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Ultra Gobi Race 2016

Desolate, open, barren, sun-baked, dry, hot, oppressive desert; as far as the eye could see. From ten in the morning until six in the evening I was being roasted in the desert sun, and through the night I was recovering from the heat whilst protecting myself against the cold. Under foot the ground was rocky, with small stones abounding and beating my feet, as silky soft sand became abrasive within my shoes and socks.

A message lost in translation was that there was only sand in the final 50 kilometers of this 400 km, single-stage desert ultra. The reality was that there were a few hundred metres of sand dunes about 50 km from the end, but, this being a desert, sand was found continuously. Many of us were in the same position as a result of this communications gaffe. I had a set of gaiters but they were not well-suited to high daily mileages, so I reserved them for the worst of it.

A luxury of trail running is the variable terrain. Stones and sand were what greeted me into the Gobi. This was more of an adventure race than a trail race, with a suggested GPS route issued to racers, but we were free to devise our own routes between the 36 checkpoints. There were hills, mountains, river crossings, canyons and valleys. Desert brush was thorny, and, on a couple of occasions, left my legs dripping with blood, only for me to then discover a dirt road a short deviation from my intended line, and the obvious path of choice had I known about it.

One afternoon late in the race I was scrambling up and over a series of gnarly scree slopes 50 to 100 metres in height, when I spotted another dirt track that ran a similar bearing. Future racers would do well to scrutinise the best maps they can find, because the time and energy saved with effective planning is key in a race such as this. We were later informed that the shortest distance a racer used to complete the event was approximately 425 km, and the longest around 495 km. I suspect the latter could only be due to poor navigation rather than following a planned and well thought-out route.

I had marvelled at racers who stuck to dirt tracks even on easy, open ground. The shortest distance between CPs was of course a straight line, and although the best routes might have involved weaving through canyons or picking a route across hills that necessitated a minimum of scrambling, over open land the straight line was best. Some roads were sandier than the desert flats, presenting softer, more energy-sapping progress. The roads weaved or headed on tangents to the straight-lines between CPs, and overall I preferred the direct approach across the harder, more efficient ground. I overtook racers who were heading-off on the road tangents, or were otherwise delayed due to consultations with their GPS devices or fellow-racers, regarding which track might be the most appropriate.

On one section I was struggling across uneven, tussocked ground that was filled with holes that threatened to twist an ankle, with thorny brush that scraped and cut at my legs, or that presented a barrier to pick my way through. I spotted a fellow racer off-course and hunting for a road, which he eventually found and, despite the delay, he was soon passing me. By the time the CP hove into view, I had found my way to that road, which I could see would now take me on a winding route to the CP, and which the other racer had left to take the direct route through the brush I was leaving. We arrived almost together, but had both suffered for our off-road adventures.

A particularly important aspect of the race is that it is single-stage. Racers are only permitted to rest for more than an hour at any of the ten rest point checkpoints (RPs). At all other checkpoints they must leave within an hour, and are not permitted to sleep between checkpoints. With ten RPs across 400-km of desert, planning for rest stops is required. The distances between RPs averages 35-km, but varies around this. There are cut-off times for each one, and the first day requires a 100-km effort before taking a proper rest at the third rest point. With the brutally hard desert floor, many racers arrive at RP3 needing foot care at least as much as plain rest.

During the day the desert heat was almost too much for me. Elite marathoners have been found to tolerate much higher core temperatures than the average person, and there is a chance this gives them minimal wriggle-room between feeling too hot and actually succumbing to heat stress. Whilst I do not consider myself an elite runner, there is likely some level of adaptation that has occurred. At least I am used to the warning signs now. I was losing more salt in my sweat than I was replacing; nothing of consequence in races completed within a couple of hours, but a serious consideration in multi-day races in the heat. I consoled myself that I would acclimatise after a few days, and in the meantime reached RPs desperate to find more salt and electrolyte powders. I had not needed these in years, but I certainly needed them now. The heat stress persevered during those first few days and gave me cause for concern, but it was soon managed and I was moving more comfortably.

During the nights everything felt better. The coolness necessitated additional layers, although not too much, and often just a windstopper or other light top. Moving under the stars, with the Milky Way in clear view, made the nighttime efforts almost magical. There is one mountain crossing at high altitude, and during the descent and progress to the next RP, I attempted to sleep for a few minutes on the ground, but could not because I was so captivated by the brilliance of the night sky.

Navigation was typically easier at night too, and particularly during the first few days. Before the hills and mountains came into view, it was challenging to find landmarks closely matching the necessary heading towards a CP, but at night there was always a star to follow. Navigating by the stars meant the headtorch beam remained focussed on the ground, with regular checks to the heavens to maintain course. Every ten to twenty minutes I would recheck my heading against my Suunto Ambit GPS, and alter the star of choice as the heading changed or the star's position altered. I always find it a reassuringly grounding experience to be navigating using the stars, as it is such a natural, traditional way to move across vast and open landscapes.

For me, reaching the rest points was a social experience, rather than a serious, focussed race-like affair. I would have my timing chip recorded and the medical team would take some data for a study I was participating in, and support staff would bring me my drop bag. I carried some food, clothing, a sleeping bag and other mandatory kit, but socks, food, spare batteries and such like were in the drop bags. I would check, clean and dry my feet, eat some food, and perhaps sleep for an hour or so, but just as much as these I would talk with the support staff and medical team. After so many hours between RPs, it was extremely pleasant to be able to enjoy good company and relax with new friends.

Serious racers might have rushed through eating, foot care and any rest before moving on, but I was here simply to manage myself through this time, and I enjoyed the relaxed approach. By taking good care of my feet, by resting well and having a fairly efficient approach to navigation, I was doing comfortably well when others had dropped-out or been forced to drastically reduce their pace. Most importantly, I was truly enjoying my experience in the Gobi and relishing in the challenges that presented themselves along the way.

Perhaps my only regret was not making notes of the ancient ruins of former settlements, temples and so on that I passed along the way. I could see evidence of them, and had been drawn to the race partly due to its history with the Old Silk Road, but I would have gotten more out of it had I known more of that history. Still, I wondered as I passed the sites, and hoped I did not miss too many during the nights or when my route led me too far from them to see.

I finished the race after approximately 138 hours; a relaxed and comfortable finish following a well-managed and probably too leisurely approach to the event. Sub-100 hour finishes were common amongst the front-runners. Still, I was only just in the bottom half of the field, and had sustained no blisters beneath my feet, and no overuse injuries. In an event such as this, I am far more interested in the journey than the finish line, and the incredible and enriching experiences enjoyed along the way. The Ultra Gobi was one of the best organised and well-supported races I have ever participated in, and easily became one of my favourite all-time ultras.

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