Ultra-endurance events often provide a challenging and equally fulfilling avenue to raise funds for a good cause. In support of my challenge of choice, The Gobi March, my sponsors donated over US$5,000 for Room To Read, an Asian-based organization founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood, that benefits designated poorer countries by building schools and libraries for their children. In light of my experience, I recommend for anyone interested in an event of this sort to also consider a way to contribute to those in need, carefully selecting a cause which holds personal meaning. In addition to helping others, pushing for a positive difference ignites a purpose further fueling motivation through the tough training and the challenges of the event itself. My journey begins here.
Singapore to Kashgar
Pre-race travel to remote events tends to be long and arduous, testing the will and endurance of the athletes even before the race actually begins. Getting to the Gobi March consisted of a flight from Singapore to Beijing, arriving at midnight. The next flight from Beijing to Urumqi (“Urumsie”) at 5:30am, with a nine-hour layover before the final leg to Kashgar also arriving at midnight. Four hours sleep and an early morning equipment and physical check helped ensure compliance across required safety gear and physical health. Pack weights ranged from 8 kg’s to 18 kg’s; my pack weighed approximately 13 kgs/29lbs. We packed up for what became a nine hour caravan tour, each tent with their own vehicle. At 25 tents, this was a long caravan. The Karokaram highway climbed up to 4,000 meters (12,000 feet), leaving many nauseated, even sick. The views of the barren terrain and snow-capped peaks left us wondering where the desert was.
We were being driven west towards the border of Pakistan/Tajikistan/China to run our way back east towards Kasghar; Dara, the initial camp, is about 250km from the border of Tajikistan. After two pit-stops, we turned off onto a rough dirt road for an additional two hours of bumpy, curvy, stop and go, paralleling a fast-flowing river that we were to follow on foot for the next two days. At 11pm, the caravan of mini-buses pulled into a local school, a two-story concrete building in the village of Dara. A storm was rolling in, we were told, so the building was favored over the tents.
Stage 1 – “Tajikistan in China”
Description (as provided by Racing the Planet): Through the Tiznap Valley.
Stepping outside the concrete building into the cold morning air, I held my head-lamp in my hand and looked up into the sky to see an incredible display of stars; the moon had already vanished earlier in the morning.
The first order of business was finding the toilet facilities, which consisted of a small cement building located off to the side of the school. Instead of plumbing, exit ramps located inside the structure allowed gravity to do the work; the open-air shit-field on the other side reminded us that stench hath no respect for Newton’s laws. The typical facilities for the week would consist of a hole in the ground that was dug by Racing the Planet (RTP) with a three-sided cloth waist-high for “privacy”.
“Bathing” after each stage was only slightly more pleasant: we (some of us, at least) utilized wet-wipes, possibly two or three sheets to clean off the sweat and dirt from the day. I shaved my head in the weeks leading up to the race just to help ease the task of maintaining some level of hygiene.
My typical breakfast was Mountain House freeze-dried “Scrambled Eggs with Green and Red Peppers”. Most of the others feasted on packets of oatmeal, but I found that eggs provided energy but didn’t weigh on me in the same fashion that the carbs and sugar from oatmeal would. In addition to a variety of freeze-dried meals, energy bars, gels, flax-seed crackers, beef jerky, and fruit/seeds mix filled out the majority of my pack’s weight. I also used two drink-powders: Hammer Nutrition’s “Perpetuem,” a soy-based protein and maltodextrin-based carbohydrate mix for fuel during the stage, and “Recoverite,” a whey-based protein mix for use after the stage was completed. Electrolyte needs were filled by bags of capsules of “Endurolytes”, also a Hammer Nutrition product, which I ultimately used very little of.
After our first stage briefing, we lined up for the race start, a company of local Tajik dancers performing traditional dances which we were to see several more times during the week along the various villages; children wandered about in traditional attire.
Although Kashgar and its surrounding territory is officially in China, the language and physical resemblance of the natives are anything but Chinese: Polish, Russian, Indian, even Spanish all seem to appear in the village faces, and the eyes and eye contact were always quite memorable. The written language is Arabic and the spoken Tajik language included words such as “horsch” (goodbye) and “rachmahn” (thank you). At the end of the first day, a discussion ensued in the Yengisar tent on the history of the Ottoman Empire and the evolution of linguistics in Central Asia.
The road that the course primarily followed neither climbed nor dropped, yet somehow the terrain still took its toll. The tips of large rocks lodged into the road caught my feet as they skimmed across the surface in their typical ‘shuffle’; I seemed to be the rocks primary victim, catching myself several times in near-falls and face-planting into the road at least once. 25km’s (18miles) into the 35km (22km) first day, a fall took some of my gear and sleeping bag upon the path. As a result I ended up with cut-palms, a softened ego, and what I thought was a bruised bridge on my left foot.
Each stage of the race had “checkpoints” roughly (very roughly on some days) 10km’s apart. 1.5 liter water-bottles were available to us at each checkpoint, but because of the cooler than expected temperatures and slightly rainy weather, I passed on most of the water-bottles, instead asking for the water-bottle slotted in my pack’s side-pocket to be filled up only to the extent I would need to get to the next station, in order to avoid carrying unneeded weight. I had a “smart-tube” extending from this 1.5 liter bottle, and attached to the shoulder strap of my pack for easy access.
The route followed along the villages, and as became a common theme, the villagers, men dressed in their dark suits and hats and women in their traditional red and blue dresses, lined the streets, clapping their hands or staring at us awkwardly as we ran by. Because I spent the majority of the stage running alone, I was unaware that my earlier falls opened my pack at the zipper and items (including my slippers) had fallen out, until I heard the thud of a Ziploc full of beef jerky hit the ground. The villagers that happened to be watching me ran over to pick up the items and with a big smile handed them back to me. “Rachman, Horsch!” I said after repacking and zipping my pack.
In all, the first stage was rather uneventful, even if painful. And as I crossed the finish line in 17th place, I felt as though this race was going to get much more difficult. I was looking forward to it…but as they say, be careful what you wish for.
Calories burned: 3,900
We finished the first stage along the River Yarkent, our tents lining the riverside with a natural bathing area in the flowing glacier melt just a few feet away. Many of us soaked in the cold river that day, our tired legs and wrought feet were dually complaining of the introduction to the punishing race and the dull pain of the ice-cold waters.
Stage 2 – “Datong Fork”
The second stage began a theme throughout the week of late starts. I spent the morning trying to patch my feet, taping over the blister on my big right toe as I had read to do. I missed the briefing, but managed to get to the line right as the 9am start began. The course immediately began making up for the lack of river-crossings the day before by requiring four small crossings through a twisting creek. Not enough to get our shorts wet, but enough to attempt to avoid the water by hopping on various rocks. Some chose to take the quicker route and sacrifice the dry feet to the water. For a bit I ran with Erik Hunt, a tent-mate from Nashville, TN (the other American in the Yengisar tent), but managed to slip while rock hopping in one of the crossings, getting more than just my shorts wet. Another 500 meters and I dove to the ground again; my left foot again was caught by a rock in the road, my sleeping bag and water bottle thrown from my pack.
My plans for keeping pace with the leaders and making up time on them slowly began to disappear. Along with the fumbles and bumbles, I began to find my quadriceps rather sore and unwilling to push very hard. As I continued along the dirt road they loosened up a little but I could sense that the day would not go as hoped.
The dirt road wound about next to the Tiznap river, at times forming a small cliff with an overhanging ledge. About then, I came upon Joannie, a Canadian whose husband was one the “front-runners” as she put it (Mark Tamminga ended up winning the entire event). We ran together for a bit, eventually catching up with Gil, a South African, Carlos from Madrid, and Mark Blick from Hong Kong. We all ran together, crossed a bridge to the right, about 50 meters above the water where the Tiznap and Zerapxen Rivers joined, meandered along a narrow cliff just below the bridge, through a mud field and eventually back along a dirt road that followed off to the right of the Zerapxen River. Carlos, Gil, Mark and myself headed off on our own with Carlos leaving most of us behind shortly thereafter.
Eventually, my blisters and tendons got the best of me, forcing me to take a seat on a large rock on the mountain-side of the dirt road. Joannie passed me, encouraging me to get up and move – we were only about 10km’s from the finish. I hobbled along, both of my feet in sharp pain each time I hit rocks or uneven footing, my quads panging in that dull, helpless pain if I tried to run. I continued on the roadway, eventually through another village area, over a bridge and began running with the energy that comes when you know the day is almost over. I passed Joannie and Tom, another competitor, and in the distance could hear the drumbeats of the finish line growing louder.
The Camp for Day 2 (Camp 3) consisted of a homestay in what RTP called “Langerville”, each tent housed in separate huts owned by locals. Our hut had a raised platform that lined three walls, big enough to sleep anywhere from 5 to 15. It was covered with animal fur of some sort and light-padding underneath. The walls were covered with other ornate patterns and the ceiling consisted of a raised center area with windows to provide natural light to the room. The host family was both curious and gracious offering bread we weren’t allowed to accept and sharing moments of laughter, entertained by their pet lamb.
The path from the village took a quick uphill turn for 18 km’s (11 miles) along a mountain trail that was, at times, inclined at 25 degrees. The steps came slower, the air thinner. I pushed onwards, eventually finding my tent-mates Thomas (from Paris) and Erik at the first checkpoint, 10km’s into the stage. Erik and I marched on together, climbing upwards, somewhere in the middle of the pack. We stopped occasionally to video-tape herds of Yaks touring the countryside and photo the countryside below and snow-capped peaks we were climbing towards.
At over 3,800 meters, the step-by-step climb and freezing temperatures were punctuated by snow and bitter winds that began to whip us as we approached the peak. The 2nd checkpoint at the peak consisted of a tent and medical personnel, urging us to continue down the other side.
With my quadriceps failing on the this stage, Erik became a human rear brake: I attached a spare velcro strap on a loop of my pack which he grabbed onto and leaned back as I walked onward in front of him. As we were passed by various competitors running down the mountain-side at full-stride, we continued to appreciate the beauty that surrounded us. We also discussed whether the cloud cover and rain in front of us would be enveloping our path down the mountain (it did). About four-fifths of the way down the mountain, we came upon Nick, struggling to descend with torn ankle ligaments.
Fortunately, the slope eased, but as we entered a canyon with several river crossings, it became evident that our pace was to slow even further. Nick’s ankle would not support him along the rocks and my quads were also relatively unsupportive. Soon we began to realize that the course was designed to keep us crossing the water unnecessarily, switching from side to side, when an obvious path existed without the need to get the feet wet.
We continued onto what we hoped would be a checkpoint around each “next bend” in the canyon, only to be disappointed each time. What was stated as 10km’s between checkpoints 3 and 4, became 12km’s or more, and with the slower pace and higher altitude, our water supply was exhausted long before we reached the checkpoint.
At last we turned the final bend in the canyon to see the camp and hear the beating of the drum, only to have the last obstacle thrown in our way: a section of the river impassable by stone-hopping. Ultimately we had no choice but to dampen our feet in the freezing water and marched into camp, tired and hungry, but most of all discouraged. The stage had taken us 13hrs and 10 minutes to cover what took us only 4 hours and 30 minutes the day before, albeit under different conditions and terrain.
The hot-water disappointingly depleted by the time we entered camp, I had to rely only on a bottle of Recoverite for my sustenance. As darkness slowly crept up on the camp, I found myself in a fairly foul mood, my aspirations for the race eliminated, my hunger unsatisfied, and my bones shaking in the unexpected, 4 degree cold temperatures. I cocooned myself in my Marmot Atom sleeping bag, wrapped up in my wet gear and tried to dream of something else.
The morning of stage four remains a blur, without recollection of a race briefing. Memories remain of standing and then sitting by a fire with packs of shoes and removed insoles inside the ring of stones, begging to be dried out and warmed up. Although my legs were feeling slightly better, my swollen feet were unable or unwilling to submit easily to the Montrails.
Stage Four took us through canyons, rivers, rocky-roads, and fields of mud. The canyon walls were incredibly close, giving the trail a magical feeling. We continued to descend slowly into the dried riverbeds and mud-flows. As we ran along the roads next to the river, we passed villages where the largest crowds yet came out to cheer us on. Soon I was feeling strong enough to begin semi-“sprint” intervals, stretching out my legs in full strides at times. Running this way I was able to catch Andrew, another tent-mate that had done several similar events, and Tom, also a veteran racer. I followed with them for quite awhile, but the terrain turned rocky again, primarily following riverbeds and mud-flows and my blisters began to get the best of me.
The course continued along the mudfields and rocks; the canyons became wider, desert-like valleys, with mud-flows, rock shelves and riverbeds and the occasional rough road providing a twisting course through the wider swathe. The sand and rock quickly took a reddish tint, giving the canyon walls a boost of personality. In an attempt to match the beautiful colors, the temperature climbed steadily to about 36 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). At the third checkpoint, I replaced my water bottle and took a peek at my blistered and swollen feet. Downing some Ibuprofen, I trotted off but the pace slowed dramatically. In the distance both in front and behind I could see the others, their small images shimmering in the sweltering heat.
This route seemed to continue onwards forever, the twists of the canyon promising an end to the stage around the next corner, only to see the next half-mile stretch onwards in front of me; perception of depth was sometimes difficult. As the river twisted and turned, I submitted to the pain coming from my feet and attempted to use a more bee-line route from bend to bend in the canyon, rather than following the curvy track of the river-bed, weighing the size of rocks and level of mud in each alternative. The rocky canyon walls progressively turned from rock to hills of sand, an indication that we had dropped from mountains to real desert. My feet and legs, however, were uninspired and to get myself to the end in decent time, I began to run from one flag to the next, and then walk to the next, about 200 meters separated the flags. I had no idea as to my place for the day, but imagined it wasn’t much better than 50th. The end came with a view of several of the support vehicles parked together and around a right-hand bend, and the flags of the camp came into full view. No drums were beating on this day, and the tents weren’t ready; but the bottles of water and the shade of the finish tent were a welcome site.
As we discussed our approach to the next day-plus in the Yengisar tent, we evaluated the weight of our packs, our nutritional needs for the next two-plus days, the formulation of the taping on our blistered feet, the soreness of our muscles and the state of our spirits. Some in our tent were visibly shaken with the impending pressure of Stage Five’s 80kms across difficult terrain that was to start with an immediate ascent of 700meters up the largest sand-mountain and a downward plunge of the same to the river-bed floor on the opposite side.
As I made my final notes on the day’s events, I lay next the opening of our tent, flaps folded up. The Moon and planet Venus shown their lights brightly above the sand-mountain we were to climb in the morning. It was the first time I felt really able to sit back and reflect upon the awe-inspiring surroundings since I had started the race.
“The Long March” was to start in two waves, at 7am for the slower half and 9am for the faster half of the field. As 9am approached, I found myself still at the toilet area, fixing my gear (so to speak), when the “gun” went off and everyone started to charge toward me. By the time I got back and prepped my gear, I was well-behind the main pack.
After catching the back of the pack, I saw that the train of people turned directly up a steep ramp that was the start of the 500+ meter (1,650 foot) mountain climb to start the day. Without a lot of time for the muscles to warm up and the cardio to adjust, it was a slow trudge up to the top with lots of heavy breathing. We passed a camel standing at about the mid-point, the trail we were on had little curve and plenty of degrees, easily steeper than the Stage 3 climb, although lower in altitude and ascent. The soft-sand patches on the pathway became helpful as the feet needed the traction as we leaned sharply just to stay vertical. I reached the top of the mountain in about 45 minutes, but cringed at the thought of my quads having to support me going down the just as steep down-slope.
For almost three hours, we followed the never-ending canyon, the rocky paths that the pink flags took us across, slowly tenderizing my feet. The mud-fields were sometimes deceiving because it was difficult to determine the consistency of each one and whether following in the footprints already made was the best choice or the worst. Regardless, the obstacles severely slowed the progress as the temperatures began to rise with the morning sun. I came upon Carlos just ahead of me, recognizing his orange pack and purple shirt; I called to him “Carlos!”, he glanced back in mid-stride “Hey Garrett” he called out in his Spanish accent. He then proceeded to put on a burst of relative speed; I didn’t see him again for another nine hours. Behind me, I could hear Joannie approaching, singing aloud to her MP3 player… “the only one who could ever teach me, was the son of a preacher man…” she called out.
As I continued down the twisting river-bed, surrounded by the sloping, rippled sand-mountains, I caught up to a young woman, completely cloaked in running tights, long-sleeves, hat, large glasses and buff wrapped over her nose and mouth. She was taking short interval runs and fast-walks, but her pace and energy were strong. Her name was Yukako Hiyashi from Tokyo, Japan. She is a 33 year-old graphic-artist for children’s books and had done a few similar races in the past. I asked her why she chose to do this and, in her broken and barely audible English, she explained that it was a way for her to see the beautiful scenery of these far-off places.
Yukako and I continued on, passing through more of the same river-bed and mudfields, spying several camels, one of which I video-taped; he watched me pass him by, just a few inches from his jutting jaw. The combination of multiplying blisters, swollen feet and the stress-fracture slowed me. Yukako continued on, unabated, seemingly a small Japanese machine, designed to walk and run in her short intervals for eternity. Discouraged and slightly battered, I decided to walk until my feet felt better.
The course dropped from the village area directly onto the path of a fast-flowing river. A volunteer was set up with a line to assist in the two-part crossing of this river; and I cursed under my breath with thoughts of even more blisters as the day was indeed still young. As I entered the water, I was glad to have the support line as in addition to the unstable rocks, the current was strong, but this was the only support line I would see all day. I exited the water to a rocky field ahead and additional river and mud crossings.
was the soft, fine sand on the other side that clung to every bit of my wet shoes and legs, immediately followed by a climb up a series of rocks. The climb proved more difficult with the layers of mud caked on my shoes, but after reaching the top and surveying the area, I was relieved to see the half-way (40km) checkpoint on the flat ground below. I climbed down the other side of the rocks and joined the tent crew, which was being whipped by strong winds. The course and my spirits were then pacified by a smooth dirt road that followed through a village area. At this point, I pulled my MP3 player on, playing my “mantra song” by Hall & Oates, “You make my dreams come true”, which has the right tempo for my running gate (stride) and the right energy to keep me moving. Eventually, the 50km checkpoint came into sight just outside the long village road and I stopped off to refuel. A number of villagers gathered around the tent, watching as I changed water-bottles, so I video-taped them, much to their amusement.
The prognosis was another 10.5km’s until the next checkpoint (where we were required to stop-over for an hour of rehydration and cool-down): up the rock road to the desert plateau, and then desert. Flat, sandy, rolling desert land. The land was as true to the vision of desert as I had imagined and I relished the experience of seeing nothing: no animals, trees or plants.
The horizon sweltered in the 39 (100) degree heat and in the far distance I could make out two black dots, barely visible and very distorted through the waves of heat rising from the ground. These competitors were probably a mile ahead of me and so I carried on, grateful for the relatively flat roads and smooth sand. Various songs carried me through the next 8km’s until I came upon Rob McCay, who had run out of water and had fallen from his positive state a few hours earlier, now into some trouble. As with Nick, I decided to stay with Rob until we reached the next checkpoint. Maybe a point of doing the right thing or maybe I just needed an excuse to walk.
That next checkpoint became a point of contention for the entire field for various reasons. Upon arrival we were informed that an hour stop-over had been extended to two hours (we later found out that the course in the desert flats had not been laid out). However, without adequate cover or water, the growing collection of athletes were forced to sit and dehydrate in the afternoon desert sun, stretching our nutrition supply and ability to run the course in daylight. Eventually, competitors were being called to start after two-hours from when they had arrived.
During my two hours of detainment, I tried to be productive by (re)taping my feet and popping, relieving and taping the blisters on my little toes. I was just finishing up the process when my 10 minute warning sounded and I knew I had to hurry. I was five minutes late for my start because I could not get my swollen feet inside my shoes, which were almost a full size bigger than when the race started. I hobbled onward for 100 meters, adjusting my shoes and removing my blister taping, as none of it was working. Eventually, my feet adjusted to the pain and I entered another ‘zone’ of being, passing someone who had taken off on time but had stopped because of a newly discovered blister.
It was now 10:30pm and the darkness was beginning to cover the desert, the moon was visible and the planets Venus and Mars could be seen. I ran along the plateau, completely alone without anyone in front or back of me. The course entered a series of mini-canyons, and the challenge became trying to find the next flag as dusk camouflaged the pink against the desert backdrop. Slowly, I could see the light-sticks that were set up on some of the flags to help signal the runners in the darkness. As the sun disappeared completely, the terrain became beautifully surreal, as if I was running in a picture. Nothing was there to move or make noise, so I very well could have been pulled into a picture.
As visibility started to fade I felt as though I was preparing to take a breath and dip my head underwater. The silence and darkness were an intoxicating combination. I reached back to my pack and pulled out my headlamp, but opted to keep it off for the majority. Running with the headlamp on was both an aid and a hindrance. With the headlamp on, the world clearly became what was in the next 15 meters in front of you and no more. Seeing general direction, including the next glow stick was impossible. However, if you let your eyes adjust to the darkness, the light of the Moon was just strong enough to provide the necessary contrasts across the tracks of sand and allowed for some sense of directional context. As the terrain turned into soft white sand that crunched under each step, vision of snow-shoeing in Scandinavia came to me like a dream. By this point delirium was gnawing at my consciousness.
At the final checkpoint, now 70kms into the stage, I noticed a figure lying on the ground; it was Yukiko. The volunteers assured me she was just sleeping, I felt both worry and envy. The final 10km’s seemed to stretch on forever. The glowstick course veered from the tracks, and the terrain became filled with pits, ridges and rocks, requiring me to finally turn the headlamp on. Promising lights in the distance signaled a near end to the stage, but darkness and delirium handicapped my depth perception. A few indecisive turns and the route turned down into a canyon; an ill-planned steep descent among large rocks required large jumps and slides. Whatever adrenaline I had left in my system pushed me faster, momentarily getting lost in the darkness.
The last 200 meters led down into the camp, the darkness camouflaging the finish line. It was eerily quiet as I reported my number to the woman with the finishing log, “32nd place,” she said. No drums banging, dancers dancing or the welcoming committees. Not even the wind seemed to be moving.
Slowly I settled into the back-right corner of the tent, wiping myself clean with a wet-wipe and sliding into my recovery rights and a shirt that had been worn for two or three of the previous stages. It was almost 2am now and I was looking forward to having even a couple hours sleep.
As many of the participants continued to make their way into the camp throughout the night and into Day 6, I slept a restful five hours until just after 7am, awaking to see that the entire tent crew had made it safely at some point during the early morning hours.
As I emerged from the tent amidst the light of the “late” morning, I could now see that 50 feet in front of our tent was the edge of the desert plateau; a steep drop leading to a very different area of the desert. For the male athletes, the cliff-edge made a natural caveat to the 100 meter-distance requirement for relieving one’s bladder. Most of us limped around with destroyed feet and legs. I borrowed various slippers to get around – from Thomas’ dirty white hotel slippers to Erik’s daughter’s slippers. It was too hot to just sit under the tents and really too painful to spend time walking around; in some ways this day was purgatory.
Day consisted of sitting around in hot tents, eating freeze-dried food, telling stories and general discussions and of course, the intermittent sand-cyclones that brought whipping winds of sand. We watched one storm as it came in on a dead-center path; it was as if the storm itself had a consciousness and chose its path to land in the center of the camp.
An early evening of sleep was had by all. I awoke early at 2:10am, determined that THIS time, the LAST morning of packing for another stage, I would be the first one out of the tent. I put on my headlamp and began organizing my gear and preparing my freeze-dried oatmeal. Regardless of the condition of my feet, I was feeling energized and looking forward to the final stage.
The drums started beating at 2:40 or so and the masses emerged from their tents in the darkness to pack and prepare. We said goodbye to our final campsite and I boarded the first bus with the Yengisar crew. Kashgar awaited.
Description: A 10km run through the historic old-town district and streets of Kashgar into the Id-Kah mosque.
The bus trip included various turns of events. Sounds of retching filled the air about one hour into the five hour trip; the cumulative physical stresses of the race was having disastrous effects on many. The caravan pulled over for some necessary relief.
After what turned out to be a harrowing bus ride, we arrived at another mosque area several kilometers from the center of Kashgar, unloaded and sat around trying to determine where to go to the bathroom, how much water we needed, etc.
Because of my tragic day three performance, I was in the 11am slot (#54 overall per the then standings), the contingent split into the back 70 starting at 10am, the middle 30 at 11 and the top 30 at 11:30. I decided a warm up was needed, running a few hundred meters of the course to find that my left was unable to bear much weight and both were swollen beyond discomfort. Fortunately, because of Montrail’s built-in gaiters, I could loosen my shoes so that the metatarsal was not impinged by the laces. I began feeling more confident about the shorter 10km run.
I started off this final stage in the middle of the pack with my Yengisar crew, but quickly pushed the pace to the front, distancing myself along a mix asphalt and dirt. Some turns along the dusty roads and the course entered one of the main streets at the 3km mark, exiting off fairly quickly into some other narrow roads along the “old town” area.
I soon caught up to and jostled around the lead car, guiding myself by the signs, pink bands, and arrows pointing indicating the route through the maze of old-town streets. Children and elderly, women walking about in full dress, all seemingly unfazed by the oddly dressed foreigners running through their neighborhoods. I began passing some of the walkers from the 10am start, exchanging encouragements, and pushed ahead faster, into the old-town area, up inclined and narrow cobblestone streets, twisting past fruit stands, residences and small shops. The spectators reminded me of all the villagers we saw over the past week in the canyons located hundreds of kilometers to the west. I became less conscious of my aching feet as I replayed visions of the 250km journey. The route passed “People’s Squiare” and a waving Chairman Mao. The end was close…the beige steeples of the mosque could be seen and before I knew it I could hear the music playing and see dancers about, racing down the steps in front of the yellow façade of the centuries-old Id-Kah Mosque.
Passing under the final “Gobi March” finisher banner was a quick conclusion to a long and enduring week. Guided by my arm this way and that, the standard large finishers medal was placed over my head by the Mayor of Kasghar. Unprepared and in a massive need of a shower and shave, I shook hands with her, quickly bowed and was then led over to a table to record my race number.
The unexpecteds of the race included the comraderie felt among the competitors and more acutely with my fellow tent-mates. From that first bus-ride to the race start, each person became fully “colored-in” over the span of the week; their history and exact background possibly still unknown, we learned much about each other just from the non-verbal aspects of living together for the week in a tent through tears, aches & pains, nutrition, and various other phases.
The villagers and the villages were quite remarkable, facial features, eyes, clothes, the mud huts. Not to forget about the stares, some expressionless, others with incredible warmth.
The terrain and climate was a third unexpected. Starting in the mountains and climbing to 3,900 meters (12,500 feet) with a sleet/snow blizzard nailing us as we passed over the summit of the ridge, followed by river crossings and dried up river-beds, into the hot and arid desert valleys and then plateaus.
While to some degree anticipated, the tennis ball-size blisters, lost toenails, swollen and fractured feet that often accompany this type of race need to experienced first-hand to be understood. But this is part of the journey…and brought the good, the bad and the ugly within each of us into full view. It is why I jumped at the thought of this race.