Changan Ford Gobi Ultra Marathon
“I just got invited to run in China!” It was the night of Waldo 100k, and while waiting for the last runners to come in, an email from IAU Honorary Member Souhei Kobayashi from Japan asked if I would interested in an all expense paid trip to China to run in the inaugural Changan Ford Gobi International 50k. I answered “yes” before I even had a chance to see where it was. I only can say that there are few places in the world I would pass up seeing, given a chance, and I had not been to China. It would be well after the World 100k Championships and I had nothing scheduled for October or November.
Starting in September, information slowly trickled in; information was passed between the organizing committee and the athletes so that tickets could be purchased, Visas acquired, and itineraries created. Mark bought me a map of China and after much difficulty I finally found the city of Jiuquan very near the border of Mongolia, in the middle of the country in terms of east and west. It appeared to be a very small town given the print size on the map. I was told that a small town in China may have 1,000,000 citizens, but in a country with more that 1 billion, that made sense. When I found information on the web, I was a little surprised to see that the greater Jiuquan area had 1 million.
Meanwhile, my training after the 100k was quite limited for 2 or 3 weeks from a minor heel injury. With 2 weeks to go I was finally up to a 20 mile long run, and one week out I did my first speed workout in the form of a fartlek run. The wheels were slowly coming back, and my heel pain was nearly gone.
My flight to Beijing from SFO was filled mostly with Chinese, so I felt I was already amid the culture. Upon arrival and standing in line for entering with our passports, looking at the massive crowd in the tight serpentine lines, I thought there is no way I am going to get out of this trip without picking up some kind of bug. I was on the ground for about an hour before I actually got my luggage and made my way out to the lobby packed with greeters. I started looking at the signs being held up for either my name or Changan Ford Gobi Ultramarathon. I spied that latter and walked up to the young woman holding the sign. “You must be Meghan” she said. “I am Chuping. Nice to meet you!” We made our way to our next flight via shuttle bus, which took 30 minutes at least which was telling of how large the airport was. Chuping got me checked in for my flight and then went back to see if my compatriot Jim Walmsley had arrived yet. I wandered to my gate, making note of the eateries, and once I was close enough I stopped for my first Chinese fast food buffet. I quickly picked 4 dishes and paid 50 Yuen – about $9. It was delicious.
At the gate I opened my laptop and attempted to get online. I was able to get a little email through my phone, but none on my computer. I gave up. I kept my eyes open for Chuping and Jim, but they were nowhere to be seen. Chuping had a difficult job, getting runners from around the world to our destination. As I settled into my seat, Jim appeared. I waved, and said “You barely made it!” He said, no, he had been there awhile, sacked out behind all the waiting passengers. Uh oh – that means Chuping probably didn’t realize where he was. It was nearly time to close the doors when a wind blown flustered Chuping boarded. I caught her eye – “Chuping, Jim is here!” She let out a huge sigh of relif. “I had called airport police to try and locate him!” We flew into Lanzhou City, gathered our bags, and took a cab to our hotel, a good 30 minutes away. By the time I got to bed it was midnight, and we were to be up at 5:00 for breakfast and then bus to the train station. At breakfast I joined a number of invited athletes, as our paths were converging. Japanese, Spanish, German, British, and Hungarian comprised the group, with the Japanese contingency being the largest.
At last, we were going to “see” China! The high-speed train was quiet and smooth. We all took multiple photos and videos through the windows as we sped through the changing landscape. There was snow on the ground for many miles, and the closer we got to our destination, the more spread out the cities were. It was becoming more agricultural, at a seemingly subsistent level in many locations. Small, tidy plots of crops, crude shelters that may have been homes to some, occasional flocks of sheep, and some yaks, spread across the floor of the valley we traversed, as mountain ranges grew on either side. It wasn’t clear to me whether the haze over the mountains was pollution or light fog, but after being there for a while, I’m guessing mostly pollution. By the time we arrived in Jiuquan the air was cleaner.
Chuping asked me to be present at the press conference and asked if I had a bio. Being unable to connect to the internet in a productive way, I gave her the link to my bio on the Altra running website. When I arrived at the conference, the race director was introduced to me, and said “My daughter asked me if I had met ‘The Queen’ yet! You are The Queen!” I was confused for quite awhile before I was told that he was Chuping’s father. I sat in the front row with 2 other runners and many dignitaries, of whom I still don’t know what most of them did. One by one we were introduced, stood up, turned around and bowed, then the dignitaries each went on stage and gave a very lengthy speech. I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that I understood zero of what they were saying, or if they really were long winded. Photographers of every caliber clicked madly on high-end cameras down to IPhones. When they were done, I thought well there isn’t time to answer questions, but organizers quickly placed 8 chairs on the stage facing the audience with each of our names on it. So, there we sat while it was open for questions. They were directed to the dignitaries, and the questions and answers again were very long. Then the “conference” was over. As soon as I got up, I was asked by Chinese runners and volunteers if they could take a picture with me, hand their phone to a friend, jump beside me, thumbs up, then say to me “Sank you”, smiling and nodding. It went on for a while, and there were double dippers. It became a theme for the rest of the trip.
Next was the pre-race meeting. The race director gave it in both Chinese and English, with very specific guidelines that indicated there were many new ultra runners. One of the key points repeated to us over and over was that we should wear long pants. “Wear Pants! Wear Pants! The thorns will cut you!” There was one section of the course from 36.5k to 40k where the course went right through thick brush called Camel thorn. The course was swath 5 meters wide carefully marked every 50 meters by large stakes. Mr. Race Director also said because the course was measure in straight lines that if we wanted to run around the dunes or around the camel thorn, it was fine because we can only make the course longer. My immediate reaction was no way would I run around a sand dune – I’m gonna conquer the sand and the camel thorn!
Following the meeting we were treated to dinner. I sat with my European friends Rainer, Garrett, Paul, Walter, and Jose, and Jim. We enjoyed trying new things, and also avoiding things that looked like they might cause an issue in tomorrow’s race. Jim said “My rule is never eat anything that looks sketch before a race. This all looks sketch” and he proceeded to eat most of it. Partway through our meal, we were provided with live entertainment, presumably local talent.
Only one athlete hadn’t arrived yet – Aussie Jodie Obourne, who was to room with me. Her first flight had been delayed, causing a chain reaction of missed flights. She was due to arrive late, so I left the hotel door open for her. She made it in sometime after 10, in good spirits, and we both managed to get a good night’s sleep. Chuping asked us to be to breakfast at 6:50, then load the busses at 7:00 to take us to the race start. When we got to the hotel lobby she said no rush, the busses are late – one of the unforeseen obstacles the race had to deal with. About an hour later, we were loading up. The race started at 9:00 and it was to take 20-30 minutes to get there, so there was plenty of time.
We arrived at a tent-clad staging area. One for the athletes, one for Ford cars, one for post race recovery, one for really important people, and a big stage for the award presentations. A lot of money had been poured into this race. There was a multitude of blue jacket clad volunteers, a large start/finish line, a man on a paraglider flying around getting video, a drum band, a police force, and of course a drone. As it approached 9:00 we gathered up, only to be told that because one of the busses had not arrived. So we ambled back to the athlete’s tent. I tried to just stay loose and warm and didn’t get uptight about the late start. Finally at 10:00 we were ready to go.
Desolate doesn’t begin to describe the landscape we were about to embark on. And no amount of information given us before the race could have prepared me for what the course entailed. On paper the words used to describe it were lost on me.
“The competition course goes over various landscapes including black Gobi, sand, reed land, Yardan landform and other terrains, which is mainly Gobi (50%), while cumulative climb and decline is 80 meters. The 50-km course is a closed circular path with the starting point located in Xintiandun Farm in the Suzhou District of Jiuquan City. Runners shall run through Huoshi Beacon Tower, Tianluo Ancient City, Jiudao Spring, Huacheng Lake and finally return to the finish line at Xintiandun.“
Yardan? Black Gobi? Other descriptions in the course directions included things like Danxia landform, desert, Yardang landform, red gravel beach, cliff canyon, hard gravel Gobi, saline and alkaline land, camel thorn, soft Gobi, gravel paved roads, soft dirt roads, asphalt. I knew what asphalt was, pretty sure I knew what gravel paved roads and soft dirt roads were, but my idea of the latter two were a little different. I pretty much ignored it all anyway, looked at the course profile and thought it was going to be like a track meet where we would be running on packed hard sand with little elevation gain, or hard ground with smooth rocks, and somehow I thought it would be mostly pavement.
Huddling at the start line, trying to stay warm, I gazed out at the course ahead. Hmmmm. It looked a bit rough at the start – just sandy terrain, rutted, loose, but surely it would get on something smooth and hard soon. I was shivering when the final countdown happened, and off we went, me gasping for breath in the 30 degree air.
The field quickly spread out, and I was right behind Jodie. I kept telling myself that once I got warmed up and we hit the road, everything would calm down. I caught back up to Jodie, and then led for a bit, then she came back, as well as Germany’s Pamela and a Chinese woman. Next a Japanese woman passed by and she and went back and forth for a bit. Finally, I realized that this terrain was not going to change in a favorable way for a while, if ever, and I backed off. I accepted that this race wasn’t about me, it was about the course, and the course was in control. I started to study the different sand formations and where best to plant my feet. The dunes required NOT stepping where someone has stepped before, but rather landing lightly and trying not to break the sand to hard. I ran straight over the first few dunes, then realized that going around them actually was a good idea, and ended up being just as fast.
When I hit the first aid station I was grateful for a chance to slow down. The four women ahead of me were not in sight – either they would come back to me or not. The issue was now just handling the effort on the sand. Now that my heart rate was more relaxed, I felt more in control. I was catching a few men, running with a few in silence at times, but we were all pretty spread out.
We ran near the Huoshi Beacon Tower – where Chinese soldiers could alert folks on the Great Wall that there were invaders. It was now a remnant of the past – a large sand colored lump off to my left. I mainly focused on footing, but remembered to look up to appreciate the vast desert around me. It was incredibly barren. I toiled on through the next few miles, always stopping at the aid stations to stand and drink water, catch my breath, thank the volunteers, and forge on.
At 16 miles, the course turned onto a gravel road. It was glorious. It took me 2:40 to get there, and I realized that 5 hours might even be out of the question. I opened up my stride, as much as my fatiguing legs would allow. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, volunteers were standing beside the road, thumbs up, yelling ‘Ji-oh Ji-oh’ (Let’s go! Let’s go!) Another few miles passed and we went through a place called Jayuguan Caohu Lake Wetland – in the middle of the desert – which is part of the historical Northern Silk Road. It was hard to interpret while running what the surroundings meant, but I did see the ornamentations, the flags, and got to run the glorious smooth black pavement.
When that ended I was presented with an option. I run through the sharp thorny camel thorn, or stay outside the course for slightly more distance, but firmer ground and no thorns. I chose the latter. Not really because of the thorns, but because I wanted some hard ground!
Occasionally I would catch up to a struggling male runner. We would run together for a bit, and then he would surrender, setting me free. My focus remained finding firm footing, keeping an eye on the course markings, and wondering if any of the women ahead were slowing, and were any women behind gaining on me.
When my Garmin miles were at 27 I thought I was closer to 29, so I hoped it was wrong and decided to run as if it was. I pushed hard, and now back in the loose sand, was really feeling the fatigue. Already the longest I had run since the World 100k, I was definitely pleased to have some fight in me. I focused on the next tent as it came into view, thinking it was the finish area, but it soon became obvious I had at leas 5k to go. Up and over and around the dunes, still encouraged by the volunteers, I pumped my arms, lungs wheezing, feet sliding, until finally I saw the large tents of the start finish area. I glanced at my watch, reflecting on the conversation Jodie and I had had early that morning.
Me: “What are you carrying for water and food?”
Jodie: “Not much. Some gels, and I’ll drink at the aid stations.”
Me: “Me too, although I’ll carry some water in a pack.”
Jodie: “It’s not like we’ll be out there that long. Like 4 hours, right?”
Me: “That sounds about right. I mean, how hard can it be?”
Sometimes ignorance is bliss, but this time it didn’t serve us well. It looked like if I ran hard I had a chance at breaking 5 hours, so I pumped harder, wheezed louder, and kicking sand up behind me, pushed as hard as I could to the end, where a banner was held for every finisher to break through. 4:57! I was immediately grabbed on both sides by two young women volunteers who nearly carried me to the recovery tent. Jodie was there, having come in 5 minutes before. She was 4th, the Japanese woman 3rd, The Chinese woman 2nd, and Germany’s Pamela was 1st. In the men’s race, Jim came in 3rd to 2 Kenyans.
Eventually we were bussed back to the hotel, and Jodie and I cleaned up and took a short stroll in town to take pictures and maybe do some shopping. It was a busy little city, and I said I wanted to take pictures of vendors but wasn’t sure how that was looked upon. Jodie said “after all the pictures you’ve been asked to be in? I think it is okay.” Indeed it was.
That evening, the race organizers hosted a Gala Dinner – another great evening of good food and entertainment, and now we were much more relaxed having the race out of the way. Chuping and her father and the mayor of the city joined us on several occasions during the evening, both to toast us, and to ask for our input on how to make the race better. They genuinely wanted the runners to have the best experience possible. And they want all of us to come back next year! I, for one, am in!
I am very grateful to Souhei Kobayashi for inviting me to this wonderful experience, to Chuping for her incredible job at herding us “cats”, to all of the race management and their sponsors for treating us like royalty (even before they knew…). I am also very grateful to my sponsors Altra and Injinji for taking care of my feet once again. And a huge thank you to Mark for staying home and taking care of our new donkeys!