As many of you know, last week I ran in the Gobi March, a 250 km (155-mile) self-supported stage race across the Gobi Desert. The race (six stages taking place over seven days) consisted of nearly 200 competitors from 40 different countries, including several people who had placed highly in other stage-racing events. This was a completely new challenge for me, especially given the fact that I needed to carry all of my supplies on my back! Competitors are required to carry everything they need to eat and camp all week with the exception of water and a tent.
My “rookie” status in this style of racing became apparent at the competitor check-in. After filling out some paperwork and checking off a list of mandatory items, everyone weighs their bag. My initial weight came in at 12kg, which comes to 26.5 lbs. To give you an idea of where I stood among the field, the lightest pack came in at just under 6kg and the heaviest pack weighed 15kg. So, I was going to be carrying much more extra weight than most! To be fair, though, much of my weight came from food and I certainly didn’t want to run low on fuel towards the end of the race.
Following check-in, a three-hour bus ride to the start of the desert course, and some opening musical festivities with the local villagers, we headed to our tents to get the first of several sleepless nights. Everyone awoke to a chilly morning in a valley surrounded by the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains. It was an absolutely beautiful scene and one of the many things about this race that I will never forget. After eating the first of far too many freeze-dried meals, we got the morning course breakdown and announcements from the 4Deserts staff. The competitors lined up, waited for the countdown and 3…2…1…the race began!
To give a full race recap, I would literally need to write a novel. Instead I will list the three most memorable moments (good and bad) from each of the six stages.
Stage 1: Beyond Hami
1. Running on the crest of a sand dune (nearly a mile-high) through a vicious snowstorm. It was pounding snow so hard I could barely see, as my feet were trying ever-so-hard to trudge through soft sand. Possibly the most unforgettable running moment of my life.
2. Watching the weather change throughout the day. After the snow subsided in the afternoon, the sun came out and melted nearly all of it, including every bit that was on the sand dune!
3. Finishing the stage in first place! Fighting through the tough conditions to come away with a stage one victory was truly special.
Stage 2: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan
1. Running up a snow-covered mountain. About a mile into this stage, we had to summit a mountain to reach the highest point of the race at 8,400 feet of elevation. My feet weren’t dry for more than a couple of minutes during this stage, because I spent most of my time stepping into snow past my knees!
2. Chasing down my buddy Kyle. Kyle McCoy, who ultimately took third place overall in the race, was one of my best friends in the competition. In this particular stage, Kyle set a hard pace after we summitted the mountain and I chased him down the rest of the day to finish just minutes behind for second place.
3. Finishing the stage with an American 1-2-3 finish! It was the first time in the HISTORY of a 4Deserts race that one nationality has finished in the top three positions of a single stage. With 46 races to date and six stages in each, that means that it never happened in over 270 opportunities. More to come on that…
Stage 3: Foothills of Tian Shan
1. Running on a road! For a race taking place in the desert, the terrain varied widely and was often quite technical and difficult to run in. However, during this stage, we got a 5k section on a paved road!
2. The freezing rain. Toward the end of this stage, the temperatures dropped to near freezing with rain pouring down. After finishing the stage, I shivered inside my sleeping bag for over an hour before my body temperature leveled out!
3. Finishing the stage with Kyle. The stage was dominated by Ralph Crowley, the other American in the top three. Kyle and I were about ten minutes behind him, as we ran nearly half of this stage side-by-side. We even crossed the finish line together, a memory I will always cherish!
Stage 4: Crossing the Hami Express
1. Going out FAST. This stage was 26.7-miles in length, and after three straight days of marathon-length stages, we ran this one in under 3 hours and 30 minutes. Kyle set a ridiculous pace and Ralph and I just tried to keep up. I finished seven minutes behind Kyle and Ralph was two minutes behind me.
2. The heat. For the first time in this “desert” race, it got HOT! Temperatures reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit and we got a good sweat on out there. We were happy that the heat came later in the week so that the smells around camp weren’t too nasty (did I mention there were no showers available all week?)
3. Backpack mishaps. Since I was using a Camelbak bladder for water while many other competitors used water bottles, I was forced to take off my pack to re-fill water at checkpoints. At the final checkpoint of this stage, I closed the water bladder incorrectly, one of my bib safety pins popped off and the nozzle of the Camelbak flew off. All of this with Ralph just minutes behind me and closing fast!
Stage 5: The Long March
1. INSANE HEAT. This stage was 50.3 miles in length, and the temperatures reached a staggering 120 degrees Fahrenheit. And how about wind? Well, there was very little of it, and most of it felt like a hair dryer was being blown in your face. This was easily the most challenging race I’ve ever experienced, but God lifted me up and guided me through in a big way!
2. Running out of water. In between checkpoints 5 and 6 (7 was the final checkpoint), I ran out of water more than two miles away from the checkpoint. My mouth dried up so fast that I had no choice but to walk. I even drenched myself in water at checkpoint 5, and within ten minutes I was completely dry. This heat was no joke!
3. Crossing the finish line. All day I had been told that Ralph was 40 minutes ahead of me. Somehow, someway, in the final 12 miles of the course, I made up 25 minutes on him! I was certain that he had bounced into first place, but after I crossed the finish line he said he came in only 15 minutes earlier. That meant one thing: I was in first place!
Stage 6: The One that Got Away
1. The sandstorms. There were some serious sandstorms that swept into our campsite before the sixth and final stage. We actually had to sleep outside because the wind had blown down all of the tents. I’ve never eaten more sand in my life!
2. The waiting game. I was expecting a nice and relaxing Friday after the Long March to recuperate before the final 7-mile stage on Saturday. However, the sand, wind and intense heat made it impossible to relax and stay comfortable. Plus, all I could think about the whole day was the final stage!
3. The announcement. At 2am on Saturday morning, the wind got worse and it began to rain. At this point we were told that the final stage would have to be cancelled. I was looking forward to duking it out with Ralph on the final state (I had a 5-minute lead), but it never came to be. However, the cancellation meant that I was the official champion of the Gobi March! It also meant that the top three overall finishers were from the USA, an even more impressive feat that had never been done by any country before (in a single stage, much less overall).
I can’t even begin to express proper gratitude for the prayers, emails, blog comments and well wishes that I received during the race. After I had access to internet following the race, it was like Christmas morning reading what everybody had written. The emotion and the strength that I felt from everyone when I read their messages at the Cybertent during the race will always stick with me. You’re all a tremendous blessing to me and I am forever thankful for your love. You led me to become the 2015 Gobi March Champion!
If you’re interested in reading some of the news, recaps and results information from the race, feel free to visit the 4Deserts Gobi March webpage.