Surviving—Just Barely—the Gobi Ultramarathon

Boyd Matson
National Geographic On Assignment
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

"Heaviest pack" is one event you don't ever want to win. By the end of the race I was also in the running for the title of most blisters. Fortunately, I did not finish first in that category.

Most of us had expected the first day to be a kind of warm-up stage, maybe 14 or 15 miles (22 to 24 kilometers)—but noooooooo, it was 27 miles (43 kilometers), a bit longer than a marathon.

And it was on that first day that I knew this was going to be harder than I'd ever imagined, and that 30 days of training wasn't nearly enough for this race; heck it wasn't even enough to get me back into the pants I was wearing five years ago. But I had entered the Gobi March to snap myself out of a midlife crisis, to prove I could still take on an extreme challenge and complete it. I was not about to quit on day one, even if I needed all 24 hours of day one to complete the first stage.

My strategy for finishing was one I developed to get through college: Start slow and then taper off. You don't win any medals, but you get through it, eventually. It also helps in an ultramarathon to find a partner. It keeps you from focusing only on your own pain, and frankly there is some comfort, a slight psychological boost, a touch of adrenalin-fueling superiority in watching someone else suffer. With 41 other competitors to choose from, I immediately set my sights on 71-year-old Welshman Laurie Brophy.

Knowing how your senior citizens are always looking to retire in a nice, dry, warm climate, I assume that's why Laurie's here; to take a leisurely stroll through the area around Dunhuang, China, and pick out a spot to settle down. God knows the land should be cheap, and there's certainly plenty of it. Where we're racing there's less than one person per square mile.

However, Laurie quickly shatters my illusions when I catch up with him. He tells me he has no intention of slowing down. The reason he's here is that he gave up competitive soccer five years ago and needed a new sport. The logical choice might have been shuffleboard, but he picked ultramarathons. Clearly, I have to pick a new partner.

Twenty-seven-year-old Aletengtuya seems like a good match. She may be a lot younger, but she only trained seven days, is using borrowed equipment, and has never run a race in her life. The young Subei woman does have one advantage: she's running on familiar ground. Much of the course snakes through Subei country, where she grew up.

The Subei, now a mixture of Chinese and Mongolian, trace their heritage back to the brother of Genghis Khan. Alentengtuya grew up the daughter of a traditional Mongolian herdsman, living in a "ger" or yurt (the domed tent used by the people of inner Asia), raising goats and riding horses and camels. She clearly knows something about perseverance, a requirement in a desert ultramarathon.

Alentengtuya at one point says to me, "You run very well for someone so old," and right then I knew our partnership was doomed. She was entered in the race by local officials who want her to represent the Subei, to win for China and Gansu province. She needs to pick up the pace, I need to slow down, and we both do what we need to do. Alentengtuya will eventually go on to finish first among the seven women competitors in the Gobi March. I go on to another partner.

Jan Richardson ran with me six years earlier in the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day race in the Sahara Desert in Morocco. He has spent most of his adult life pursuing extreme physical challenges, ultramarathons, and adventure races. We team up again. He's agreed to go at my pace, so this one should work.

Obssession With Weight

A universal obsession among competitors in a seven-day race is weight. Every extra ounce feels like an extra ten pounds at the end of 155 miles. Before the start we constantly pack and repack, debating what to take. People cut the handles off their toothbrush and cut the labels out of their clothes to reduce weight.

For all his experience, Jan made some bad decisions when he became more obsessed with weight than Calista Flockhart. First he opted not to bring a sleeping bag, so he froze at night. But more importantly, he didn't bring enough food, and some of what he brought was the wrong kind. Unbelievably, he carried little cheeses, which immediately went bad in the desert. I asked him why he didn't also throw in some finger sandwiches and puff pastries.

Near the end of day three Jan's feet were shot, he was weak from not getting enough calories, and he was suffering some mild altitude sickness.

At this point we were nearing 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). I thought he should drop out and get a ride to camp; he insisted on walking the whole way. His stubbornness didn't seem rational, but then the fact any of us were doing this didn't seem rational. There is no prize money for winning. The only goal for all of us was to finish. Everyone who completes the race gets a medal, because finishing is winning.

Several times Jan told me this was his last ultramarathon. He said his body couldn't take it anymore and he needed a hip replacement. Every time in camp when I saw Mary Gadams, the head of Racing the Planet, the organization that stages the Gobi March, I said, "Don't ever call me again and invite me to another one of these. Call and say hello, ask about the family, but don't ever mention running to me again … EVER."

Eventually I finished the race. That's right, I did the whole thing—slowly, but I did it. I could barely walk for a week afterwards, my blisters were so bad—but I finished.

For me, and I think for all the participants, this was about competing with yourself, not anyone else. We had set out to test ourselves and find our limits in a way that our everyday lives don't test us.

There is also something sickeningly addictive about these extreme adventures. Despite his earlier statements, Jan has announced he'll be entering another desert race in Chile. He won't be alone—half the Gobi field has also signed up, including me.

Clearly we all need to check into a treatment program. Is there an Ultramarathoners Anonymous?

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