Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
As the plane began to cruise down towards Ulaanbaatar Airport, those next to the window had their first snippet of the Mongolia countryside and 3 day, ultra-marathon race terrain. Miles and miles of luscious green, rolling hills and from 10,000 feet, it looked picture perfect!
After five bumpy, cramped hours of Ulaanbaatar’s horrific, dusty traffic, the slightly faster highways and then a long cross country section, the bus finally arrived at the ger ( Mongolia nomadic tent ) base camp. It was already dark, cold and raining heavily! In the darkness, we collected our kit bags and were swiftly ushered to our gers. The top priority was to stay positive and to get some decent sleep before the first marathon the next day.
I had a great night’s sleep and woke fresh and excited about the race ahead. As we emerged from our super snug ger, we were greeted by beautiful, clear blue skies and views of the rolling grasslands. The air was crisp, cool and refreshingly clean. It even tasted good ( compared to HK anyway )! The grass on the valley floor was lush, a full, wholesome green. It continued all the way up the sides of the valley to the ridges above us. It looked as if it had been perfectly groomed by giants! It also looked like fast terrain and the conditions appeared perfect for running. Boom!
The first day’s course was reasonably flat and that meant that in this perfect running terrain, even though it was off-road, it was going to be fast.
The biggest geographical challenge was definitely the multiple river crossings. These started small steadily increasing in size as the race progressed. There had been huge amounts of rain just a few days before the event, which meant that all of the rivers were swollen. Despite the course being tactically adjusted to reduce the water crossings they still presented a larger challenge than was expected. The water was crystal clear and looked beautiful. It was not! On entering the first few rivers we discovered just how icy cold it was, having originated in some vast mountain range somewhere. It was bearable on the legs, but once it got to waist height it was excruciating. Running with frozen nuts definitely adds to the race challenge too!
After about 20km of cruising down meandering forest tracks, trotting through perfect pinewood forests and cantering up a small valley to one of the basic loggers/riding lodges, we descended to the first of two large river crossings. The water was at least waist high and flowing fast. A little like a mini Indiana Jones movie. There was a rope spanning the 50 m crossing so that you had something to hold onto but the speed of the water was surprising and even more scary if you happened to be short!
As we approached the river we heard screaming echoing through the forest and my crossing began by fishing out one of the short course runners, who had slipped in the shallows and was having a nightmare regaining her feet. Having deposited her safely on the bank, I bounded out myself and was instantly surprised by the strength of the water. I slipped once resulting in me being fully submerged in the freezing cold water. Luckily I managed to pull myself up using the rope and continued to drag myself across. ( It was conveniently caught on camera ).
As a safety measure there were local Mongolian nomads stationed on each side of the river. They were mounted on their trusty steeds,( Yehaa! ) and were poised ready to rescue any one that was washed away, of which there were a few. As the waters continued to swell, they actually started to provide a horseback ferry service which I think was greatly appreciated. All part of the fun of the experience and great for the camp fire chat !
Later in the day an ambitious van driver misjudged the second crossing further downstream and managed to lose the van to the river! This was also fished out by the weather hardened locals, using ropes, hooks and once more their trusty horsepower.
Camp was a big part of the cultural experience and consisted of a number of gers, where the competitors slept and one huge central tent that had been set up as a dining room. Here all the competitors could gather, and share battle stories which were mainly focused on the river. From the outside it looked quite small but it was actually a form of Dr Who’s Tardis being comparatively huge inside! The wood-burning stove kept it warm and snug and it was great to chill out, well warm up, after the strains of the day. We also attempted to dry running shoes. They served some tasty Mongolian dumplings (technically the only thing on the menu) which was a significantly more appealing option than freeze-dried food.
The ger camp was a brilliant cultural experience. Mongolians traditionally lead a pastoral, nomadic lifestyle. The climate and short growing season means that their livestock are incredibly important and this drives the nomadic lifestyle, with agriculture playing a secondary role. Nomads raise five types of animals – goats, sheep, cattle, camels and horses – they provide meat, dairy products, transportation and wool. Of these animals, the horse holds the highest position in Mongolian tales and legends and we had already had the chance to appreciate just how important they were!
The second day was a complete contrast. On emerging from the snugness of our ger we were greeted by a thick, cold mist that had been trapped in the valley overnight. The mass start happened quickly and we cantered off, into the thick fog, towards what we hoped would be one of the valley shoulders and a steady climb up the ridge.
Just 20 minutes later, the experience of ascending out of the mist into the beautiful sunlight above was absolutely fantastic! The views of the valley below, shrouded in cloud were incredible.
The route was also a delight and followed a giant 20km horseshoe shaped ridge which provided some technical running (a good opportunity to twist an ankle) and excellent views of the valley below. We then dropped down through some pretty, dense woodland before heading out onto the fast open plain which was covered with tiny white flowers. It was a long, long, long, long run back down the valley to the camp.
It felt good to run past people on horse riding tours, enjoying the large expanses of prairie, giving them a cheeky “Yehaa!” As the legs tired and the motivation levels faded, the ravenous horse flies and their nasty ability to bite through clothing kept us moving at pace to the safety of the camp and citronella/deet supplies!
We had experienced yet another great day running in fantastic scenery.
The final shuffle was a long steady climb, along the valley floor and up the head of the valley to the ridge above.This was followed by a speedy descent all the way back down to the camp. Once more there was beautiful mountain scenery and we passed some of the local nomadic families going about their day to day activities with the livestock. There were also packs of wild horses cantering around. We had the opportunity to absorb the sunlight and scenic surroundings as the day warmed up.
It was another very fast day and it felt quite bizarre for the run to be over by 10am and to be already enjoying a celebratory Genghis beer or 5… ( meaning additional toilet stops were needed on the bus journey )
Kate, Aylish and Rob ( Arrgghh !) did an awesome job in fancy dress, adding to the spirit of the event and also making some great photos!
We then had the long bumpy journey back into Ulaanbaatar, which was significantly better in daylight, when the scenery of the National Park could be appreciated. The highlight was the Giant Genghis Khan statue. This massive 40 metre tall, stainless steel statue, shining in the sun and portraying Genghis Khan on horseback is situated on the bank of the Tuul River, where according to legend, he found a golden whip (this is not a Mongolian chocolate bar !) .
Genghis was a pretty impressive chap uniting the sporadic clans that inhabited Mongolia and putting an end to the local wars and raids over grazing areas and water sources. Genghis Khan united these clans under one flag and turned them into one powerful nation.
Leading his fearless warriors and implementing military strategies still studied today, Genghis Khan and later his successors, formed the world’s largest continental empire. Covering the vast landmass between Korea and Hungary, the infamous and ruthless Mongolian horde ruled over an empire that encompassed many countries, nations, religions and languages.
This giant, shiny, stainless steel statue located in the midst of beautiful scenery, in the middle of seemingly nowhere is definitely a great tribute to all he achieved and also a nice conclusion to the race.
Action Asia Mongolia Ultra Marathon – July 2012