that perhaps I was slightly out of place in a room packed full of seasoned ultra runners, explorers, mountaineers and even ex-olympic hopeful skiiers – too late for worrying about it too much though, the race starts tomorrow!
Stage 1: Wide Open Mongolia, 36.1km
Camp: The Ruins of Khar Buhkin Balgas Palace
Day one, simple rule, start slow, make sure I’m comfortable with the 13.5kg pack, try and average 6.5km/hr and see where that puts me in the grand scheme of things at the end. Turns out I followed my pre-stage strategy to a tee, whilst everyone hared off from the start I then spent the rest of my day gradually overtaking most of the field up to around mid-thirtieth position (higher than that and the guys and girls were long gone); the undulating course suited me nicely given my preparation around the north downs.
So, top forty finish, my legs felt good and the first of many rehydrated curries tasted pretty sweet that evening.
Stage 2: Nomadic Wilderness, 45.1km
Camp: Camp of Ancient Petroglyphs
Another undulating day, similar to stage 1, and again I managed to get through the first 35km maintaining my planned pace, the last 10km though started to feel more emotional as my feet started complaining of the constant pounding and the first blister developed on the right end of my pinky toe (‘who needs that toe to walk anyway?’ I kept muttering to myself… The start of what would become a regular occurrence of mutterings and expletives).
Stage 2 done and again, floating around fortieth position; sore feet and a minor blister apart this was proving to be very do-able after all.
Stage 3: From the Mountains to the Dunes, 39.9km
Camp: The Ger Camp
Okay, the optimism from the finish of Stage 2 has long gone, a terrible nights sleep due to painfully tight hips and constant aching in my feet and I’m feeling pretty knackered, anyway I’ll walk it off I tell myself.
Today is the first day the sun starts to really come out as well, and after a fun scramble coming out of camp the rest of the first 20km is flat and fairly tedious and largely done at my preferred speed (sightings of camels bring a welcome respite from the monotony of staring at my feet), the first painkillers have been taken as my feet have really decided that this venture is a silly thing to be doing.
Check Point 2 at 20km, the start of a 10km section of sand dunes, wow, this really is incredible, proper desert (although still much grass around) and then boom, my first big problem of the race… I’ve carelessly missed taking a couple of energy bars and I’ve bonked out – things then got fairly dark as the lack of energy mixed with the constant undulations of the dunes and the sand just sapped all my motivation… 3hrs to get through the 10km of dunes and I almost crawl out in complete exhaustion but it’s done (I’ll be happy not to walk through another dune again though).
The final 9km in to camp is a slog but it turns out most others have had challenging days themselves and I’m again in at around position forty.
Tomorrow’s Long March is a real worry though, I’m knackered and my feet and hips are in pieces, for the first time a few doubts are creeping in about getting to the end of the race.
Stage 4: The Long March to the Orkhon Valley, 76.6km
Camp: The Steppe of Mongolia
The big one, 77km, I’ve barely slept again, my feet are killing me and the sun’s come out… It’s already noticeably hot and it’s just 07:30.
On a positive note, I’ve done a rehearsal Long March with the help of some friends back in the UK and I know it’s doable which gives me more confidence than a lot of others in the race (I have to say, the level of suffering and camaraderie at this point is something I’ve not really experienced before – I’m learning things about myself, both physically and mentally, that I really didn’t expect).
After popping a few painkillers the first couple of hours aren’t too bad, there are hills which are less painful to go up and I’ve got a nice tempo going but geez it’s getting hot. By 10:30 I reckon it’s hit 30deg and it’s continuing to get warmer, no clouds and the sun is really oppressive. Now a lot of people take the p!ss out of me when I get my SPF 50+ umbrella out but I’m telling you, this saved me getting in to serious issues with sun stroke… It looks odd (the locals look particularly bemused) but I can keep a tempo going and although I’m sweating buckets and feeling light headed I’m slowly getting through the km’s.
I get to check point 4 at 50km where hot water is available and the plan remains to take 30min rest and have a curry before knocking out the final 27km before sunset (that’s going to be touch and go), feeling energised after some decent food I need the help of the check point doctor to even stand up, jeez, everything hurts and has seized up!
If I weren’t bordering on tears I’d laugh at myself but another 6hrs or so until the end of the stage and my mind is filled with dread about how much this is going to hurt.
I team up with an Kiwi lady, Rachel, and between the two of us we remarkably manage to coerce each other into moving at around 6km/hr and this weird emotion of absolute agony mixed with the knowledge that each step is getting me closer to the finish line is all I can think about.
It was a long long slog but together we finish the long march at around 21:50, remarkably in the top 35 and hours ahead of many others, which I can only imagine their ongoing level of discomfort and pain as they continue to finish throughout the night.
This group of individuals really is extraordinary to be part of, I have no idea why anyone chooses to do this to themselves but to do it with the humour and teamwork I’ve seen is really something that has stood out for me across the trip… 34 nationalities represented and ages from to 19 to 71, none of which makes the slightest difference in moments like this as everyone is helping and willing each other to get to the finish, humanity and friendship in all its glory I’d say.
Stage 5: The Battle Grounds of Genghis Khan, 42.2km
Camp: The Old Orkhon River
Survival. My feet are ruined, my legs are seriously feeling the effects of the previous 200km but this is it, one final big day and I’ll get through this race, five big River crossings should make things more interesting though.
My day was spent buddied up with a new friend, Jingjang from Taipei, both of us struggling with aches and pains but hours spent trying to explain what a Sheppard’s Pie is, who Oasis were and the finer points of premiership football and the day is done after nearly eight and a half hours, significantly slower than I’d have liked but quite frankly, I’m just happy to get it done.
Stage 6: The Final Footsteps to the Ancient City of Karakorum, 9.4km
Camp: The Great Mongol Empire
A largely ceremonial stage with the almost comedic value of watching half the race group hobble and force themselves in to an uncomfortable shuffle/jog as we all know it’s nearly over, we all want to see the Erdene Zuu Monastery grounds and the finish line (the promise of pizza and beer may also incentivise some!).
Final position, 40th out of 96 finishers (11 withdrew during the race).
I’m many hours behind the overall winner, Stefan from Switzerland (simply awesome running by the way and a genuinely top bloke!) but this race has been, and I suspect was always going to be, more about the journey. Mongolia has been increadible, my fellow racers have been inspiring and I’ve loved (and loathed) all of it in almost equal measure… The Racing the Planet Roaming race goes to Georgia in 2020 and looks amazing, maybe the Gobi March won’t be a one off after all?!
Highlight videos from each stage available on: