The Gobi Challenge …………. the last of the BIG Three ..

Chinngis Khan …..

” I was very close but I cannot claim to have done anything but fail in my goal to complete the “Hard Race Hat Trick”  , my decision to pull out of the Gobi race still hurts , the race was very tough and it was probably a little ill-informed for me to attempt it after a near 7 week lay off with my groin strain , yet I had felt good at the time so I saw no reason not to try and ultimately it was not my groin that let me down , I suppose that even with the very apparent “once I hit the heat of the desert” relative lack of  fitness I could have buckled down and paced it out but by the end of day 3 my feet were already debilitated due to blistering , and walk or run they would have been seriously damaged by the end , memories of the suffering I had endured in the last days of the Marathon Des Sable and the length of time it took my feet to heal were also fresh in my mind and I knew this would put my ability to be fit enough to run my Himalayan race in serious jeopardy and this was where my heart truly lay , after a life time of being in the mountains, I could not miss a chance to run with Everest at my back , especially as it was the last race in my year off , so on Day 4 after some excruciatingly sore running and even 8 km walking in my sandals I pulled out  …. I regret this now ! The feeling I have carried around since is a mixture of  self defeat and the gnawing knowledge that if I had really wanted to , I could have finished but I chose an easy exit .. Neither I’m proud of .. Seeing my fellow runners suffering the last 2 days when I was on the support crew did nothing to ease my pain , in fact their grit and determination has left a lasting memory that will make sure I don’t EVER do it so lightly again .. I’ve been told that I’m being to hard on myself , that I didn’t fail on completing the Gobi , I had attempted to complete 3 Ultra-hard races in 3 months , that’s what I came up short on , maybe they are right but at that its even more reason I should have pushed on , I feel that I gave up so easily , so ultimately it feels the same ,  kidding myself on that I made the “sensible decision at the time” didn’t wash for long with my psyche’ !”

It’s not all doom and gloom though , despite falling short of my task , I am far from a failure , I have achieved a lot over the past year , I have tried hard to become an ultra runner , I’ve pushed my own personal boundaries a little further , I have taken my weakest sport of running and made it far stronger than it’s ever been and I’ve enjoyed it all … so it’s all good in my grand scheme of life ,  I have taken a step backwards to gain two steps further forward .. I’ve made this year special , a year that stands out from the years before it , I swapped Whitewater gorges in a kayak  for desert’s In a pair of trainers .. Ropes and rock faces for mountain trails and a camelbak …. Its been amazing and it’s been a quantum leap from my past  ….  what amazes me the most is the contrast , the in your face danger and excitement of extreme whitewater kayaking and hard rock climbing compared to the sheer boredom and suffering of an endurance sportsman , they couldn’t be further apart , yet they are both equally satisfying in entirely different ways , I certainly do not consider cranking up a Scottish hillside with my calf’s on fire a pleasure !! Yet looking back down and knowing I’ve just ran up it is extremely satisfying …..anyways I digress …. below is the final chapter.

The Gobi Challenge ……………   last of the BIG Three.

Mongolia is definitely not an easy place for a Scotsman to fly  , an array of different flights had to be found and in the end my route was Glasgow to Dubai , Dubai to Beijing and then finally Beijing to Ulaanbaatar , capital city of Mongolia , but with significant stopover times in between each leg of my journey it became an ULTRAMARATHON  just getting there !!!   it took approx 36 hours of travel and moved me forward in time by 7 hours in total , I was bushed by the time I arrived in the Arrivals lounge of the Chinggis Khan International airport  so I found a comfy bench and put the head down to grab an amazing 9 hours sleep !! I would have slept all day but my alarm started buzzing to inform me that Dave and Phil from Sand-Baggers were flying in soon , they were picking me up as I was lucky enough to be travelling with their team overland from  Ulaanbaatar to the start of the Gobi race just South West of Dalanzadgad , this Journey would take several days as we would be travelling south over the Mongolian Plateau , this has a total area of 2,600,000 square kilometres and it’s a pretty barren wilderness , mostly flat desert plain and rough track , first however we had to round-up the rest of the SB team , so after meeting Craig , Dave’s nephew , camp manager and “man on the ground” in Ulaanbaatar we headed into the city centre .. oh and did I mention he was a body popping crazy kid with a head of fun … I will later .. Driving the 18km from the airport to Ulaanbaatar It struck me just how raw Mongolia still is and how even now there is little or no road infrastructure , there are very few tarmac roads , almost straight from the airport you are on a dirt track to the City itself , only within the city can you drive on tarmac and its pretty rough at that.

Ulaanbaatar has the appearance of some postapocalyptic settlement , with its sprawling shanty town appearance , centralised by post-modern buildings and several Chernobyl like power stations blasting smoke into the atmosphere , nearly 4 million tons of coal is burnt a yea within these power stations , Ulaanbaatar air pollution level is 14 times the recommended level because of this ,  everywhere there are large pipelines weaving themselves to and fro between the buildings , bridges and under roads …. nearing the city centre the only thing I could really compare it to was East Berlin , definitely not to anything I’ve seen in China or Tibet , probably due to its USSR influences before the break up in 1991 .And like any city it was busy , traffic ground to a halt and we were subjected to inching our way though to the Hostel where everyone else was staying. After a couple of hours of introduction , drinking tea and some organisation from Sand-baggers , our team prepared to leave , I would be sharing my journey south with Ryan , a very cool guy who used to breathe fire , lived in a forest temple in Vietnam and was prone to an impromptu spot of meditation here and there and Roberto an Italian adventurer living in London who was just back form an expedition to Namibia , both I liked instantly , so suitably introduced we headed back to the Airport where Dave was wrangling with customs over the release of medical supplies that his Yamaa Trust charity was supplying to a Dalanzagdad medical centre’

Yamaa trust … amazing charity

The Yamaa trust is a charity set up by Dave , its aim is in its own words – ” Yamaa Trust has a single purpose –  the amelioration of poverty in the south Gobi region of Mongolia.” , after spending time in the South Gobi , its hard not to be moved by these people and I personally feel it is an admirable cause and one that this charity has a very direct effect on , with its fundraising events and the athletes who undertake noble causes to help raise money for Yamaa  they really do make a big difference , one of these athletes is Dr Andrew Murray who after his own visits there was moved to help with his  Scotland to Sahara epic run . Later in my trip I was to see first hand the help it is giving to South Mongolia , and the appreciation these people had for it.

Mining trucks cruise the Plateau ..

After finally loading the medical supplies we headed south to Dalanzagbad , this was to be  a journey of approx 500km , most of it on bumpy dirt tracks over the Mongolian plateau and beyond , most importantly it was to be where I would find what I had come for , Mongolian wilderness !!  It was not the race that had attracted me to the Gobi Challenge , not at all , the races are always secondary to the experience of being somewhere extra-ordinary ,  it had been the chance to travel to and absorb the culture of Mongolia and to see the Gobi desert from the Mongolian side that had attracted me and as we left Ulaanbaatar behind I was treated to large herds of wild horses running over the plains , amazing !!  I had just been reading about how these Horses are  an important part of Mongolian culture and horse racing is second only to wrestling for most men . In history Mongolian horsemanship played a huge part of the Mongol Empires might and were considered key to victory in battle.

The Mongolian Plateau ..

Most of the first days driving was over a huge green desert plain , following the dirt track trying to avoid huge pot holes. Very occasionally an arctic lorry would go by carrying mining equipment.Mongolia is all about the mining right now  with coal , copper , tin and gold all found in abundance , the major countries are all fighting for rights , and with the Ulaanbaatar’s own coal hungry power stations  they have their own demand. Thankfully away from the “delights” of the city we were enjoying fresh air and the smell of desert chives , a plant that grows in abundance all over the plains.

Night-time was upon us and after an hour or two of bouncing around in the dark , our lights failing to see the pot holes and eventually getting to hungry and tired to continue , we set camp , the Mongolian drivers and our amazing interpreter Solongo or “Rainbow” as she was known cooked us Rice soup as we set up the tents readying for a good nights sleep, our first night under the stars was to show us just how clear the air was on the plateau  , the stars were shining so bright you could just pick one from the sky and even the Milky-Way could be seen clearly. Craig our camp manager and all round entertainment treated me to his first body popping session , this was to be one of the high lights in my day over the next week …

Prime Mongolian real estate ….

We awoke early and packed our gear , we had far too great a distance to cover to hang around and enjoy the scenery , we set off and pretty soon the green pastoral plains of central Mongolia was rapidly becoming the Sandy desert plain of the Gobi region , as we bumped our way South I saw goat and Camel herders and their Yurts , a tent like structure that most Mongolians live in , its portable and can be packed down and transported on camels , they are used by nomads all over the central Asian steppes , although in Mongolia townships now exist where a Mongolian has a permanent piece of land they still live in a Yurt ,  it struck me how remote and extreme an environment  these resilient people live in.

Blow out !!

BANG!!!!  I was about to witness just how self-sufficient our driver was, we had a blow out , a real Tyre exploding blowout , deep in sand and 100s of miles from nowhere … we emptied out the door to survey the situation . Our transport was a Russian made 4 wheel drive that I was unable to find out the make of but they were a real workhorse , like a Volkswagen camper with awesome off-road capabilities , they were also easy to fix , which was just as well as we had already broken down several times , but  every time it happened it was out with the tool box and within 10 mins we were off again , this time it was no exception , rocks were found , jacks and tyre levers , rocks shoved under tyres , up went the truck , off came the tyre and within 20 mins we were away again , I later witnessed the driver change the old tyre using the jeep to drive up on and lever the old tyre off , then they achieved a rim seal and pressure on a new tyre with a hand pump !!!!  that is F***ing amazing .

It wasnt long before we reached a “service station” , I use this term loosely , it was a settlement of sorts , with a few people living here because it had a Water Well , there was a place to grab a bite to eat , now this is where I realised the Mongolia is one of the few places where I struggle to enjoy the local food , it hit me right in the one area that upsets my palate , the pungent smell of certain animal fats make me ill , and unfortunately for me  most of the food here contains high amounts of these fats , the Mongolians are also lovers of cheese so fermented it fizzes in your mouth and Mares Milk , fermented milk from a pregnant horse !! so I really was going to have a hard time !! ,  a Mongolian effectively fattens himself up for Christmas to give himself the fuel to survive the hard -40’C winter months , Despite my love of the Glaswegian Munchy box and as I am plenty fat enough to survive the Scottish winter I do not enjoy this type of fat and when Dave gave me a Buuz , a Mongolian dumpling full of fat , mutton and salt , the smell hit me right away … fooof !! my Achilles heel of cuisine was hit hard . I tentatively tried to eat it but couldn’t so I made myself happy with a bottle of coke until I could find something else.

Ryan … fire-eater !!

We headed south again , over the long hours in the back of the truck , Ryan , Roberto and I shared stories and got to know one another a lot better , Ryan had been a Fire performer , breathing fire and whirling sticks and fire chains was his forte’ and he had previously lived in a bus in Cyprus , after this he spent time in a forest temple in Laos and was here to attempt the Gobi in a pair of “barefoot ”  Vivo style running shoes , fantastic , full respect to Ryan for this as the advice followed by most is that you need a bit of cushioning under your foot , especially if you are about to run 150 miles …

Robert … Chinngis master !!

Robert was proving quite the character as well , a jovial well spoken man who enjoys a good adventure , had the nach for amazing one liners and was particular to a spot of Chinggis , the local Vodka that was drank on frequent occasion during this trip. His poems were legend and the tales of his recent trip to Namibia has prompted me to add a red pin on my bucket-list master map ………  later that night we finally approached Dalanzadgad , we would stay  in a Yurt camp and get a decent sleep that night as we had been asked if we wanted to accompany Dave, Phil and Craig on their Yamaa duties the following day , we had all agreed that it would be fantastic to see the work it does in South Mongolia.

Ger camp .. Dalanzadgad

I awoke in the morning to the sight of a beautiful Yurt camp , we had arrived in the middle of the night and as most of Southern Mongolia runs on generators they don’t go heavy on street lights so I didn’t really have a chance to take in the beauty of its location  … it was also my first real chance to see a yurt close up , they are very well made , with a wooden frame , insulated and covered inside and out , and like Dr Who’s Tardis they offer up a lot more room inside than they appear to on the outside … In the winter they are traditionally heated by stove and as I mentioned before they are easily stripped and transported elsewhere as befitting their nomadic heritage.

Yamaa at work ..

Piero an italian who had previously ran the Gobi Challenge and this time was to attempt it on a mountain bike arrived earlier in the Morning and we were introduced over breakfast , he was quite a character , a metals dealer and a lover of the outdoors , he later told me of his lodge in the Swiss mountains that ran on a wind turbine , ground heating and solar panels  , a man after my own heart. After breakfast we were met by Enkstetseg , Yamaa’s full-time Mongolian representative and as a native Mongolian she works tirelessly to ensure the biggest benefits are gained from people’s donations , I could quickly see the focus she had for her job and she stood out to me right away as someone special and it was obvious why Yamaa had appointed her to this role . Our first port of call was to visit a Yurt in Dalanzadgad, one of several that the Yamaa trust have built and given to families in Southern Mongolia , this one was to help an injured lady and her family who had previously been renting from an abusive and greedy landlord , she lived here with her family and had taken in orphans to help them to.It struck me how much they appreciated this and made us all welcome in their home , they offered us Mares Milk and sweets and we shared this together , I had been informed at this point by Solongo that I wasnt expected to drink it all , just a little sip would satisfy the Mongolian Etiquette , thankfully this I could handle , although Ryan swiftly drank mine as well as his 🙂

Beautiful smiles

The family was very pleased by our arrival and made us feel at home right away with their smiles and happy-go-lucky nature , it struck me that these people who have nothing yet are so happy and appreciative of life are a shining example to the X-box generation of ungrateful lay-abouts that seem to be a growing part of Western culture … With Solongo acting as Interpreter the lady from the Ger thanked Yamaa and told us how she was left injured by a car and couldn’t work , how she had found it impossible to care for her children and pay the greedy landlords rent , Yamaa had come along and rescued her from a situation she did not know how to end and that she was so grateful to them for removing her from the trouble , personally I was very moved by what she said and what Yamaa has done there , I wish I could wave a magic wand at times but I can’t so I am just glad that there are people who care enough to start a ball rolling and something like the Yamaa Trust can grow from this.

We said our goodbyes and loaded back into our trucks , the next stop would be the Medical Centre , previous to our trip Yamaa had made an appeal for medical supplies to be donated for use in Mongolia and there had been a tremendous response , several boxes of supplies had been gathered and shipped out , this is what Dave had been trying so hard to clear customs on our first day , alongside these donations Yamaa had also bought defibrillators and Pulsox metres to donate directly as well. Dave told me that a sporran I had donated when I owned TD9 had been auctioned off and one of the pulsox metres had been bought with the proceeds , I was pleased because over here in the west we take all the equipment , knowledge and safety for granted  ,  In Dalanzadgad they have little if any and the number 1 killer in their hospital is people dying during an operation when a power cut hits ….. WOW !!!

Dalanzagdad Medical centre …

We arrived at the medical centre and the medical equipment was offloaded into the hospital , a meeting had been set up with the Hospital Chief of staff and he was overjoyed to receive the equipment , during a short speech he thanked Yamaa for its efforts in helping Mongolia and described how the equipment would be used , both in the centre and by its mobile units who operate in the Steppes and Gobi region .. Again I was bowled over by the good will and gratitude shown by these people .

After the visit to the Medical centre Dave and the rest of the Sand-baggers team went to do an equipment check , by the nature of a Sand-baggers event it has a very “expedition” feel and because of this I always feel a little left out , sometimes I’m really not sure what to do with myself ,  this is nobody’s fault , it’s because I normally play a huge part in an expedition , for years my friends and I have been organising self-sufficient expeditions all over the world , we work very well as a team and all play an important role , but that’s MY team .. I am a paying customer of Sand-baggers , I am not part of their team , I’ve nothing to do with what happens around me , it feels weird … stress free but weird ..

Piero , Ryan , Robert and I headed into town to try to send and email , get Robert a haircut and find Piero some money , Piero had generously emptied his wallet earlier in the day and given all his money to the lady in the Ger , he was exceptionally generous and I enjoyed his warm personality immensely during my time in his company.Ryan , Robert and I were taken to the local internet Cafe where we were pretty much whisked back in time to old skool PCs and a dial-up connection , some of you may remember my attempt at a blog post , every 5 mins I heard Ryan swear , he was desperately trying to send an email but his PC kept shutting down …  after 45 minutes he gave up , Robert seemed happy enough and we set about finding him a hairdresser to get him the Desert crew cut he desperately needed , Solongo took us to what looked like an old block of flats and we headed up to the second floor , here was a fully equipped Salon full of hot ladies , woooarrr !! they were suitably impressed with my tattoos and blue eyes , classy ladies , haha !! ,  Robert had a seat and the clippers bit into his long locks , then the power went out , disaster , the hairdresser worried not and started to hack away with her scissors shorter still , Robert looked worried but soon the power was back and his number 2 all over was finished , Ryan was determined not to be out done so had Solongo order him up a number 1 all over , don’t touch the moustache’  …. excellent .. the Baldies do the Gobi .. stroll on !!!

Bivouac 1

We met up with Dave and Phil and set off from Dalanzadgad and headed to the first Bivouac , the start of the Gobi Challenge . This was in a small valley at the entrance to a national park where the first stage would follow a road leading up to a famous gorge , we would then run through the gorge and follow a route over the hills back to the camp , it was a beautiful position , Piero cooked a meal of Pasta using ingredients he had brought from home, this was beautiful and after 3 days struggling with the Mongolian food I had been severely calorie deficient, we settled in for another beautiful night under the stars , the next day was spent sorting out my equipment as we waited for the other runners arriving later that day as they were flying down from Ulaanbaatar.Robert ,Ryan and I decided to walk over to a museum opposite the camp , it contained a variety of stuffed animals and had info on the gorge up ahead , the gorge was to be full of wild Mongolian hamsters , amazing !! I always wondered where hamsters came from .. lol

Dave and the support team had taken the trucks to pick up the other runners from the airport at 1pm and pretty soon the camp was busy , we all made our introductions and got to know each other a little better when Piero cooked us some more fantastic Pasta. The other runners were spread from all over the globe , Willehard and Jane were from Holland although Willehard worked in Oil and they had lived everywhere you could think of and were presently residing in Shanghai , John a live wire Kiwi who runs Real Travel China and Lydia a very attractive chinese National were also from Shanghai , Paul Wood an Ex-Pat  now staying in Phoenix Arizona , 3 Mongolian runners including Budjargal who is running from Mongolia to London to celebrate the Olympics , that’s one HUGE run , Brigid a “famous” female Ultra from Germany ., Karen from Texas , and our own home-grown talent of Rhys and Andy from Wales , Stuart from Scotland , Paul , Owen , Keith , Ian , Mal and Alfredo from England , from England , it was an all-star cast and sure to be a great race.

Stage 1 …..   Robert had a poem to inspire us on the first day as we lined up at the entrance to the National park ready for stage 1. This was a loop climbing up a dirt track for 8 miles into the heart of the park then veering off into a gorge before another long dirt track full of very steep climbs  took us back into camp. We all shook hands and wished each other luck , look after yourself and fellow runners was the cry and BANG .. we were off up the hill , it was a slow steady climb , I watched Paul ,Owen and Bardjargal speed up the hill , these guys were fit , Very .. Owen was an accomplished runner with a sub 2:30 marathon and had been close to pulling a 2:17 in his last event , that is Elite running , a true athlete , Paul to was high calibre and with his Arizona home being very hot he was also in his element , Bardjargal was the best distance runner in the Mongolian National  team so I expected an epic battle upfront . The hill I was running up was not one that I would have normally felt but pretty much right away I could feel it , the 10 kg of my loaded backpack was noticeable on my back as I had not been able to train with a pack at all due to my groin , the heat and the altitude all played a part as well, this would be tough , I remembered the MDS and how my pack had appeared to grow progressively heavier over the week despite the fact that it actually was lighter every day , so I slowed down and  picked my way up the hill to be greeted by a huge metal Archway crossing the track , beyond this was the Gorge and a little bit of steep descent , great to get the legs a rest ,although I was sitting in 4th just behind Ian Chappell anything could happen over the next few days , Ian went on to be a real desert strongman , over the whole race I watched him show remarkable stamina and consistency and nail 3rd place. The run through the gorge turned out to be very scenic with high walls and a stream running through it , as a kayaker I have seen some of the most scenic gorges in the world so I’m hard to impress , but I was amazed to see hamsters darting about all over the place , mad !! I met Phil about halfway through , he had hiked in to fix a rope to one of the steep rock drops to aid runners over safely , the rock was razor-sharp , I certainly did not want to fall on my ass in here , that could have been nasty …At the exit to the gorge I met Dave , I paused briefly to speak and refill my bottles , the sun was beating down now as it was approaching mid day but I felt fresh so I headed up and out the gorge , the next few miles was  an undulating track over hills returning us back to camp , the hills were very steep and I decided to walk them to conserve energy for the next day , it’s not a 12 mile hill race where I can fall over the line knackered and barely walk the next day , a multi-stage requires pacing of your body over 6-7 days of marathon+ mileage and I for one am not fit enough to blast everyday  , walking is not my strong point and I really can’t walk fast , its strange to think I average an 8 minute  mile in a marathon yet I can’t fast walk at all , when I try I tire straight away, it’s a skill and when you see a fast walker you will appreciate just what I mean …. respect is due  !!

Ian “the engine” Chapell

The road was long and arduous , and broken up by 4 wheel drives so it was like running on a corrugated track ,it really tears at your feet and doesn’t let you get much rhythm going at all. Eventually I was over the last hill and I ran down into Camp , Owen , Paul and Ian were there to meet me .. they had run some amazing times and we all sat back to await our fellow runners finishing , next up was Ryan , my compadre and tent mate , he appeared over the hill whooping and dancing over the finish line , pretty soon everyone started to appear over the crest of the hill , every man was clapped over the finish line and congratulated.The camp that night was filled with stories of beautiful gorges and mutant hamsters .. good times. The next day we would be running to a new Bivouac so we all studied our map books and readied for the an early start.

Keith Flood , lightening walker …. cruises “THE ROAD” ….

Stage 2 …..  had the same starting line as the previous day , up that long long hill again !!!  but we would cut off after a few miles and cross some mixed terrain with a HUGE very steep hill before arriving on the desert plain , I had awoke with some serious DOMS , delayed onset of muscle soreness for those of you not in the know , and bruised metatarsals on top of my foot , I dont get DOMS mush , so put it down to carrying my backpack and walking up the hills the previous day , the metatarsals from my laces being to tight  but fingers crossed it would pass , I had decided to run 30 mins to begin with just to get it out my system and then interval run/walk the long hill to conserve some energy for later in the day when things got flatter , this was a lot easier than the previous day and it went fine , as expected the fast walkers made mincemeat of me but I continued on hoping to make up ground later but to be honest between my DOMS , my already sore feet and the blazing heat I was not feeling the love for day 2 ..Even the sight of a beautiful if monstrous desert plain with 10,000 foot mountain ranges either side did not lift my spirits , especially when I found myself back on the corrugated road again , the Gobi challenge was about to throw a huge mental battle right in my face , I just didn’t know it yet. I followed “The Road” for what seemed like an eternity and eventually arrived at Bivouac 2.

Shattered ………….

It was a beautiful setting ,open and exposed though , I tried to find shade and a patch of ground with no rocks , this wasnt easy but after clearing a space I lay exhausted on the ground , entering a tent wasnt an option as they were so hot inside !!  …I removed my shoes and my feet were soft and the little toes were losing all the skin , a blister down to the flesh had appeared and my left toe had ripped the skin and exposed the flesh .. fuck !! , I washed and cleaned them , disinfected them and applied some adhesive bandage to protect them but by god they hurt , I was very disappointed , In the MDS I had exactly the same problem , I had worn shoes that I had run 1000s of miles in , I had even worn out 4 pairs and never had a blister yet on reaching the Sahara my feet just exploded !! I ran the Scottish Ultra and again never had a blister , yet only 2 days into the Gobi my feet were exploding again !! I was really cheesed off , I had hoped it wouldn’t happen but my worst nightmare had just happened , the heat was my feet’s kryptonite !! I lay there feeling pretty dejected. However I picked myself up after 30 mins and got on with the nightly chores , get my calorie intake over my throat , re-hydrate , try to wash , sort out my breakfast for the following day and chill out . Ryan my tent mate was always up for some banter , I couldn’t have hoped for a cooler guy to spend time with , we discussed barefoot running , spiritualism , his life in Stevenage  , all sorts over the time we were in Mongolia , so I felt much better by the time it was lights out.


Day 3 and the sun beats down …………

Stage 3 ………….. was to test me no end , we set out on The Road and we were on it all day , imagine the roughest most foot chewing road you can imagine , 27 miles of it from start to finish , in the morning it was actually raining , I enjoyed the break from the heat and I ran the first 10 miles relatively comfortably , but once the sun came out and the heat peaked at over 40 degrees , with  zero shade the whole way it became a real mental battle , at one point with my feet aching and the sun bearing down I felt myself drop into a dark depression , its hard to describe the feelings that can go through your head during an ultra , your mood can swing up and down , the fatigue you feel comes and goes , you spend a long time within yourself , staving off the desire to quit , and after 3 days running in a scorching desert these feelings are amplified way beyond what a non ultra runner could ever imagine , it’s where mental strength wins or loses your battle , between this , the pain of my blisters and the monotony of “THE ROAD” , I was having an extremely dark time. My Achilles heel is monotony , I find it harder than most when mental stimulus disappears and repetition begins , it drives me to despair , its like a voice in my head shouts at me to just quit , it’s not worth it , how boring is this !!! what are you doing here !!! get your arse back in a kayak and forget this Ultra-shit was ringing loud in my ears ,  and it was strong , very strong at times.

I didn’t quit but I did drop back and I definitely wasnt having a good time.The sun just beat down hard and I should have attended to my feet , check them , dry them out at some point but I just couldn’t be bothered and I just wanted to get out the sun and to the finish at all costs.I was glad when Paul Cooke caught me up and we shared some banter ,  this lifted my spirits and we joined Stuart and Rhys on the way into Camp , I was pretty down and just wanted to find a seat in the shade and chill but again this was tough to find , this race really was wearing me down , eventually I found a place to rest and close my eyes for a bit .. I finally removed my shoes to see bare flesh on both my little toes , both ends were demolished , my dressings  had long since fallen off and exposed my toes again , they were in a bad state , I had downed most of my paracetamol on stage 3 , masked the pain but at what cost , I cleaned them up , dried them out and let Orshikh the Mongolian doctor see them , he was a real surgeon and regularly performed operations in a Mongolian hospital where he was chief of staff , he had volunteered his time to be part of the Gobi challenge and he was loving it , he cut away all the skin , poured Iodine into the wounds and helped me bandage them up , his only words were “bad, pain and ooh” , hmmm at least he didn’t amputate …


The TOE ….

Stage 4 ………… I shouldnt have even started the race this day , I was beaten right from the start ,  I had lay for over an hour in my sleeping bag not wanting to get out , my feet stung , my will to race had gone and I was torn between forging on and tearing up my feet or calling it a day and favouring my Himalayan race , did I really want to risk screwing my feet up ?? Memories of my last few days in the Marathon Des Sable and the pain I had gone through were still fresh in my mind , I had also been very ill after this race due to the drugs administered by the french docs , not their fault , I hadn’t admitted to the huge amount of self administered Ibuprofen/Penicillin/codeine I had taken that day , so when they gave me an oral dose of Amoxicillin it tipped the balance and burnt my stomach lining,, I had to drink Gaviscon for weeks .. yeuuch !!  I wasnt about to go down this route ever again .. I ran for a while  , it was hot , very hot , too hot! ,  it was torture … my feet were aching and mentally i just couldn’t be bothered , seriously that’s how I felt , the importance of it all had just gone , what the fuck were we doing , grown men running around in the desert trying to prove we are tough , Id had enough , I sat down and removed my shoes , put my sandals on and started walking , race was over !! for a few miles I toyed with the idea of walking the whole way in my sandals , it wasnt so bad . but by the time I had walked  to the next checkpoint I had long forgotten that idea .. Dr Greene was on the checkpoint , he asked me what was wrong and I told him , showed him my toes and he assured me I was making the correct decision , I couldn’t continue if I felt like that he agreed , I wonder if Phil and Dave had been there I might have had a change of heart but once Dr Greene had given me the excuse I needed ,  I just folded right then and there , it was over , no more THE ROAD , HEAT , SUN , EXHAUSTION , right then all i felt was relief….. the guilt didn’t come until later …. I stayed at the checkpoint until the last man came through then we swept , removing the flags and any litter we might come across “leave nothing but footprints” is the ultra runners motto .. a burglar may argue that case though  … When I met Phil and Dave the guilt had crept in , I had just given up , I wasnt ill , exhausted or seriously injured so why had I stopped .. I truly don’t know even know just why I did , I felt like I didn’t want to be in the race any more , I didn’t want sore feet , I didn’t want to be cooked under the sun , I didnt want to take one more sip of that God awful hot water in my bottles, maybe during race number 3 I had just had enough torture for one year ………………

Sorry Alfredo this is not the finish line ..

I arrived at camp and told the other runners , everyone was ok , most understood and didn’t give me anything but understanding , they were good people I wouldn’t have expected anything else …. Craig gave me an Apple juice , after 4 days of nothing but hot water this tasted out of this world .. amazing . I lay in my sleeping bag that night , a mix of emotions going through my head ,I had quit the Gobi but It would ensure I would make the Himalaya , yet I should have carried on no matter the cost , Ive never given up before , was the Himalaya worth the Gobi , why had I given up at all , my feet were just an excuse , why had I lost heart .. it was all there in Technicolor and fast forward ! , after what seemed like hours I eventually drifted off to sleep.

checkpoint Charlie ..

Stage 5…….. The day before I had pulled out ,  the decision had been made and executed , so no matter what I was feeling the only way was forward and as positively as I could. I cheered the other runners off at the starting line , helped Craig and the Mongolian support crew to break and tidy camp then headed out into the desert , I had Craig drop me off at a checkpoint with my camera , as everyone came to rest and refuel I tried to get good shots , something memorable of themselves actually in the race. First in was Owen and Paul , Owen was also running with tough blisters on his feet and Paul was suffering some cramping , after 5 days of the pace these guys had been running at they were doing well just to have that !! total respect to these guys , mentally and physically they put out amazing performances every day in the toughest of desert environments.

Owen and Paul , desert Ferrari’s …

Bardjargal was hot on their heels so they didn’t hang around long and soon headed off to the first Dune stage , next in was Ian Chappell also holding a good pace , Ian impressed me no end with his stamina and always seemed to be in total control of the situation , Ryan was next up and arrived with his trademark smile , it was his first multi stage and he was lapping it up big time , sitting in 5th place as well !!

Mal … Cooler than Lawrence ..

Mal and Alfredo were next in , this pair were two real characters and made my day at times , they had been in the MDS together and had a really strong bond that had shown throughout the race , all the lads were coming in thick and fast.

John McKenna …………. indomitable

Paul from Shanghai was in quick , he had paced himself the whole race and always appeared to be enjoying himself immensely.

The Great Piero Trinca

The Great Piero was next up on his mountain bike , he had previously done the Gobi Challenge a while ago and had arranged with Sand-baggers to return but this time to complete it on a mountain bike  . Piero was a legend , his warmth , positivity and joviality lifted everyone’s spirits daily and to share a joke with Piero was a great pick me up. Andy a super fit muscular Welshman blasted in , he was getting stronger every day , this day was no exception and he wasted little time getting back out into the heat.

Brigid trys to thumb a lift ……

  Brigid Wefelnberg blasted in , she was a famous german Ultra star and had run every race you can imagine , she was a little crazy and full of fun , she had also ran in the Himalayan 100 and we had talked at length about it.

Stuart ….. Extreme Scotsman ….

soon it was Stuart from Glasgow , steady as a rock just like it was day one , then Keith Flood an amazing  Londoner who has raised over £95,000 for charities since 2005 , he was a rock and hilarious to boot , witty comments rolled off his tongue like sweat ran off his brow .. it was so hot , it must be touching 40 degrees again I thought , I could feel all their pain.

Andy guzzles down some water ….

As a runner I could empathise with what everyone was going through and today was hotter than ever . It gets mentally very tough running in the extreme heat , it just wears you out being there , your brain sends you signals constantly that you must stop running , you must fight these off all day , that alone is hard work , add to that the sand , fatigue , sore feet and the weight of your pack ….. HARD work indeed ..

Paul Cooke … cool , calm and collected ..

Paul Cooke arrived in and looked like he was feeling the heat , but in his usual cool , calm and collected way breezed into the checkpoint and refilled quickly , his words were “Hi Mark , hows it going ? ”  ,  I kinda though I should have been asking him that question …..

Willlehard “the desert eagle” ….

Willehard and his wife Jane from Holland were next in , I got the feeling Willehard , an Oil man who through his job had worked all over the world , had been in some inhospitable places as he was just coasting through this event like a walk in the park on a hot day , his wife also appeared to be having a ball. We stayed put until all the runners were past , then swept again before heading for camp , I jumped in with Dave at a checkpoint further on and carried on my support of the runners , it was proving hard for me being out in the sun all day just supporting  , I could only imagine how the runners were feeling ..  I must have been out in the Sun way to long cos I gave Dave and Phil a hard time at one point for not feeding me  , pretty much a mix of not having eaten all day , exhaustion and far too much sun flicked my switch and I regretted it a minute after I did it , sorry dudes !! I switched checkpoints and as I drove along “THE ROAD” I poured water over everyone we passed ,  I jumped out on the last checkpoint before camp , people looked exhausted as they fell in one by one , I really felt for everyone at this point , the end of day 5 , 28 miles of heat , sand and “THE ROAD” .. Everyone had the stare !! literally !! at this point with only 6 miles to go to finish every runner just wanted to be in camp , as I filled their bottles and moistened their “soaks” I could see everyone looking out along the road , hoping the camp wasnt too far !!one by one the runners headed off into the distance , exhausted after a hard day in “hell”

Rhys ……….. The dragon !!


Rhys was having trouble further up the track , Dave had sat him down and made him rest , hydrate and gave him shade by letting him sit in the van , eventually he had decided to carry on , by the time he reached me at the checkpoint I had made him do the same , he was having trouble breathing and heat exhaustion definitely had a grip of him but there was only 10km left to go and he wanted to continue, .. I decided to accompany him to camp ,  we headed out into the blazing sun , I tried to keep his mind off how tired he was but he was way to far gone and every two hundred yards he had to sit down and sort out his breathing ,  , he wouldn’t give up though , I kept an eye on him and made him hydrate , all I could do was support him , we continued on for several Kms and the truck with Rainbow arrived , Rainbow joined me and I signalled the truck to shadow us , a few more km’s and we would be back at camp and Rhys could recover for the last day , he had managed to get so far , been through so much and he was fighting hard but the heat was now affecting him badly and we were down to 100 metres at a timebetween rests, he was fighting like the Welsh dragon he was but the desert had other ideas ,thankfully I saw Dave’s van approach in the distance , Dave had the say on whether Rhys would continue or not and upon arriving and assessing the situation DAve pulled Rhys from the race ,the guy had fought tooth and nail to make the camp but he just wasnt going to make it , it was too dangerous to let him try , Dave had the final say and we put Rhys in the van and headed to camp . I witnessed a show of mental strength from Rhys that I have never seen before , In all my adventures I’ve never seen some one just keep pushing as their body goes beyond the red line , immense respect to Rhys for this , he should be as proud of that as if he had reached the finish line, he came to endure and he pushed his endurance right to the edge.

Upon arriving in camp Dr Greene and Owen also a doctor decided after examining Rhys to administer a Saline I.V drip to help his recovery , he had gone past the safe zone and a little help to bring him back was needed .Karen arrived in alongside Robert and she to had been suffering the effects of the hot day , the doctor decided to bed her down in his tent to keep an eye on her over night.One by one everyone fell into camp , tomorrow was the last day and it was the day with the big dune .. it was Khongoryn Els, the biggest sand dunes in Asia , this was one big pile of sand ,after seeing it I would estimate it at being 700 feet tall , and after running  20 mile to get there it would be a tough mission but there was a definite buzz around camp , it was nearly finished ,I spoke with Ryan and he had been going well all day , he was picking up momentum and thriving while people were dropping around him , a natural I thought , I kind of expected him to drop into a spot of impromptu meditation on the top of the sand dunes …  I can remember back to my 20s when I just couldn’t see what all the fuss was about when on an expedition people around me would be complaining , roughing it was second nature to me back then , now however in my “old” age I appear to have joined the gang who suffer ……

Ryan knocks back a nice pot of green tea before chilling out in preparation for the last day ….

 Stage 6 … the final day    I jumped in the truck and headed out to checkpoint 1 , just before the first section of dune , I would refill the bottles and point everyone in the direction of the best route up into the sand … Dr Greene and Ali were in the truck keeping an eye on Karen who had to withdraw because of exhaustion the night before , the runners came through steadily , the final day always draws power from places you didn’t realise you were storing it , it’s a mental thing , a good thing … I topped up their water , congratulated them and watched and cheered them all as they came and went from my checkpoint , those who passed looked rejuvenated and ready for battle , a million miles from the day before !! It was great to see them all looking upbeat , Ian and Mal especially had grins on their faces and Ryan was cruising in 4th position , lt . Karen however was having a hard time and Dr Greene asked me to assist him in fitting an IV drip , this was great for me not so for Karen  , ive done all my emergency and first aid courses but to see real medicine at first hand is an amazing thing , I helped and he was kind enough to explain and let me see everything as we went about helping Karen ,  soon she would feel better …

Karen .. time for a quick IV …

After the last runner left our checkpoint we swept and headed to the finish line , here I would watch the runners climb the face of the biggest dune and congratulate everyone on their finish … The dune was huge , way bigger than anything I experienced in the Marathon Des Sable , it was like a mountain of sand , very impressive .. Dunes are the toughest hills to climb out there  you put your feet in and they drop back 6 inches , it’s literally 2 steps forward one step back , so frustrating especially when your tired , Phil was sat on top ,he was in charge of safety and had to be there all day in the baking heat  , he’s Ex-special forces though so he’s probably done this sort of thing before his breakfast but all the same an amazing fête of endurance on its own …. One by one the boys and Girls headed to the dunes , fought their way up and down before mustering up enough energy to run the last flat 2km  to the finish line , receive their medals and finally able to rest , it was an amazing thing they had all accomplished , extreme endurance and a trip never to be forgotten …. people use the word lightly but this was a truly AWESOME achievement ……..

One man didn’t make the top ,  Keith Flood,  but his achievement was no less than the others , I witnessed him through my binoculars battle on and make the dunes , he took a wrong turning on the way up and ended up in a large sand scoop , the sand collapsing beneath him he had to go way off course and drop back down , by this time his water reserves were way to low to contemplate making the top so he had to avoid the dune section altogether to make it back to the finish , his efforts were every bit as deserving as the rest but the rules are rules ……. there was warm beer to finish and after everyone had chilled , joked and went hungry an authentic Mongolian style Goat cooked under the ground arrived and we dived in !!!  apart from the black hairs I kept picking out it tasted good and we all tucked in before getting a good nights sleep for our Journey back to Dalanzagdad in the morning …

Owen Greene , deserving winner of the Gobi Challenge 2011

Dalanzagdad…… We left around 10am , it was a long journey back but the promise of cold beer , hot showers and a bed motivated everyone to be up and ready … we travelled over the plains stopping half way for more Buurz .. I gave it a miss and decided I’d wait until the Ger camp in DZ , it had decent western style food ,tonight I would put my stomach back in order …It turned out to be a fantastic night , with the awards presentation and then a lot of drinking and dancing .. Craig body popping wi Ryan and Roberto was the highlight of the Mongolian waitresses year I think !!!  Craig was a star throughout the whole trip and he wasnt going to disappoint on the last night .

Bardjargal , Mongolian team runner ..

The next day we flew to Ulaanbaatar , only an hour by plane but I wouldn’t have missed my journey overland on the way down , it really made my trip , my race didn’t go well but it really wasnt the big picture anyway , my races are always about the place and Mongolia didn’t disappoint … shame about the food though !!That night we went out in Ulaanbaaatar , to an Irish pub that didn’t sell Guinness but it did sell beautiful Pizzas , result !!!  We were all leaving at different times the next day , everyone at different times to different locations so over the night we all said goodbye and went our own ways ……. my trip back was as bad as the trip across .. but that’s another story …. Mongolia was Amazing ……. End of story !!

I had heard talk of a Sandbaggers expedition late June next year , using Mountain bikes to explore the more mountainous areas along side of THE ROAD …. this would be an astounding trip , I will keep my eyes and ears open …

Blood hell this was one big blog post ………. respect to everyone who read it to the end … you are now an ULTRA-BLOGGER .. lol

Potdale Leisure Centre who let me use the facilities for free whil eIm training especially …. thank you ………..

Crocodile Dundees Scottish cousin …

if you enjoyed reading this note then please have a further look at www.runner786.com and http://www.justgiving.com/marko3006/ ……….. all donation no matter how small makes a difference ….

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16 Responses to The Gobi Challenge …………. the last of the BIG Three ..

  1. A riveting read, Mark. Well done in your attempt. Your support for the others was brilliant, you will have helped them through.

  2. Robert M Atwater says:

    Marco!

    Absolutely Chinggis—you are a MEGASTARr and you were inspirational throughout the Journey-

    As Winston Churchill once said-

    “When going through Hell keep going!”

    A massive hug

    Roberto

    xxx

  3. Lynzi says:

    Hindsight is always 20/20. You may not have finished the race but you will always look back on your experiences of the past year as a huge achievement in life. Fantastic to read the blog and to see the photos as it brings back so many memories of Kazakhstan for me. No one can appreciate the extreme heat of the empty barren plains unless they have been there, its like being on another planet. Extreme admiration for you and all of the other runners. Well done!

  4. Paul Cooke says:

    Fantastic read, brings back some great memories. Thoroughly enjoyed my first Ultra, some of which is down to the race and unbelievable scenery, but mostly down to a great group of people. I will never forget this years adventure and the many new friends made along the way. Well done to everyone in the Gobi this year and look forward to see you all on future trails.

  5. Alfredo Di Meo says:

    Mark, since reading all of the report that you kindly did, it brought back all the experiences and memories of the event, something that had been forgotten about in my hectic life since returning from Mongolia. People ask why we do such races and put ourselves through so much pain ?. The answer is simple as you know yourself, for the 30 seconds of pure running when everything in the World makes sense, and the chance to push the limits. We also meet great people and share those experiences.

    All the best mate, and see you soon

  6. Mal Smith says:

    What a brilliant write up I really enjoyed it, well done mate. It was a real pleasure meeting you and the rest of the runners. I do hope that your injuries soon heal and you continue to carry on Ultra Running because I know you can be good at it. Set your sights on that Himalaya 100, you can do it…….Desert Romeo….what’s all this about ???? Cheers Mark I wish you all of the best. Mal

  7. Paul Giblin says:

    Mate, have read this 3 times now. Epic.

    What an amazing experience. Whatever happened it did so for a reason. You’ll find out one day.

    Learn from it and move on – the Himalaya’s are next!

    You’re a LEGEND.

    Paolo

  8. david scott says:

    this has made it very hard to finish the race report mate 🙂

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  12. Wow, I just read through that again nearly two years after the event.

    An amazing journey in every sense.

    Legend.

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