The Gobi Experience

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Friday, 29 June, 2012 - 16:20

Running 250 kilometres (km) over six stages through the Gobi Desert is an extreme challenge and accomplishment. Part 2 of “Running Through the Gobi Desert with a Mission” provides interesting insights into David Barnard’s experiences during the race.

“No Pain, No Gain” - Running Through the Gobi Desert with a Mission - Part 2

# Stage 1, 10 June 2012 - “Canyons and Camels”

D-day finally arrived on Sunday, 10 June 2012.

After what would be my breakfast for the next few days – Instant Oats mixed with protein – we all gathered at 7h30 for a final race briefing. There was real excitement in the air as the 163 competitors lined up for the start of the race.

Stage 1 was scheduled to cover a full marathon distance 42.1km, but was reduced to 32km due to rising rivers in the area as a result of heavy rains earlier in the week. No one complained, but we were left in doubt when and where we would have to make up for this.

After an undulating first 10-12km, the rest of the day was relatively flat, although we ran straight into a strong head wind for most of the day and had to do few river crossings. It also wasn’t too hot, but the terrain, almost throughout, was rocky and rough on the feet, a painful feature that would characterise every day of the race.

The last two km to the finish line was on a road leading into a small village called Tushpushka, with the local villagers lining the streets.

My lasting memories of stage one are the local children who ran the last few hundred meters to the finishing line with the various competitors, while others decorated their bicycles with the pink route markers and flags. Racing the Planet staff and volunteers most probably did not appreciate the latter development, but at least it brought a smile to the faces of many competitors.

The finishing line was in the centre of the village, in front of a beautiful mosque. I finished the first stage in 3h57 in 18th position overall and could not have asked for a better start. I ran with Ryan Hill, one of my tent mates, for a big part of the day and it was great to run with someone early in the race. Both Ryan and I had a tough experience in the Sahara in 2011, and by finishing in the top 20 on the first stage of the Gobi March was therefore a bit of pay back!

After sleeping in our first tented camp the previous night, we all stayed in Tushpushka at the end of the first stage. Every tent was allocated a room in a villager’s house - not much in each room other than a thick carpet. The toilet “facility” was a real treat - in addition to the usual open air hole-in-the-ground model, we also had one indoors - in the cow shed with a cow as an onlooker! Rather a grisly experience.

My overall impression at the end of the first stage was that my tough training schedule really helped. I felt strong all day and finished with no blisters or stiff legs.

In the last few weeks before the race I linked up with a physical trainer, well experienced with the requirements of extreme events, for a number of intensive training sessions. His attitude to me was very simple – “I am going to be cruel to be kind”. The gym sessions tested my physical abilities to the utmost. This was followed by early Sunday morning ‘dress rehearsals’ – running for three hours with a full backpack up and down every barren pathway in the Krugersdorp Hills. But in the end, it was worth the sweat and sacrifice!

# Stage 2, 11 June 2012 - “Mars in the Gobi”

Having had a good start on day one I was looking forward to stage two. I also had a good night’s rest, although Geoff Heald hit me very hard during the night with a tracking pole – apparently I was snoring!

The first few km of the stage were relatively comfortable and flat, but then we entered what is called the “Mars red zone” - red sand and rocks with lots of short up and down hills. This was our first real introduction to the undulating landscape which was to become the main characteristic of every stage over the next few days. The course was again rocky and rough on the feet. Not only feet but unless equipped with shoes build for these circumstances it would be difficult to survive over these rocks with sharp edges, as some competitors experienced.

I stayed with Ryan Hill until checkpoint two, roughly 17km from the start. At this point I was really feeling strong and wanted to continue running, while he decided to take a short break. The next 20km to the end was most probably my best running experience during the whole race. As Ryan said afterwards, I was on a “mission” from the start. I passed quite a few runners between checkpoints two and three with the route covering mostly riverbeds and vehicle tracks.

Checkpoint three was next to a main road which was described during the race briefing that morning as a dirt road. To the surprise of everyone, the road was tarred in recent weeks with the result that we would not run on stones for most of the last leg to the finish of stage two. But it was still very undulating and heavy on the legs.

We started stage two at approximately 1792m above sea level. By checkpoint two we had climbed to about 1948m above sea level. The course to checkpoint three was slightly downhill, and after an initial steep climb after checkpoint three, the last few km were mostly downhill and we finished at approximately 1663m above sea level. Running downhill also helped me in keeping up a good pace and after passing a few more runners, I finished stage two in 5h01 in 15th position overall. I was really happy about this performance, although I most probably pushed a bit hard at some stages during the day.

After our “indoor stay” the previous night in Tashpushka, we were, almost relieved, back in our tented camp - the campsite was called Langerville - in what looked like a cut-down wheat field.

Everyone in our tent again completed the stage, although Geoff’s knee was very painful and as a result, he was not as chirpy as usual by the time he reached the tent. There were also other signs of the rugged terrain making their mark on competitors – blisters that had to be drained, and holes and cuts in shoes that had to be taped up.

Dinner consisted of biltong and mash, and after a big protein shake, it was time to crawl into my sleeping bag for some rest. I usually don’t have much trouble falling asleep when tired from running, but with the sun setting after 21h00 and it only getting dark after 23h00, I struggled to settle down the first few nights. As everyone else, waking up a few times every night was also a recurring experience, most probably as a result of the altitude and sleeping on uncomfortable surfaces.

# Stage 3, 12 June 2012 - “The Farmlands of Langerville”

After a great first two days of running, the reality of a multi-day desert race caught up with me on stage three.

Stage three was just one big uphill over rocks and gravel, crossing many canyons and river beds. We started at 1663m above sea level, checkpoint one was at 1793m, checkpoint two at 1890m, checkpoint three at 2100m, and the finish at 2525m - a net gain of almost 900m! .

Ryan and I again stayed together until checkpoint one. The course up to this point was relatively comfortable, but after checkpoint one, the 2012 Gobi March “officially” started. We started running across very rocky terrain followed by a number of steep canyons before reaching checkpoint two. At this point I was still making good progress running on my own in this huge vastness.

I went through checkpoint two in 16th position, but took a very hard fall going down a steep slope, resulting in a sore left shoulder and bruised left palm. This incident really unsettled me and I just could not regain the same momentum. The terrain became very technical and consisted of running up and down steep canyons covered by loose rocks and gravel. I am not good with heights and after my fall, became very cautious (and a bit scared) on the downhills.

Fortunately, Ryan caught up with me halfway between checkpoints two and three and we walked together to the finish. The 8.5km from checkpoint three to the finish was uphill all the way, and it was a relief just to cross the finishing line. Ryan and I finished the stage in 5h54 in joint 32nd position. I felt very disappointed with my performance, but maybe I pushed too hard on the first two stages.

However, we had reached the half way mark of the race and other than running slower, I still had no blisters or any other injuries to complain about. But we still had two big days ahead and I realised that things will only get tougher. Everyone in our tent was still in the race, although most conversations now covered aches, pains and blisters.

We were warned that stage four, covering 42km, would be very tough, and with that thought in my mind I crawled into my sleeping bag. This was probably also our most uncomfortable night in the Gobi – the campsite was on very rocky terrain, and given the height of the site, it was very cold. A strong wind was also blowing throughout the night, further adding to our discomfort.

# Stage 4, 13 June 2012 - “Stairway to Heaven”

Stage four was by far the most challenging day for me during the 2012 Gobi March. The day started no different to the way the previous day finished – uphill over loose rocks – and with me lacking energy and enthusiasm. At a stage in a race you need to be mentally very strong, and willing to do justice to the slogan “No Pain No Gain”.

However, one of the highlights of the race brightened up the early part of the stage. After the first few km we reached the base of the climb to Shipton’s Arch (locally known as Heaven’s Gate), which is the tallest natural archway in the world - higher than the Empire State Building. Fortunately, we could drop our backpacks before starting the steep ascent, which included twelve sets of stairs and running up the mountain. But it was worth the effort. The view from the top over the desert, canyons and snow capped mountains was just amazing. But after a minute or two of taking in the view, it was back to the race. During the descend we ran past many runners still making their way up the mountain – this was a nice change to the daily procedure of only seeing people at the start and then again after the finish. Spending an hour without a backpack while running up and down a steep mountain was also a bonus.

Checkpoint one was at the bottom of the mountain at approximately 7km into the stage. The next 20km until checkpoint three were most probably the most difficult part of the whole race - a series of never ending and very technical up and down hills (approximately 30-50m at a time), close to scary vertical cliffs and on loose gravel and stones, and certainly not for the feint hearted. After my fall the previous day I had to be very careful with my footing. As stated before, I don’t like heights and some of the downhills were really scary. On a few occasions the only way down was to sit on my bum and push myself slowly forward with my hands.

The last few km to checkpoint three was again down a riverbed and over very rocky terrain. By now my legs were tired, my feet sore and my mind all over the place.

The final section from checkpoint three to four covered approximately 14km. The terrain was mainly flat, but we had to cross a riverbed with a few fast flowing streams. In some places we were knee deep in the icy water, but I did not even think of stopping to take of my shoes and just kept going.

I made it to the finishing line in 8h23 in 64th position – tired, dirty and not a happy chappy at all.

But my mood, and that of many others, significantly improved during the late afternoon when a double rainbow filled the sky. It was a beautiful sight and one of many fond memories from the race.

On the lighter note, Geoff Heald was responsible for one of the more memorable moments of the 2012 Gobi March. Before going to bed the previous night he changed into “his” compression shorts and commented on how nice and comfortable they felt. When changing back to his running shorts before the start of stage four he realised they were Sarah Lords’ shorts. In true Australian fashion, she told Geoff exactly what she thought of him, but still had no choice but to put on her “freshly warmed up” shorts for the day!

# Stage 5, 14 June 2012 - “The Long March”

Stage five was the “long day” of the 2012 Gobi March – 76km. I have been thinking about this stage almost since the day I entered the race early in 2012. I had such a bad experience during the long day in the 2011 Sahara Race, and wanted to improve on that performance.

The long day started with a two-hour bus trip from camp five to the starting point. We started running at about 10h00, compared to the usual 08h00 start.

My start to the stage was no different to the previous two days – slow and going nowhere fast. I stayed with Ryan Hill and Yousef Khourshid until checkpoint two and thereafter just could not keep up the pace. The first 17km was again mostly uphill and through canyons, followed by a very rocky and rugged stretch.

I reached the halfway mark in 6h40 in 65th position, and given my physical condition and mental state at that stage, all the signs were there that this was going to be a very long and uncomfortable day

At this point we got caught in a thunderstorm with strong winds whipping up a sandstorm and maybe this is what I needed to get going. With rain pounding down I started running at a nice pace. We were now running mainly on dirt roads, slightly downhill and with the wind from behind. With my new found energy and “second wind”, I was making up a lot of time and started passing many runners.

Although it was a long tiring day over tough terrain, the surrounding mountains with their snow capped peaks were a beautiful sight and something that I will always remember about the race. Whenever you felt down and tired this beautiful view provided an alternative to the physical challenges of the race.

From the final checkpoint (seven) it was approximately 8km to the finishing line. A clump of trees on the horizon seemed to be the campsite and with every km passing I was getting closer to the finishing line. It is just human to get emotional at this point in a multi-stage desert race. You know you are very close not only to the end of the long stage, but also the overall race. The training, dedication and sacrifices of the past few months were worth the effort.

I finished the second 38km in less than 5 hours, making up 30 positions. My feet were really hurting towards the end, but it was all about finishing strong and also "enjoying" the experience of completing the long day.

I finished stage five in 11h32 in 35th position, while my overall position improved to 29th overall.

It was great to see Ryan, George, Patricia and Jimmy from our tent who all finished ahead of me. Although tired and sore, everyone was happy that the long day was done and dusted. During the night Geoff and Tara finished the stage, followed by Nigel and Luba (in just over 20 hours). Sara Lord was the last to finish in just over 23 hours. She was in real pain with badly blistered feet, but she hung in to the end and we were all very happy to see her again.

# Rest Day, 15 June 2012

Our campsite for the rest day was most probably one of the best I have experienced in a desert race. It was situated amongst a number of big willow-esque trees, surrounded by lush green fields covered with sheep, and big snow-capped mountains in the background. There was also a little stream next to the camp where I could wash my legs and arms after the long day.

With everyone back in the tent, Geoff Heald prepared a great mid-morning snack for us – provita biscuits, salmon and parmesan cheese – a real feast enjoyed by ten tired and dirty, but happy and relieved people!

With no running to be done, everyone was either sleeping, cleaning blisters or walking around like wounded soldiers. The rugged terrain of the previous few days really left its mark on most competitors’ feet.

We were treated to watermelon and nan bread during the afternoon, and after a final freeze-dried dinner, it was time for our last night in the Gobi.

# Stage 6, 16 June 2012 - “The Last Old City”

The last day of the 2012 Gobi March finally arrived.

It was with mixed feelings that we rolled up our sleeping bags and packed our backpacks for the last time. With only 16km to the finishing line, the race was almost over. This is usually both a sad and exciting time – you can’t wait to finish the race, but it also represents the end of another amazing experience. After many tent and group photographs, it was time to line up for the final stage.

Despite my sore feet, I ran the last stage at my fastest pace for the whole race, completing the 16km in 1h29, moving up one place in the race standings to 28th overall. My final overall time for the race was 36h18:12.

The finishing line was at a local school and the last few hundred meters of the race were very special with little Uighur kids either running with us or lining the path to the finishing line in their bright uniforms. Finally, the race was over, and the apprehension and anxiety of 250km up and down mountains, over rocks, down riverbeds and through canyons replaced with an overwhelming feeling of pride and achievement. Mission accomplished!

After crossing the finishing line and receiving my Gobi March medal, the first thing I did was to call Dalene in Johannesburg. It is moments like these that you would like to share with loved ones and it was great hearing her voice and telling her the good news.

Over the next two hours most of the other runners completed the final stage and the 2012 Gobi March. I walked back on the course to meet Geoff, Tara, Luba and Nigel, and later Ryan, George and I walked the final km with Sarah Lord. After not completing the 2011 Sahara Race, it was great seeing Luba, Nigel and Sarah finishing the Gobi March and proudly walking around with their medals.

But spare a thought for Shigeru Tomiyama of Japan. It took him more than six hours to complete the final stage because of the bad state of his feet.

Frank Belitz of France stopped just before crossing the finishing line, dropped down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend. Most probably not the most romantic moment, but definitely a memorable one.

We enjoyed pizza, beer, watermelon and soft drinks at the finishing line, while the school children entertained us with a special dance and cultural performance. At the same time, many famous pictures were taken which will tell a special story for many years to come.

Vicente Juan Garcia Beneito of Spain and Anne-Marie Flammersfeld of Germany were crowned the men’s and women’s champions, respectively, while a total of 145 competitors officially finished the 2012 Gobi March - all champions in their own right.

By 14h00 we were back on the buses for the final journey to the Tianyuan International Hotel in Kashgar and the first hot shower in a week.

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To read Part 1, click here, and Part 3, click here.

For blogs from other competitors, race results, and photos and video clips about the race, click here.

To view my photos of the race, click here.

To support the SANGONeT “No Pain No Gain” campaign with a donation, click here.

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