The Gobi Desert March takes competitors over the windiest non-polar desert in the world and 250km of terrain including grasslands, farmtracks, dirttracks, river beds, rolling hills, mountain valleys, plains and plateaus in the Xinjiang Province.
Pre-event and Day 1
Despite some nerves before setting off, I was prepared, having completed a London to Brighton 100km run the previous weekend in a respectable time, and armed with my blister plasters, I set out for the Gobi March 2013. After a few connecting flights, I started to bump into fellow competitors, who rather intimidatingly were veterans of this type of event...and I began to feel slightly out of my depth. This made me even more nervous about my bags turning up at the airport than you do on your usual sun and sand holiday!
Despite on my arrival temperatures being a few degrees higher than the promised 30, I was determinded, and after shuffling my way through the famous mysterious stone valley of Bortala on my first day of the march (looking at my feet the whole way and completely missing out on the mystery of the stones), and 42.6 kilometers, I found myself running up what felt like 1,000,000 steps up to a Mongolian monastery. But when I got there, it was well worth the effort as I was met with fantastic views.
Despite a general dislike of camping, the night sleeping in a tent wasn't too bad, despite the few disturbances from the usual midnight wanderings that happen with 170 other campers. The competitors comprised of about 40 different nationalities, ages ranging from about 20-60, which was absolutely amazing to be a part of. The effort put in by everyone was inspiring. After running all day long and staying up until midnight, people were up at 4am with their torchlights, preparing for the next days events which will began again at 8am. Unfortunately, after day 1, it looked like I had little chance of winning this challenge, and after my exersions the previous week on the London to Brighton event I was carrying a few injuries (a sprained ankle, right knee injury from repeated impact and an aching left shin. No big deal...).
Day two saw 39.2km of walking through tradiational Gobi Desert terrain, and finishing up at the camp at the base of the Atlai Mountains, on green partures staying in yurts next to a charming river. Unfortunately before arriving there, the day gave us some tough conditions with heavy rain and winds. By the second night I'd settled into the routine, and settled down for a long nights rest in the cold (yes COLD!!) desert weather.
After filling up on freeze dried porridge and some strawberries in the morning, it's straight back to getting ready and to the start line for the next days activities. Today's course was the most scenic so far, but also the most challenging. Although the beautiful mountains had been to our right for the past day or so, they became our reality as we turned into one of the valleys after motoring through the first 20km of the days march. We turned the corner, and entered one of the most stunning parks I have ever seen, and walked up a river that was all but dried up whilst we were surrounded by harsh mountainside on both sides. Further into the valley, we came across a couple of rope bridges...which could have been more enjoyable had it not been for being able to see the monstrous face we had to climb in front of us. This severely slowed our pace, and even with a borrowed set of poles it took a good 45 minutes to make our way to the top. Unfortunately words cannot describe the views from the top.
The next 5km should have been a dream had I been able to run, but because of my knee injury it was more like a poor mans game of hopscotch. The next half hour saw some colourful language which I'm not sure the parents would have approved of, but it helped me and my marching partner get through. The final stage of the day saw us power walk the last 6.5km, met at the next camp by a drummer who somehow was managing to keep up his enthusiasm, whilst I set about patching myself up in various bandages. Todays section had taken me 7 huors, compared to the lead competitors time of 4 hours 22 minutes, but I have been told by veterans that my time was very respectable. I was halfway at this point and there to finish this thing, and would crawl over that finish line if that's what I had to do.
Days 4 & 5
Days four and five, I had the mentality of a Cup Final, I had to finish this thing. But the weather wasn't making it any easier. More rainy mornings. I think a few of the competitors may have even washed away in the overnight storms! At this point, I was starting to get the impression that the Chinese word for desert had gotten a little lost in translation...Day four was a 40.8km march through the 'County of Hot Springs' and I travelled through rocky grasslands, gulleys, river streams and local villages. The horrible morning turned into a pleasant afternoon, and comfortable weather certainly helped. However by late afternoon, the grey clouds again reared their heads over the Atlai Mountain range...
The start of the race on day five saw the veterans all pull ahead as they managed to run the first 10km, leaving me to carry on at my steady pace on the longest section of the march, a 70.8km odyssey called 'The Long March Through Across The Tian Shan Mountains'. At this point I was beginning to feel a determination to do another of these events, but to turn up in a better physical condition from the start. After the second checkpoint, I began the ascent up towards checkpoints 3 and 4, which saw a rise up from 2,000 to 2,800 metres. The weather deteriorated, and armed with a bin bag as a rain mac, I just had to focus on not stopping as the march became as much a mental test as a physical one. Others began to slow, and I managed to get to the top of the hill in 30th place, I was proud of that. Despite the weather, I was still able to enjoy the beauty of the scenery.
Next was the downhill, and my competitiveness kicked in, along with the neurofen, paracetamol and anti-anflammatories. I set about a quicker pace/shuffle in order to protect my place. Sadly, having regained and managed to keep a good position, and feeling in relatively good knick, when we reached checkpoint 5 the next section of the race had been cancelled, and apparently the campsite was unsafe, so we were taken by bus to the lake. We spent the rest of the day in a spectacular yurt village by the river, which also gave me a good opportunity to rest my knee and ankles.
Day six, the final day. The final 14.5km. 'The Final Steps of Genghis Khan's Sayram Lake'. Under bright blue skies, with the views of the beautiful snow-capped mountain peaks and next to the glistening Sayram Lake, myself and all of the other 141 active competitors (and 5 who had dropped out earlier in the race) set off. I was really excited for this stage, the final leg, and also to get to that finish line and get my medal. I was determined. We were welcomed to the finish line with local music and a group of children performing a dance. What a sense of triumph, relief and euphoria! My overall time was 41 hours, 18 minutes, 46 seconds. 27 hours was the time for first place, and 68 hours for final place. We went back to the hotel for a shower and a well deserved rest, a banquet feast and a few too many beers!