The merciless sun and grueling hills of the Gobi savaged my taxed legs. In just three days, the Gobi Desert had already robbed me of my customary bravado.
I found myself among a determined band of 109 ultra marathon runners aiming to cross one of Earth's driest, windiest and most remote deserts as part of the 4Deserts ultra marathon series, ranked second on TIME Magazine's list of the “World's Top Endurance Events.”
The Gobi March, a 250-kilometer footrace in northwest China, was divided into six Tour de France-style stages with fixed distances and designated campgrounds.
The Gobi March is a “self-supported ultra” so we hauled all of our mandatory equipment, food and water in the rucksacks on our backs.
In effect, we would run a marathon each day for six days, carrying 10 kilograms of required gear. This burden, paired with the sun-scorched hazards of the Gobi, had already taken its toll.
We had chafed backs, blistered feet, turned ankles, shin splints, muscle cramps, painful sun and wind burns, and severe dehydration afflicted many of us.
As a 25-year-old weekend warrior with only two ultras under my belt, I was a virtual unknown and definite dark horse in the international racing circuit. At the halfway point of the 250KM course, I had surprised the field (and myself) by leading the Americans and holding ninth place overall.
A collection of professional runners, adventure racers and thrill-seekers, we were tasked with running over whatever terrain the Gobi threw in our path. We crossed two mountain passes, navigated barren rock fields, forded numerous ice-cold springs and climbed nearly-vertical grasslands.
We passed blooming orchards, grazing livestock, desolate hill shacks and boulder-strewn moonscapes. As our calorie-starved bodies pushed their physical limits, our minds shouldered more of the burden.
Running alongside my German friend, we resolved to embrace the unavoidable pain. I slapped him on the back and jokingly told him to hurry up. We both complained about the blazing heat as I pulled away.
Miles later, during a momentary lapse, my left foot swung into a jutting rock. I struck it much like a goal-bound penalty kick and tripped forward, narrowly missing a face-first crash. My parched mouth was unable to summon profanity.
I stumbled into camp hours later; my blue jersey was soaked white with dried sweat as I harbored a ferocious thirst.
My feet bore three gnarly blisters and two cracked, bloody toenails. Dr. Jay Sharp, the Gobi March medical director, declared my blister the worst he'd seen on the course, before lancing and draining it, and pronouncing both toenails dead.
Dr. Sharp reminded me that the course would get hillier and harder. For my early efforts to bear fruit, I'd need to power through the back half while avoiding the treacheries of ankle-twisting stones and the fierce desert sun.
The Fall of Icarus
After a few hours of dreamless sleep, Samantha Fanshawe, the ever-conscientious race director, woke us up at seven. Her briefing on the topographic hazards and elevation gain awaiting us elicited nervous laughter around the chilly campsite.
As the briefing concluded, we stretched stiff legs next to the communal fire. I practiced my broken Spanish with eventual Gobi March champion, Chema Martinez (the friendliest double-Olympian I know).
My Scottish tent mates, Peter and Nick Mackenzie, a gracious father-and-son pair from Edinburgh, gifted me a square of Parmesan cheese and a surplus of porridge.
Each of us began our preparatory morning rituals. I ripped open an energy bar for breakfast, chugged a liter of water and applied sunscreen.
Next, I carefully packed my trusty rucksack to ensure vital supplies were on-hand — energy gels in the right hip zipper and sodium tabs in the left. I kept caffeinated gummies, sunblock and lip balm stocked in my shoulder pouch.
Similar to previous mountaineering expeditions, I consumed my heaviest foods first because a marginally lighter pack provides for a disproportionately large mental boost.
I tightly rolled my clothes into the base of the ruck and stacked crushed energy-rich snacks and remaining freeze-dried meals (each individually packaged to conserve precious space).
I tightly cinched the shoulder straps to avoid the painful raw spots on my lower back. I reapplied medical tape on each of my toes and heels, and then deployed my patented, double wool sock getup. Blister prevention is vital to successful ultras and mountain climbs.
As I was taught during boyhood boxing lessons, “Small things, all things.” How we execute the fundamentals determines our ability to capitalize on opportunities.
Ten minutes prior to the starting gun, I stretched around the fire and excused myself to mentally focus. Too much alone time before the opening bell can trigger self-doubt, but one must find a relaxed state before beginning a long haul.
I used these quiet moments to slowly sip a steaming cup of Starbucks VIA ready brew coffee while planning my methodical two-step attack for the kilometers ahead. We crowded around the start line as a strong morning sun broke through the clouds, signaling the struggle ahead.
The gun sounded and we were off.
I trotted the first steps and focused on finding a rhythm. The lead pack slowed as we soon approached a knee-deep stream that required careful fording. I aimed to cross it with four stepping stones, but my shoe caught the last rock and torqued my knee.
Only a step was needed to realize the toll; I cried out as fire enveloped my knee. I squeezed the afflicted leg, but no relief came. I looked up as runners blazed by.
The race was slipping away, and my only chance to stay in contention was to dig back in. I tried again and again to stride out as usual but could only hobble painfully over the rocky terrain.
With 125 kilometers remaining in the course, I struggled to comprehend the rugged marathons that lay ahead and how I would ever complete them.
Alas, like Icarus' ill-fated flight, my heroic quest was not to be.
It took me a few minutes to regroup and collect myself. I passed time by counting successful steps without jolts of pain, but each minute brought a lightning strike or three to my knee.
I finally spied the medical checkpoint tent in the distance. Though this oasis surely carried compression bandages and high-grade painkillers, I dreaded the doctor-mandated DNF “Did Not Finish” that awaits lame ultra runners.
Fortunately, Dr. Andrew Nyberg, a skilled and sympathetic wilderness physician, worked to stretch out and massage the busted leg. His examination via vice grip confirmed a sprain in my left knee and tendonitis in my right knee.
Over my pained groans, he massaged the spring-loaded ligaments, hoping to relieve the torturous cramps.
Dr. Nyberg had me cackling at his wit, despite the anguish of his treatment. He tightly taped both knees after christening them “the two stooges” and provided painkillers for the trail ahead. His help and encouragement instilled hope that I could see this through.
When I restated my intention to finish the race, Dr. Nyberg asked about my motivation for gutting it out. I shared the siren song of Olympian Steve Prefontaine:
To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.
My context was the aftermath of a motorcycle crash a year earlier that had ripped the skin off my elbows and knees. I was advised to abandon competitive running because distance training would be too much for my battered, road-rashed legs to handle.
I was attempting to cross the Gobi to put that little voice — a demon of resistance — to bed at last. With a handshake, I left the oasis and prepared for the gut check ahead.
As if to thwart my redoubled purpose, the course quickly repelled me with incessant hills of loose rocks. The climbs tested my fatigued hamstrings, but the descents were downright tormenting. I grimaced with each feeble step as I cut huge switchbacks into the steep hills.
Numerous runners dashed past me. But, the spirit of the ultra-running community was generous; these competitors gave precious food, energy gels, water and impromptu pep talks to help me move forward.
Deeply moved by these acts of kindness, I doubled down on trekking through the finish.
A New Perspective
I summoned the words of my running hero, Ray Zahab, the first man to run across the entire Sahara Desert:
Ultra running is 90 percent mental, and the other 10 percent is in your head.
I simply focused on finding the flattest, most stable next step. I figured that if I repeated that recipe 250,000 times, I would finish.
I hobbled alongside a Dane and an Austrian, who had been marathoning since before my birth. I enjoyed their spirited war stories in accented English as my mind wandered from stunted strides.
At my adjusted pace and frame of mind, I looked about and marveled at the extraordinary landscapes surrounding me.
The snow-capped mountains, rocky terraces and grassland valleys are grand in scope and scale, colorfully matched by the local herders, tradesmen and builders who, seeing me lumbering along, offered me horseback and motorcycle rides (along with plentiful cigarettes).
These Uighurs understood my poor Mandarin and many high fives were exchanged. I reflected that part of my motivation for embarking on the Gobi March was to explore a remote corner of China, the country I had called home for nearly two years.
As my legs continually buckled, my mind drifted back to training runs along Shanghai's imperial Bund riverfront under the glistening towers of rising China. Each long run was a journey into the unknown.
I combatted China's pollution hazard with a “smog or shine” pledge. On days when the US Consulate issued toxic air warnings, I would swim laps in the local pool before knocking out a cardio circuit. Though my five-hour training runs made for better banter, the steady progress enabled by “If, then…” planning is pivotal to any campaign.
Training prepares us to endure, for deep within each of us, there is a wellspring of courage waiting to be tapped. In ultra running, as in life, consistent forward motion beats occasional bursts. Average speed wins.
Relentlessly lurching forward toward my goal, my burning quadriceps rebelled while doubt enveloped each burdened step. The next three days were physical, mental, emotional and spiritual quests, unlike anything I had ever faced.
One step after another, repeated 250,000 times, I hobbled past the finish banner with the average speed of a snail.
Ceremonial dancers greeted me while a Uighur drum line pulsed and competitors cheered. I gave Dr. Nyberg and my Scottish tent-mates bear hugs before collapsing with the joy and satisfaction of having endured.
In the weeks since finishing the Gobi March, friends and family have asked, “Why?” Why do people choose to endure such hardship with no reasonable expectation of money, fame or glory?
Why do we run?
We run from our demons and race to discover our potential. We combat middle age, forget ex-partners and escape the nine-to-five melancholy. We desire to find purpose in pain. We seek strength in solitude. We long for fraternity forged in the wilds. We believe in the power of one foot in front of the other.
We love to move, for the joy of exploration knows no bounds. We seek to be humbled by nature's surreal splendor. We honor our ancestors and our God.
We aim to find our limits and push past them.
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