Editor's note: Author Pavel Toropov is from Wimbledon, London. He is an elite semi-professional long-distance runner, specializing in trail races ranging between 50 and 100 kilometers. Toropov is currently based in Shangri-la, training full-time at altitude for the upcoming trail and adventure race season in Asia. From time to time he contributes articles to GoKunming to keep us abreast of the adventure sports scene in Yunnan and across China.
I stopped, switched off my headlamp and my flashing red light, and howled at the moon, trying to sound as eerie and wolf-like as possible. I looked back to where the headlamp of the Chinese runner was bobbing up and down, a long way behind. The bobbing suddenly stopped and the light started darting around frantically in all directions, grabbing at the darkness. I howled again and took off across the desert ninja-style without switching on my lights.
I was almost 20 hours into a 400 kilometer non-stop race across the Gobi. To be exact, it wasn't even a race. The organizers were doing a test run of what will be the biggest and longest ultra in China — the Xuanzang Route – Gobi Ultra Trail. Me and a female Russian ultra star, Olya Korzh, were the invited testers, along with a small crew of Chinese runners and hikers. The concept of the race was simple — 400 kilometers across the Gobi, with seven rest stations, were you could sleep, rest, get hot water and store the clothes and food you thought you needed. The rest was up to you. Olya and myself renamed the race 'Megatrudge 400'.
Before the race all the testers and organizers were invited to join a weixin group. These ultra races require a certain amount of equipment — lightweight backpacks, grippy shoes, water bladders, headlamps, energy gels, electrolyte pills — and thus attract an interesting sub-species of runner, people with money to spend to compensate for their lack of training and speed by buying a lot of expensive sexy gear. Megatrudge was no exception.
Race invitees immediately plunged into a never-ending discussion about gear. Photos of headlamps — weighed to three decimal points — were sent back and forth in a frenzy. New rucksacks and shoes were bought, photos of them posted, and the running surfaces that were awaiting us discussed. I had one pair of usable running shoes left. The rest were full of holes with soles practically worn through and all my socks had been mended and re-mended with dental floss.
I was somewhat intimidated by the purchasing power of my fellow race-mates, but held firm to my philosophy of dirtbag running — shorts and singlet, and all gear must be donated by sponsors or won in races. The problem was that having lost my sponsors and missed most of last season with sickness and injury, I was practically destitute gear-wise.
After gear, the weixin traffic turned to the question of safety. The thought of running alone through the desert at night terrified the Megatrudgers. The nocturnal depths of the Gobi harbor wolves, fierce reptiles and, quite possibly ghosts, and who knows what else. Anti-wolf measures were discussed including tactical maneuvers involving a platoon of runners in case of a sustained wolf attack.
The race started at midnight amongst sand dunes and Tang Dynasty ruins — although we could not see any of it as all was pitch black. Megatrudgers, all wrapped up in skintight kit, several layers of gortex jackets and festooned with water bottles, looked like they were going to colonize Mars. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. It was a self-navigation race and there were no markings on the ground, but you were given a GPS with a track to follow.
The hardest part of these very long races is pacing yourself at the start, having the discipline to keep a ridiculously slow pace. The two Chinese runners who were planning to run the course rather than walk it took off at sub three-hour marathon pace, racing each other and anxious to drop the foreigners. The problem was, propelled by their egos, and having no idea how to use GPS, they soon veered away from the course.
I caught up with them after not too long, and following a couple more mad dashes at angles almost perpendicular to the line of the course, they gave up and told me that they would just follow me. Having sponged off my navigation for almost 50 kilometers, they made another attempt to discard the foreigner. It was now light and they had time to get used to the GPS, so I was no longer needed.
I trudged along at my steady pace a few hundred meters behind. Navigation was tricky amongst the maze of dry river beds and small hills, so I took my time. The two runners seized their chance, suddenly sprinting away. I watched in disbelief as they disappeared into the distance and missed the turn off. They caught up with me 30 minutes later, breathing hard and looking furious.
The first rest station, with a film crew waiting, was a couple of kilometers ahead and one runner, of the anti-wolf faction, decided to go all out in an attempt to arrive before the foreigner and grab the limelight. Such unsporting behavior enraged me, especially after being exploited for navigation all night. I knew what he was capable of, having seen his race times online, so I wrenched the speed up. He hung on for a couple of minutes then made a strange sound and sat down on the ground absolutely spent. We still had almost 350 kilometers to go.
The same runner made yet another ego-fueled and absolutely unnecessary kamikaze attempt to race me, after having caught up a couple of hours later. This was the last time I saw him, after the second failed attempt to break me he sat down on the trail again, absolutely cooked.
I have raced against Chinese pros and have never come across such ridiculous behavior, so when I saw his headlamp on the horizon that night, I decided to have a bit of fun howling. Howling worked. I was later told that the runner in question arriving wide-eyed with fear at the next checkpoint telling stories of being stalked by an enormous wolf. I ran through the first day, 27 hours straight, with short breaks for water, food and to attend to my increasingly wrecked feet.
The scenery was stunning. The course went across sand dunes, through dry riverbeds and then climbed up to almost 4,000 meters while skirting the mountains. We were a stone's throw away from Qinghai province and the mountains rising from the desert were in fact the start of the Tibetan plateau. Vultures circled above and I spooked numerous gazelles and mountain hares.
Less friendly fauna was a pack of dogs that were guarding a flock of sheep. They surrounded me, barking madly, leaping away from the beam of my headlamp. Staying a safe distance from the rock barrage I put up, they followed me in the night for a few kilometers across the frozen desert, barking with a mixture of fury and excitement.
However stunning the scenery, was, I had a problem. The narrow shoes I was wearing ground my feet raw. The socks were soaked in blood from blisters, and the feet themselves were starting to swell up. It got to a point where every step sent a jolt of pain through my feet, strong enough for me to involuntarily grunt in discomfort. I was only 60 or so kilometers from the finish and did not want to stop, so I took a massive dose of prescription painkillers and ran on.
For a couple of hours I enjoyed relatively pain free running, but then my feet and ankles swelled up so much that I began to trip over them. I stumbled into the last rest tent, at three in the morning, 38 kilometers from the finish, delirious with pain, giddy from sleep deprivation and shivering with cold. Barely able to pull the shoes from my ballooned feet, I slumped down in the tent, announcing I was pulling out to the race crew. The crew looked on with disgust as I peeled off my socks, which came away with chunks of foul-smelling rotting skin and two toenails.
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