Here we Gobi Again

Here we Gobi Again

In November 2015 I was invited to run the Inaugural Gobi Ultramarathon a 50km loop in the Gobi Desert.  I spent 4 days in China on that trip and missed out on a lot of the pre race activity due to travel delays.  When the opportunity to run 100km and an extra loop presented itself I didn’t hesitate despite the challenges I’ve taken on this year.

My world fell apart in January when I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer.  I didn’t know what it would mean for my running.  At the end of 2015 I felt I was running at my best and I was looking forward to building on it in 2016.  My plans were unfairly thwarted with this news.  I soon learnt that it was not a death sentence and perhaps not as bad as I imagined.  I cannot find anyone who has dealt with Breast Cancer, it’s ongoing treatment and care who has continuing to compete at the elite level Internationally in ultra running.  My Oncologist advised me that clinically there was not reason why I should not continue to train and compete as I have.  So with the blessing of my Surgeon and Oncologist I chart unknown territory and challenge the status quo as to what is humanly possible and only wish to continue to entertain and inspire you as I live my life running around the world.

So on the 22nd September I found myself boarding an international flight and headed back to China to run a couple of 50km laps in the Desert.  A day later I arrived in Jiuquan on the edge of the Gobi Desert and was soon united with runners from around the world and we set off for a tour of the Great Wall of China, collected my race pack and rested up in preparation for the race.

The goodies that came in everyone’s race pack.

On reflection I note I really was in no condition to ‘race’ a 100km event, let alone one that involves a hard slog in the sand. I ran the inaugural event a 50km last year so I had a fair idea of what to expect. On race day I found that first 50km hard and the thought of having to run that loop again really challenged me mentally. I saw fellow Aussie Gary Mullins at about 40km sitting down at the checkpoint with his shoe off, he had a foot injury.  He said he wasn’t going to be able to do the 100km and he had to withdraw and the thought of joining him crossed my mind. Fellow Aussie Ella Jamieson had been running near me for a while but had pulled away.  I got to halfway where I had a drop bag and was welcomed by Tao who had coordinated all the international athletes travel, seeing her lifted my spirits.  She asked about Gary whether he wanted the sweep car, I told her I wasn’t sure and I sat down briefly to restock my pack and now felt encouraged so I set off for another lap with some determination.

Aussies & adopted Aussie Meghan at the race start.  L-R: Meghan Arbogast, Ella Jamieson, Lucja & Dion Leonard, Gary Mullins, Jodie Oborne, Bernadette Benson.

On the second lap the fatigue really hit as the it started to warm up. I didn’t seem to be sweating much though and it was a dry heat. I had plenty of gels and electrolytes and water was available every 5km or so. I took a No Doz caffeine tablet, but this didn’t seem to help. I dropped to a walk from about 55km the sandiest section with a gentle climb. And I struggled for quite a while walking mostly and seriously thinking about withdrawing. I tackled 5km at a time. The body felt fine some general soreness but nothing major. I just felt tired. I thought about withdrawing at 75km this is where I had a drop bag. I came across some youths and a motorbike one of them asked to have a photo with me, I was in no mood for a photo and one of the guys said something and gestured at the motorbike I think offering me a ride. It was pretty bizarre to come across them in the middle of the desert, I just indicated that I wanted to keep going and climbed up and over the next sand dune. At 60km I worked out that if I ran the last 40km in 5 hours I would finish in 12 hours and before it got dark. But I couldn’t muster the strength to run and plodded on only sometimes running.  The course was marked with barrels covered with the race sponsors logo and red flags.  I would pick out a red flag in the distance and would tell myself to just run to the flag.  At 75km I picked up my drop bag changed my shirt and collected my headlamp and checked my gel stock. I was a little shaky but otherwise feeling good so I decided that I had come all this way I was going to finish it. I told myself not to be stupid I had come a long way to run this race.  I was going to finish the time or place did not matter. For what seemed like ages it had felt like it was just me and a million footprints in the desert. I studied the varied patterned souls of the shoes of runners ahead of me.  There were no runners around me and the only people I saw were at aid stations.

The course, you simply ran between the barrels.  The surface was deceptive it looks like it’s hard but you would often sink into sand.

Then I noticed that the wind was picking up and there was the odd spot of rain. I could see a large dust cloud in the desert to my left and I worried that now that I would be pulled from the course because of the storm. Part of me liked that thought and the other was determined to finish.  The women’s winner Valeria finished the race in the midst of the dust storm and runners at the start/finish precinct were made to return to the hotel for their safety.  It turned out to be for me a bit of a blessing.  It was a little dusty but I had a strong tail wind and I was back running. As I approached the lake I came across four locals, two of them ran with me for a while speaking to me in Chinese.  I tried to convey that I only knew English but they kept talking and running with me right to the next aid station. The timing mat here had been turned off as things were getting blown away but I was still well within the time limit, I asked if I could finish, to please record my number, they didn’t seem to want to stop me so I ran off.  Finally I was back to running more than I walked. It tried to rain and I was almost blown off the side of a sand dune but it was otherwise great to have a tailwind at this point.

Spending time with multiple world champion Edit Berces was a highlight of the trip for Gary and I she was very generous with her time.
Aussies with Tao the officially amazing organiser (cat herder) of athletes.  We adopted Meghan as Aussie for a few days.  L-R Gary Mullins, Tao, Jodie Oborne, Meghan Arbogast, Ella Jamieson

At 89km I came across Edit Berces at an aid station she had been out and about on the course all day encouraging runners. I met her in China back in June and it was so great to spend some time with her again at this event. She asked me if I wanted a t-shirt or anything as it was starting to get dark and cool down. I was still running well the body not too sore no obvious niggles or soreness and nutrition and hydration under control. I told her I could finish and ran off. At 8km to go the race director came along he was worried about me it was dark now he said the weather was bad and I should quit, that the volunteers had finished for the day.  I was very aware that I was still within the cutoffs and the wind by then had died down. It was turning out to be a nice evening. The course was well marked and easy to follow in the dark with my headlamp and I was still running more than walking and I told him I could finish. He said take some water, the aid station was deserted but the supplies were still there, he said he would send a car to follow me and I ran off. The cars found me with about 6km to go. How they find the tracks in the desert I don’t know but it would have been pretty easy to spot me by my headlamp in the open. The car followed me for a couple of kilometers then the 2km to go checkpoint was in sight, the lights visible from a few kilometers away. I was really happy to be able to turn right having completed 2 big laps in the desert. The finish line was not yet visible, I ran over a short rise and I could finally see the lights of the finish precinct but it still looked like it was a long way away. It was about 1.5km. I finished in 13 hours 11 minutes. I have no idea where I placed.  I was greeted by Chuping who had helped us a lot as athlete coordinator the year before and she took great care of me.

Breakfast of/with champions. L-R Meghan Arbogast, Edit Berces, Gary Mullins, Ella Jamieson, Jodie Oborne, Giorgio Calcaterra.
Recovery walk around Jiuquan with the gang.  Zach Bitter (USA), Meghan Arbogast (USA), Christoph Lux (GER), Giorgio Calcaterra (ITA), in the background Sylvain Bazin (FRA), Gary Mullins (AUS).

There were 25 women who started but I think there were quite a few that withdrew. An amazing dynamic Argentinian women Valeria Sesto was the winner in 10 hours 14 minutes. She had never run 100km before, she had run 50 miles and was tiny I imagine she floated across the sand. I have made another amazing connection. Bernadette Benson was 2nd she is in great form. The amazing Ella Jamieson (winner 6 foot track) was 5th it was her 1st 100km.

Running has become very much my life as I now also coach a number of athletes.  I am extremely grateful for the opportunities and experiences I continue to enjoy as a result of my hobby which really is a lot of hard work.  The world really is an amazing place and there is a lot of wonderful experiences to be found while on the run and before and after.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.