Participants in the Changan Ford Kuga Gobi Ultra Marathon trek up a sand dune. The 50 km race was held in Jiuquan, Gansu Province. Photo taken November 8, 2015. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.COM/William Wang]
By William Wang
Runners were up before sunrise, popping boiled eggs into their mouths and applying duct tape or pantyhose over their trainers. They'd soon be attempting to complete a 50 kilometer race in the bone dry sands of the Gobi Desert.
The Changan Ford Kuga Gobi Ultra Marathon was held for the first time this past Sunday in Gansu Province's city of Jiuquan. Professional runners from Kenya, Italy and China had their eye on the 500,000 RMB prize, though most runners were focused not on the challenge of winning the race, but of completing it.
The race started late due to transportation problems: only one bus was available to carry runners the 40 minute drive to the race start line. The delay left many shivering for an hour in sub-zero temperatures. A number of runners were concerned about potentially missing their trains that evening.
Eventually the starting pistols were fired into the a clear blue sky, and the runners charged out along a rolling gravel road. But within 5 km, the road morphed into dunes of soft sand which continued on for another 10 km. The group had been forewarned that this would be the challenging section of the race, but nobody had realized just how difficult it would be. Chinese runner Bai Bing was expected by many to be a top finisher, but he pulled a muscle in this section and was forced to drop out.
After the dunes, a soft gravel road was the terrain. It wasn't technical, or even particularly slow, but runners had already spent more energy than expected so early on in the race. 35 long kilometers stretched out into the distance ahead.
Many runners found themselves involuntarily slowing to a walk on the long stretches. Only a few course marshals punctuated the silence with a few words of encouragement.
The barren landscape was both terribly bleak and devastatingly beautiful. At times, sheer flatness stretched out 360 degrees into the distance. At one point, runners hopped across a puny creek. Some wild grasses made an appearance around the 30 kilometer mark. A few kilometers of prickly bushes scratched away at runners' weary legs as they neared the final stage of the race.
Dutchman Joost Van Oosterbruggen called the race "intense." He'd had every intention to complete the course, but walking on blistered feet at the 35 km mark he sadly realized that finishing had turned into a dream.
Fred Simon had facilitated getting a large number of participants to the race. "The first 20 K were very harsh for some people," he reflected. Fast runners had back and leg injuries; slower runners had exhaustion and will power issues. "They just got completely burned in the beginning," he sighed.
Even Kenyan Charles Kimutai who won the race in a blistering 3. 5 hours concurred. ¡°It was very tough,¡± he said in a low voice. "Not easy. Because there was a lot of sand, and it was very long."
In the end, about a third of runners could not complete the race, either voluntarily dropping out, or being informed that they would never meet the eight hour time limit. Some runners were embittered, feeling they'd been tricked into running a race that was much more difficult than they'd been informed. But most people seemed very pleased with the experience, whether they'd officially reached the finish line or not. They had, after all participated in a race like few others, covered a huge distance of rugged and sublime terrain, and pushed their bodies and minds as best they could.
There were, however, a number of people who didn't make that train.
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