On the 8th November 2015 over a hundred runners assembled on the edge of the Gobi Desert in China to run 50km. Runners had come from all around the world for this experience. For an inaugural event it was extremely well organized with all the runners needs catered for.
My journey to the race in northern China began on the morning of Friday the 6th November and my travel plans and race preparation was immediately thrown into disarray by my flight’s delayed departure from Brisbane. I spent over 3 hours trapped inside the plane on the ground and had enough time to watch a movie and enjoy the inflight meal before we finally took off for the 8 hour flight to Guangzhou, China. This meant I missed my connection that night to Lanzhou and instead stayed the night in Guangzhou. A lovely Chinese woman an event volunteer had waited into the night for my arrival in Lanzhou. The race organisers soon worked out through the airline that I was booked on the next available flight the next morning. I finally made it to Lanzhou in the middle of China and it was snowing. After a few warm humid days in Brisbane this was a nice change. Ada who had waited at the airport the night before was there to meet me the following morning. She was very pleased to locate me, this international athlete was not lost somewhere in the middle of China. We waited for a Japanese runner on a different flight and then the final leg of my journey was a 4 hour high speed train ride to in northern China. I had of course missed my earlier train and caught the last train of the day, which didn’t arrive at my final destination until 10:00pm. I arrived late at the hotel in downtown Jiuquan which doubled as the race headquarters and sadly missed the press conference, a tour, race briefing and an evening meal. I did have the essential information my race kit and my roommate USA athlete Meghan kindly updated me.
There were only a few mandatory items, 2 race bibs (1 front, 1 back), a timing chip and a whistle. We were strongly advised over and over and over again to wear running gear that covered our legs. One section of the course passed through thorn bushes and the event organisers did not want anyone to be badly scratched up. I had planned to wear my running skirt which has plenty of pockets to stash my nutrition and my whistle so I didn’t need to wear a race vest. So now I had to seriously reconsider my race outfit.
Race morning there was a minor delay as all athletes were taken by bus to the race precinct a 30 minute drive from downtown Jiuquan. Thankfully I was able to enjoy a light breakfast before we were on a bus heading to the race start. The morning was cold which I enjoyed and it was clear and sunny, great conditions for racing.
Athletes milled about inside the runners marquee going through their race preparation. I stepped out to take some photos of the race precinct and was soon asked to have my photo taken with locals. It seemed EVERYONE wanted a photo with us (the western athletes) we were certainly a novelty in regional China. I am pretty sure I did not have my photo taken that often on my wedding day. After watching a traditional Chinese drumming display we made our way to the start line only to be told that the race start had been delayed as they were still waiting for athletes to arrive via bus. I enjoyed the pre race entertainment found it was warmer if we stood up next to the white marquee in the full sunlight and chatted to the other international athletes. This also gave people opportunity to gesture at the uncovered skin on my legs and to urge me to cover it up otherwise I would be injured. In the end I told them I would collect some tights at the major checkpoint at about halfway.
Finally the race start was rescheduled one hour later for 10:00am. We huddled on the start line where 5 officials were poised with starter pistols. The countdown in Chinese started the starter pistols fired, not exactly simultaneously and we ran off into the Gobi Desert while fire crackers and rockets were fired off in our wake which made for quite an electric atmosphere.
The course was well marked and easy to follow, the course markings consisted of two pegs hammered into the ground marking the shortest course through the desert. From time to time large flags were on the rises. The course did not follow a road or trail for the most part we simply picked our way through the low scrubby bushes, over the sand dunes and through the fine powdery sand of the desert. Timing mats were placed at strategic turns which meant it was impossible to cut the course short. In fact it was often faster to run longer and to skirt around the short steep sand dunes and this was well within the rules. I soon adjusted my expectations when I found the running particularly over the first section of the course quite challenging.
The desert was vast, desolate but beautiful. Small hills could be seen in the distance. We passed some ancient ruins just visible between some dunes, a stone marker I had no idea of its significance but it was quite distinctive and seemingly in the middle of no where. We came across a lake surrounded by some trees and tall reed like plants and some buildings but it was otherwise fairly sparse and rocky. Near the lake we passed through two round concrete pillars at the top of a small rise and enjoyed running on a paved road for a short period before crossing another timing mat and heading again off through the desert following the posts.
I finally came across what I thought was the section with the dreaded thorny bushes. Instead of being waist height as I imagined they were remarkably similar to vegetation we had encountered earlier and it was easier and possibly faster to take the gravel road around it rather than run the shortest route between the wooden pegs. I am glad I didn’t decide to change my race outfit. The vegetation soon thinned out again and imagine my dilemma when I needed a comfort break and there was nowhere to hide. There was about 5km to go and I was sure I wasn’t going to make it to the finish. Fortunately I came across a small mound of dirt that hid me from oncoming runners. My modesty was intact. I crossed the final timing mat on the course and headed for the finish which I could clearly see in the distance 2km away. Often on the course a white marquee set up for aid stations could be spotted in the distance and often it was several kilometres away.
I crossed the line in 4th position. A volunteer immediately offered me a bag of ice and a towel and I was handed my medal. My volunteer escorted me to the runner’s recovery tent keeping an arm on me to ensure I did not fall over. While this was not necessary I expect she had been instructed to do so. She stayed with me as I made my way to the runners marquee to collect my drop bag. Again security was great as only runners were allowed in here and while I had simply left my bag on a chair in the runner’s marquee someone checked that the bag I was collecting which had my race number securely fastened to it made sure the number matched my race bibs. The recovery tent was well equipped with massage tables and therapists, mats and foam rollers, chairs and more bags of ice and the runners tent had a table full of recovery snack food and bottles of water. Chinese race recovery food at this event included small bread rolls, packs of savoury crackers, tins of soup that were served at room temperature, which a British athlete said was ‘extremely unappealing’ and long skinny sealed sticks of processed chicken meat. I settled for the bread roll which was slightly sweet and the crackers and plenty of water.
The Chinese definitely have a strong running community, there was also a large contingent of Japanese runners as well as the other ‘invited’ runners from right around the World that included this athlete all the way from Australia. The Gobi Ultramarathon 50km is sure to be run again in 2016 the race organisers are keen to improve on this years experience and hope to see me again. Absolutely.
Link to my Strava file here.
Race nutrition: Gu Energy Gels Vanilla Bean, Roctane Sea Salt Chocolate and half a banana. Bottles water collected at aid stations along the way.