Surviving—Just Barely—the Gobi Ultramarathon

December 24, 2003

This story airs tonight on our U.S. cable television program National Geographic On Assignment.

How do you prepare for a race that lasts seven days and covers more than 155 miles (250 kilometers) across the Gobi, China's forbidding desert? Well I'm not sure, but I can tell you from firsthand experience how not to prepare.

Don't begin by not working out for six months—no running, no weights, no nothing. Then, after getting out of shape and overweight, don't wait until just 30 days before the race to begin training.

But all those things you shouldn't do are exactly what I did do to get ready for the Gobi March. I knew I had made a terrible mistake about five hours into day one.

This was the first annual Gobi March and the course was laid out across some of the most uninviting terrain in northwest China.

There were the expected towering sand dunes, but they were the least of the problem.

There was extreme elevation—high point 13,000 feet (3,960 meters)—that made breathing as easy as sucking an orange through a straw.

There were endless rocky ravines that could twist an ankle faster than J-Lo can divorce a husband. And worst of all, there was something not normally associated with a desert … water.

On the second day of the race there was a river that had to be crossed what seemed like 50 times. The last person who had to deal with this much water in the desert had an ark. All we had were our socks and shoes, which were soaking wet much of the day. The water meant the feet got torn up and blistered even more than usual.

Participants in the Gobi March also had to carry all their supplies on their backs for seven days, including clothes, sleeping bag, and food. We were re-supplied with water at checkpoints along the way. I won the contest for "heaviest pack," about 40 pounds (18 kilograms).

The Most Blisters

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