I’m typing this up from our lovely summer spot in Ramatuelle, Southern France. We love the Cote D’azur. A constant fresh, salty ocean breeze, green and sturdy vegetation, fields full of vineyards. The beach of Pampelonne, trail runs around Bonne Terrasse and clear starry skies at night. The french riviera to me and my family means peaceful serenity; warm, cozy and lazy afternoons and a welcome break from our constant nomadic life.
This is a good time for me to reflect on my trip to the Gobi desert in China and the 250k Ultra Marathon Stage race I took part in just a week ago. 4Deserts organizes this event and it is a 7-day, self-supported stage race where you run a marathon every day for the first 4 days, a 80km ultra on the 5th day, a rest day on the 6th and approximately 10km on the last day. Every competitor carries his or her own equipment, food, sleeping bag and various other supplies (roughly 8kg) that are needed for the week. The organizer only provides hot and cold water, aid stations, a medical team and camp site for the night. This is my 4th 4Desert race after Madagascar, Sri Lanka and the Atacama.
I spend about 10 days in China in an area that’s famous for Genghis Khan and the Ancient Silk road. What a trip it was! I left Barcelona a few days before the race started to make sure that my checked luggage will arrive and that I can adjust to the 6 hour time difference. I flew from Barcelona via Paris and Astana (Kazakhstan) to Urumqi, Xinjiang (China). Back in the day, Urumqi was a major hub on the northern route of the Silk road. Nowadays it is a hustling-and-bustling 4 million strong metropolis.
Upon arrival in Urumqi I was met by tour guides that helped us transfer via a 4 hour bullet train to the race hotel in Hami (aka Kumul). Hami also was an important hub on the Silk Road. It was considered the only gate from China to the West and had a strong fortress, which served as an outpost in the west of the Chinese lands.
As a young boy I’ve dreamt of riding a horse through the same fields as Genghis Khan has so many centuries before us. On a trip to Mongolia with my friend Mariano back in 2008, we’ve first got the chance to do so. We rode those small but strong mongol horses across the grasslands and it was quite the experience as we rode, walked and hiked during the day and stayed with nomadic tribes in traditional yurt tents during the nights. We experienced the rough but happy nomadic lifestyle the locals live, we saw wild Takhi horses and beautiful nature all around. Who would have known that less than 10 years after this trip I would return to this area of the world to run in a 250km, self-supported footrace just a few hundred kilometers south of Mongolia?
The day before the race start, myself and about 100 other competitors, from every corner of the globe, boarded 3 buses that would drive us to the yurt camp we would call home for the next 5 days. Once we arrived we settled into or yurts, prepared our gear for the early morning start and finished the day with an early dinner around the campfire.
After a good nights sleep we awoke in our yurts with a beautiful sunrise around 6 am. After a coffee (STARBUCKS VIA® Ready Brew Colombia) and my vegan porridge breakfast (COCONUT PORRIDGE WITH BLUEBERRIES, FIGS AND CHIA SEEDS) I packed up my backpack (OLMO ULTRA VEST 30L) and got ready for the start. The first day start is special as a few days of travelling, months of preparation, logistics and years of hard training all come together at this very point. Everybody is anxious to finally kick off this adventure. I see quite a few nervous faces staring into nowhere. How will the pack hold up? Did I choose the right shoes for this terrain? It’s too late now to contemplate about race strategy. Now it’s time to execute on all the hard work that has been done prior. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…GO!!!” The race has officially started. Today we are running 27km on 2.000 meters elevation. Little to no incline/decline today, a little overcast and moderate temperatures. At around 15km into the stage we’ve encountered a huge sand dune that should make this stage very memorable for all of us. Once we climbed it to the top, we had to traverse it along the tip for about 20 minutes which seemed like an eternity as every step in the sand needed an ungodly amount of energy.
Most of us wore gaiters around our shoes that prevented the fine sand from entering the toe box and causing havoc in our shoes. I finished this stage as the leader. This was my first stage win in these races and it earned me the leader bib. I was very content with the result and was determined to not give away this bib for the rest of the week.
Once back in camp, I kicked of the routine that I would continue to do for the rest of the week:
- Drink recovery shake (Vega Sport® Recovery)
- Settle into yurt
- Eat lunch (Any vegan options from Backpackers Pantry or the BARLEY-LENTILS-RISOTTO WITH AVOCADO MOUSSE from LYO
- Stretch/foam roll legs with the TP Massage Ball
- Rest in Yurt
- Early vegan dinner
The great part about camp life is that you meet so many interesting people from all walks of life that you can chat with for hours on ends. This yurt camp in the middle of the Gobi was no different. I’ve made many new friends and learned heaps of things that will enrich my life for years to come. With a well-fed body and rested mind, I settled into my sleeping back around sunset.
Today was tough! We did about 35k through thick forest, rolling hills and a lush/green landscape. It was an out-and-back loop that brought us to the highest point of the course at 2.900 meters over a mountain pass. We saw snow on the side of the road and encountered lots of cows along the way. The last few kilometers of the first part of the loop were the steepest and our calves and quads were burning. I ran on top of the pack alongside Jeffrey Ross, a scottish Salomon runner living in Kuala Lumpur. We got to know each other quite well today and exchanged stories about races and life. We crossed the finish line together followed shortly after by the 3rd. We were lucky to finish this early as we could hide in the yurts from a downpour of rain shortly after we entered camp. The afternoon and early evening was used by runners to huddle around the campfire and dry clothes, shoes and themselves. Tomorrow awaits a longer stage, so the sunset and well deserved sleep could not come soon enough.
We did close to 40k today. It was a tough but rewarding day out on trails as I was able to lead the pack again for the whole day. It was hard to believe that we were in China. We had to cross a few small creeks but I managed to keep my feet dry. The temperatures got increasingly hotter and we easily got into the mid 30’s Celsius. The last few kilometers to the finish were throwing some steep and steady inclines at us, but I managed to conquer them in a moderate running effort. I was proud of myself winning this stage that strong and I happily transitioned into my camp routine.
This was the longest stage, yet. 44.8km starting in dense forest and then into rolling hills of green pastures before entering back into the Tian Shan foothills through valleys and surrounded by mountains. Most of the 250k are well marked by little pink flags every 50ish meters or so, but today there were some flags missing in the middle of the course and we had to stop for about an hour to figure out what direction to go. Apparently some cows were intrigued by the pink color of the flags early in the morning and they ate about 10 of them. I hope the digestion went well. Once we were back on the marked course we were running along rolling hills through a beautiful scenery that could have been as well in Switzerland or Colorado.
My goal was to finish this stage even stronger than the previous stage as the race organizers shuffled the remaining days around in a way that day 5 would be a rest day. So I was awaiting a full day’s rest the day after this stage. This not only gives your body some time to recover from the strenuous week so far, but also to prepare for the big day to come, 82k on day 6. Your mind is also reassured and let’s you push your body a little bit more with this ‘rest day’ buffer ahead. I was listening to music for a few hours today on my iPod and it certainly helped me push through this stage. Once I crossed the finish line I was relieved and happy to have won not only this stage, but every stage so far this week.
The backpack that weighed initially just shy of 8 kilos now looks and feels much lighter. As we are already 4 full days into the race, we’ve not only consumed 4 days worth of calories, but have also used up other pieces of the equipment: electrolytes, blister kit, sun lotion and various toiletries. Today is dedicated to recovery and socializing with fellow competitors. We are leaving into Devil’s City, the start of the long day in the black desert at 1:00am the next morning. Busses will drive us from the yurt camp into the desert where we will kick off the final day of the race at 5:30am. The most important day is about to start.
1:30am to 5:30am
Getting of the bus after only a few hours of sleep the night before invigorated me with excitement. It felt like we were stepping onto a movie set. It was dark, temperatures were around 30 degrees at 5am. The 100 or so racers were all roaming around with their head lamps on their hats and red signaling lights on the packs to scramble to the start line. Last minute equipment changes, toilet breaks and filling up water bottles. The start could not come soon enough as we know every minute that we are waiting here would add additional minutes later in the boiling heat. The racer organizers told us before that it can reach temperatures of up to 50 degrees celsius during from 9am to 6pm, so we only had about 3 hours of more manageable conditions before it got toasty.
5:30am to noon:
We all counted down from 10 to zero and BOOM off we went into the dark. We ran across unreal rock formations that this area is famous for and traversed large, sandy canyons. The first few kilometers accounted for most of today’s elevation as the rest of the 82 km was fairly flat. The biggest challenge today was to survive the heat. The racer organizers mandated an obligatory stop of 3 hours (between 1 and 4pm) for each competitor to take us out of the high noon heat during that time. They build make-shift tents that would provide some shade, but it was not really a relief from the heat. The route was divided up into 7 check points, one at every 10k or so. Today, more than on every other day of the week, was all about your hydration strategy. Mine was as follows: At every CP (=check point) fill up 3 bottles of water. 2 nuun tablets into 2 of them and fill 1 with an electrolyte/carb mix for energy. I constantly drank during the day. It was neither pleasant nor refreshing as the water was at around 40 degrees C as well. I would eat 1 gel every hour and 1 salt tablet every hour. Focusing on this routine got me speedily all the way through CP 5. This was my mandatory stop location.
Noon to 3:00pm:
I spent 3 hours lying around, trying to keep my body cool with water spray bottles. I also took in some calories in the form of salted macadamia nuts and a recovery drink. As everyone else, I was struggling at this point. I felt dizzy, clearly not ready to finish the last 30k in this heat. How on earth would I do that? Should I just quit right here and have the roving Land Rover get me back to camp? Yikes, that would suck. My body told me that there is no way to continue. I had close to zero energy and was hoping for a miracle to continue. I felt like I was trapped in a 50C oven with a handful of blow dryers directed at me. Maybe I should move away from these extreme desert races into more moderate or colder climates? I have done the Lake Baikal Marathon across the frozen lake a few years back and was reminiscing about that experience right now. Everybody around me seemed to have (at least marginally) more energy than I. Did I go out too fast the last few days? There was doubt in every pore of my body and I was not able to shake it off. The dreaded end of the 3-hour stop approached and my fellow runners (the top 5 at this point) and I had to get ready.
3:00pm – 7:30pm:
I decided to give it a go and strapped on my back, filled up my bottles with water and headed back out into the heat. The first 2 at this point, Rod and Miguel, still felt pretty strong and started jogging into the horizon. Jeffry and I followed suit, but I knew that I would not be able to continue this for too long. My heart rate was too high while jogging and I knew I would collapse soon if I don’t do damage control. After about 20 minutes of following them, I decided to slow down. I did not want to collapse, but I also was far away from giving up the race. I decided to finish it ‘my way’, by myself. I slowed down, plugged in my iPod and started to take in electrolytes. After CP6 my walk turned into a strong marching. The first 2 runners disappeared into the horizon, but Jeffrey was just a few hundred meters in front of me and did not make up any more distance. The 10k between CP6 and CP7 were probably the toughest of the whole week, but I was just following my marching and hydration strategy and not thinking about anything else. I was able to control my breathing and in return my heart rate. An Italian competitor caught up with me and past myself and Jeffrey. CP7 was approaching and I was ready to load up on water. I was leaving the checkpoint with (chilled!) water and a will to finish the last 10k even stronger than the previous ones. Jeffrey was struggling more than I was at this point and I passed him with about 6k left to the finish. I was in fourth place and had the eyes on the finish line. I was constantly checking my body for aches or pain points and all of a sudden a pain in my left shin was appearing. This was a scary moment for me as I had to pull out of a previous race in Sri Lanka due to shin splints. Was this a deja vu 4 kilometers before finishing this 250k race? This cannot happen right now. I was cursing and hoping for the best. After 30 minutes or so the pain disappeared and I was back to my hydration routine. I loaded up a few more calories via Clif bloks to be able to finish with some energy in the tank. With about 1k to go I decided to speed up and try to run through the last stretch. I quickly canceled this mission as the heart rate ramped up exponentially. With about 200 meters left, I did go ahead and transitioned into a quick jogging pace to cross the finish line. Wow, I was relieved. I joined the other 3 competitors who have already finished, took of their backpack and settled in the shade for some ice cold water. What a day it was.
We were hanging out for hours here welcoming finishers into this desert camp while putting our legs up and exchanging ‘war stories’. This night will remain in my mind for quite some time as we were surprised by a midnight sandstorm that was blowing away our tents. The wind was howling for hours and we had to hold on to our gear as it would have easily been blown away into the vast, dark open desert around us. We all huddled in the middle of the camp and after that close to some rock formations to hide from the storm. None of us got a lot of sleep tonight, but nonetheless we didn’t care. The race was over. After a celebratory loop around camp, we were awarded the finisher medals and were awaited by a salad buffet and drinks. Busses were already waiting for us to get us back to civilization.
I finished 2nd overall. I came in with a 40ish minute lead into the final stage, but Rod, the overall 2nd after the first 4 stages, was able to make 40.5 minutes on me on the 82k day and won the overall title with less than a minute ahead of me. It’s crazy that a weeklong race of 250k can be decided by less than a minute, but that’s what racing is all about. I’m happy to be 2nd and hungry for the 1st position in my next race. The awards ceremony back at the hotel was refreshing as you and 100 other competitors look relieved, freshly showered and well fed after a week long race in the elements. I cherish these races as one is fully unplugged and as close to nature as it gets. Huddling around a campfire at night, meeting a crazy bunch of people and running through beautiful and remote terrain during the day sum up a great week for me. Packed and ready to go I was eager to board the bullet train back to Urumqi and enroute back to my family.
Blister prevention: Here is how I tape my feet to prevent blisters from occurring
Pack: I use the 30L RaidLight pack. It has amazing padding on the shoulder and along your back and I had zero issues with this backpack.
Socks: Injini toe socks.
Sleeping bag: Yeti Passion One + liner
Sleeping mat: Klymit Inertia
Electrolytes: Vega + Nuun + Salt capsules
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