Desert Tales – Part 1


Photo: Nick Muzik

Just before daybreak, out on the desert plains of Guazhou, a lone horseman rides to the beat of ancient drums. 

On his approach, the drums reach an urgent crescendo, culminating in his arrival as a tall figure steps up to issue a command. Dale Garland, race director of the iconic Hardrock100 and event director for the inaugural Ultra Trail Gobi Race, flags us off, and thus begins our 400km journey into the Gobi desert.  
Drums at the start
I’ve never had a burning desire to see a desert close up. I imagine a vast expanse of relentless flatland and it makes me shudder. But I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as coincidence, and it just happened that the invitation to do the Ultra Trail Gobi Race (UTG) popped into my inbox just as I’d reached the unsatisfactory conclusion of my 450km Anzac Ultra attempt .. unceremoniously aborted at an premature 315km with a torn muscle. Canberra had been freezing, and since desert = searing heat and a chance at 400km of redemption, I said yes. Simple as that.
With my life at full throttle as usual, I only paused to scan necessary details a fortnight before the race .. then realising that it’s both self-navigated and self-supported. Ok, I had an inkling of the latter, but navigation? The last time I ran an unmarked course, I forgot which way the red arrow on my compass pointed .. this did not bode well!

Fast forward to departure day and I’ve got a borrowed GPS with waypoints loaded (thanks William!), a bag full of Tailwind, assorted freeze-dried meals (lucky REI deliver fast!), and almost all my compulsory gear. Inevitably, despite packing the kitchen sink .. I still managed to forget my 2L hydration bladder. Gah! Cue emergency FB post and a slew of helpful and not-so-helpful responses 😉 (How on earth would I have time to make a water bottle out of dried gourd!? But the sentiment was appreciated.) 

The days before the race were packed with sightseeing, press conferences and travel. It was great to meet the local running community at Running Cat, and the organisers looked after us like gold dust. Our international posse consisted of some trail running elites, with seriously impressive achievements amongst the lot of them. I was feeling more than a little daunted amongst so much running talent, that’s not even accounting for the Chinese runners taking part.

There’s a list of them here:

The organisers really pulled out all the stops for this first event, with over 150 volunteers, a sophisticated tracking system, a full-on cultural programme and a dedicated team of bilingual guides like Xiaozhao and Yuan Yuan, who made sure we were well looked after.

Tracking system demo
As details of the event unfolded, the foreign runners had a host of questions, not least due to the translation differences. We all tried to make sure we had everything required on the mandatory kit list, but small changes were made in the last weeks leading up to the race so we did end up scrambling round Beijing looking for ‘heart medicine’ (nitroglycerine passed kit check!) and 120ml of SPF50 sunblock.
Heart medicine
Photo: Nick Muzik
We have 10 dropbags, spaced about 35-40km apart at the Rest Stations R1 – R10, and I’ve tried to put a few goodies in each one based on a strategy of Tailwind for the first 150km or so, and more treats after. The mandatory 24,000 calories is spread out over these bags, and I’ve got some spare kit in each including batteries and wet wipes. Mainly extra supplies, as the bulk of what I need is in my pack.

Super organised!
It’s the first time I’ve heard my Chinese name used so much, and it is all slightly disconcerting. It’s always been a reflex to hide whenever my Chinese name is called out, stemming from Chinese class at school where I’d be in trouble or called to answer something I usually couldn’t! Despite some things getting lost in translation, we were all off to a good start. Everyone is getting on well with each other and my very rusty Mandarin skills are getting the workout of my life! I’m embarrassed at my primary-school Mandarin – coming from an English-speaking family and having lived in the UK for 12 years wasn’t much help either. I’m making a mental note to brush up!

Our flight from Beijing to Dunhuang was hilarious, from being late, losing Erik, the Red Bulletin photographer, getting to the check-in desk with minutes to spare, and Ryoichi’s huge bag of assorted food getting us stuck at the airport security check, resulting in a supermarket sweep-style trolley dash from one end of the terminal to our gate. That’s the fastest I’d be running for the next 6 days!

Japanese ultra contraband
Made it on the bus with seconds to spare!
At the welcome dinner in Dunhuang, we’re all given one half of a Yangling Tiger Tally from the Qin Dynasty. It used by Emperor Qin Shi Huang as his authorisation for military operations, with 12 Chinese characters in two columns on each side reading “甲兵之符,右在皇帝,左在阳陵” (Operation Authorised: emperor holds the right side and the commander in Yangling has the left ). It was issued to the highest field commander deployed in a place called Yangling by Emperor Qin Shi Huang after he conquered other 6 ancient states and merged their territories together to form the protocol of Ancient China for the first time in history. All the runners were issued one side before the race. You get the other side when you finish .. a great incentive to finish!

Obligatory camel selfie
The African Attachment were documenting the event, and watching them work, there’s no wonder why the Salomon TV episodes make such great watching.
The African Attachment – their work is never done!
I’m just getting the hang of sightseeing tours, ten-course dinners and hanging out with some great people, when it’s time to head to the start. We’re meant to camp the night and start early the next morning. Typically, I only realised on the day and nearly let my race kit get despatched to the finish point instead.
Betsy prepping her pack
The camp site is a taste of things to come on the course. Large, heavy duty tents have been set up, dinner is being prepared and everyone is bustling round getting themselves ready for the start tomorrow. The air is clear (especially after the pollution in Beijing) and crisp, and it’s the first of many incredible sunsets I get to enjoy.
Photo: Nick Muzik
The last supper
Jim’s (left) design – a convertible sleeping bag jacket
After dinner, we’re treated to a fireworks display and the Mayor comes by to share mooncakes with everyone in celebration of the coming Mid-Autumn Festival. We’re all keen to get some rest, and I try my borrowed sleeping bag out for the first time (merci, Virginie!), having managed to score two sleeping pads for a bit more comfort. Our tent has all the foreign runners, including Janet Ng from Hong Kong, who’s just arrived after some serious travel delays, and brought my hydration bladder, yay!

It was a tactical error being in the first tent, the nearby camp generators were very noisy and I didn’t get much sleep at all. Morning came too quick as usual, and it’s not long before all thirty of us are dressed and waiting at the start. It’s pretty cold, something I hadn’t quite anticipated. Guazhou, where we’re starting, is known as the Wind factory of China .. and they’re not wrong!
Selfie at the start!
It’s still dark and we’re running by headlamp for the first couple of hours. It’s a new experience not having any course markings, but we’re still running in a group for now so I’m not worried. My pack weighs about 7kg, no issue for now, and my legs feel relaxed. It’s quiet as we’re all embarking on our little adventure, albeit some quicker than others. Massimo the Italian speedster has already taken the lead, with a couple of renowned Chinese runners Bai Bin and Zhao Zhiyu running together.
Photo: Nick Muzik
The field spreads out and I’m in a space of my own, Janet is nearby, as is Ryoichi and another Chinese runner. I start looking at my GPS for the first time as we should be reaching the first checkpoint at 12.8km, trying to figure out which buttons to press and if the big arrow is what I need to follow. Yes, I should have practised, but I didn’t, so time to learn on the move!

I notice my arrow is pointing left when runners seem to be headed right, so I ask a nearby runner with a yellow windbreaker what his GPS says. It’s pointing right, and I see Janet headed in the same direction. She’s just done PTL and should have a good idea of where she’s going, so I decide to follow. Not an auspicious omen getting the wrong route so early on!

The checkpoint is not far ahead, water stops and time checks are every 15km or so, and I stop to check my GPS. I randomly press a few more buttons and realise I wasn’t even on the saved course earlier. I’ll get the hang of this eventually!

First sunrise
New trail friends – Ryoichi and Zhijian
Janet, Ryoichi, Zhijian (yellow windbreaker) and I run together for a bit more. It’s easier to find the way when there’s a few people to support navigational choices. So far it’s been flat, scrubby, hard-packed sand and sun-hardened mini mud valleys.

I’m happy shuffling along with the other 3, but generally I’m not used to running with anyone for long periods of time.  I don’t like the pressure of feeling I have to keep up or that I might be slowing them down, and wonder when my pace will eventually be too slow for those around me.

Janet and Zhijian lead the way
Zhijian and I strike up an easy conversation that’s slightly limited by my simple Chinese, he’s here for the experience (aren’t we all!), and the furthest he’s run is 100km. I get the impression he’s a fast runner, and keep reminding him that he’s free to run on if he wants to. Maybe a few things got lost in translation, but he assured me he was happy to run at my pace.

My main aim for this race was to run easy, stave off injury for as long as possible (shin still not feeling 100%), and have a great time. i figured if I could have at least the first 3 days injury free, then I could knuckle out the rest.

R1 (CP3), the first rest stop, comes quickly at 35.5km, and we don’t stay long. Just a quick refuel and out again. Janet has trotted along ahead, looking strong as usual and Ryoichi keeps pace with her.

Allan Lee joins us not long after, and our little group makes steady progress. We’re all in good spirits and I try to take pictures along the way to remind me of what the journey was like. The aim is to get to R3 (CP9), at 103.6km before we get some sleep.

Tired volunteers
So far we’ve been following Zhijian’s GPS, and using mine as a backup .. I’m glad to see that most of the time my arrow is concurring with his! We navigate some cotton fields, and I’ve slowed to a brisk walk instead as my pack is starting to feel too heavy to run with.
Passing through a score of cotton fields
Our first sunset is gorgeous, and I find myself bossing Allan and Zhijian around, making sure we put on warm clothes and get our headlamps out before it gets dark. Lucky for me they’re both lovely, easy-going souls! Crossing a large highway, we pick up Ryoichi again. He’d gotten very lost, is super tired now and decides to stick with us till R3. The terrain starts to develop significant bumps that make navigation harder and the fatigue that sets in with the night makes progress slow. We end up doing some unnecessary climbing in the dark, and finally find the right track as Allan and Ryoichi are really flagging. R3 seems to take forever to get to, and Allan has an upset stomach that is getting worse.
First sunset
We finally get to R3 at about 3.30am, I’m 2h ahead of my estimated schedule and wishing I’d put more snacks in my drop bag. Zhijian’s instant noodles look so tasty! I stick to my Tailwind, and hope I have more exciting things to look forward to at the next rest stop. All that flat terrain was hard work, and given the lack of rest I’d had in the preceding month, my brain wasn’t keen to be disciplined about only taking Tailwind. I head off to try and sleep and we agree to reconvene at 7am.

After a restless night, we don’t actually leave till about 8am. Ryoichi’s already set off, and Allan’s stomach troubles are worsening. I give him some Tailwind and tell him to take nothing else. It’s similar to oral rehydration formulas and should help keep his energy levels up.

Photo: Nick Muzik
It’s hot out today, and loads more flat ground. Poor Allan keeps having to hide behind a bush every 2 minutes .. except that there aren’t really any bushes! CP10 is up next at 14km away, and it seems to take an age to get there. We’re traversing some vast, pebbly terrain, and pass the time trying to find interesting rocks underfoot. Zhijian has the idea of finding a special rock as a token for someone special, and Allan jokes that we should find a heart-shaped one. We pick up unusual rocks that catch our eye along the way until Zhijian stumbles on the perfect one! It’s a flat, heart shaped granite-coloured rock with sparkly flecks .. mission accomplished! While we’re in great spirits, Allan’s taken a turn for the worse. We persuade him to stay at CP10 (you’re allowed an hour) to try and rest and settle his stomach. I know he’s strong enough to catch up if he gets better, and he can always follow the slower runners behind us, as we’re somewhere in the middle of the field. We leave him reluctantly, but it was of no benefit to any of us to keep going together. They also check our tracking devices and it seems that Zhijian’s isn’t detecting so we have to stay together for safety.
Zhijian and I trot along, working on a 2 minute run, 1 minute walk strategy to ease the monotony and get my lazy ass into gear. He’s easy to run with and we settle into a comfortable silence for the most part. The next 10km is brutally flat, made bearable by camel spotting and trying to take surreptitious camel selfies without scaring them off.
Camel toes ..
Next up, R4 (CP12) at 141km! It’s nice to have a dropbag to look forward to, but I can’t remember what I packed so I’m just hoping there’s some Snickers or sweets in mine! At CP11 we hear the route to R4 isn’t so easy to find, and that Massimo got very lost trying to find his way. It’s a scorcher today, but the wind keeps our jackets on. There’s no shade to speak of and we’ve adopted a strategy of resting a short while at each CP instead of just charging ahead.

We get to a wide river mouth and it looks like the way forward on our GPS’. There’s a small shaded corner that we sit down at for a little respite before moving on …. and bumping into Ryoichi again! The poor man looks spent, and tells us he’s been lost for hours. “That mountain ..” he gestures behind him, “I climbed it!” It would’ve been funny if not for the fatigue on his face! Still, he’s smiling as usual and gratefully accepts water from us as he’s run out. We assure him we’re not far from R4 and the rivulet streams have some lovely cold water that helps refresh us a little. We pick up the pace a little when we’re suddenly surrounded by a couple of photographers and videographers. They don’t say anything to us but chase ahead every hundred meters to get a shot. We must be close!

“That mountain … I climbed it!”
We lose them after a bit and frustratingly, seem to lose the track again. It feels like it takes forever to find R4, but we get there after searching for far longer than we expected. I’m glad to sit down, it feels like it’s been a stressful afternoon and I’m surprised to see Massimo in the back of the tent. He’s pulled out of the race and it looks like he’s got a badly swollen Achilles. It’s a shame to see him injured, but anything can happen in these events. It’s a nice change to speak in English again, and we find out that Janet also pulled out with a dodgy knee. Not good!

Rested, refuelled (snickers, coke, fizzy wine gums!), and having traded some local beef jerky bites with Massimo, I’m good to go. Our little trio heads out again and we manage to lose the track less than 100 metres from R4! It’s a special talent, really. We get our bearings again and move on. It’s grassland that opens out into undulating hard packed sand. Comfortable enough underfoot. With the sunset, we don our warm clothes and strap on the headlamps. 36km to R5 for a short rest and then onwards (44.6km) to R6 for a sleep. Best laid plans and all that ..

We find CP13 (153.2km) without too much difficulty, but it’s dark, cold and very windy now. The CP staff bundle us into their personal tents to get out of the wind, and we take the chance to get some calories in as well as put on our down jackets. It’s funny watching Ryoichi trying to fold his lanky limbs into the tent, but once we’re all squashed in, it’s toasty warm and the 5 minutes respite is very welcome. 

Back out into the wind, the grassland gives way to uneven dry riverbed and small creeks, all of which make it more difficult underfoot. We’re climbing gently, and it seems to take forever to get to CP14 (165.1km). There’s a flashing beacon which we head towards, where our GPS says the CP should be, but it really takes an age to get to, and the gale force winds are relentless. We’re knackered by the time we arrive at CP4, and this time we’re each bundled into separate tents, where the CP volunteers keep checking to make sure we’re ok. Honey roast macadamias, peanut M&Ms and wine gums are my current fuel of choice, a little incentive to get to each CP in the freezing wind. It’s taken us over 7h to cover 24km from R4. There’s just over 11km to R5, where the promise of shelter and another dropbag with potential goodies is waiting. We decide that we’ll probably sleep at R5 instead, and aim to get there in 3h or so, and we set out from CP14 sometime before 1am.

We’re advised to keep the river gorge on our left, and follow it till we’re meant to cross. Due to the temperature drop and the rising water, an SUV will ferry us across. The earlier runners had to wade across, but we’re told not to as it’s now too dangerous. The temperature has dropped below freezing, and the wind is biting into us as we make our way forward. Three hours in a relatively straight line, what could possibly go wrong?

I lead the way, and Zhijian is grumpy but I’m not sure why. We’re moving forward with the GPS arrow, and everything seems fine till we come to a sharp drop. There’s nowhere to go – too steep to go down into the river bed, which is looks a good 300m+ drop into and inky abyss. Zhijian didn’t agree with my navigation and hence the grumps. I said he should speak up if he felt there was a problem – no sense in cutting your nose off to spite your face. Ryoichi has resigned himself to following faithfully. He’s so tired that I worry he’ll fall off the cliff and make sure he stays away from the edge. The wind and cold are sapping our energy and we backtrack to find another way. We end up back at CP14 (having wasted almost an hour), and double check our directions. The CP chief says we should take the inner road, keep the general direction and we should find our way. We can’t go the original GPS route as that would take us via the river which is now too dangerous. Great. Here we go again.

I ask Zhijian to take the lead this time, but he’s leaving it to me, although he does promise to speak up if he thinks I’ve got it wrong. I realise he’s pretty tired and his usually sunny disposition is has gone into hiding. I’m not tired – the 200ml of Coke from my dropbag in R4 is keeping me wide awake, and I try to take the easiest route possible, given Ryoichi looks like he’s about to keel over from fatigue at any time too. 

We’re climbing up and scrambling down what seem like endless gravelly hills in the dark – I’m grateful for a decent beam with my Led Lenser H07R, best purchase so far! It allows be to project some light further ahead too, avoiding some dead end climbs. But our hike in the cold and dark is ENDLESS. Everytime I think I’ve found a track that will take us to the river, it stops short. My frustration is growing and I’m worried for my two tired friends. There’s no shelter from the wind, and where we think we should be crossing the river, there’s no SUV waiting. All I want to see now is the comforting beam of car headlights.

5.30am – we’ve been enroute to R5 for nearly 6h now, and according to my GPS, we’re just over halfway, only 6km covered. We’ve been down the same track twice now and it’s ended at the river. We’re all freezing and I don’t know what to do next. My present state of mind has crested past despair and descended into resignation. I can’t keep dragging the other two round what seems like a wild goose chase. We decide to call Race HQ, but there’s no mobile signal. Zhijian and I make a choice. We activate the SOS on our trackers and try to find a spot out of the wind to wait. There isn’t much shelter but the wind buffets a little less just on a slope to the right, so we stop there. I help Ryoichi into his sleeping bag and make sure he’s as warm as possible. He doesn’t question anything, and is asleep almost immediately. Zhijian and I try our mobiles again, our headlamps on high strobe, and we try to get some sleep as well.

I doze a little, and open my eyes to find the sun is coming up and snow has fallen. There’s a light cover of snow all over, and as always, everything feels a little better with the sunrise. I hear a car beeping it’s horn – it must be our rescue! But my amazing new JetScream whistle sounds like a damp squib .. DO NOT, ever, buy a JetScream whistle! The car horn gets further away .. will they come back again? 

It’s an agonising wait, maybe 15-20 minutes, before I hear the horn again, this time coming closer! Then the truck is driving past us, still beeping his horn, but he doesn’t see us! Tinted windows and the horn going means that he’s missed us completely! I’m tripping out of my sleeping bag and running down after it, and screaming like a mad person. It’s a relief when he finally stops and sees me behind, and I get a lift back to where Ryoichi and Zhijian are.

We bundle into the truck and take stock. It’s 5km to R5 once we’re over the river, and Ryoichi decides to call it a day. He looks cold and knackered, plus he’s carrying a couple of injuries that will only get worse with 230km still to go. I’m of the same mind. I’m cold and more than ready to throw in the towel, I didn’t sign up to freeze my ass off and wander for hours hopelessly lost. Embarrassingly, I also burst into tears. I didn’t realise how responsible I’d feel for the other two, and it’s a huge relief now that I know we’re minutes away from hot food and shelter. Understandably, Zhijian opts to continue. With no injuries and a fresh day ahead, it’s a good call. He gets out once we’re over the river and makes his way on foot to R5.

Back at R5 (176.9km), there’s all sorts going on. Bryon, Betsey and Benoit are all getting ready to head out. They’ve had a long enforced rest overnight there sheltering from the crazy weather. Good to see some familiar faces and so nice speak in English for a bit. I wrap up in my sleeping bag and try to get warm and get some food in. Bryon gets my hydration bladder filled with hot water .. best idea ever! My new hot water bottle is awesome 🙂 

Warming up at R5

So many questions, everyone’s so concerned knowing we’d activated our SOS, and just want to make sure we’re all ok. Zhijian makes it back to R5 and he’s looking good. The energy is back and he’s got a smile on his face. A part of me wishes I was still in the race so I could keep going with him, and see his adventure to the end, but I’m so tired of being cold that I’m glad I’ve stopped. Not particularly pleased with having to DNF again, but that’s ultras for you. 


That’s why there’s a Part 2 to this tale … 😉

Ryoichi in good spirits again at R5. Photo: Nick Muzik

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