A decade an a half ago I embarked on an adventure to central Asia, the main reason for which being my most memorable race experience. A fantastic and highly recommended event if you're ever looking for something different. Here's what happened......
I’m beginning to wonder if I’m actually heading in anything like the right direction. The tatty map I have doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance to my surroundings, there are no signs that I can make any sense of and nobody can make head nor tail of what I’m saying when I try and ask for help. I seem to have been on my feet forever, my legs are tired, my feet hurt, I’m sweating profusely and feeling really de-hydrated, hungry, confused and thoroughly anxious. Will I ever find my way? Will I actually make it in one piece? Will I be in time? Will anyone ever find me? These are some of the questions going through my mind as I slip into a more and more negative frame of mind.
Then all of a sudden I’m back on track and I realise that, with only seconds to spare, I’ve made it. Feeling much happier I walk into the bar I’ve been looking for, order a cool beer and settle down to watch Belgium verses Brazil – to find out who England’s next opponents will be.
I’d been in Beijing for about 12 hours and after a day of temples, emperor’s thrones, confusing metro trains, even more confusing roads and humidity like I’d never known, I’d found familiar surroundings. As I sat reflecting at the end of the game it dawned on me that I had been sitting in an Irish pub, drinking Mexican beer, listening to a Japanese youth sing American songs, whilst eating Italian food and watching Brazil play Belgium at an English game on TV. I realised that I could just have easily been in London or Birmingham rather than China, but that this was really going to be a truly inter-continental adventure!
Four days later, after being ripped off by a Chinese masseur, getting totally lost looking for pandas, 36 hours on a train across the desert spotting camels with an Englishman, Welshman and Scotswoman (sure there is a joke in there somewhere), some very dodgy dealing to change currency in a room above a cinema, a heavy drinking session with a world champion sumo wrestler's wife, being accosted by a man with a gun for peeing behind a bush, and cutting my head and toe open in an accident involving a towel rail, my mind starts to focus for the first time on what I’m actually doing in Outer Mongolia. The place most people only mention when making an ironic exaggeration about something or other.
Tomorrow will be Saturday, the day when I will meet up with the organisers of the Sunrise to Sunset 100 km Ultramarathon and many of my opponents for the first time. So I’m beginning to think about who will be in the group, how many will speak English, who I will share a bedroom with etc etc.
By the next evening I’ve met these people. They’re from all walks of life and from all over the world, but with one thing in common, the desire to run. But that evening there is disappointment and relief. The plane that has been chartered for us will not be taking us up to the race camp tonight because of bad weather, but as Nick, one of the organisers, points out it’s good that they have such regulations.
Early the next morning we realise that Nick was spot on when it dawns on us that the little, rather rusty looking, Russian propeller plane in the far corner of Ulaanbaatar airport is what they are expecting us to get on! Most people seem strangely subdued as we climb aboard, and the engines start to splutter into action and the rattles and vibrations begin.
Once we’re airborne the flight is uneventful and everybody starts to relax a bit, and many, who have spent most of the previous day and night travelling, are soon falling asleep. They wake up with a jolt though, as we hit the ground, take off again, hit the ground again, and bounce our way down the runway wondering whether anyone has actually got this beast under control. Eventually we start to slow down and the bouncing stops prompting spontaneous cheers and applause from the cabin. And as we taxi around at the end of the runway, we’re all looking back to see the runway.....and then thinking ‘what blinking runway?!?!’ Nothing but grass, sheep and yaks for miles and miles!
Moments later we’re outside and the place is breathtaking. Beautiful mountains surround us, the sky is the bluest we’ve ever seen, the air is so fresh, and there aren’t any tarmac roads within 400 miles. So no air-conditioned coach to transfer us to camp, it’s a 3 mile walk across to the shore of Lake Hovsgol to board a little boat (which looks like it’s maintained by the same people as the plane) for a 90 minute cruise to Camp Toilogt (pronounced toilet by many), our home for the next 6 days.
Lake Hovsgol is 85 miles long, stretching right up to the Siberian border. So once out on the water the temperature, which had been in the 20’s, plummets as we become exposed to the cool winds from the north. This quickly has us reaching for warm clothes and seeking out shelter at the back of the boat. We’re therefore really grateful of the offerings of hot tea and cookies from our hosts when we arrive at camp shortly before midday.
A few hours later we’ve settled into our accommodation which is traditional Mongolia gers with 3 or 4 sharing each....my roommates for the week being Nigel, a photographer from Ipswich, and Keith a Kiwi formerly of Yorkshire. And now, eager to explore this magical place, everybody is discussing what activities to take part in – horse riding, kayaking, fishing, walking, relaxing and running are all on offer.
I opt to go with the running group, hoping it will be a good opportunity to weigh up the terrain and get acclimatized to the altitude. A group of about 10 of us from at least 7 different countries set off up through the forest along the first portion of the race course. Within a couple of minutes we’re all realising how difficult the underfoot conditions will be, with roots and branches everywhere, and breathing heavily in the thin air. It’s only a gradual climb for about a mile or so but we’re relieved of the respite when our leader, Nick, takes us off the trail to check out an ovoo. These are sacred pyramid type structures made of pieces of wood and whatever else can be found I think. We’re told that the etiquette is to walk around it clockwise 3 times and leave an offering of some kind. And as we do so notice that vodka bottles seem to be the usual offering in this neck of the woods.
Once we’ve got our breaths back we drop down out the forest and loop around back towards camp, enjoying some spectacular views of the lake and mountains, and taking the opportunity to swap some running stories with our companions. Back at the camp a swim in the crystal clear waters of the lake seems in order to cool off in the afternoon sunshine. So it’s down to our shorts, dive in and then 2.5 seconds later jump straight back out again.....goodness that water is bloody freezing! Apparently it’s frozen solid for 4 months of the year, and never gets above about 2°C.
An hour later I’m thawed out and heading down to the dining ger for something that has been concerning me a lot.....traditional Mongolian dinner! Would my stomach take it, would I spend the whole of race day racing to and from the carzy? Actually I’m pleasantly surprised by the offerings, and there is even some carbohydrates to go with the local mutton. But it seems that it will be a couple more days before the kegs of beer that the Chingis brewery sent with us on the plane will be settled enough to drink.
As the evening progresses we are strangely unaware of the time creeping up on us and it seems surreal that it’s approaching midnight whilst we stand watching the local horsemen round up their beasts, still in broad daylight. The temperature has dropped dramatically though and as we settle into our beds are glad of the fire that has been lit in our ger.
The next morning many of the happy campers have decided to rise early to join (race director) Tyler’s yoga class on the grass down by the lake. We lie there listening to his soothing voice telling us to clear our minds and focus on letting our bodies relax and sink into the ground. I don’t think many of us are convinced about the benefits of this though, when all we can feel is the dew soaking into our clothes and ourselves starting to shiver in the cold. Perhaps we’ll get a fire lit and do it inside the dining ger tomorrow Tyler says at the end – nods of approval all round.
Just time now to seek out the alleged sauna in the shower block (which turns out to be some benches around the fire that heats the water) and warm up before breakfast. I’m soon joined by Swedish Robert who – bringing a bit of culture from home – comes in completely starkers. A few minutes after that two of the Chinese girls, Holly and Lynn, ask if there is room for them to squeeze in and slide in next to Robert. It’s only when I open the door to leave though and let some light flood into the darkness, that it dawns on them that they’re left alone with a naked triathlete.
Around midday the boat arrives with all the Japanese and Mongolian athletes and the group is complete, except for the mad german, Marc, who arrives later having spent a week on his bike cycling from Ulaanbaatar. I know that plane looked a bit ropey but that was a bit of an extreme alternative!
Plenty of choice of activity again during the afternoon and I opt to go on a trek to put out some markers on the race course and do some reconnaissance. Along the trail we encounter a nomadic reindeer tribe living in a tee-pee like tent. As cameras come out to take photos of the animals Tyler warns us that they charge if we take pictures. One of our American companions, Audrey, looks a bit worried until she realises that it is not the reindeers that will charge (antlers down) but their keepers who have cottoned on to the ability to extract dollars from the tourists.
We have to be back at camp for 5.30 prompt though for our race briefing and find out the true horrors of what we’ll encounter on Wednesday. We hear about the route, the lung busting gradients, the medical hazards and the emergency procedures, which include the need to write your condition in English in a note book if you’re injured so another runner can take it to the next check point. The doc tells us that this is particularly important if you’re condition causes you to loose consciousness....hmmmm?!?
We’re also hoping that the interpreters for the Japanese have understood what ‘raingear’ is....and there wont be a number of runners with antlers sticking out of their back packs on race morning.
The Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia (the only guide book there is) says that there couldn’t be a worse place on the planet to get ill. So we are quite relieved about the experience and professionalism of the three doctors that give us our medical check ups the morning before race day. We did wonder though, why it only seemed to be women that were whisked away into their ger for a closer examination. Despite all the stories of past injuries from most of the runners (apparently getting your excuse in early isn’t just an English thing) we all somehow manage to pass the medical and be allowed to run.
The remainder of race eve is quite lazy, with sitting around in the sunshine drinking water, carbo-loading, chatting with our colleagues (swapping details of our goals and tactics for tomorrow – and getting more excuses in early) being the order of the day for most of us. Dinner is early and by 9.30 most are heading off for an early night, motivated by the fact that Tyler will be out with his bugle at 3.15am to wake us up for the race (and 2.45 for the mad sods who want to do Yoga). A few are attempting to watch the world cup semi-final on the only TV within 300 miles but, as the picture looks like Antarctica in a blizzard and the commentary is in Chinese, it seems too much like hard work for anybody not German. I opt for bed but there is a nervous atmosphere in the air and it’s well past 11 in our ger before we stop chatting and settle down
In about 5 hours time I will be lining up on the start line for my greatest physical challenge yet
It only seems a matter of minutes since silence fell on our ger and we settled down to sleep, when we’re awoken by some pratt playing a bugle outside. Blimey what’s he doing playing at this time of night, is he practicing for tomorrow? As I start to come around from my slumber and reach for the light on my watch I realise that it’s no practice....it’s 3.15am and time to get up for breakfast.
A few minutes later, having dragged myself out of the warmth of my bed into what feels like a November morning in Derbyshire I’m sitting, bleary eyed, in the dining ger with no appetite whatsoever but knowing that I should at least have some tea and museli to stir my digestive system into life.
So after a brief breakfast I head back out into the cold of night and make a b-line for the toilet block, using the same strategy as for racing at home...beat the queue and get in while there is still some paper left!
By the time I’ve got back to the ger, got my kit on, checked I’ve got everything and checked I’ve got everything again, it’s time to join the assembling masses at the start line down by the lake.
Standing on the start line it seems to be a mixture of nervousness and excitement. All I can see is darkness and I am heading into the unknown. Although I’ve got an idea of the terrain I will encounter there are so many unknown factors – I’ve never run this far before, I’ve never run at this altitude, I’ve never run on a diet of Mongolian food, I’ve never even run a race outside of the UK before.
Bang on time at 4.30am we’re off and I’m surprised how many people seem to be sprinting off across the clearing into the darkness. Did anyone explain to them that it is 100k and not 10k I wonder!. Wanting to hit the narrow trail through the forest in a good position so not to get boxed in, I find myself getting carried along behind the front runners, but anxious not to go into oxygen debt just yet with 99.9km still to go!
The pace slows as we enter the forest but, although I have no idea who they are in the darkness, the torches of the front runners seem to be disappearing off into the distance. I tell myself to be firm with myself....settle down, do my own thing, worry about what others are doing in about 9 hours time, not now.
I start to relax and pace myself up the gradient, glad that there are people in front to follow, because the chances of seeing any of the course markings (which consist of green dots painted on trees!) seems to be zero. It goes through my mind how surreal this seems...racing through the Mongolian wilderness at 4.30 in the morning....and wonder if I should pinch myself to check that I’m actually here.
As the grass gets a bit longer I’m surprised how heavy the dew is that I can feel against the back of the legs. But after a few moments of this I realise that I’m no longer running through long grass, but the dew is still there. Something isn’t quite right. Oh no it can’t be can it?! I reach around and feel the bottom of my backpack.....it’s soaked. Oh no....oh sh%t....my hydration pack is leaking. I have no option but to stop and check it out. I step off the path and pull my backpack off, grappling with the zip to open it and see what’s wrong. Perhaps I didn’t fasten the top properly....hopefully it will just be a little from the top. But, as I shine my torch into it my worst fears are realised....the top is still secure but there is no fluid left in it. What is left of the 2 litres of isotonic mixture is sloshing around all my other gear. I have no option but to just tip it all out onto the ground.
Oh what a disaster I’m thinking....only 1km gone and my whole race plan seems to have gone out of the window. How will I manage now? Should I go back to the start? I pull my pack back on and decide to carry on and just hope perhaps they’ll have something to carry fluid in at the first check point. As I rejoin the trail and start to run again I’m boxed in back down the field. But, although the anger inside me wants to sprint past people and get back in to the race I force myself to be calm and not start taking risks with so many hazards in the dark forest and burn myself out in the first section.
15 minutes later I drop out of the forest onto the jeep track which will provide flat easy running for the next 10k to check point 1. I concentrate on trying to relax and keep my heart rate low, and tell myself to do my own thing and not to worry about what’s going on in front. The first glimmers of daylight are now starting to appear across the lake and it’s an opportunity to enjoy the scenery
At a bend in the track I am met with camera flashes from the Mongolian paparazzi. Realising that one of them is Nigel, my ger mate, I shout and ask whether he has any bottles I can steal...but to no avail.
I continue and after a while I can see figures in the distance and realise that I’m starting to catch a few people up. First there is Cath and Bob from Yorkshire, then Erkhemsaikhan (I get a bit of lift passing her – it’s not everyday you overtake an Olympian), and then I find myself running alongside Ian from Canada. I tell him my tail of woe about my drink and things start to look up as he tells me he’s only doing the marathon and will leave his hydration pack for me to pick up there....top man!
Moments later, a jeep draws alongside us and an unknown dark figure silently passes me a sports bottle. It’s empty but we’re insight of the check point now, so I’ll at least be able to fill it up there to get me by until the 42km point.
I take a pit stop at the check point to fill my bottle and eat some salty potatoes before taking on the biggest challenge of the course....the 5km relentless climb up to Chinchee pass (7500 Feet). As the trail turns away from the lake up into the mountains I can see runners ahead already down to a walk as the gradient and altitude take hold. I jog where I can but with Tyler the race director’s words from the previous day ringing in my ears (‘we’ve seen people run up Chinchee, but they don’t win the race and often retire’) I try not to feel guilty about walking the steeper parts.
I find myself quite enjoying this climb. I’ve got fluid again, the views are spectacular, and motivation is up as I’m overtaking more people (reward from wednesdays at Darley Park maybe! Thanks Graham). Among the people I catch on the climb are top Mongolian female athlete, Ichinhorloo, and Ian again (whoops the plan for picking up his hydration pack not looking so clever now!)
I reach the summit with just under 2 hours gone, and photographer Nigel (how the hell did they get a jeep up here??) informs me that I’m in 4th position. I let out a whoop and let myself go down the decent at the other side.
The course is now very steep, rocky and difficult under foot. So although the views of the mountains get even more spectacular there I’m only able to allow my self an occasional glance to marvel at it all. Soon I realise that I’m all alone, with nobody in sight either in front or behind me, so it’s time to concentrate hard on where my feet are going, and looking out for green spots to ensure I stay on the course.
This next section has everything from mountain ridges to knee deep bogs in the forest to river (fortunately dry) crossings, but I feel like the last man on the planet as I run through this gigantic wilderness, not seeing another soul until I suddenly emerge from the trees to check point 2. There is a warm welcome from the crew here as they ply me with hot tea and potatoes, and fill my bottle up for me again.
Soon I’m on my way again and within a few minutes I catch the extraordinary Tavaa, professional mountaineer, 60 years old (and eventual winner of the marathon) and exchange greetings with him before heading onward and upwards to Khirvesteg pass the 2nd big climb of the day.
This climb proves to be tougher than Chinchee. It’s much steeper and mainly through forest with no defined trail so there are many obstacles to climb over, duck under and go around. It seems to go on and on and it’s difficult to walk, never mind run, at times. But the greeting at the summit from a local Mongolian horseman makes it all worth while. I shout my thanks (with one of the six Mongolian words I’ve managed to learn so far) as he points me in the direction I need to go.
After a quad busting descent into the next valley the remainder of the route to the end of the marathon course back at the camp is easy in comparison with what has gone before. So I’m able to relax again and try to enjoy the experience. At around this time I realise that it’s raining heavy....but I’m not sure for how long, I hadn’t even noticed it up until now; must have been totally engrossed in the race.
I approach the check point feeling quite upbeat...my legs feel okay and I’m 6 minutes up on last year’s winning time for the marathon! When I arrive there is a warm welcome from race director Tyler who advises me that Nuuren has left some time ago but last year’s 100k winner, Byamberdorj, is in the aid tent being massaged by the doctor. I opt for a quick change of shoes while people pamper me and feed me hot potato soup, and am quickly back out onto the trail, feeling thrilled to be in 2nd position.
The next half mile is back along the same route and I get chance to exchange shouts of encouragement with the front runners in the marathon. As I veer off south for the long drag to the 55k checkpoint I’m brought down to earth somewhat as Byamberdorj sprints past me and reclaims his 2nd position.
The next section is completely flat as it follows the lake shore but is mentally very tough and my ‘high’ starts to fade as I realise that I’m still not at the half way point. I do manage to regain some ground on Byamberdorj though, and we run together for a while, even though the language barrier makes small talk pretty limited. Running alongside this guy I feel a big sense of camaraderie even though we are worlds apart in so many ways, not least with our running kit with him in low- tech trainers and polythene mac compared with my Saucony and RonHill get up.
Part of my own philosophy of ultra running is minimising the amount of time spent at check points: it costs time and I quickly stiffen up and find it hard to restart. At check point 4 I realise that this is going to be a challenge on this race as once again I’m surrounded by a quorum of natives eager to feed, water and pamper me. Their well intended attentions are overwhelming but I notice that my adversary is happy to indulge himself . So a quick getaway is my chance to get my nose in front of him again.
He’s soon on my tail again but as we head up into the mountains once more I realise I have the edge now we’re off the flat. I push on over the next pass and for a while I forget where I am. With the heavy rain, mist on the tops and bogs underfoot I could be back in Derbyshire. The sight of a couple of local nomads on horseback trudging along a river bed up ahead drops my mind back into the middle of the asian wilderness though. That is until I eventually draw level with them. As the back rider notices me he shouts over ‘oy £$%*ing crap day for running mate’ in a broad cockney accent. And I think he is equally surprised when I shout back and he realises I’m English too! It seems he’s hired a local guide for a couple of weeks of horse trekking. Small world!
Now I’m well into the 2nd half of the race I start to think for the first time about the time it will take me to finish. After well over 7 hours of running mental arithmetic isn’t so easy, but I recon if I can keep moving less than 12 hours might be possible. As this would put me under the current course record I decide that I should use it as my goal to keep the motivation going in the latter stages.
All of a sudden I’m at check point 5 at the 65km point and there is another warm welcome as I’m hussled out of the weather into a small tent for my next ‘service’. (If you are squeamish you should skip immediately to the next paragraph!) As I enter the tent I’m handed a potato which as been dipped in a little too much salt. And simultaneously my bending to sit forces the trapped gases from my guts. So with this harsh taste accompanied by an even harsher smell from a week's worth of Mongolian food in a very confined space I find myself retching. As this happens I notice Byamberdorj appearing in the distance and realise that he’s not going to find sharing this tent with me a pleasant experience, and even less so if I fill it with vomit. So once again it’s time for a sharp exit. I eject from the tent, take a few deep breaths and start on my way again.
The next section is predominately down hill so it isn’t long before I see my opponent again, and he’s soon disappearing off in front. Although I gain a little ground occasionally he maintains this position through to the penultimate check point which is at 76km and the most southerly point on the race.
This time we both stagger back onto the trail together and head north following the lake shore again for a while. It’s not long though before the path starts to undulate again. By this stage the gradients feel much steeper than they are and the combination of fatigue and altitude regularly have both of us down to a walking pace. And each time we go over the top of a climb there is a battle of wills as to who will break back into a run first. This section is really tough and seems to go on for an age. I am glad of Byamberdorj’s company though. And despite the difficulties with language we manage to communicate a little and encourage one another. I share some of my Hi-Five drink with him at one point, but almost choke when he reciprocates later with a Mongolian concoction that I can’t even start to describe!
The last check point at 88km is the same location as the 55km one that we visited many hours ago, so I am looking for familiar landmarks to tell me we are getting close. But a dozen or more times I sense it is around the next corner only to be disappointed. Then all of a sudden I notice a Japanese runner coming the other way. There is a moment’s confusion until it dawns on me that he’s 33km behind on the outward journey.
As I stagger into the checkpoint the temptation to lie down and rest is huge, but I know that if I stop for long I’ll probably not be able to move again. So I fill up my bottle and try to carry on. There is about 10hr 15min on the clock and only 12km to go. Everything hurts now but I try to hold on to the positive thought that the 12 hour goal is within my grasp.
This last section retraces our steps along the lake shore so I am back on familiar territory. And within a few moments there is a touch of déjà vu, as Byamberdorj overtakes me and starts disappearing into the distance. His superior cadence on the flat giving him the advantage once again.
Even the slightest gradient seems like Everest now, making my lungs heave and my legs scream at me. To get through this last section I have to break it up into sections in my head. Just try and run for the next 10 minutes and then treat myself by slowing to a walk for a few yards while I take a drink. But soon 10 minutes is seeming like an eternity so I make it 8, and then 5. A couple of times I manage to get my nose in front of Byamberdorj again but he is soon past again.
As the trail skirts the lake the locals are now gathering outside their gers to cheer us on and offer us drinks of more strange Mongolian concoctions. It tastes like shit but it feels rude to turn it down, and I somehow appreciate the excuse to stop for a few seconds to take a sip.
Eventually we can see the headland where the camp and the finish line are. But this seems to make the pain worse as it’s about 8km away and never seeming to get any closer and we trudge on and on. For a while I’m joined by Bob from Yorkshire who has ridden out on a mountain bike from camp, which breaks up the monotony briefly.
As the finish line inches closer Byamberdorj seems to be stretching out his lead, but I don’t seem to be able to do much about it. Although it’s obvious that he’s suffering too because he’s still slowing to a walk occasionally allowing me to make up a little of the lost ground.
It must be best part of an hour since I first spotted it, and seeming like much more, but at long last I’m starting to bear right out onto that headland. And as I trot through the woods I see the ‘Welcome to Toilogt’ sign which means that there is now 99km behind me. My spirits lift as I realise it’s nearly over.
As I emerge from the trees I can see the finish line only a few hundred metres away. There is quite a crowd gathered there and can hear them whooping and cheering already. The adrenalin kicks in and my pace quickens as I muster the nearest thing I can to a sprint finish. Byamberdorj’s 200m lead is too much to make up, but I don’t care about that now. I’ve made it and I’m well within the 12 hours!
The last 50 metres to the line are quite emotional as I’m cheered on by almost the entire camp who’ve gathered there. I’m overwhelmed by feelings of both pleasure and relief as I sprint over the line, punching the air and with a huge cheesy grin on my face.
I throw off my backpack and am ushered over to a comfy chair next to Byamberdorj. We embrace one another as we’re surrounded by the many new friends made over the previous few days, all wanting to pat us on the back and congratulate us. I’m wrapped in a blanket and offered hot tea and food, and as I sit back in the chair to wallow in the sense of satisfaction, Tyler informs me that I’m the fastest foreigner ever to complete the race. And the previous course has been smashed. In 3rd place I’ve beaten it by 39 minutes, Byamberdorj by over 40 minutes and the winner, Nuuren, by an incredible 69 minutes.
Eventually as the euphoria starts to diminish the desire to get under a hot shower is too much to resist. So I waddle over to the shower block, peel off my kit and enjoy the hot water that our hosts have stoked the fire all day for.
Once back in the ger with some warm dry clothes I’m surprised that I don’t feel like crashing out, so I wander back over to the finish line to join the others and see whether anyone else has finished. When I get there Malachy from Ireland has just arrived, and soon after Keith from the US comes into sight.
The remainder of the day is spent wandering back and forth between the dining ger and the finish line. Everyone finishing gets a winner's welcome as they approach the line, but perhaps the biggest cheer of the day is for Dirk from Germany who is the last man in. It is past midnight before he staggers out of the darkness over the finish line, having been on his feet for over 19 1⁄2 hours. And the German tv crew that have been covering the event barely allow him to sit down before wanting an interview.
When I eventually retire for the night I realise for the first time quite how hard the beds are as I try to get my aching muscles comfortable. It’s not long though before I’m sleeping soundly.
After the very ‘english’ weather on race day (perfect for me) the following day sees the camp basking in glorious sunshine. So most of us enjoy a lazy day of sunbathing and swapping stories about our experiences of the race.
That night though it’s party time! A fantastic banquet is followed by the awards ceremony where every competitor in both the marathon and 100k race is awarded a medal and tee-shirt. There are awards too for all the wonderful locals that have helped along the way. Then it’s really time to let our hair down at the most surreal disco I’ve ever experienced. Foreigners from all corners of the earth drinking and dancing the night away with the local community of Mongolian nomads to the sounds of ‘Chengis Khan’ in a ‘ger’ in the middle of the wilderness! As everyone struts their stuff it’s hard to tell that most have at least a mountainous marathon in their legs from the previous day.
The following morning it’s time to return to the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, and start the long journey home. We learn that the plane can’t take off from the local airfield at Khatgal with more than 30 people on board, so some of us have to set off by jeep to a place called Moron (where there is an actual runway!) to catch the plane there. This turns out to be quite an adventure though as the drivers race one another across the desert.
We arrive at Moron to find out we’ve beat the plane there, and sit around nervously for over an hour wondering where it has got to – has it made it into the air? Eventually we breathe a sigh of relief as we hear the familiar sound of the spluttering engine of the Russian rust bucket.
Back in Ulaanbaatar there is one last evening to enjoy the company of new found friends before everyone disperses back to their own corner of the planet.
For me I have a couple more days to explore the capital before setting off on the next part of the adventure....a week long train journey back to Willington via Siberia, Moscow, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and London!