Sur­viv­ing Gobi’s gru­elling 400-km race

Action Asia - - EVENTS -

C H I NA L O V E S I T S ME G A projects and in run­ning they don’t come much more mega than the Ul­tra Trail Gobi, now in its third year. Held on Septem­ber 25-Oc­to­ber 5, on the south­ern edge of Gansu Prov­ince, close to Dun­huang, it is a 400-km non-stop mon­ster. Run­ners were sent off into the wilder­ness, armed with a GPS track and the bare min­i­mum of equip­ment and nu­tri­tion. More gear and food was stored in drop-off bags, at ten rest sta­tions, where rac­ers could get med­i­cal treat­ment and hot wa­ter. They could sleep if they chose too – the strat­egy was up to them. The di f f i c ult y of t he r a c e , c om­pared t o s t a g e r a c e s , was suc­cinctly summed up by Paul Bor­linha of Canada, a vet­eran of many stage races and Iron­mans: “I never wear fin­isher t-shirts, but I will be proud to put on this one, ” he said. The cut-off time was 150 hours, with this year’s win­ner, Bai Bin of China, com­plet­ing the course in 92 hours 26 min­utes (on five hours sleep!), while the fe­male cham­pion, Veronique Messina of France, clocked over 125 hours. The course was quite un­like what many might have ex­pected: not soft sand but mostly rocky. There were sand dunes but also 3,000-m moun­tains, salt flats and dry river beds. The route was loosely based on part of the jour­ney of the monk and trans­la­tor Xuan­zang who went to In­dia to re­trieve orig­i­nal Bud­dhist scrip­tures, 14 cen­turies ago. He suf­fered greatly with the ex­trem­ity of the cli­mate where a snow­storm and sub-zero tem­per­a­tures can lash the desert af­ter a day of 30-40˚C heat. In his ac­count of the jour­ney, he wrote: “Dur­ing the day the heat sears your skin like a flame, at night the cold cuts your flesh like a knife.” With such chal­lenges, the race was lim­ited to 50 par­tic­i­pants as even those small num­bers re­quired an army of or­gan­is­ers, vol­un­teers, medics and phys­io­ther­a­pists to cater for the run­ners’ ev­ery need. Wa­ter and tim­ing sta­tions were placed ev­ery 10km, and ev­ery run­ner was tracked at all times. “Here you do not have the safe zone of a camp at the end of the day,” said Bor­linha, ”with your bud­dies around you, like in a stage race… here you are alone, and you make de­ci­sions all the time. At a rest sta­tion, in the mid­dle of the night, you start off into the un­known, of­ten alone, and you still have hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres of this un­known ahead of you. Then there is sleep de­pri­va­tion, I fell asleep run­ning on the third day…there is also no trail to fol­low. This is much, much harder.” Af­ter the tri­als of the Gobi, the fin­ish line, in the town of Guazhou, was a suit­ably grandiose af­fair. Even those who fin­ished in the dead of the night were saluted with a vol­ley of fire­works. Some run­ners were prob­a­bly asleep be­fore the spent rock­ets hit the ground.

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