If I’d describe Gobi March in a single word, that would be diversity. And not because runners from not less than 39 countries were present at the start line, but due to the multitude of landscapes we witnessed during the 250km long race, to the temperature differences we faced from one day to another and to the sudden drop in altitude from 2900m to a value close to the sea level.
The organizers call it the “four seasons race” and now that I did it, I perfectly understand why it goes by this name. There is also a strong historical side to it, as it takes place in Northwest China, close to the Mongolian border, on the ancient Silk Road.
The trip to China
The adventure started with an almost 30 hour trip. There is no mistake calling it an adventure and you’ll see why. I met at Otopeni Airport with Daniel Nica, a good friend with whom I ran the Marathon des Sables in 2016 and who was planning for some time to run the Gobi March. I was so happy when he let me know he was coming to the race.
Our final destination in China was the city of Hami or Kumul by its old name, situated in Northwest China, in the autonomous region of Xianjiang. This is where runners from all over the world were to arrive. There is no direct flight to Hami, so our itinerary looked something like this:
Bucharest -> Moscow -> Astana (Kazakhstan) -> Urumqi (China) ->(high speed train)-> Hami.
After a 5 hour stopover in Moscow, during which we had a “healthy meal” – a burger and a beer in the airport transit area (gosh, if we only knew how we would miss that meal), we boarded our plane to Astana, just a little before midnight. I found it weird it wasn’t dark yet, but I didn’t say anything about it. At 1AM, when the plane was high above the clouds, we realized we were in the “white nights” period, and the landscape was truly amazing: a combination of diffuse light and a sunrise. And it was 1 at night! I took a quick picture and I fell asleep thinking of the madness waiting ahead.
As we arrived in Urumqi, we hit the language bareer. And that is because nobody – and I mean NOBODY – understands English, yet alone to speak it. Not to mention that all signs one saw in the street (street signs, institution names, companies, hotels and street names) were in Chinese only. The organizers warned us about this and e-mailed us in advance the address of the train station we were to go by taxi to board the high-speed train to Hami, written in Chinese. After some ten minutes during which we struggled so hard to explain to our taxi driver where we wanted to go that our hands hurt from all that talking, I remembered I had printed out the trains station address in Chinese. As soon as we showed that to our taxi driver, his face lit with understanding and we took a deep breath of relief.
Once at the train station, the fun started. Barriers and security checks everywhere, just like on an airport. I told Daniel that if we manage to get to the start line, the race is as good as done. We lost couple of hours, trying to figure out where to buy tickets from, which tickets to buy, where to exchange our money as we only had US dollars with, which platform our train will be and so forth. Now, don’t assume there were no signs and electronic billboards all over the place. Of course there were. But only for them :))
We somehow managed to finally find a policeman who understood English and, believe it or not, also spoke a few words of it. I gracefully thanked as if I met God. I felt like holding his hand and don’t let go until we boarded the train. It is a very weird feeling, not being able to communicate in any way, to make yourself understood.
I boarded the train and felt small. As if I lived all my life in isolation and this was the first train I saw. The interior looked better than many low cost planes or even regular ones. The staff, dressed in impeccable uniforms, made sure we don’t miss a thing and come to each of us to write on our tickets the exact time we should get off, according to our destination. Not only that the glass of water placed on the folding table in front of us did not move an inch while we were speeding away, but the water itself in it seemed to have frozen still. Do you know that rattling sound of our trains, as if there are some pebbles on the tracks? Oh well, here one could meditate and hear his/her own thoughts, as the total silence was only interrupted every now and then by some announcement on the monitors unfolding from the ceiling.
After 3 and a half hour we reached Hami and as we got off the train we noticed there were at least a dozen runners from all over the world around us. Again, security checks, passports inspected and photocopied, pictures of us taken against the wall and so on and so forth. The only thing missing was for them to put on the plastic gloves for a detailed body check and we would have seen it all :)) Anyhow, after some 45 more minutes we managed to get into a cab, showed our driver the hotel address written in Chinese and gone we were.
The entrance to the hotel was heavily adorned with all kinds of flowers and garlands and I started to think to myself “Gosh, what a reception! There is no point if they won’t roll out the red carpet”. After we entered we realized a wedding was expected as the guests started to arrive. I expect it wasn’t so nice for them to come face to face with a motley crue from all over the world, tired and with lots of luggage. I checked my watch as we entered our room. There were exactly 29 hours since we left Bucharest. I don’t know why but I didn’t feel sleepy, so I took a shower, and we went out to grab something to eat, then we returned to the hotel to get our gear ready, meaning to put aside what we will take with us in the race backpack from the stuff that will remain at the hotel, as the next day at noon the check of the compulsory gear was scheduled, and then we would leave civilization behind and set foot for the first base camp. A few phone calls back home to announce I’m safe and sound and then I fell asleep like a log.
A logistics problem: you got 10 minutes to figure out a way to fit all the articles from the bottom of the picture into the small black backpack atop of the picture. Just in case you seriously doubt it could ever fit, I can tell you it eventually did. It was a must, as what you see in the picture would be ALL my luggage for the coming week.
The next day at 12 we were booked for check-in, when, in a designed area in the hotel parking lot, we passed a series of checks, culminating with the race backpack check. It works like this: you come downstairs from the hotel with two pieces of luggage – the race backpack in which you must have all you need for a week (food, equipment, personal hygiene, drugs) and the luggage with the rest of your stuff, which will stay at the hotel. From the moment you hand that in, it is only you and your race backpack. You can’t add or remove anything. Thinking that your life depends for the next week on a 9-10kg backpack makes you feel kind of vulnerable.
As soon as formalities were done, we boarded 3 buses and off we were to the first base camp. This was the moment when we were supposed to receive the so called Road Book. A leaflet describing each stage so everyone would know what to expect for the coming week. Just that this time we didn’t receive anything, which felt a little weird. Soon enough we would learn the reason, too.
Four hours into the bus drive we reached the first base camp, in an area 2200m above the sea level, surrounded by Tian Shan Mountains. The camp was made of 12 yurta (a type of tent specific to this area) accommodating 8 people each, and a few others for organizers, volunteers and medical staff. Compared to the tents we would be accommodated in during the race, these could be considered luxury items, as they were carpeted with some type of rugs. I was joking with Daniel, saying that it was as if we had the “Kidnapping from the Harem” on our walls :))
Our hosts welcomed us with music and traditional dances and of course we couldn’t stay aside, especially as this was the last night of love and a week of war was coming our way 🙂
This is when we got to meet our tent mates, very nice people with interesting life stories.
Alison, Katey and Ryse: three Australian brothers who were at their first such experience. Their dad was a volunteer in the race. It must be incredible for a dad to wait each day for his kids at a hydration point, to cheer them on and to see them overcoming their limits. How proud he must have felt at the end when he presented them with their medals. Cintya Fish – a lady over 55 years old from Canada, at her forth Gobi March and who I think run all kinds of possible and impossible races in this world. I don’t think she was home more than 3 months a year. A born optimist, always smiling, in a continuous search of adventure. Massimo – an Italian born citizen of Brazil, also at his first race of this sort. Arthur from Brazil, in his 40s, very calm and quiet (quite atypical for people from Brazil), as well at his first experience in a multi-stage, self-sufficiency race.
There was a holiday spirit in our camp. Everybody was talking, laughing, socializing, but I’m convinced all of us were thinking at the coming week.
The race briefing provided us with the first surprise. The organizers were somehow embarrassed to let us know that, 24 hours prior to our arrival in China, authorities announced them there was a problem with the route which was approved almost half-year in advance, namely the fact that the basecamp was to be moved daily at the finish line of each stage (this being the race format, by the way), in an area which was totally unsafe. Actually, since we got there we were permanently guarded by armed soldiers.
We were explained that Xianjiang autonomous region was one with strong interethnic conflicts, being inhabited by Chinese but also Mongolians, Kurds an Turks and it was for our own good to be hosted in the yurta fixed basecamp for the first four stages, and only then to be transported straight to the desert for the long stage. This was novelty even for those who did the race before and I have to admit I could see disappointment on many of their faces. I was also trying to see the organizers perspective as well, as they had to deal with changes announced by authorities hours before the start of a 250km race. Therefore, the first four stages were to be exclusively through the mountains, with more or less altitude gain, and for the long stage (82km) the oven of Gobi desert was awaiting us. At that point we did not know how long the stages would be, except for the first one. That was because the organizers had to plot the route on the spot, and the route had to be approved by authorities. And that happened every day. As I didn’t know what laid ahead, I decided to live with the idea that I could not plan on long term. All I knew at that point was that the first stage would be somewhere around 31km with 600m altitude gain, and that the whole stage would take place at an altitude between 2200m ~ 2400m. After taping the knee I got issues with in Namibia, I fell asleep praying that this time it will allow me to run the way I wanted to. I was confident in the recovery I did at CentroKinetic and in the results of Virgil’s massage, the cyst was not inflated and I managed to do a few training runs before leaving for China, which gave me confidence that everything would be all right.
I don’t know if I managed to sleep for three continuous hours that night, even if, luckily, everyone in the tent was quiet. To be read “there was no snorer”.
I got nothing against people who snore, I know it is not their choice, but in a race like this if you’re “lucky” enough to be hosted in the same tent with people who snore it would be extremely difficult to successfully get at the finish line provided every night you count the starts. But here it was not the case, as – excepting a few baritone intermezzos every now and then – my tent mates were really ok. The problem was myself, as I don’t manage to get a good night sleep before races. I keep on rolling and twisting and I eventually fall asleep late in the night. Every morning before the start I would check the data on my Garmin Fenix5x watch, curious to see how many hours I slept and the quality of it (deep sleep, awake moments, movements). So there was no surprise that after 20 min of deep sleep and 1h45m of regular sleep, when my alarm went off I felt like being hit by the train. I managed to pull myself together, to pack my rucksack, I got well hydrated with All Stars Ultra Carb 4x, took a SiS electrolites gel and my vitamins and minerals from CaliVita (JointProtex Forte, MagneZiB6, Panax Ginseng, Curcuma Pro, Polinesian Noni, IronPlus) and I got out of the tent heading for our bus which would take us to the start line, but not before doing a few warmup and light stretching exercises. The finish for this stage would be in the same basecamp.
From there, the famous Barkol sand dune was our next climb. Which sand dune, you would ask… Didn’t you say you were in a mountain area, 2300m above sea level? Yes indeed, but in the middle of a green alpine meadow there was a 150-200 meter sand dune, surrounded in the distance by Tian Shan Mountains. Took me 20 minutes to get up and down the sand dune, as my feet sank into the sand ankle high. But once on top the landscape would literally take your breath away, as you’d realize you were running on a sand dune but in the distance you could see the mountain peaks covered in snow. The most unexpected mountain – desert combination.
Unfortunately I had to take a few more breaks to get sand out of my shoes, as I wasn’t smart enough to put on my gaiters (those yellow socks that come over one’s shoes). I knew this was a preponderant mountain stage featuring only one sand dune but I should’ve put them on from the very beginning and maybe I wouldn’t have lost a few good minutes stopping to throw ballast out of my shoes. A rookie mistake that costed me a few good minutes. After that, 10 more km of sand and grass bands, and then a gravel area up to the finish line. Two more runners caught up with me on this stretch, and I finished the stage on the fifth place, only 3 minutes away from the third place.
If you’re wondering how my knee felt, oh well, I had no pain. But this was the best I could do. The one month and a half break I took after injuring my knee – during which I trained only 4 times – came with a price. But at the end of the day I was extremely satisfied with my first stage of Gobi March. Daniel arrived after 25 minutes, on 10th place. We congratulated each other, happy that two Romanians were in top ten, after the first stage. What followed next became a classic ritual I would repeat everyday: recovery drinks (Isotech 94 Whey Isolate, Hyper Amino BCAA), one serving of dehydrated food, stretching and as much rest as I could. The weather in basecamp was extremely moody: when I got there after the stage I believe there were over 30 degrees and a scorching sun, only for a few moments later the skies turned gray and rain poured down torrentially for one or two hours. And this happened every day for the next five days I spent there.
On the last kilometer I felt out of breath and I got dizzy a few times, then I threw up so my nutrition plan went up in smoke. I was trying to tuck in gels or isotonic, but all I managed to swallow was water. So I thought for the next stretch to hydrate only with water and to try some gels and isotonic on the last kilometers. I got caught by four runners on the last climb but I didn’t ease down, as I knew I feel better once I’ll get to the hydration point and I’ll start my way down. Which so it happened. On the descend I managed to gain one place, now being on 6th and having runners on 4th and 5th on my sight, 500-600m away. Unfortunately there was no way I could catch up with them, as they kept looking back for me while maintaining their speed. I was doing my best but I think all three of us were running with the same speed :))
The landscapes we witnessed were literally breath-taking. Daniel said it felt like we were starring in Avatar. One couldn’t imagine this was in China. So I finished the stage on 6th.Running at altitude is a totally different game for a runner who trains at sea level and my body felt it in full. It feels like even if the legs could still go, I only had one lung and I got tired extremely fast.
I think I’d remember this third stage for a long time, as altitude sickness was again an issue, getting at me both physically and mentally. I started to experience headache, to get dizzy and to vomit (three times), as I approached the summit. From that moment on, it was practically impossible for me to eat or drink anything. My body would reject even water. Honestly, I never experienced such a thing before nor that I want to repeat it, even though it is fairly possible that next year at Atacama Crossing I could go through this again, as most of the race takes place at over 2500m.
When the descent began my legs were ok but I could feel my stomach like a bundle up my throat. Luckily we got almost 7 river crossings to do, which cooled off my feet and kept me connected to reality (there was no other way to get across the river except through it). For the rest, I was running on auto-pilot, almost unconscious. The landscape was great again, as much as I could witness it. I finished 11thin 5h22m but I had serious doubts I would pull that off. Daniel arrived soon after me, 10 minutes later. He had problems of his own on the climb but he felt great on the descent and gave his best. Which could have cost him dearly for the next stage, as he later told me he felt ill all night long and at the crack of dawn of the fourth stage he was considering withdrawal. This kind of thought is regular in races like this. Luckily, most of us manage to demolish them somehow and to move on and I’m terribly happy for Daniel that he decided not to listen to that small demon in his head tempting him to give up. I wouldn’t let him do it anyway, as I knew he would regret it the next instant. Lance Armstrong used to say the following, which I printed out and I see daily at my office: “Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever”.
The alarm clock went off as usual at 6:30AM and everybody on camp started a morning ritual we observed automatically. We were all like small robots moving around to prepare breakfast, to fill our water bottles, to get our backpacks ready, to take care of the wound on our feet. On everyone’s faces one couldn’t fail to notice fatigue. This was the fourth day of the race and we were about to start a “walk” between 2200m ~ 2400m altitude, with 1000m vertical gain.
The previous evening, as organizers finished crunching their numbers, I saw I was on 8th overall being flanked by Claire Thompson on 7th (the top female runner) with only 3 minutes ahead and on 6th, only 9 minutes ahead, a Spanish runner, Miguel. Therefore, my strategy was set: I won’t get caught and I only had to gain at least 9 minutes to get back on the 6th place. Said and done. I started off strong and I arrived at the first CP (km11) on 6th, not being able to spot anyone behind me. After climbing up and down for a few more kilometers, I noticed at the bottom of a hill all the other five runners ahead of me, including the leader of the race, scratching their heads by the side of a forest. There were no more guide marks on the trail. Probably the locals removed them, as I see no other explanation. We spread in all directions, looking for it, with no success. They were nowhere to be seen. Then we decided to let the organizers know and until they got there we stopped everyone who got to that point. 45 minutes later the organizers arrived, re-marked the trail and we started again from that point, all together. The reference times to be taken into account were the ones we clocked at CP1 and all computations were to be made at the end of the stage. Complicated.
This was quite a difficult moment for me, as my muscles got cold after 45 minutes of just hanging around so setting off again was quite a challenge. I couldn’t sustain the pace I did so far, plus the match I had with altitude and stomach issues for the last two days continued for this stage as well. After km 23 I couldn’t eat anything. Altitude 3 – Andrei 0 :)) Luckily there was a break scheduled for the next day, as the long stage lurked ahead: 82km trough Gobi desert. Daniel also felt quite sick in this stage and he walked most of it. In the evening, Massimo, the Italian born Brazilian, came into the tent after seeing the doctor and let us know he was withdrawing due to a tendinitis which greatly bothered him, he said. We all tried to convince him to stay at least for the following day, to enjoy the break and see how he would feel but he was extremely determined to leave right that evening. His problem was probably not that bad, as the doctor confirmed, but we suspect he cracked mentally. His mind could not conceive the thought of having to run the following 82 km with pain in his ankle, plain and simple. It was too much for him. We shook his hand and bid him farewell, but we were all kind of disappointed, as we didn’t expect that.
We boarded our bus at 01:30 AM and we drove what felt like a never ending 4 hour drive from our basecamp into the heart of Gobi desert. The gun went off at 05:30 AM and my strategy was to cover as much ground as possible in the first 2-3 hours until it got warm and then to try and maintain a constant comfortable pace until the end. This was also because here, unlike Namibia where it got dark fairly quickly (at 18:30 headlamps were on already), here there were 15 hours of sunlight per day. Therefore, I prepared mentally for a stage run in full daylight under the sun. When we started off, we were all still sleepy; myself, I could not sleep at all on the bus. At crack of dawn, the temperature was acceptable for running but one could already feel the warm desert air. I didn’t know how my body would handle the sudden change from 2200m altitude and mountain-like temperatures to 500m and desert. But in the end, this is the beauty of races like this. In my view, if you’d know from the start all that would follow there would be no charm to it.
I blasted off hard, maybe too hard and I got at CP1 (16,5km) on pole position, Ben Dame and the runners from 2nd to 7th being more than 2km behind. I felt excellent and intended to maintain the same pace up to CP2 (km25) and then to keep a steady slower pace.
Shortly before km 21 I vomited twice, out of the blue, and from that moment on I wasn’t able to run anymore. As soon as I would pick up the pace, I would feel sick. It was 08:30 and it already felt like running inside an oven. Slowly but surely I got caught by the race leaders and it became more and more clear that I’ll have to walk the following 55 km and – only if my stomach would cooperate – try to run some sections. A very unsettling thought which, I must admit, almost made me quit. And I really considered that option! I knew this was the last stage and I would get my long sought medal at the finish line, but the state of nausea I was getting trough was, at times, more powerful than my will to go on. This was the moment when I saw Daniel coming from behind – himself in a pretty bad shape too – but nonetheless way better than me. When he saw my condition, he decided to do the rest of the stage together and to motivate each other through the tough times. And this is exactly what happened for the next 10 hours, when we dragged each other to take yet another step and then another. The water we got at aid stations was not warm; it was boiling. Practically, one could make tea with it.
This was the simple reason we couldn’t get hydrated, because it was undrinkable, plain and simple. If we added isotonic or electrolytes, our stomachs would reject it instantly. It is a well-known fact that together with sweat we lose water and minerals, which have to be replaced to regain balance, especially when temperatures exceed 50 degrees. We both realized that our trip towards the finish line would be an extremely difficult one, as we couldn’t rehydrate with the boiling water from CPs and we were happy we ran / walked together, as we felt it would be easier like this. So the whole rest of the race was a continuous struggle to get to the next CP and to resist temptation to quit. At some point I looked at Daniel – himself in pretty bad shape – and told him: “Man, listen carefully! If I ever tell you I wanna quit, please don’t let me do it. I tell you now that I’m still lucid, because I started to think about it for some time. Please don’t let me do it. If it happens, slap me back to reality and let’s move on.” Heat started to become unbearable. And not being able to decrease our core temperature didn’t look good at all. At CP4 we caught up with half-fainted Dirk, a runner from South Africa, then on 3rd . I didn’t expect this stage to claim victims to people on top 3. We saw him again at CP5 where we all had to take a 3 hours break as imposed by the Rules for our own safety (between 13:30-16:30) and then, not even one hour after, we learned he quit. This was a real shock. We got at CP5 at 13:40 and Daniel was not at all in a good shape. We laid down on a piece of canvas and asked the organizers to spray us with water.
The CP was on top of a dune and the wind was blowing, so no matter how hot the water was, we could still feel a little cooler. At least until the wind stopped and then it felt like getting inside the oven again. Daniel was telling me with his eyes closed and barely articulating the words that if he doesn’t get better in half an hour, he would quit. As broken as I was, I told him I wouldn’t let him. I told him we only had 30 kilometers left and that we would feel better after this compulsory three hour break and we would slowly proceed to the finish line. At 16:40, when we were allowed to leave the CP and we started moving again, I could tell I could finish this race. I felt somehow better and my stomach seemed better too. I tried to eat some gels dissolved into water which partially worked. And that was certainly due to the boiling water we carried in our water bottles and which tasted like plastic because of the heat.
The last checkpoint was CP7, when we practically got out of the desert into a road that lead to the finish line. There were 10 more km and I believe we looked more dead than alive. It got dark and water didn’t feel that warm anymore. Or at least that was what I was trying to believe. Here there were a few sections I tried to run but the degree of fatigue and dehydration was so big that simply walking was a great effort. At some point, while we were cursing the boiled water we drank the whole day at checkpoints, a car coming from the opposite direction slows down next to us, the passenger window unrolls and someone offers us two half-liter water bottles with chunks of ice inside, accompanied by a broad smile and probably some encouragement words in Chinese. We thanked, opened the bottles and drank as if our lives depended on that. Or did it? We were given by locals pitying us two everyday bottles of cold water. Two bottles of cold water that meant so much to us at that point!
Slowly and pushing each other, 13 and a half hour after we started (not counting the compulsory 3 hour break) I crossed the finish line together with Daniel. What followed was a sleepless night in the camp, as shortly after our arrival a sandstorm hit and made a mess with all out tents. In the madness, I lost a CEP compression sock and a water bottle.
From 2:00 until 10:00 when the last runner arrived we laid down on canvases, covered with whatever we got at hand, trying to protect ourselves against the invading sand. After the last competitor concluded the long stage we all set in a 1km lap, symbolically marking the final stage, at the end of which we got our much sought after medals.
I finished Gobi March 11th in the Open tables and 6th in my age group. And guess what? Surprise! Exactly the same as in Sahara Race (Namibia). Daniel liked to joke saying I should play these numbers (11, 6) in the lottery :))
After a 2 and a half hour drive we got back to civilization, in Hami, where we took our first shower since the race started and we finally had some real food. Then, a banquet where trophies were awarded to the first three runners in Open tables and to the first in each age group. Then, people who successfully finished two out of the three qualifying races (Sahara Race, Gobi March and Atacama Crossing) received the official invitation to take part into The Last Desert (Antarctica), at which moment I was also called on stage to receive my invitation. Like this, I saw the people I would meet next year in Antarctica. The evening continued with the screening of this year official movie as well as a pictures slideshow, and then socializing, exchanging e-mails and Facebook accounts and promises that we would meet again at this sort of races. This is a small, beautiful world of crazy people 🙂
The next morning the adventure of travelling 29 hours back home continued, but this time things went with no bumps. After one week in China, my level of hand-spoken-Chinese dramatically improved! :))
Gobi March was an experience during which I learned new things about myself and in general a journey like this strongly polishes one’s character. I sincerely thank you all who passed me your good thought during the race and made me believe everything is possible.
A big thank you to my sponsors and partners without whom this project wouldn’t have materialized, and whom I consider my true friends.
The CaliVita 7 Deserts adventure continues in September with Grand 2 Grand Ultra: a 273km running race in Nevada desert. See you soon! 🙂
Credits for translation: Ciprian Stefanescu