Gobi Desert

Day 1: Sightseeing in Beijing

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sitting in a bar at midnight, listening to salsa music from a Cuban band and idly watching lantern adorned sampans floating on a moonlit lake; Beijing is truly a city of contrasts.

By day grey smog cloaks it like a giant duvet subduing the population into calmness, whilst all around there are enormous construction sites which is what the city has become. But Beijing just gets on with its daily business.

We arrived by BA after a 10-hour flight and, welcoming and comfortable though it was, man is not meant to fly – well not far anyway. You are awake when you should be asleep as your body feels confused and your ankles swell up to twice their normal size. You shuffle around in a daze whilst you come to grips with your new surroundings. And new surroundings they truly are. Intricate indecipherable calligraphy (well, indecipherable to us westerners) is plastered everywhere and yet you still manage to get around; thanks to globalisation, KFC and McDonalds are the same in any language.

We are staying at the Wang Fujing Grand Hotel which is very prestigious and modern. We are using this as our base to explore the vast city. It’s like a dividing marker between the old city and the new. On one side we overlook little grey hovels that cluster together and are connected by a labyrinth of alleyways. The other side opens out onto the modern and tourist Beijing – the Olympics, glass buildings and grand spaces. Tiananmen Square is enormous – half a mile long by half a mile wide. The Forbidden City the Emperor’s Palace is six miles across and you can play cricket on the walls they are so thick. How it was ever breached I will never know. We passed by giant building after building – 8 to 10 storeys high but a quarter of a mile long and the whole scale of the place is enormous and exudes power.

We are currently acclimatising ourselves to China and now that we are here we are very glad that we are doing this. We have been shepherded around by Angel – the sister of a friend in London who is looking after us for these three days. Without her we wouldn’t have left the hotel as no-one on the street understands you. Last night we went to a famous Peking duck restaurant and everything about this restaurant is centred on the duck and hardly anything else.

The restaurant has been in business since 1889 and was full of locals. Our duck came with a certificate with much ceremony stating that it was duck number 3,720,587 to be served since the restaurant started. Everything was there, including the head. Duck number 3,720,587 did not seem impressed and eyed us suspiciously while we consumed it bit by bit and it looked particularly put out when Paul ate its brain.

Today we awoke and went to breakfast at 10am but the restaurant was closed. All the Chinese start early, have dinner at 6pm and presumably go to bed soon after that. Some stay up but by midnight the roads are empty.

Day 2: Sightseeing in Beijing

Thursday, June 14, 2007

We keep seeing fit westerners who we think are in the race, but they are probably only hungry backpackers who are lost. The Chinese are particularly precise in everything they do; the women are very trim and demure and wear silk bolero jackets to accentuate this.

Tea is especially important. It is served on a wooden griddle with porcelain cups 4 centimetres tall by 2 and a half centimetres wide. The bowl, which is not much bigger, is then inverted on top and the whole construction is turned around. You lift the porcelain cup, smell the residue off the brew whilst you look at a clear green liquid in your miniature bowl. Green tea looks a lot like chamomile tea and proved to be a refreshing and calming drink. Day 2 is a disappointment for me however, as due to time zones changes or whatever I spent the most of the day in bed fighting off a mild fever.

The boys went into the Temple of Heaven and then went shopping. Here, everything is copied perfectly – Breitling and Rolex watches sell for £40 pounds, as do Chanel bags and jewellery. Afterward Angel took us out for a meal and watched a full-blown Kung Fu fight break out in the next bar.

Day 3: Sightseeing in Beijing

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rose bright and early and made breakfast by 8am (15-love). The guys will be down later. A day without food and my clothes are already more comfortable (30-love).

From the 14th floor of the breakfast room we look out southwards over the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and beyond to the suburbs. It’s cleaner today but there is no blue sky – it’s still a dull grey camel colour.

The city from here has more trees than London. It looks like a lake of green with islands of buildings in its midst. Immediately below is an area of 100 year-old Chinese houses/shacks which are due for demolition; we are planning to go there tomorrow.

I met my colleagues, bleary-eyed and knackered (them not me), we got into the bus and off we went to the Great Wall. We had lunch at a very modern hotel, the Commune by the Great Wall.

It comprises very individual houses which achieve very different living environments. It was simply spectacular. It could not be achieved in the UK – building regulations wouldn’t allow it. One house had everything below the floor – bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen – the lot. All accessed via a hatch in the floor; and when all the hatches are down you could play football in the space.

The hotel is very modern, very chic and looked out over the Great White Wall which snaked over the mountainside in the middle distance. It’s a spectacular sight with the sun gleaming on the battlements. The mountains are covered in greenery which cloaked the cliff faces.
We drove down to the Wall and our driver decided to have a contest with a coach. Driving on the wrong side of the road we raced down the hill, sometimes only six inches from the looming leviathan.
We arrived shaken and stirred at the base of the Great Wall. It’s hard to put into words the effort, organisation and manpower that went into this enormous project.

We climbed up past five towers and wound our way up 1,500 steps. The ascent is steep, sometimes 50% and the steps vary from 2 inches to 2 feet in height. From the top of the mountain we saw the Wall stretching away into the far horizon. It’s in magnificent condition, carefully restored and looked after.

That night we went out to a bar on the lake where the Cuban band had been playing. We bought a couple of bottles of orange brandy. The bar had a series of bottles on a high shelf and we soon found that we could leave the bottle there with our names signed on it so that we could retrieve it later. This is the nearest I have ever come to living Hemingway’s life. “There is a bar somewhere past Rangoon where I left a bottle of Scotch” though in his case it was the Florida keys. I duly and solemnly signed on the bottle. Another tick on the bucket list.

Day 4: travels to Kashgar

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The acclimatisation is over and the event now starts to kick in. We packed our kit, left the hotel and sped up the autobahn to the airport, dodging many Chinese hell-bent on ramming our taxi. I’ll never complain about the M25 or Italy again.

We checked in then said good-bye to Angel and walked up for something to eat. Wa Fung, Joo and Lai stood at the counter. We froze, then pointed to pictures and got our food (15-love). I took one bite, as did Gavin, and we froze again. The chicken was pink. We all got up and left.

We are now sitting in restaurant number 3 and we are tense. Everyone has a dickey stomach; injured and generally paranoid about anything and everything this close to the race, we stick with beef and noodles.

We finally board our plane (a south China airlines plane) to Urumqi. It is just as modern as BA. We walk up the isle. The plane is full and we are the only Europeans. The locals stare at us as we walk past. We are now travelling into rural China.

The temperature is hot but it does not bother the locals. We pass over the Gobi. It is cloaked in a yellow haze, which means sandstorms. We arrive at Urumqi Airport, which reminds us of Stansted. The other runners are here too, and we begin to get to know them. We leave shortly for Kashgar and we’ll be there in a couple of hours. Four time zones in one country – quite amazing.

We arrive at Kashgar, collect our luggage and immediately we are in a different country. The calligraphy is half Chinese and half Arabic, the people are different and we meet the 80 runners who are with us on this flight. We all start weighing each other up. It’s normal at this moment, most people haven’t done many races. All this will disappear after the gun goes off.
Downtown Kashgar is very lively; Usghers with donkeys in the streets amongst the traffic, while the town is lit up like Blackpool.

The hotel is great – very modern and clean – we really have to step up in the UK.

Its 3am we’ve finished packing, ready for equipment checks are at 8.
Anyway, we are up at 6am, checks at 8am and on the bus at 12 noon, arriving at the campsite at 7pm, briefing and sleep and the race starts at 9am on Sunday.

Here we go….

Day 5

Friday, June 22, 2007

We are awake at six and all of us go down to breakfast. We are all looking forward to eggs and bacon but – surprise surprise – we get a Chinese breakfast of broccoli and pickle. We enter a large low hanging ornate room with the Uyghur chefs and waitresses lined up behind the bench seeking our approval. We are fortunately saved by other European competitors who assure is it is a great breakfast. We are so British.

We have to be downstairs at 8 so we do our last packing and go down to floor 3 which is the where the checks are being made. The corridor is filled with runners from one side of the building to the other. They are all talking to each other and wearing the regalia of other events, clutching their full rucksacks for inspection. We line up and I start meeting old friends and acquaintances. The corridor becomes a heaving mass of people as guests, cleaners and runners inter-mingle.

Checks are carried out on each of us for food, clothing and compulsory equipment as well as general well-being and health. We get our running numbers, collect all our equipment and leave the room.

In reception 250 people get a briefing and we then leave for our buses. Outside the sun is brilliant and the four of us get into a 12-person coach to take us to the campsite 10 hours away.

Day 5 Part 2: The Karakorum Highway

Friday, June 22, 2007

We piled into 12-man buses with all our equipment and food. There wasn’t enough space; Paul, Colin, Gavin and I sit like trussed-up chickens on the 10-hour trip. The buses sped along the highway out of town. The landscape became very different very quickly, with white deserts sweeping up the sides of pale green/grey mountains. I can’t believe it. You are starting to see legends .Our hotel was right on the Silk Road; we walked up and down it and now we were on the Karakorum highway, another legendary road, only mentioned in songs, sagas and books.

The landscape became rocky and unforgiving and we started to climb. The first thing we noticed was a slight shortness of breath as we moved up to 4,000m.Each time we stopped and got out, it got colder the villages, became further and further apart and we stopped for a toilet break. Everyone was getting a bit prissy so I went up the mountain and went behind a rock. The other three were surprised. Did you just do that? “Trust me you the loos are something you will never forget”. Two hours later we stop at a windswept junction on the edge of the Himalayas. The only thing in the wilderness was a lonely wooden arch over the side road and a raised concrete hovel on stilts on the other side of the road. This was a toilet. The guys went inside and came out revolted. Up the steps led you to four dwarf walls in a line which formed open cubicles; in the centre of each cubicle was a an open slit in the concrete and below was 4ft high mountain of steaming dung, which stank. “I warned you”…

We were at the entrance to the Karakorum Pass and further south just over the hill lay Pakistan. Looking to the South west we saw Afghanistan and Tajikistan, looking to the north were rows and rows of mountains with not a blade of grass in sight. It looked more like Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

We piled back into the mini bus and took the side road and commenced a 112 kilometre ride through ever more smashed up roads and ravines as we worked our way east into the mountains. Sometimes we had to stop as part of the road gave way and we inched around the narrow bits. We leaned to the side as if we were on a yacht dinghy; we were definitely in the back of beyond.

After 10 hours we arrived at our campsite far to the south, near Tajikistan. Our campsite had been blown away, so we are therefore now staying in a local school. We enter our bedroom – eight bunks in a grey concrete room with mildew on the mattresses. There is no electricity. Toilets are holes in the concrete floors which makes everybody gag, whilst each classroom has a picture of Carl Marx and Chairman Mao.

We arrive next morning at the start of the race, after a night of snoring from all of us which forced Robin, one of our tent mates, to sleep in the hallway.

Day 6: The Race Starts

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The local children of the school were presented to us. The race director handed over footballs and books and we were touched by the children’s’ genuine gratitude. Little boys of 4 and 5 ran around hugging books as if they were the most precious gifts they had ever been given. The local girls danced for us in bright yellow, scarlet and gold tunics.

The start was in the shadow of a mountain the size of K2 and it was a brilliant day. The pace was very brisk at first and we were out of breath by checkpoint 1. It’s not surprising as we were running at 7,000 feet – the height some small planes fly at in the UK.

As we ran, all the local inhabitants in every village came out to welcome us and we were given spontaneous applause as we went through each hamlet. Paul and Colin were strong but Gavin complained aloud about the weight of his pack at checkpoint 3, until he produced a copy of Men’s Health will all the supplements and gave it away – when suddenly the pack became lighter. We arrived at the campsite at 6pm, very tired. Some of the tents had blown away again. We lay down and it began to rain. It rained again and the river by the tent swelled, but by morning it was gone.

Day 7: Race Day 2

Saturday, June 23, 2007

We awoke at dawn and watched the sun rise and the shadows of the mountains gradually fall, turning them from blank dark shapes into sculpted stone as the sun picked out their features. The snoring had been better last night and we arose feeling our joints and muscles. Paul and Colin had poor sleeps – Paul because he was lying on the hard ground. We got ready.

The start was at 9 and we walked and ran down the river valley for 15 kilometres before crossing a gorge on an old rope bridge, then starting up another valley for 21 kilometres. We had more scrambling but finally got in around 4.30. Colin was suffering all day from the heat but the rest of us were fine, having got over the problems individually. We were staying in a Tajik house, all of the panniers of the tent are lying in a square room with carpets on the walls and a wooden-beamed roof. It was the sort of room you imagine people getting “stoned” in, in the 60s. The tapestries on the mud walls were bright oranges and reds. The fact the room had a roof was heaven and we lay there getting over the day. The altitude was making this harder and it was taking longer to recover. We are all lying head to toe on a raised area. Tonight the locals have put a dance on for us with local girls in their tunics of bright vermilion and scarlet; quite charming.

This village was really remote. It lay high up in the Himalayas; it had taken two tracks and 4 bridges to get to. It had streams in the houses for running water, but no electricity. However it could teach us a lot. There was absolutely no rubbish. The town was immaculate, it had to be as recycling was the only way they kept going.

A young girl came into the room and laid out bread for all of us which we couldn’t touch or we would be disqualified. We decided on a whip round amongst the ten of us who were staying in the house. We gathered a few pounds together in local currency and I gave it to the girl. She started to cry and sob.
Worried that I had accidentally offended her, I go to one of the organisers and explain.

“How much did you give her?” he asked
I explained

“You gave her two years salary” he said.

“You want to enjoy this place” he said. “The Chinese are building a dam and this valley will be flooded in the next two years.” I looked recently and he was right.

Day 8: Four Seasons in One Day

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Being a desert race we were naturally running up a mountain at 14,500 ft – a Himalayan mountain to be exact. In front of warm and friendly Tajiks we ran up through the village into the riverbeds beyond. This is almost the height of Mont Blanc and I am no Edmund Hilary.

The four of us stick together, Gavin in front, me Paul and Colin behind. Colin is feeling unwell and we are all carrying blisters. Up, up we go. The going becomes very tough as we zigzag our way up the mountain. The first 10 kilometres is on a dry river bed strewn with boulders which we pick our way through. We get to checkpoint 1 and Colin is looking shattered. The doctor takes a look at him and after medication we move on. The mountain itself looks very like Scotland and the sky is becoming a very dark grey. The going, the breathing, everything becomes very tough.

Up the side of this winding path there are pink flags 30 yards apart. We move from flag to flag, stop, trying to control our breathing, and then we move on. We are now looking down on the clouds, panting, moving, we slowly work our way to the summit. At the top there is a doctor and bottles of water – nothing else. The weather is rapidly closing in. Snow is beginning to fall and we are wearing tee shirts.

At this altitude you feel sick, have headaches and general feel grotty. We are told to leave at once. As soon as we left we were met with an ominous grey cloud, wispy and haunting looking, as it unswervingly aimed for the mountain.

Visibility went down to 20 ft and a snow shower started around us. Being dressed for deserts we very soon became cold and wet. Gavin in particular became very cold and started the early stages of hypothermia. However he put on his PHD jacket and his core temperature was restored.

Why do we do this?

After 4 and a half hours we got to the bottom only to find that the checkpoint had been moved some 5 kilometres and we were low on water, having been going now for more than 10 hours. We had 15 kilometres in total to go to the new finish. On the way we came across a river over the road and we had to pick out a route and wade through. We had to do this six times in 15 kilometres. This trashes your feet as the water attacks the protective bandages and then the sand sets to work on your feet with each footfall.

We arrived at the finish at 9.30 in the evening, tired, hungry and angry that some runners were still on the mountain. The last man came in at 3am – what an utter fiasco. If the course director expects our respect for being macho he is misguided.

Gavin is warmed up but his feet are trashed, as are Paul’s and Colin’s. And this is a holiday!

Day 9: Marathon Day

Monday, June 25, 2007

Gavin, Paul and Colin awoke this morning with feet that are now two sizes larger and with yet more blisters.

We get up at 6am; it’s dark, cold and a bit damp. It’s not difficult as we have hardly slept after yesterday – which was both hard and dangerous. We climbed a mountain the height of Mont Blanc, came down the other side and completed a third of a marathon afterwards – and that was just yesterday.

Today’s 42 kilometres turns out to be 48 kilometres. We rise in silence and start taping our feet, our daily morning ritual. There is much hissing and sucking when a new piece of raw exposed flesh comes to light. Our limbs ache a lot. We stink and feel gritty all over as the sand and dust has penetrated every crevice of our bodies. The sand here is different. Its not like the beach or the Sahara, it’s like a quarry.

Gavin tries to put his shoes on and it feels like the shoe is full of glass as he inserts his foot. Needle-like pains erupt all over as the various raw blisters are irritated. There is a drawn-out groan followed by a period of staccato breathing – one shoe is on. The process gets repeated and after 12 minutes both his shoes are now tied. He is sweaty, panting and worn-out.

Colin lies motionless on his sleeping bag. I hope he doesn’t pull out. He is not eating and there is a 35mm blister on the ball of his right foot and a smaller one on his left. It hurts when he’s just standing.

Paul is more buoyant but the water crossings have given his blisters a growth as well.

All our clothing is still wet and cold as are our shoes. We get dressed and assemble for the 9.30 start. I will kill the course designer if there are any more water crossings.

The gun goes and we commence to run down the Himalayan valley. After 200 metres we have a water crossing (the course director is definitely dead). We clamber over boulders looking for places to rock-hop to keep our feet dry but it is useless and we eventually wade through the cold fast muscular stream that is trying to take us off-balance. Colin is very, very slow today and sets our pace. We arrive at the first checkpoint in 1 hour and 50 minutes – good going for us. We proceed through shaded apricot groves before we come to the next village.

Tajik houses are fortress-like with high mud walls all around; the entrances are a pair of ornate doors behind which is a courtyard and living quarters for people, animals and guests in three areas.

The Tajiks give us fresh tiny apricots about one inch across. Everyone smiles and waves and we seem to be a fascination – we are certainly a rarity in this area. In one village the entire population seemed to be there thronging in the central square.

Checkpoint 2 at 20k is reached in four hours. There are several other runners there; one or two are pulling out due to tendon problems. We move on. We criss-cross a river again 10 times today at least. The game now is to outwit the course director and avoid water crossings. Paul and Colin wade through each one, Gavin and I play a mind chess strategy. We see a bridge further on and Gavin gets across it no problem. I stand on the bridge, which is simply three wire ropes with plank of woods over it – there is no handrail. I start to walk over the raging torrent and the bridge starts to wobble -sideways and up and down. Behind me is a 15 year old mother in high heels with her baby. I walk on as if traversing the Eiger; gradually working my way across whilst every sinew in my body is braced for a ducking and a crack on the skull from one of the rocks below.

We eventually get to checkpoint 3 and by now Colin is in a very bad way. Our early pace has been too much and he is struggling in the afternoon heat of 37 degrees. It’s also a bit humid and dehydration is setting in on all of us. The terrain is changing from rivers and greenery to deserts now and we enter a wide canyon, heading for the last checkpoint of the day. The green apricot groves have been replaced by barren rock faces and the colours have changed from lush to barren hues.

We arrive at the checkpoint and are met by a very fit and strident young Texan who takes control of all our needs. She stomps around like a leading boy in a pantomime, giving us water and making sure that Colin in checked over by the doctor.

We start on the final leg of the day. We set my stopwatch each time so that in two hours approximately we should be at the next checkpoint. Every half hour we stop for shade, drink and have some food. Every hour we have an additional endurolite to ensure our hydration. Gavin is gagging on the tablets so we use some powders instead. The pace is very slow so hydration becomes more important as the sun’s effect kicks in.

We tag up with Marshall Ulrich. It’s great to meet him, one of the world’s great endurance runners and a really nice guy. We talk about other events and people we know. After 1 hour 40 minutes I see the checkpoint through my binoculars, as does Paul. But as we get nearer it is just a mirage. We are getting dehydrated and starting to hallucinate. We turn right into the next canyon – is it there? No. We continue 2 kilometres to the end of the canyon and turn left. Is it there? No. We repeat this three more times; by now everyone is tired, ragged, dusty, in pain and generally hacked off. It’s 9pm and we need to get rest. I turn one more corner and the camp is there 200 metres away, tucked behind a large dune. It’s a perfect place to commit a murder and stash a body,(using my useful knowledge from Hollywood movies) but the Course Director is safe – we are too tired.

Paul and Colin stay together egging each other on but the pace is slowed and we all now have blisters and we struggle just to get to our tents. Inside we sort out our areas. Colin collapses – he is at the end of his tether. Gavin’s knee is throbbing so bad that the prescribed painkillers aren’t working even though they are strong enough to knock out a horse. Paul’s leg is managing to hold up due to a concoction of drugs and medication picked up from the doctors and other competitors. Other than that we are fine. We are in the slow pack, it is midnight and we need to be up at 5.45 to be at the start for 7.30 or be disqualified from the race. Goodnight.

Days 10 and 11: 80 kilometre Day

Monday, June 25, 2007

Colin’s had a better night. We awake in the dark as usual and start strapping our feet. The team’s squeamishness about ablutions has gone. Toilets are stinking holes in the ground which one squats over, and a) we just have to get used to it and b) we just hope we don’t have to visit them too often. Wet wipes are essential here due to all the jobs that need to be carried out in 90 minutes in order to get to the start on time and not be withdrawn. Namely – wake, dress, ablutions, food, blisters, pack, check equipment, put on shoes, out. We need to be quick, clean and precise because nature waits to punish your mistakes. We get to the start on time.

The gun goes and we first have to climb a dune 2,000 ft high down the other side and across a plain to the first of six checkpoints. The view at the top is superb and we look across into Afghanistan and, in another direction, Tibet.

As we drop down Colin overstretches and lets out a cry but carries on. He is in much better form and we press on. There is no vegetation – we are in pure Gobi desert now. It’s just rocks, stones and dry baking heat which physically presses down on you. We follow our regime – water stops, endurolites, and time checks as we move across the landscape. The only rivers now are dry ones but the damage has already been done and each footstep produces varying degrees of pain for each athlete. Today we started in two groups – the faster one starting two hours later than us. By mid-morning the leaders had caught us up and passed us by as if we were standing still. They are very graceful to watch.

At the checkpoint we meet a Korean who has been there for two hours, exhausted. He is lying on the ground in the shade unable to drink much. We give him a few jelly babies to boost his sugar levels. He has never tasted them before but a smile appears on his cracked lips. He’ll live.

The main difference today is that we are going at Colin’s speed which, although initially slow, is picking up. He is having his best day. Gavin suffers in silence as does Paul. Every time I look at them their faces show their determination. It’s painful but they are going to make it.

Checkpoint 3 comes and goes and we turn into another valley. More river crossings; this time a river in flood: It’s fast, furious and up to our mid-thighs. We come to a bend where ropes have been put across to guide us away from dangerous under-currents. Dave Allendale is standing on the other side looking very pensive and shouts instructions to us which we obey. Thank God for the sticks – we really need their support now. The water pushes our legs away; it’s not cold but a brown opaque liquid that hides rocks, holes and other problems. We slowly stagger across and arrive on the other side bedraggled and all of our blister protection is in shreds. We carry on.

Two kilometres later we climb out onto a large ledge about six metres high and 300 mm wide and follow this down the valley. One fall and you’re looking at a broken leg and extraction will take at least a day. We cross the river a few more times as we traverse down the valley. The river is getting rougher. We arrive at one crossing to meet an organiser with two donkey carts; each holds two people. We jump onto the flat tables of wood and brace ourselves while the expressionless beast slowly crosses the torrent. There is no suspension and we are tossed from side to side. We are holding on tightly and hoping not to lose our balance. We took a video of this and put it on YouTube when we got back; it went viral and got into the top 40 worldwide for a short while. This was due to putting “Ass” in the link title and tens of thousands mistakenly clicked on it looking for porn. Still as Andy Warhol said we were famous for 15 minutes. We continue down the valley.

The rules of this stage are that checkpoint 5 needs to be reached by midnight or we will be withdrawn from the race. It’s 7pm and we are nearly there – 3 kilometres more to go and we are at the campsite and once there we have until 2pm tomorrow to complete this stage. Everyone is getting buoyant. We pass the 200 kilometres mark which is 2.7 kilometres to the next checkpoint. It’s wrong again and 3.3 kilometres later we arrive. This time we are used to it and everyone is relaxed. We can stop here for the night if we want to.

Except we can’t – the nice Texan lady from the previous day greets us as we arrive at the checkpoint which is surrounded by 40 of the local townspeople. Their faces watch our every move waiting for us to finish a water bottle which to us is rubbish but to them is currency. We are told that things have changed and that the next checkpoint is going to be the sleepover.

We have been bumping into a young Japanese girl all week whose feet were trashed by day 1. She and her young husband keep smiling and never complain. Her pretty face never revealed any pain whatsoever – only happiness, but her exaggerated stumble betrayed her and let us see her obvious pain. She is now in pink flowered flip-flops because her feet are three sizes larger than before. Never mind – only 30k more of pain (walking) and she’s finished. She is very inspiring.

After a lot of rest (20 minutes) we move on. We walk up a small escarpment to see a small, very flat, endless, featureless, dusty plateau. The dust kicked up by our feet is like smoke. Evening is setting in and the sun is sinking, changing colour to a deep orange orb. Our shadows which up to now had been very small are getting longer. We are making good progress. We are all in good spirits – 215 kilometres done. Colin starts to slow right down and inspection shows a bright red patch on his leg. He is hobbling and in a lot of pain. Gavin’s ahead on points and stops at the next checkpoint while Paul helps him on. It could be a stress fracture but we try not to think about it.

The South African competitor comes storming up behind singing “I Feel Good” which we can hear from 200 yards away. We sing the chorus back. He is as happy as Larry he explains, because he has had a whole load of painkillers from the doctor and they have just kicked in. Off he sings.

We make slow progress but make it to the next checkpoint by 10pm. We could still finish this in one, or sleep over. Gavin and Colin opt for the latter and are completely hammered. We arrive and get Colin to the doctor at once, and I get everyone’s food prepared whilst they attend to themselves. Its dark now and dark shapes move around in the gloom chasing little pools of light with runners find their way in the dark with their head torches.

The food is scrummy but Gavin can’t eat. He is dehydrating and his metabolism is altering in reaction to more painkillers, blisters, little food and no endurolite. He can’t go on any further. Colin is carried in by Paul and the doctor. I make up his bed and get him in it. It doesn’t look good. His leg is bandaged and they have done what they can so we decide to sleep and see about things in the morning. I drop into the bag – I’m not changing. In the morning I want to be up and out in 15 minutes. My feet feel okay so no need to change the dressings like everyone else. I lie there thinking of practical ways of taking Colin’s load, converting his sticks into crutches by using empty water bottles and getting us finished by 5.30am, the time we have to be up and out.

I’m woken at 3am by two Koreans who have just arrived and want me to move. I get closer to Paul who frankly looks dead. The alarm goes at 5.15; Colin gets up and collapses immediately in pain. Its shin splints – he can’t make it to the tent entrance, let alone the next checkpoint.

The whole race changes for us. Emotions run high in each of us; we want to finish together but we can’t. This can’t be happening… But it is. Whilst we contemplate this we pack very quickly and get set up for another day. Its pitch dark outside and inside our tent. We cluster around Colin with our torches and it reminds me of a nativity painting with all our lights beaming in on his pained face. We say our goodbyes.

He’s been robbed – 220 kilometres done and now this. We start to walk away from the camp into the dark. Everyone is in pain now – Gavin’s dehydration has got worse and Paul is sad at losing his best mate, but we just have to knuckle down. An hour later dawn breaks and we can see without torches.
I therefore make Gavin a concoction of three diuralytes and several enduralites to massively boost his salt and sugar levels. He drinks it and soon speeds up. Five hours later we come to the head of a gorge and clamber down in the morning light. The photographer interviews us as we go. The camp comes into sight and we walk in past the male and female latrines which are in use and then we move on to the finish line which we cross line abreast as usual.

There’s something missing – we feel guilty at being elated but we now have a day off. We get into the tent. The day is heating up. Colin is lying in the corner, philosophical and proud of his achievements. As so he should be. The heat hammers down on the tent as we lie down, sleep and eat and rest for the remainder of the day.

Day 12: The End of the Race

Thursday, June 28, 2007

We are awake at 2.30am and by 3.30am we are off in our coaches to Kashgar, where we arrive five hours later. Paul’s foot has mushroomed. There is no way that he can get his left shoe on even though it is two sizes larger than his normal foot. He takes a short small white cotton hotel flip-flop, now beige with sand and very much the worse for wear. I use half a roll of medical tape to strap the shoe to his foot so it stays there for the six miles that we are about to undertake.

We get off the coach and take a look at the toilets in this poor part of town, but it’s frankly too gross even for our appreciative palettes and senses. The gun goes and the slowest third start at 9am, the middle third at 10am and the fastest runners at 11am. We naturally start at 9am and wend our way, this way and that, left and right, around the small streets and alleys of downtown Kashgar.

We pass abject poverty but are always received with a wave.

We go through slums, the old town, and past rivers that stink like open sewers. It feels more like Istanbul than Beijing though it’s still China, this is really central Asia. An hour away is Kazakhstan. We criss-cross the silk road as we wend our way through more alleys following the markers

The faster runners now start to pass us and we only have a kilometre to go. We want to finish this. We want the pain to stop. We want all the pain to finish but above all we want that medal. The great mosque comes into view, we turn a corner and 200 metres away is the finish. The bright red banner gleams in the warm sunshine which also sets off the great yellow ochre mosque. Runners, supporters, locals and organisers are clapping and cheering. A group of boys bang local drums whilst a bank of photographers tries to capture the moment as we cross the line. We cross the line line-abreast. What a relief – it’s over. The mayoress of Kashgar puts the medal around our necks. Our tent mates clap us on the back and we retire for some food and an ice-cold Coke – the first in a week. Colin is there and we group together to have our photo taken by other competitors. We look awful – unshaven, wearing salt-stained clothing in black and other colours, sick of warm water and with tortured feet.

The boys are dazed. It hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s just too emotional at the moment but …..



Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Having written much of the diary with everyone’s agreement I don’t have too much to add. I feel really privileged to have found myself in the back of beyond via the Karakorum highway and the Silk Road, sleeping in a Tajik School for children. Seeing K2: to spend a night in a Tajik house and follow this by climbing a mountain 1000 ft higher than Mont Blanc, walking through a snow storm, traversing raging torrents and completing a 12k course across boulders on a riverbed all in one day.

Sometimes we crossed torrents on the back of a donkey, sometimes on boarded bridges without handrails, but all the time we were surrounded by the most majestic mountains, which opened like theatre curtains to show the highest snow capped peaks of the Himalayas in the distance glinting in the fresh morning sunshine.

I will always remember the Tajik people who came out in large numbers to cheer us on and to wave and say thanks. I will remember our tent mates and the evenings as people lying in pain set into a surreal sense of humour and finally I will always remember the guts and determination that Colin Paul and Gavin showed on a day by day basis in overcoming their pain and injuries.

This is not a holiday, it’s an extreme event and it can be a life changing experience if you let it.

I am already looking forward to the next one…… The Marathon des Sables!

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