The Gobi March 2016
Raising money for and awareness of children suffering from Cystic Fibrosis.
The Journeys Beginning
As the last few passengers claimed their bags from the South Terminal conveyor belt my mind was already racing. Battling hard to keep my thoughts calm I remembered a conversation with my wife the night before.“Are you worried about anything,” she asked. “No not really,” I said, “except maybe my suitcase getting lost with all my stuff in it, that really would be my worst nightmare!”
Alone now in the baggage reclaim hall and with a rising sense of dread I went across to the unattended lost baggage help desk to make that call. Surely Aurigny, after a 40 min flight from Guernsey, couldn’t have lost one of the few and by far most important items of luggage I’ve ever trusted them with?
Twenty minutes later I was filling out a lost baggage form for Anoop, the lost luggage representative, whilst trying to explain the implications of it’s loss and the epic journey I was about to under take. With a travel itinerary that took me from Guernsey to Gatwick to Heathrow to Beijing, connecting within hours to Xinjiang provence and Urumqi, a city 1500 miles the other side of China, to connect with a train to Hami on the edge of the Gobi desert, to catch a bus to Camp 1 in the mountains close to the Mongolian border, to race on foot across one of the most remote places on Earth, it seemed certain that my race was already over. Without a miracle, International Rescue and the Thunderbirds, I’d never see that suitcase again with my ruck sack, specialist equipment and food inside, if I set off without it now. My year long plans were in tatters.
Anoop seemed genuinely concerned by this stage having grasped the pointless nature of our form filling exercise. With a distinct air of purpose Anoop set off for the bowls of Gatwick’s luggage system declaring he’d be back shortly. And indeed he was, with a bag in tow, my bag! I don’t now how many hugs Anoop gets from passengers on a daily basis? I suspect not many but today I hugged him like a long lost friend. My best friend Anoop had quite literally bumped into the gentleman who’d retrieved my bag from the tarmac after it had fallen off of the baggage trolly……………
After a 4 hour road trip north from the oasis city of Hami the convoy of coaches and 4Deserts branded 4WD vehicles were high in the heart of the Tian Shan mountains. This is a region close to the Mongolian border with three major ethnic groups, Uyghur, Kazak and Hui, largely Islamic.
After a traditional welcome of local dancing by the ladies and a game of Buzkashi from the men (horse mounted players attempt to place a goat carcass in a goal!), we settled down in our tents getting a feel for our fellow competitors as we prepared for an early start and Stage 1.
At an altitude of 7500ft we woke to a cold and cloudy day with spots of rain in the air. A back ground headache told me I wasn’t acclimatised as yet and would have to make sure I didn’t make it worse by getting dehydrated over the coming hours. With Europe and ‘the final count down’ playing loudly in the back ground the race began. Drones chased us down the first 800m of the canyon as the pack quickly spread out. Our first challenge quickly became apparent as the canyon narrowed into a steep boulder strewn, water carved valley. Leaving check point 1 the terrain opened out into an upland prairie making progress much easier. Determined to make steady progress I slowly began to over take competitors. The halfway mark brought us to the base of the biggest sand dunes I’ve ever seen climbing at least 250m above the surrounding terrain. Visions of the planet Arrakis from the book ‘Dune’ sprang to mind.
The end of day 1 came in 5hrs and 37 mins for me, 37th overall from 101 entrants.
Day 2 however looked tougher with a climb taking us to a mountain pass at 9000ft.
If the sun had been shining the ascent through the pine forests, high meadows and rocky river beds would have been stunning. Instead it was raining which turned to sleet as we entered the swirling banks of cloud near the summit. The long descent into increasingly warm and sunny clear conditions allowed me to pick up the pace and despite the tough climb I was pleasantly surprised to finish 28th bringing me up to 30th overall.
The warmth of the air on this side of the mountains gave us our first clues to the conditions ahead and after the cold showery conditions of the last few of days I thought I could pack my water proofs away. Not for the first time the local weather would defy prediction. We woke on day 3 to blustery and drizzly conditions but it soon warmed up.
Day 3 was brutal, longer than the last two, much over terrain a mountain goat would have struggled to run on. By check point 3 I was struggling but so was everyone else and it was reflected in the days times. Despite taking 6hrs 53 my overall standing was now 29th.
In a brief email home I said, “Yesterday at the top of the mountain I felt emotional, but today much more so at the finish. Very relieved to have finished and amazed at the placing. Feet still good and food just about right. My water bottles make good leg massagers so will be doing plenty of that later!”
Day 4 was such a contrast to day 3. The profile was down hill for the best part of 26.5 miles on much better but still rough terrain, scrub, sandy gravely tracks. For me it was a much easier day despite sore legs. My slow trot got me into Camp 5 in 5 hrs 35 which meant an amazing 23rd today! I wrote home that night saying, “Don’t think it’s going to get any better than that now as I’m now into the experienced good guys. 28th overall, bloody amazing!
Biggest disaster today was spilling my tomato cuppa soup which I’d really been looking forward too. Big day tomorrow and right now 50 miles in one day feeling pretty daunting. 07.00 start, hopefully 14hrs will see me done. Tomorrow will be a test for everyone so just aiming to hold the place I have now. Camp is now damn hot and we are missing the cold already. Don’t ever let me do the MdS, I’d hate it, give me cold anytime.”
Day 5, ‘the Long March’. Definitely the most extreme day of my life and so many of the others whether they be competitors or support staff. My race plan was to hit the first 2 stages as hard as I reasonably could and then take it very steady as it got hotter.
By check point 3 I was very happy lying 29th. The terrain varied from vast areas of shingle and sand, dried crusty mud, wind carved sandy valleys and rock formations, periods of significant wind then none at all and the odd dust devil. Few others were running by that stage so it was just a case of letting the day unfold. As the true nature and power of the desert heat became apparent survival became the number 1 priority!
Hit check point 5, the over night stop after 50km in 22nd. Took 15-20 mins to have a cuppa soup, get the sand out of my shoes and enjoy a surprise treat, a warm pepsi! Stage 6 one of the longest went very well and I felt great. Left check point 6 in 15th thinking 13hrs may be on. Oh how things were to change over the next 2 hours. Stage 7 turned out to be the most challenging for many. Temperatures were now 43 in the shade, hitting 50 in the sun (+122 deg F). After the high spirits of stage 6 I could now feel myself fading rapidly as I stared in wonder at the incredible other worldly martian landscape in front of me. I knew it was heat exhaustion but the speed at which it hit me scared me as much as being completely alone. For the first time in the race I thought I might not make it to the next check point, this was getting serious all of a sudden. Movement 100m in front of me caught my attention and I saw 2 guys stagger out from the shade of a large rock. I knew I needed to catch them, maybe they had more water left than I did. They didn’t!
We struggled on for a while seriously short of water and after about 2 km couldn’t go any further, taking refuge in the shade again. Incredibly this rock had a another racer behind it, a Chinese guy also in a bad way. As we’d hoped after about 20 mins a roving jeep came down the course, I lept up and waved it down. That extra water saved us from what could have been a really unpleasant day. I piled in water, my emergency food, gels and salt tablets and got myself feeling good enough to press on to check point 7 with the Chinese guy. At check point 7 he just lay down and went to sleep. I wondered how bad it was around the rest of course if this was the state positions 11th to 15th were in? Recovery in the shade was swift for me but with the water and electrolyte in my bottles at 50 degrees I was having to force myself to take even a sip. A mouthful of hot water and a salt tablet was enough to make you gag! Left check point 7 on my own as no one there was fit enough to press on with me.
The Sun was going down by now and the direct heat was less fierce. Long shadows from amazing rock formations heightened the beautifully dramatic, vast and desolate surroundings. I took pictures ahead and behind, once again there was no one. After 14hrs and 15 mins I made it to the finish in 11th, now 19th over all, wow, just amazing. What a joy to see the end of that stage, but the day was far from over.
Within a few hours the wind started picking up, it was now dark and half the field were still out there. The 4Deserts finish line welcome drum would sound out every 30 or 40 mins to announce the arrival of another finisher, however a new drama was beginning to unfold!
It was 01.30, wind now whipped though our tent, canvas flapped and cracked against itself with strong gusts throwing sand up into your face. We now had a serious sand storm! A series of powerful gusts flattened our tent and many others around Camp 6. Staff rushed to pull the remaining tents down before they and the kit inside them got blown away out into the desert. I could only imagine the carnage out on the course with visibility down to meters and shelter limited.
For the rest of that night I got some fitful sleep under a small part of our collapsed tent, my feet sticking out into the sand. Most just slept as best they could protecting their heads from the worst of it, sleeping either on top of the sand or their tents. It came as no surprise that the race was suspended a few hours later. Once everyone had been rescued off of the course we evacuated to an emergency location.
Looking at the race field as a whole, it really is sobering to see what a debilitating effect the desert had on the best elite runners to the slowest of us, a brutal demonstration of natures power. At check point 5 it didn’t drop below 40 deg until 21.00. We all knew we had had the ‘full Gobi experience’ with no one feeling cheated out of their ambitions for extreme weather and adventure during this race. Perhaps a little less adventure would have been good!
After what was always going to be a 24hr stage with no sleep for the staff and many competitors people crashed out on the floor of our temporary accommodation where ever they could find a space. The weather however wasn’t done with us yet. That evening most elected to sleep outside on the ground as it was stiflingly hot inside. In the early hours it began to rain and shortly after thunder and lightening! Not enough to deter us from starting the final short stage six though.
Buses took us en mass to the start and by 08.00 the lightening had passed leaving us with light rain and temperatures around 25 deg C in stark contrast to the 50+ deg C the day before! What an incredibly environment the Gobi is! This 11km short final stage was more of a celebration of the week than a race and the atmosphere at the finish was fantastic. Local music, dancers, food and drink added to the party like atmosphere, aches and pains were briefly forgotten.
Emotions that crossed my mind in those last few meters included joy, relief, pain, pride and pleasure, mixed with a tinge of sadness that this adventure and journey, not only across the World but 250km across such an a varied and extreme country were over. A journey full of experiences and moments with so many people from across the planet, brought together by an event that left us all wanting to meet and do it again! It was also with a great deal of pride and gratitude that I knew CF Guernsey through the efforts and support of many had raised over £10,000 for medical research into Cystic Fibrosis and the CF Trust.
The focus now becomes our newly created charity CF Guernsey and our work with the Guernsey Disability Alliance to give a voice to little known and understood hidden disabilities like Cystic Fibrosis.