The mercury hovered in the 50s and I was dehydrated. The Camel back attached to my backpack had turned into a kettle under the burning sun, boiling the water in it till every sip I took scorched my throat. Adding to the discomfort was my sports drink mix that was nauseatingly hot and syrupy – every taste made me want to throw up. The inhospitable salt plains created a surreal white landscape reminiscent of snow fields extending as far as the eye could see. There was nothing and no one in sight in the desolate terrain as I craned my neck for signs of the next checkpoint. The last person I had met was a racer seeking refuge under the shade of an abandoned truck, suffering from severe dehydration and heat exhaustion; it was the end of the race for him. He was neither the first nor the last to go down on this, the longest stage. My pack weighed on my shoulders as I slowly pounded out the kilometres: 35 down, 60 to go. This was going to hurt.
It all began innocently enough a few months earlier in December 2004.I had just completed the West Australia Ironman (WAIM) in less than 12½ hours. It was my first Ironman triathlon, and I was feeling rather satisfied with my performance. On the bus ride to the airport, I met a Wall Street banker who owned his own small investment house. Coincidentally, he had just completed the WAIM as well, and was on a quest to complete the other 22 Ironman triathlons within a year! He made this statement without conceit or bravado – simply as a matter of fact. Further probing revealed that he had been in a near fatal car accident and hence, his wife had forbidden him from doing some of the more intense races in which he was used to taking part. And they were crazy – month long trudges across the Alaskan wilderness and foot races in places so blistering the nylon shirts they wore melted! Inspired by his adventures, I did some research and decided that my next holiday would be to China.
The Gobi March is one in a series of races organised by a company called ‘Racing the Planet’. They stage 250km-long foot races across some of the more desolate reaches of the world, such as the Sahara desert, Atacama Desert in Chile, Gobi Desert and the Antarctic. The Gobi March wends its way through the Turpan depression (the 2nd lowest elevation on Earth) in the Xinjiang region of China, and competitors are required to be fully self-sufficient. ‘Self-sufficient’, as any S4 will explain in the Combat Service Support portion of the Mission Ops Orders, entails carrying your own food, gear, sleeping bag/mat and clothing needed to complete the 250km course. A set distance of approximately 30km would have to be covered daily, with the Long Day stretching to 95km; many of the competitors agreed that the eventual distance covered was far longer than that. The only thing the 2 organisers would provide was water and a place in a tent at night. Not quite your full service holiday!
In the interim, I had been training for Ironman New Zealand, but on the eve of departure, I was struck with a cripplingly painful bout of tendonitis in my ankle that had me limping when I tried to walk.
I went to my doctor in search of a miracle, and the following conversation ensued:
Me: “Hi Doctor, sorry to trouble you again. I have a really bad case of tendonitis in my left Achilles tendon. Walking is really painful right now”
Doctor: “OK, rest.”
Me: “Can, but I have a race in 6 weeks time.”
Doctor: “Hmm, not good. How long is it, a marathon distance?”
Me: “A little bit longer, about 6 marathons worth.”
Despite his reservations, he managed to work his magic on my tendon and thus I found myself in the unenviable position of having only four weeks to get up to scratch for the race.
consulting Paul Soo, a veteran Singaporean ultra-marathoner who had raced in many such events including the previous Gobi March, I devised a simple strategy: get used to the weight, and go easy, as I still had concerns about the strength of my tendon. That meant loading up my backpack with a bowling ball, sleeping bag, and water for a total weight of around 30lbs and then clocking 20km – 30km runs around MacRitchie Reservoir in the blazing noon-time sun on weekends. As I put in the hours for my training, I experienced déjà vu of a younger me, training for the Ranger course and preparing to climb the highest mountains in North and South America. The whole process left much time for introspection and reflection as I clocked the scorching mileage in solitude. Thankfully, the heat burnt away my sense of judgement and spared me from wondering why I was subjecting my body to such indignities.
Equipment preparation was another major hurdle to overcome. There was a long list of mandatory equipment which conflicted with the need forweight minimisation to ensure everything that was brought along could beborne by Man’s most basic locomotive means – leg power. There were no luxuries of donkeys, porters or gas powered engines out there in the desert. The tension between bringing too much or too little was laden with the knowledge that if things broke or ran out, resupply was not an option. Where was your friendly S4 when you needed him? Again, the pain and hassle of sorting out, trying on, evaluating and researching the necessary equipment was all too reminiscent of a big climbing trip, where equipment was never of the right size, fit or colour. Ranger course too, required lengthy preparation of equipment where missing a piece of mandatory gear would see one disqualified before even hitting the start line. The most difficult items to purchase were shoes and food. We were “strongly advised” to buy shoes that were 1 to 2 sizes larger than our usual shoe size, because the heat and distance covered would cause our feet to swell. There were people who suffered badly for their disbelief in that theory and had to cut out their insoles or the whole front of their shoe to alleviate the pressure. Food prep was another matter, as we were required to carry 2000 calories per day, for a total of 14,000 calories. For me, half of this came from freeze-dried foods, and the other half from “morale-boosting” snacks, such as M&Ms, Pringles potato chips, kacang puteh, and Power Bars/Gels. Certainly not what my dietician would consider a balanced meal.
Getting There is Half the Battle
These problems were not enough of a challenge, I had the added complication of returning from overseas duty on the day I had to depart for China, hence affording me just a few hours to do my final preparations before returning to the airport to catch my flight. That day was particularly hectic; I flew back to Singapore, packed, went back to Changi airport, flew to Beijing, transferred to Urumqi, and finally sacked out on my hotel bed just before midnight. Despite the rush, I found time to ponder on some of my nagging concerns: would my tendonitis flare up again; would my food be enough to sustain the effort; was my training sufficient (Or to be more accurate, just how insufficient was my training?); would my shoes and other equipment fit well, or would I suffer the pain of mangled feet? Like a good soldier, I knew I would face the moment of truth before long, so I set my mind at ease and enjoyed the last few hours of air-conditioned comfort.
Next day, we underwent a round of mandatory gear inspections and safety briefings. I noted with some relief that my equipment did not look egregiously out of place. During this session, I had my first look at the other competitors, and while some were obviously seasoned athletes and ultra-marathon racers, the rest looked like ‘normal’ people. I met the other Singaporeans that were competing, namely, a team from SIA, comprising pilots Ken, Aloysius and Cheok, expats Matt Chapman and Gordon, and married couple Dominic and Sharon.
After our last chance on a proper flushing toilet, we were trucked to the starting point in Donggouxiang, which was two hours out from Urumqi in the Tian Shan mountains. There, the elevation is 1300m. The night before the race began, the hotel chefs prepared a great feast as our last supper. The more adventurous amongst us snuck out to catch a glimpse of the terrain that would dog us over the next 7 days – a course that would wend its way through the Turpan Basin and its surrounding mountains.
The camp set-up had white tents holding ten competitors each and to my pleasant surprise, my tent mates included the Singaporean pilots, JoHolland (ex-olympian cross-country skier from Vermont), Lisanne Dorian (eventual winner of the women’s category, and overall 13th), Stuart Leckie (a 35-year-old looking 55-year-old man and one of the British contingent’s representatives from HK), Andrew (multiple Eco-challenge, Raid Gauloises veteran), as well as Peter Clarke (ex Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia). That night was highly unpleasant, as my assumption of hot weather resulted in my carrying very thin clothing that didn’t keep me warm in the 0 degree weather! At this rate, I would be frozen before the race was over!
The next morning, we were all assembled in a small village for the starting ceremony presided over by local officials. There was a sense of nervous trepidation in the air, as everyone was hyped up and keen to get a move on. After an interminable wait (which was not considered long by the standards of this laidback rural area), we were treated to a folk dance performance accompanied by playing of loud patriotic music, and then, with a blare of horn, we were off. It didn’t take too long for the pack of 90 to thin out, with some of the front-runners looking like they were out for a 10km sprint race.
My goal was simple: complete the race with minimal damage. I was quite aware of the severity of my injury, and the insufficiency of conditioning and mileage I had logged, so I checked my ego at the door, and told myself to keep it slow. Over the next couple of days, the wisdom of my conservativestrategy proved sound, as many of the competitors that pushed too hard too soon faded after the first few days. Contrary to that strategy, I chose to drive myself on the Long Day, when many of the competitors succumbed to the heat. This had to be one of the few times that the hot Singapore weather was actually good for something.
The first day was relatively easy (~30+ km), with its mild terrain of small dried up river-beds and dirt roads. On this and the next day, there were minor river crossings (from snow-melt) which provided relief to our swollen feet. The water was, however, fast flowing and coupled with the big slippery rocks underfoot, some of the athletes fell and wet their gear. The ones that managed to stay upright still suffered from abrasions caused by the high friction of sand and water sloshing around in their shoes, which engendered painful blisters on their feet. We ended the day at the 2000m elevation campsite.
The second day’s path followed a vast riverbed along the ancient Silk Road route from Tianchi, a summer retreat for Han dynasty kings. It was a few kilometres wide, crested on either side by hills, and filled to capacity with ankle-turning rocks. After awhile, I started to curse the nature of geography that deposited these particular rocks there, lying in patient wait for thousands of years just to make me roll my ankle, or twist my knees. It was here that the first casualty was claimed; Gunnar, the Swedish Viking fell and either twisted or broke his ankle, we weren’t sure which. I could only resolve to be more careful.
That night, we got a sense of just how perverse the weather could be, as the winds started to howl, screeching by at speeds of 80km/h. And it began to drizzle. Rain in the desert? What were the odds, I wondered, as we all did our best to hold the tents together with bits of wire and cable-ties.
The start of Day Three saw us clambering through an active slot canyon, with gushing water up to our thighs. Slot canyons are deep cuts in the ground made by the forceful and erosive motion of water over many years. Each canyon was barely wide enough at parts to admit a single person, while their walls rose up many metres on either side. Once inside, it was impossible to exit except at the other end, where it would suddenly open onto the vista of a vast plain or valley. The canyons snaked back and forth so extensively that there was no way of knowing how much further one had to travel. By the end of the race, we would be sick and tired of slot canyons.
Once done with that natural labyrinth, we traversed the black rock fields that soaked up the heat of the sun and turned the surrounding landscape into one huge heat shimmer. It is no wonder they called this stage the ‘Black Gobi’. Flat and featureless, with terrible rocks that caught at the feet and shifted them around in our overly big shoes, this stretch was a blistering experience.
Day Four included a particularly interesting cultural encounter, as it included a climb over the Flaming Mountains of Journey to the West fame. It was here that Sun Wukong encountered many devils that plagued him and his master as they headed west to obtain the holy scriptures. It is my theory now that those demons were figments of their dehydrated and heat-crazed imaginations, as I too began to have visions of creatures waiting to feast on the bones of those crazy enough to wander into this cauldron.
As the temperature rose above 50 degree Celsius and after having ascended and descended our umpteenth hill, I thought back to my previous holiday in Alaska, climbing the highest mountain in North America. There, the temperature at night was -40 degree Celsius. The most ‘exciting’ moment was on the descent, when the howling wind funnelled up the headwall while we were on the ridge with 30+kg packs. It was an instant of sheer poetry as the elements felt malevolent and alive, trying to force us off the ridge. Out here, it felt as if their cousins were trying to bake us alive.
The start of Day Four took a pleasant turn along a ridge-line, allowing for comfortable footing only one step off to either side of the trail, after which a steep drop-off followed. Some competitors had to give up and turn around as they were intimidated by the thought of negotiating this 3km stretch of ridge-line; others traversed it on hands and knees. Myself, I was quite comfortable with ridge-lines, and took off at a quick run. Rather overconfidently, I might add, as I took a spill at one of the hair-pin turns. Luckily, I was able to stop myself from falling off the trail by using my bottom as an emergency brake, otherwise it would have been a several hundred metre roll and tumble to the bottom of the hills. That would probably have ruined my day.
The long day arrived, and the competitors began what would be their most painful stage. The end of Day Four had seen the mercury hit the 50s, and this day would be no different. It began with a 14km stretch to the ancient Tang dynasty city of Gaochang, after which we headed into the vast expanse of the Turpan Basin.
As the day progressed, there were more and more racers that had to stop by the wayside, but I could do nothing to help them. Unlike the military ethic of “One for All”, out here it was every man for himself, as none of us had any reserves to part with. By the end of the day, I had given away my meagre supply of spare hydration salts, as well as some of my snack food.
One of the check-points in the long day was set in the middle of a small village where we had a mandatory one hour stop and were allowed to order food. Given that this was the western-most part of China, where Asia bumped into Europe, it was a given that all the people had Eurasian features – black hair, blue/green eyes. The road signs also saw an unfamiliar mating of Arabic and Chinese text. And I can think of no better recommendation to study Chinese than being able to order food and drinks when in the middle of a small town in the middle of Xinjiang (Of course, the Turkish competitor got along just fine as well, as the locals were also fluent in Turkish).
Throughout the long day, I walked by myself and after a few hours, there was nobody in sight. The solitude was pleasant company, but one of the concerns was that sleep-walking alone in the dark, I would walk into a ditch and sprain my ankle. There, my constant mantra was the Ranger creed, snatches that drifted to me through my sleepy stupor: “Surrender is not a ranger word. I will keep myself physically strong, Mentally alert and morally straight”
The final stages saw me walking across the tall sand-dunes by the moonlight. This was a surreal landscape, as the moon peaked through over the top of the dunes, accompanied by the sound of heavy silence. There was a sense of awe at the forces that had wrought such an alien environment into being. Wonder is all around us, if only we take the time to look.
By now, my mind was starting to wander, as I started to analyse the self-organising critical angles of the sand-dunes to see where the footing would be best – In order to crest the dunes, one had to sprint up the last part, otherwise you would just slide backwards in a futile effort. This exertion got pretty annoying after awhile, particularly when the tendonitis that I had been dreading decided to revisit me, in force.
Crossing the sand-dunes, the moment of truth was always when we crested the top, only to be met with the sight of another series of dunes that we had to go up and over. Again. And again. And again. And again. I tell you, after a while, I was mentally cursing and swearing at Ian Adamson, the race director who had set the course. Other competitors were also cursing him and his whole family for such a thankless route.
Thankfully, I managed to complete the long day in just over 24 hours, coming in just after sun-rise to avoid another heat cycle. Some other competitors were not so lucky – There were those that had to suffer a second day of heat, others that were evacuated owing to a massive sand storm, and those med-evaced because they had passed out in the middle of the route and started convulsing. Not a pretty sight. And given the distance between the first and last competitor, the safety coverage was spread rather thin.
The highlight of each day was the approach to the camp site, when a Uighur woman would beat on the drum to welcome in the competitors. Before long, we could see the national flags and the white tents of the camp-site beckoning at us as our spirits lifted. Of course, this could lead to delusions, as many competitors started hearing the elusive drum-beat where there was none. In other settings, this sort of psychosis would call for a thorough psychiatric investigation. Here, it was all too normal.
There is a poem by Percy Shelley titled Ozymandias that tells the story of a grand and proud statue of a forgotten king that lies silent and shattered in the middle of a lonely desert. This poem came to mind as I saw the small hands and signs of human engineering far from significant habitation. Who would come here I wondered? Such insignificant human effort set against the backdrop of vast wilderness brought out the contrast of isolation all the more starkly.
Life was reduced to a simple set of parameters and desires. Drink, eat, look for marker flags and listen to the sound of the drum. In that constancy, away from the immediacy of everyday concerns, it was possible for a short spell at least, to challenge oneself, and focus on simple things, such as food and self-preservation.
As the days went by, the medical tent had more and more patients to attend to. The foot injuries were particularly heinous, as if the racers had been subject to medieval torture: blood blisters under the toe-nails that had to be popped with a heated safety pin pushed through the nail; massive blisters that ran the length of their feet, in between the toes, and on every other location conceivable. Sometimes the skin was simply scrubbed raw, leading to profuse bleeding. Abrasions from the shoulder straps and the backpack on the lower back were also common. Hearing my friends recite their litany of pain daily left me feeling a little guilty that my feet were holding up just fine. A large part of this was down to how I took care of my feet – I took the effort to adjust my socks and apply lubricant at the first sign of hot spots. While this was disruptive to my race effort, in the long run it saved me a lot of grievance. One of the keys to the race, and as relates to my following paragraph below is that while ‘sucking it up’ can take you so far, it won’t carry you across seven days if you don’t make efforts to take care of yourself.
It is an old cliché that necessity is the mother of invention. The corollary to that adage is that only when the situation is bleak will you unlock your powers of creativity. As a young officer, I recall being disheartened when my platoon sergeant told stories of his Ranger course experience as I perceived an unbridgeable gulf in cunning and survival skills between him and me. However, when I was there, I surprised myself with my own ingenuity during crisis situations when things had gone wrong and I had to fix them or fail. You never know what you can do, till you’re forced to do it.
During this race, the biggest crisis resulted from my decision to leave my trekking poles behind as they were considered ‘optional equipment’. I kicked myself mentally for the whole first day, as every missed step and turned rock became a potential ankle-breaker. The footing on the rocks was simply too treacherous, what with slippery terrain, over-sized shoes and carrying a pack to boot. When I finally reached the camp-site, I was desperate and looked all over for possible substitutes. I was inspired by the sight of the flags and improvised a solution by fashioning trekking poles out of the bamboo flag poles. With the help of the Chinese race helpers, I had a pair of cheap, strong and light-weight poles to support my weight for the rest of the journey. Another excellent Made in China product.
The other major problem was sand in my shoes. If your kid complained about sand in his shoes during an excursion at the beach, you’d probably scold him for being a crybaby. 250km with sand packed between your toes, however, is a whole other story. I tried all ways and means to sand proof my shoes with duct tape and safety-pins, but no amount of ingenious tinkering solved that problem. There were many other examples of improvisation, such as cutting up the water bottles to use as spoons, and, scavenging for food that people discarded in their effort to minimise their load (something so very reminiscent of ranger course). For me, the small annoyances, while troubling, were one of my key enjoyments in the race as I was forced to exercise my powers of self-reliance and resourcefulness in a climate of deprivation and resource scarcity. All too often, I felt that I had become too comfortable in my own skin and climate-controlled zone. It is all too true that Transformation only occurs when it is forced upon us.
There were some real characters in the race. The top three places went to ex-military personnel. The race winner was Evgeniy, a very thin Russian who had spent his conscript service in the Xinjiang region guarding the Russian border against a possible Chinese attack, hence he was familiar with the area. There was a large contingent of Brits from HK. They were highly commendable for the funds they raised for Operation Smile, which was a charity that fixed children’s cleft palates, a disfiguring congenital condition. However, the most inspiring person was a BLIND Korean man and his guide. He was extremely fit, and ran along as if he had no disability. I wondered at how he managed to negotiate the river beds and rock-fields without killing his legs, when I had difficulty enough with poles AND sight. I was also moved by the weight of responsibility that the guide had to shoulder, particularly on the ridge-line, when any misstep could have proved fatal.
As soldiers have a tendency to do, going out-field entails careful selection and packing of comfort items (whether permitted or not). During the race, this was very much in evidence, and an interesting question to pose would be: If you had a strict weight budget, what would be the one piece of comfort item that you would bring with you?
Patrick, a Texan, carried a thin flat panel solar cell to recharge his Ipod; the Singaporean pilots had “Ba Kwa” and their inflatable air pillows; Douglas, an Englishman had Bovril in a glass jar to season his bland food; the Koreans were chain-smoking their way through the whole seven days; For me, it was a double ration of wet-wipes (allocated myself 2 sheets per day to keep clean).
After resting the rest of Day 6, the final day was rather uneventful, and the finish line was at the sand dune national park in the small town of Shanshanxian. All I can say was that I was happy to have completed the race, about halfway through the pack.
The awards ceremony, held over a buffet lunch in the hotel, was both moving and fun. The star was a little boy of eight who had been treated at the Operation Smile clinic in Xian for which some of the competitors had raised funds. He was born with very severe facial deformities, having virtually no palate and little by way of an upper lip on one side. His family left him to die on the street. A Chinese man from another family walked past him for several days while he was lying on the street and decided that he had to help him. The Chinese man took the little boy into this own home, much against the wishes of the Chinese man’s own family. The Chinese man heard about the Operation Smile clinic in Xian and the two of them walked 200 miles to Xian for the little boy to be treated. The little boy now looks almost normal. He helped to present the prizes. While we were suffering on our perverse holiday, there were many people for whom pain and hunger was a matter of default, not of choice. Food for thought.
Some days, it takes a long journey to gain a little perspective.