We awoke around 6:30 and had a big breakfast together in the restaurant ger. After that we prepared ourselves by getting into our race gear (which for me consisted of putting on my normal clothing and hiking shoes), slathering sunscreen over any exposed flesh, and doing a bit of stretching before getting into the minivans that would take us to the start point some 27 miles away.
Now, 27 miles is a very long way–much farther than I expected it would be. We kept driving through the desert and every time I thought we were nearly at the finish line we just kept on driving. I was starting to reconsider what I had signed up for, but it was much too late to back out now! It took easily over a half hour to get to the point in the middle of the desert where the five of us full-marathoners would be starting off. The two buses carrying us and some spectators stopped next to a small bush with a red ribbon tied to it and the organizers set up a start banner between the two vehicles. We then lined up underneath the banner and posed for photos before Joachim gave us the starting signal and we were off.
I ran alongside the others for the first few kilometers, passing massive sand dunes and nomadic dwellings on the first six kilometer loop of the course. It wasn’t long before I began to fall behind, slowly jogging behind the others with only the older German woman, Eda, following a ways behind me. By the time I had completed the first six kilometers, grabbing a bottle of water while running past the first checkpoint, I was already out of breath. Of course, eight weeks of sitting in a car isn’t the best training for a marathon! Regardless, I still had 36 kilometers left.
The sand dunes and gers ended up being the scenery highlights of the marathon. After that stretch we came to a bleak, barren expanse of sand and small shrubbery stretching for many miles in every direction. And when I say bleak, I mean bleak–there was nothing. After another couple of kilometers the three ahead of me were out of sight and Eda had caught up to me with her somewhat slow but methodical jogging. The spectators and organizers had already taken the minibuses up to prepare the next checkpoint and we were on our own–we stuck loosely together, keeping each other within sight. At the first major fork in the road we were at a loss on which way to go. There was no red ribbon tied to a bush to show us the way for some reason, and I thought we should take the right fork while she thought we should take the left one. We ended up taking the right side and going for a few kilometers with no sight of any trail markers. We reconsidered and trekked across the open sand towards the left fork, which branched out and away from us. It was quite the walk/jog getting off the road and through the open sand, but we eventually arrived at the other fork and back on to the road. Same as before, we took this branch for a while without seeing any signs of trail markers anywhere. Joachim had said that in the past years no one had ever gotten lost doing this marathon–were we going to be the first?
We talked a bit and decided to head back over the open expanse to the original branch we had initially chosen. Our water was getting low, and we had seen no traces of people, vehicles, or trail markers for the past hour plus. We didn’t have much choice but to press on though–hopefully the organizers would notice that we were missing and send a vehicle back to look for us soon. We kept on going for another few kilometers when we arrived at another fork in the road. No trail markers here either. We were pretty sure that the left path would take us closer to our goal and proceeded running in that direction. I was pretty tired by this time and was doing more walking than running. Eda was having no evident trouble keeping up her pace though, and she soon overtook me. After thirty minutes she was far ahead, but still within eyesight. We kept on under the harsh sun, traversing the hard packed sand road, hoping it was taking us in a somewhat-right direction. One thing that was bothering me that was in addition to not having seen any trail markers I had realized some time back that there were no footprints anywhere along our path. Eda evidently also had this same revolation at some point and turned around, heading straight back in my direction.
We caught up with each other and agreed that we were definitely not going the right way. We had been off-trail for over two hours at this point and Eda had run out of water, so I gave her some of what I had left and we started back the way we came, heading towards the last fork. We noticed a ger off in the distance and decided to ask for directions, seeing as we seemed to be getting nowhere. I approached the ger and stuck my head inside saying ‘sain bainuu’–hello in Mongolian. There was an older couple inside along with what appeared to be their daughter and an infant swaddled in cloth. I did my best to explain using Mongolian, Russian, and body language that we were lost and needed a ride on their motorcycle in the direction of Bayanzag. They invited both of us inside and gave us some aruul and suutei tsai–hard dried cheese curd and salty milk tea. Neither of us were fans of either food product but we downed everything as a gesture of appreciation to our hosts. While we were eating the family turned the television to a station that was broadcasting the news in English (satellite and TV electricity provided courtesy of a solar panel connected to a car battery out front). After we were done we headed outside with the older man. He motioned that he would like some money for the gas the journey would require and I mimed that my money was in Bayanzag and that I would give it to him once we arrived. Eda chose to continue on by herself in what we now knew was the correct direction with the knowledge that I would send a minibus to pick her up once I located the others.
I held on for dear life as we made our way down the rocky steppe towards Bayanzag. I was on the back of a small motorcycle, and there wasn’t much to hold on to to keep from falling off. We went a few kilometers before he stopped and asked if we needed to go left or right. I had no idea, but guessed that we needed to head left and we sped off in that direction. It wasn’t long before I spotted a lone runner and we headed towards here. It turns out it was one of the Mongolian contestants running the half marathon. She pointed out the closest checkpoint a half mile away and we headed that way. Joachim happened to be here and I related our story to him. It turns out that they did indeed figure we had made a wrong turn somewhere and had sent a vehicle to look for us. The problem is that the supposed rescue vehicle was only checking the main route, which we had obviously missed entirely. He said he would alert the others that we had been found and send a vehicle to pick up Eda. He didn’t have any cash on him though, so my new Mongolian friend would have to drive me to the previous checkpoint to get in touch with the guy there so I could give him the gas money I owed. He had already sat down and started smoking his pipe and it was obvious that he was a bit peeved at having to shuttle me to yet another location. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what he did, after a quick stop at a friend’s get to refuel the bike from a plastic water bottle. I explained our situation and borrowed 5,000 tugrik ($3.35) to give to the nomad, who was very appreciative of the gesture. He had sat down again to have a puff on his pipe when I saw a vehicle heading our way. It appeared that Eda had already been ‘saved’ from the clutches of the Gobi desert! She spared no time in hopping out of the minibus and getting back on the trail. I hurriedly got up out of the folding chair I had sat down for a minute in and started running in the same direction.
It was a mistake for me to have been sitting down for so long in the ger, on the motorbike, and in the checkpoint chair. Soon after I resumed running I could tell that my legs were protesting any further exertion. They had already been hurting, and now they were even worse. I was already way behind Eda–I could barely make out her form far in the distance. I estimated that I had another 20 or so kilometers left.
I continued on. It was obvious that I would be the last to finish–I was the only one running, there was nobody behind me and no one that I could see in front. I crossed a dry river bed–it was full of soft sand which made the course even more difficult. I took off my shirt–might as well cool off and get a tan if I’m going to be doing this! Eventually I made it to the next checkpoint, the one I had stopped at before and talked to Joachim at. There were two support staff there taking down the tables and putting everything away in the minibus. I took a quick break to grab some water and eat some dried fruit. “How much longer to the finish line?”, I asked. “Only about six kilometers–you can see it up on the plateau from here!”, the one Mongolian replied. It didn’t make sense…did I miss something? Maybe the last checkpoint that the nomad had dropped me off at was closer to the finish than I had though. Then I noticed the tire track leading off up a hill in the distance. “Isn’t there supposed to be another loop here?”, I inquired. “No, no…not for you. You just go straight to the finish.” They were just trying to hurry me along and finish everything up. “No way guys–if I’m going to do this I’m going to do it right. I’ll just follow the tire tracks–don’t wait up!” And with that I was off again.
The next six kilometer loop was pretty tough as I was going up an incline in soft sand. I got to the halfway point–or so I though, as there weren’t any markings, tire tracks, or footprints left to guide me–and turned back towards the checkpoint. The last thing I had to tackle was a seven or eight kilometer flat expanse of desert leading up to the famous Flaming Cliffs, where the finish line was. I could just make out the finish line, on top of the plateau, and it seemed a very long, long way away. My legs were like Jell-o at this point and every step was painful, but seeing as I was by myself in the middle of the Gobi Desert what could I do about it? I kept on going, trying my utmost just to put one foot in front of the other and make some progress. Luckily the ground was hard packed sand by this point, which made things considerably easier. I eventually made it to the incline leading up to the plateau, and then worked my way alongside the cliff. I was almost there!
It was almost 6:00PM by this point and I had been on the run since before 10:00AM–I thought for sure everyone would have been back at the camp by this point. But as I got closer I could see and hear a large contingent of people standing up, cheering me on and calling out my name. I mustered up and strength I had left and resolved to sprint the rest of the way to the finish line. As I got closer a couple people ran out alongside me to accompany me in. Every muscle in my legs started to wobble and then cramp up horribly and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to physically make it the next hundred feet or so to the finish. Somehow I made it though, and everyone crowded around me to congratulate me and take photos. I had done it!