The Gobi March
Deserts are dreary. Cold, hot, windy, warm, dry, burning, and did I say hot? But something draws me to them. Like the fly that rushes towards the light, I am hypnotized by the desolate landscape. I love to feel the harsh wind whip my face like a blow-dryer on max. To dance over the uneven rock. I'm crazy. But so are my 100 closest friends running in the Gobi.
Arriving in the middle of a sunny and beautiful day, our buses stopped in a valley, near a stream, in a field of green. Hardly desert landscape. I shuffled through a tunnel of cheering locals and volunteers, hopped around the man beating his drum, and joyfully tossed my backpack in my tent. I fished out my dinner of noodles and cooked them up right as the dancers began their strut. Following the crowd, I made my way to the front, noodles in my left hand and spoon in my right. The food gave me a good excuse to avoid the partner dancing when Dancing with the Stars broke out a moment later. Directly after, a sort of horse race began. At one point I heard that a goat's head was usually used during this game, but I never saw it. An hour and half a hundred photos later, most of us retreated to our tents. The reckoning was coming.
Cold and calm, the day began perfectly. The 8 AM starting whistle blew and I planned to take it easy. Fortunately for me, we began with a very technical river crossing. My favorite. I bounded through boulders as I sprang towards Checkpoint 1. The trails flattened out a bit and I ran most of the way to the 2nd checkpoint located atop a small hill. Feeling good, I rushed into the small town with a few local supporters. While waving and smiling like a celebrity, one supporter went a little further than just cheering. She joined me. Barking playfully along the way. The little blonde dog didn't look like much, and at first I thought she would only follow to the end of the town. When she passed the town I thought, maybe just to the bridge. She never stopped. In fact, she was faster than I could dream of being. Finally, I arrived at the extremely vertical dune and the dog just kept on going, running up the dune with a smile and following me all the way to the finish. When one of the camera men asked me what the name of the dog was I looked at her and said "Tonto." Throughout the week the name would be "Toto" for some and "Gobi" for others; but she was always Tonto to me.
I woke up refreshed and ready from my sleep in the Yurt. I would need it. Our route started cold and on an asphalt road of rolling hills. After a few kilometers we split left into a dense forest which was almost impossible to continue a steady run in. My impromptu group of runners began to get into a rhythm of running downhill and walking uphill. While at some times I thought it would've been easier to hack through with a machete, I was pleased with how I felt. The terrain and clouds opened up after the first checkpoint. l. After stopping to gear up into my rain jacket I met an old uphill riverbed filled with loose rocks and mountains in the distance. I awkwardly worked my way through the rocks and edged towards the mountain ahead. Already a little tired, I looked up to see the worst sight imaginable, switchbacks straight up the side of the mountain. No one was running. Everyone looked ready to cry. I soon realized why. The rain turned into snow as I climbed and my hands began to numb. I reached the checkpoint and desperately wanted to rest, but the volunteers pushed me into the most magical downhill of my life. The snow and rain quickly subsided as I passed a sole house and a lone horse rider while chasing the river 20 km to the end. Finally, I saw a village. I heard the drum beats of the finish. Day 2 was complete, and so was I.
I woke up with body tired but mind rested. Delighted to be positioned in the top 30. Similary to yesterday, the day began on rolling hills. Dissimilar to yesterday, we were done with green. Officially in the desert. And this desert greeted us with technical, large, loose, rocky terrain. After busting through two towns we hit my nemesis, an asphalt road. My knees started to inflame and I craved the uphills that allowed me to walk. The devilish asphalt finished after 5km and led us back into rocky terrain. Only this time it was a bit more troublesome. The uphills on rocks did me in, and the downhills were no better for my knees. Luckily, I was soon past the final checkpoint and still in the Top 25. I was passed by a few uphill shenaniganers and then arrived at the river crossings. I saw the quickly rushing water and carefully waded in. My first step coming to my ankles, next to mid-calf, and finally to my knee. I fished myself out and quickly encountered another dirt road. Tired and ready to relax, I was hoping that the end was hiding around each bend, over every hill. To my dismay, after 5km on the road I had to turn off into an area of large rocks seemingly impossible to run over. I eventually found our camp and stumbled through, thrilled about the end. Unenthused about the run to come.
A hard day for me. My knee hurt from the beginning. The downhill was continuous. And the competitors were fierce. The endless march of the desert surrounded my vision, only broken up by the beauty behind me. My mind gave up this day. I armed myself with excuses. I gave into the doubt building in my mind. Will I be able to finish tomorrow? Who am I to be running this anyway? That's the thing about deserts. They make you think. They break you down in order to build you anew. Because you're not ready. You never will be. No matter how hard you train, doubt creeps in. And the only thing you can do to survive is to keep going. I forced myself to push through and finish that day. I didn't enjoy it. I didn't have fun. But I did it. And the true test was about to take shape.
Nothing prepares you for heat except fire. We began the day at 7 AM in order to "avoid" the heat. Impossible. MIdday began at 7 AM. My goal was to run in the beginning and create some separation. Success. I came into the first checkpoint in the Top 25 and by the second checkpoint was included in the Top 20. I held steady at this position until Checkpoint 5, 27 km away from the finish. As soon as I started walking away from Checkpoint 5, my mind began negativity. I experienced true desperation. I frantically realized that I hadn't peed all day. I checked my water levels and noticed that I was struggling to drink water. My hearing in my ears started going and my eyes closed in. Ready to pass out. I wanted to drink my water, but boiling stew isn't easy to drink in 123 degrees. The road continued forever. I started seeing things. The white flag of the checkpoint waving in the distance, a rock that wasn't there. All while thinking, I haven't seen but one roving vehicle out here, I could die. But I didn't. I safely made it to checkpoint 6 and rested with my teammate, Avi, as we waited for our other, Allen. At first the rest was just 30 minutes, then an hour. Avi had left and Allen was waiting on me. I tried to get up to prove to people that I could go on. The doctor asked me to finish the bottle of water, and then I was free to go. I took a swig and involuntarily gagged as the water tore down my throat. Allen headed off with another group, and I laid in wait. I never felt better after that.
I was allowed to go 5 hours later, in the dark, with my heart rate still above 100 bpm. I pressed on in the still hot Gobi. Even walking was a challenge. I spent 3 hours traveling 10 km to the final checkpoint. Just 7 km away from the finish. Out of breath and out of energy. I was told to wait a little while. I fell asleep. I awoke to hurricane wind and concerned volunteers recommending a halt of all runners. We were in a sandstorm. I glanced outside the tent and saw nothing. The sand was flying thicker than fog on a cold Sunday morning. As I glanced around the tent there was absolute silence from the exhausted competitors. Nearly 15 of us were laying down in lines as if waiting for our own coffins. I drifted back to sleep as the sound of wind grew to the defeaning level of a Nascar stadium. I was awoken at 5 AM to the nurse saying "Get up and get your stuff in the car, we're leaving." I panicked. I thought that they were medically disqualifying me. I hastily responded "No, I can do this. Follow me to ensure my safety if you have to. I can't be DQ'd." She assured me that I would finish and that this wasn't a disqualification. It was an end of the day due to extreme weather. We all joined the campsite and were toted to a safe location to wait out the storm.
I woke up in a pool of my own sweat. The sauna I had slept in had left my drained and empty. I dragged my corpse outside, more body than mind. Completely vacant of energy and consciousness. The zombie state continued for most of the day until the smell of fresh food. My mood immediately brightened. The food was a godsend. A green bean concoction, a spicy vegetable stew, rice, and Hami Melon. I went back for seconds and saw the staff bring out a big cake to celebrate the 50th race. I quickly ran up, noted who cut the biggest pieces and picked her (it was Mary, the founder of RacingThePlanet). Fat and happy, I enjoyed the rest of the day until it was time to rest. I set up my mat outside and enjoyed the best sleep since the yurt.
We started late, at 9, on this day. After busing us to the start of this short 10km day Sam told us that there were 3 big hills and then smooth sailing to the end. Feeling my legs, I was fully aware that my knees would make it impossible to run. Sure enough, my knees begged for mercy as the whistle rang. I took it slowly, quickly finding myself alone with my thoughts in this isolated desert. I admired the formations. I accepted my performance. While in this blissful reflection, I saw the first of the three climbs. It was larger than expected. After wearily stumbling through the first one I viewed an even steeper one in the distance. I summited and thought two down, one to go. The third hill was the worst of all, and continued forever. Just when I thought the third was over, I turned a corner and it kept going. Finally I crested the third uphill and was confident that the end was near. My slow and injured walk meant it took another 30 minutes, but I finally heard the end. People laughing, drums beating, and I could practically feel the beer going into my mouth. My happiness increased with each step and reached a peak as I rounded the corner and saw the finish. My legs found the energy to run through the finish and into my beer and grilled bread filled with mystery ingredients. The race was over. And I was spent. I laughed with friends new and old, ate my fill, and felt my freedom.