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We sit in rapt attention watching the moon rise up like a beacon, while an eruption of fireworks rises to meet it in a swirl of cacophony and smoke. Chinese and westerners all sit in reverence of the fiery kickoff for the Chinese Lunar Festival, which we continue celebrating into the night, with moon cakes and red wine.
We sit not in front of some pagoga-ed temple nor in a grand communist square, but rather in a remote stretch of the Gobi Desert that’s sat uninhabited since the nearby packed-mud walls housed the thriving trading city of Suoyang along the Silk Road a millennium earlier.
Before sunrise, the 30-or-so of us will set off to run the Ultra Gobi, a continuous 250-mile run across remote stretches of the expansive desert in north-central China.
The Gobi partially consists of flat and gently sloping hardpacked dirt, with a thin crust of tiny rocks and minimal vegetation. It makes for easy running. But the Gobi also includes mountain ranges composed of barely held-together cobbles and sand, and crisscrossed by labyrinthine canyons. In the distance, sturdier ranges soar to 18,000 feet at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
Below the mountains lie broad alluvial fans, where ephemeral watercourses have stripped the sand, leaving expanses of rounded cobbles and, intermittently, sheer-walled arroyos. Here and there, the faintest of dirt roads appear out of the dust heading to destinations unknown. Outside of the few-and-far-between towns, a lone pair of paved roads connects the desert with the world.
In the autumnal Gobi, the fierce sun still fires the temperatures up beyond 90 degrees, while blizzards strike the mountains.
[ Day 1 ]
Remembering to Relax
As soon as race director Dale Garland (who also directs Colorado’s famed Hardrock 100) waves a race flag and says, “Go,” I find myself at the front with another runner. I’m running easy, but, still, I give pause and drop back. If it’s easy to go out too fast in a typical ultra, it’s even easier to go out too fast at the start of a 250-mile race that begins with dozens of miles of flat terrain. I must relax. A mile later, the two leaders take a wrong turn (I yell out to alert them, unsuccessfully), which puts me in front. Again, time to relax. I aim to enjoy the experience as much as I can, while preserving my body for as long as I can. I will not push hard, ever.
A mile in, I decide to take advantage of the race’s open-course concept, which allows us to take any route we choose between each of the
designated checkpoints. I make a beeline toward the next checkpoint only to run into an insurmountably high fence. Blocked, I follow it for a kilometer in the wrong direction over slow terrain, before finding a gap. Fortunately, this puts me far back in the field. With runners in front of me, I go on navigational autopilot across the barren expanse.
A few miles in, I come upon fellow American Betsy Kalmeyer, 55, of Colorado, who’s stood on the podium at the Hardrock 100 many times. We strike up a conversation, fall in sync and run together to the first of the race’s 33 aid stations. We sit on a pair of low stools at a low table and drink bottled water— the only amenity offered at this and 22 other minor aid stations (10 other aid stations have hot water and tents).
[ Day 2 ]
As the sun rises, Betsy and I set off on the flattest, straightest marathon either of us has ever run. She picks back up right where she’d left off, while it takes me a couple of hours to get my legs and mind back into the groove. We carry on together as morning turns to midday, and midday turns to afternoon.
As twilight approaches, Betsy and I accidentally separate when we take different routes out of a small drainage. She carries on, while I call and search for her for 20 minutes. Eventually, I head on to the next checkpoint, where I learn that she’s already back on course. It’s a simple misunderstanding, but I’m rattled.
Now alone, I come to the first of a handful of river crossings on the final segment to the next rest point. This next aid station is the fifth of 10 that include hot water and large heated tents. It’s where I plan to sleep for the night.
From the river comes an intermittent slapping sound. I don’t know what could make that noise in a remote Gobi river, and it scares me. In my fear, I throw caution to the wind and charge across.
As I near the far bank, I strike the top corner of a rock quite hard with my right shin. My upper body lurches forward. I catch myself but soak the sleeves and torso of my wind jacket. It is a cool and very windy evening, which incrementally adds to my panic as I emerge from the river. Quickly, a bruise joins the small cut on my shin, but my running stride is unaffected.
[ Day 3 ]
With relative ease, two days and 119 miles have passed behind me. I find myself with roughly a marathon to run on paved roads that climb to the course’s high point. Earlier, I broke camp with Frenchman Benoit Laval, while Betsy headed out with another group. I settle into a self-preservational effort on a frigid morning, running easy when the grade is gentle and walking briskly when I wish to do so, beckoned forward by the ease of the highway strip.
Many years ago, my uncle gifted me The Way of Chuang Tsu, by Thomas Merton. Merton, a Franciscan monk, reinterprets ancient Taoist short stories. In my favorite story, “Cutting Up an Ox,” a wizened butcher cleaves an ox seemingly without effort or strain. As a young butcher, he’d hacked at his work, using his strength and dulling his blade while hacking the animal to pieces. It was only after many years that he came to see the animal as a whole and began to easily free its constituent pieces one-by-one. It is the latter to which I aspire throughout this day. No pushing, no struggling, no surging … just engaging myself and my senses, and waiting for the course’s segments to fall, one checkpoint at a time.
The morning’s clouds clear and the temps rise from the 20s to near 70. I stop only to fill my water bottle, shed layers and apply a bit of sunscreen to my right side, which roasts under the high-desert sun.
Soon after passing the rest point at mile 137, I crest the race’s high point at 11,400 feet, and start cruising down. To say that I’m on autopilot would be misleading, but now, two-and-a-half days into the venture, motion just happens. It is merely my job to discover the running lines, and take in the astonishing beauty around me.
The sun kisses the horizon as Benoit and I run together once again. We descend wide-open, tufted grasslands across unending alluvial deposits. The tussocks glow golden against the periwinkle sky and the royal-purple mountains, crowned with still-shimmering glaciers off in the distance. It’s the kind of picture that sticks with you forever.
The ox falls to pieces, effortlessly.
[ Night 3 ]
It’s early evening as I approach a group of large, unleashed Tibetan mastifs lying in the road between a set of a waist-high walls. This is sheeping country, and the shepherds guard their flock with packs of dogs. I see a small house, but no sign of people.
The dogs stand and start barking. I muster enough confidence to pass by as they bark and follow me. I ponder whether my courage will crumble if I face more dogs at night.
Hours later, the joy and wonder of traveling by moonlight draws me onward. Up and up via wash, then wasteland, then canyon-bottom creek bed, before scrambling up the final few hundred meters over a mountain range’s two-mile-high crest. From the apex, I see a town for the first time since early this morning. Dozens of miles away, lights flicker. I imagine these lights are the finish, and that I might reach them in a little more than a day. Somehow, in the context of Ultra Gobi’s enormous scale, that instills a bit of confidence.
I head down the other side, first on steep, treacherous, snow-covered game trails, then over choose-your-adventure berms, before entering a wash that will clearly lead, eventually, to the desert below.
Glowing eyes. Half-a-dozen pairs. Crap.
I am no longer in vast grasslands; I am in a narrow canyon. Only one way down.
“NI HAO!” I yell repeatedly into the darkness. There is a small prefab building in the distance and, despite the fact that it’s two in the morning, I want to get someone’s—anyone’s—attention before shit goes down.
“BARKBARKBARK,” warn the dogs, stationed 50 yards to my right. I keep running.
Silence. My heart rate sinks back to normal. The dogs are with their sheep, and I am far enough away now to no longer be of interest.
I continue down the canyon until it opens up to another seemingly unending expanse of desert.
[ Night 4 ]
My feet are officially a hot mess. They’ve been badly blistered for at least a day, but all the off-camber, shifting footing on the dunes I’ve just crossed, along with the abrasive sand in my shoes, brings the pain to a crescendo.
I dump the sand from my shoes and survey the damage. My left foot’s the worst: a large blister at the base of my big toe has burst and macerated the skin around it. Far more dire is my pinkie toe, from which much of the skin has delaminated but remains attached. Sand has worked its way into a large opening in the blister, rubbing the interior flesh raw. Numerous other blisters on both feet add their notes to the pain symphony.
I put my shoes back on and keep running across a mix of slow-going, densely vegetated terrain and low dunes, for another four miles. I can see the light of the next rest point, the last of the race’s 10 primary checkpoints. Only a straight 10 kilometers over flat ground and I’ll be in the home stretch. I got this, I think. I should know better.
The next 10K are the most trying of my running life. The footing is impossible: soft, crusted alkali soil spotted with large tufts of grass randomly spaced about half a meter apart. The tufts have been shorn by sheep—an inch of grass on a six-to-12-inch alkali pedestal. The few inches of soft, uneven ground between the pedestals are only occasionally wide enough to plant a narrow shoe.
My world alternates between the square meter beneath me and the 20-meter-deep cone of light from my headlamp. There’s no reliable road, and the faint game trails offer no more than a few seconds of easy travel. The only solution? Running on top of the shorn tufts.
Every 10, 20, or— if I’m lucky—100 steps, a pedestal gives way. My planted foot sheers, and I catch myself with my other foot.
At times, I find myself with pursed lips and tensed muscles, fighting through the pain. Catching myself in such an unproductive state, I change my mental approach. When I can, I accept the pain, with joy. It’s there. It’s inevitable. It’s impermanent.
I relax my upper body. I inhale deeply and slowly. The purpose and peace that comes along with thoughtful breathing is therapeutic.
I still feel the pain. I still take the occasional standing 10 count when yet another misstep saps my inertia and amplifies my pain. But I go on.
[ Day 5 ]
Arriving at Bliss
Many times over the final 20 miles, I marvel at the human body and its capabilities. I’ve covered 230 miles in four days, and yet I can still run up the final, minor mountain range. As the route gently climbs, I jog the shallow ups, coast the flats and make easy progress on the downs. A mild euphoria envelops me.
As I clear a mountain canyon’s mouth back into the expansive desert plains, I see the lights faintly in the distance. Even if I walk the rest of the way, I will finish in just a few hours. Dawn breaks. I am awash in bliss. I shed the night’s layers, feeling free and savoring every remaining step.
The low-grade euphoria builds with every kilometer. I run every step I can. I send a selfie to my sister, to show my two nieces. Tears well up. I hope I inspire them.
I try to inspire myself, too, as I turn off a dirt road onto pavement for the final two miles. It feels so good to be able to run. Actually, it’s mind blowing, and one of my favorite, if rare, feelings during long ultramarathons: when your body has no business letting you run, but there you are, doing it.
Distance Traveled : 254.5 miles
Hours Slept : 15
Highest Temperature : 90F
Lowest Temperature : 20F
Total Vertical Gain : 16,815’
Calories Burned : 37,367
Calories consumed from Coke : 2,331
Calories consumed from Stroopwafels : 2,132
Pairs of Shoes Worn : 3
Bryon Powell is the founder and editor-in-chief of iRunFar.com. He’s written Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and co-authored Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.