Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
Normally, I’m not a big fan of going back to repeat an event but with the baby due in September and with the wife making it crystal clear that I am strictly grounded from August onwards, the timing of the Mongolia Action Asia Race fitted particularly well. The additional attraction was the new location – 180 degrees in the opposite direction to last year, situated in the south west, on the edge of the famous Gobi Desert. Although I competed in The Gobi Desert March in 2007, it was actually in the Talamalak Desert, so the Gobi was still waiting to be ticked off the list! The Gobi also promised slightly different terrain and included the challenge of variable weather ( which we experienced ) and a few pesky sand dunes. Last year’s trip had been fantastic so there was a lot to live up to.
The first reminder of Mongolian “efficiency” came as the plane circled multiple times, somewhat like the local vultures, as a pot hole in the runway was hastily fixed… It provided ample time to eagerly peer out of the window and get an aerial recall of the fine running terrain below. We then made smooth progress, meaning just 2 flat tyres on our 5 hour bus journey down to Bayan on the edge of the Gobi.
The venue was a definite step up and last year’s 1 star gers had improved to 3 star comparative luxury! There were even hot showers if you finished in the top 20! We climbed through the traditional ger Mongolian door to find 4 small dwarf size beds that gave it the feel of something more suited to Bilbo Baggins’ home in Hobbiton. This was a perfect setting for a comedy combination of an Englishman, and Irishman, a Scotsman (a.k.a “the mole”) and a Welshman (me) and plenty of good banter. It was super snug and we all got a great night’s sleep.
We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning and eager-ish to get started. The breakfast was great, especially the strawberry jam pancakes, perfect fine race nutrition and at 8 am the race kicked off (in the wrong direction)!
It was a ferocious start with runners eager to get a feel for each others’ capability We bounded, at a fast pace’ 10 km up a steady incline, through the grassy prairie terrain, towards the checkpoint which was marked by a distant rocky outcrop. The weather was cool and overcast and the clouds spat a little cold rain at us but it soon passed. I found myself in the top 3 and chasing Auzzie, Michael and Frenchman, Sebastian. As I huffed and puffed and danced between rocks, turf stumps and poison ivy, I carefully studied my opponents looking for opportunities . Michael would stretch out his toes to cruise downhill at kangaroo pace, whilst Sebastian kicked up his heels leaned in and trotted up the uphill like an enthusiastic mountain goat. They would have made a great dance couple! I quickly realised that I had no obvious advantage and that it was going to be incredibly tough to sneak past either of them, so instead I resigned to letting my subconscious sing derogative rugby songs about the French (Ou est la papier…. ) and Auzzies (something about Matilda, a root up a billabong… ). Petty, yes but it gave me a child-like level of satisfaction that worked surprisingly well for motivation purposes!
After a rampant 20km, speeding down a long meandering gully we arrived at the 2nd checkpoint which was back at the camp and was far faster than predicted by the race director. It was hilarious to see one of the local race officials bolt from the dilapidated looking toilet shack trying to pull up her trousers and sprint to take position at her unmanned checkpoint, before our arrival A little toilet humour is also motivational!!
After a water top up we then headed off for the challenging 10km dunes section of the race. It was much more physically demanding running in the sand especially compared to the solid springiness of the prairie. Shoes quickly began to fill with sand. Then the mental strategic debate started – stop empty shoes, losing time and potentially sight of the two leaders or put up with the discomfort, the risk of blisters, Achilles injury or worse… I gambled for the next 8 km and finally managed to last until the boundary of the sand dunes and executed a rushed sand extraction before charging back into the grass lands, the leaders still in sight. The cost was a couple of manageable blisters.
We ran around the huge rocky hill and shuffled past some local scenery. This consisted of some traditionally dressed Mongolians camping, flocks of sheep grazing and us running past a substantial looking horse ranch. We then had a challenging (nice) ascent up some very technical terrain towards the peak. A quick photo of the dramatic and varied scenery before charging back down again to tackle a long dull plod along a never ending, dusty road that frustratingly meandered and meandered (a touch of Roman road building style would have been greatly appreciated) gently upwards towards the camp. Day one’s 43km was nailed in 4 hours and 30mins.
The afternoon was spent eating, hydrating, stretching and generally chilling out and chatting to fellow competitors. There was a slight disruption as we were given a taste of the volatility of the Siberian plain, when a sand storm blasted through the camp, followed by a significant temperature drop and freezing rain. I genuinely felt for the 20 odd runners still out there slogging along the course, now forced to battle through treacherous weather conditions.
We had a fantastic Mongolia dinner (probably horse) in the spacious restaurant ger and then back to our cosy hobbit hole, which handled the weather well and once more we slept like babies….
On day 2 we rose to fantastic weather. Perfect! It was a cool, crisp morning blessed with perfect pale blue skies and promised to be a hot day.
The race started with a dash out and then up and over a jagged ridge that rewarded the effort of the climb with spectacular views of the mountain’s jagged spine, high above the yellow sand dunes and luscious green prairies below (and they were really green). This was followed by a difficult technical descent and then we cantered out across the fast looking grasslands, only to find that half way through they turned into shoe sucking, slow, plodding bog (partly due to heavy rains the night before).
We trudged through the sludge as fast as we could. It was more like “Tough Mudder” than “Action Asia” and was actually one of my favourite parts. We waded past a herd of grazing horses,that seemed to appreciate the mud far more than us. A mounted shepherd boy of about 7 years old effortlessly galloped around at incredible pace, using a long pole with a noose at the end to manage his flock of sheep, who were happily munching away on the luscious foliage. It was great and a real taste of the Mongolia prairie steppe.
Next it was back into the sand dunes that were far bigger than the previous day and much more demanding on the legs. Fortunately they were firmer under foot, thanks to the rain, so no new shoe stresses and we were once more offered incredible views, when we had time to look up! We snaked through the sand dunes at pace for about 2km and then a 180 degree turn and returned back to the prairie the same way. This meant we got to pass the chasing runners, understand how “comfortable” our lead was and exchange a few shouts of motivation, which was great!
Then back across the prairie bog and then the long 20km monotonous, mentally tough slog to the finish. The monotony was fortunately punctuated by a further taste of Mongolia as we passed an example of the circle of life. Several vultures (I wondered if all vultures spoke in a Liverpudlian accent like The Jungle Book – “What do you want to do?”) were enthusiastically stripping a freshly expired sheep which was very dead with its legs sticking vertically up in the air. There were also some of the cute little kids hastily emerging from their gers to cheer encouragement (I think it was encouragement anyway! It could have been “Get off my land” for all I knew) to us as we plodded along. Day 2s , 40km took 4 hours 30mins.
With the hardest part nailed, day 3 involved a 9km ascent up to the checkpoint, then a 9km descent back down again. I was wearing my trusty Heinz Baked Beans top (thanks Sis). Admittedly I think my energy gel consumption over the least 2 days may have contributed to my “wind power” more than the baked beans top! Before we even started I was mentally envisaging (an important part of sports psychology) a great finishing photo of the top 3 crossing the line, looking glorious, hand in hand…. The top 2 set off like race hounds, clocking sub 3 min 30 sec kilometres (really damn fast!) initially, foiling my photo finish plans but I trooped on like the determined tortoise and after a lot of hard work caught the hares with plenty of time to spare. Typical, the photographer was not at the finish when we finally arrived! Doh!
On the last day the slower runners started 30 minutes ahead, meaning that we had the opportunity to catch them and have a little banter as we went past, which was great as after all these races are all about fun, meeting new people and the absolute privilege of both seeing and shuffling through this incredible scenery, that so few people get to experience.