|Photo: Nick Muzik|
Fast forward to departure day and I've got a borrowed GPS with waypoints loaded (thanks William!), a bag full of Tailwind, assorted freeze-dried meals (lucky REI deliver fast!), and almost all my compulsory gear. Inevitably, despite packing the kitchen sink .. I still managed to forget my 2L hydration bladder. Gah! Cue emergency FB post and a slew of helpful and not-so-helpful responses ;) (How on earth would I have time to make a water bottle out of dried gourd!? But the sentiment was appreciated.)
There's a list of them here: http://utg.xuanzang.com.
The organisers really pulled out all the stops for this first event, with over 150 volunteers, a sophisticated tracking system, a full-on cultural programme and a dedicated team of bilingual guides like Xiaozhao and Yuan Yuan, who made sure we were well looked after.
|Tracking system demo|
|Photo: Nick Muzik|
Our flight from Beijing to Dunhuang was hilarious, from being late, losing Erik, the Red Bulletin photographer, getting to the check-in desk with minutes to spare, and Ryoichi's huge bag of assorted food getting us stuck at the airport security check, resulting in a supermarket sweep-style trolley dash from one end of the terminal to our gate. That's the fastest I'd be running for the next 6 days!
|Japanese ultra contraband|
|Made it on the bus with seconds to spare!|
|Obligatory camel selfie|
|The African Attachment - their work is never done!|
|Betsy prepping her pack|
|Photo: Nick Muzik|
|The last supper|
|Jim's (left) design - a convertible sleeping bag jacket|
|Selfie at the start!|
|Photo: Nick Muzik|
I notice my arrow is pointing left when runners seem to be headed right, so I ask a nearby runner with a yellow windbreaker what his GPS says. It's pointing right, and I see Janet headed in the same direction. She's just done PTL and should have a good idea of where she's going, so I decide to follow. Not an auspicious omen getting the wrong route so early on!
The checkpoint is not far ahead, water stops and time checks are every 15km or so, and I stop to check my GPS. I randomly press a few more buttons and realise I wasn't even on the saved course earlier. I'll get the hang of this eventually!
|New trail friends - Ryoichi and Zhijian|
I'm happy shuffling along with the other 3, but generally I'm not used to running with anyone for long periods of time. I don't like the pressure of feeling I have to keep up or that I might be slowing them down, and wonder when my pace will eventually be too slow for those around me.
|Janet and Zhijian lead the way|
My main aim for this race was to run easy, stave off injury for as long as possible (shin still not feeling 100%), and have a great time. i figured if I could have at least the first 3 days injury free, then I could knuckle out the rest.
R1 (CP3), the first rest stop, comes quickly at 35.5km, and we don't stay long. Just a quick refuel and out again. Janet has trotted along ahead, looking strong as usual and Ryoichi keeps pace with her.
Allan Lee joins us not long after, and our little group makes steady progress. We're all in good spirits and I try to take pictures along the way to remind me of what the journey was like. The aim is to get to R3 (CP9), at 103.6km before we get some sleep.
|Passing through a score of cotton fields|
After a restless night, we don't actually leave till about 8am. Ryoichi's already set off, and Allan's stomach troubles are worsening. I give him some Tailwind and tell him to take nothing else. It's similar to oral rehydration formulas and should help keep his energy levels up.
|Photo: Nick Muzik|
|Camel toes ..|
We get to a wide river mouth and it looks like the way forward on our GPS'. There's a small shaded corner that we sit down at for a little respite before moving on .... and bumping into Ryoichi again! The poor man looks spent, and tells us he's been lost for hours. "That mountain .." he gestures behind him, "I climbed it!" It would've been funny if not for the fatigue on his face! Still, he's smiling as usual and gratefully accepts water from us as he's run out. We assure him we're not far from R4 and the rivulet streams have some lovely cold water that helps refresh us a little. We pick up the pace a little when we're suddenly surrounded by a couple of photographers and videographers. They don't say anything to us but chase ahead every hundred meters to get a shot. We must be close!
|"That mountain ... I climbed it!"|
We find CP13 (153.2km) without too much difficulty, but it's dark, cold and very windy now. The CP staff bundle us into their personal tents to get out of the wind, and we take the chance to get some calories in as well as put on our down jackets. It's funny watching Ryoichi trying to fold his lanky limbs into the tent, but once we're all squashed in, it's toasty warm and the 5 minutes respite is very welcome.
Back out into the wind, the grassland gives way to uneven dry riverbed and small creeks, all of which make it more difficult underfoot. We're climbing gently, and it seems to take forever to get to CP14 (165.1km). There's a flashing beacon which we head towards, where our GPS says the CP should be, but it really takes an age to get to, and the gale force winds are relentless. We're knackered by the time we arrive at CP4, and this time we're each bundled into separate tents, where the CP volunteers keep checking to make sure we're ok. Honey roast macadamias, peanut M&Ms and wine gums are my current fuel of choice, a little incentive to get to each CP in the freezing wind. It's taken us over 7h to cover 24km from R4. There's just over 11km to R5, where the promise of shelter and another dropbag with potential goodies is waiting. We decide that we'll probably sleep at R5 instead, and aim to get there in 3h or so, and we set out from CP14 sometime before 1am.
We're advised to keep the river gorge on our left, and follow it till we're meant to cross. Due to the temperature drop and the rising water, an SUV will ferry us across. The earlier runners had to wade across, but we're told not to as it's now too dangerous. The temperature has dropped below freezing, and the wind is biting into us as we make our way forward. Three hours in a relatively straight line, what could possibly go wrong?
I lead the way, and Zhijian is grumpy but I'm not sure why. We're moving forward with the GPS arrow, and everything seems fine till we come to a sharp drop. There's nowhere to go - too steep to go down into the river bed, which is looks a good 300m+ drop into and inky abyss. Zhijian didn't agree with my navigation and hence the grumps. I said he should speak up if he felt there was a problem - no sense in cutting your nose off to spite your face. Ryoichi has resigned himself to following faithfully. He's so tired that I worry he'll fall off the cliff and make sure he stays away from the edge. The wind and cold are sapping our energy and we backtrack to find another way. We end up back at CP14 (having wasted almost an hour), and double check our directions. The CP chief says we should take the inner road, keep the general direction and we should find our way. We can't go the original GPS route as that would take us via the river which is now too dangerous. Great. Here we go again.
I ask Zhijian to take the lead this time, but he's leaving it to me, although he does promise to speak up if he thinks I've got it wrong. I realise he's pretty tired and his usually sunny disposition is has gone into hiding. I'm not tired - the 200ml of Coke from my dropbag in R4 is keeping me wide awake, and I try to take the easiest route possible, given Ryoichi looks like he's about to keel over from fatigue at any time too.
We're climbing up and scrambling down what seem like endless gravelly hills in the dark - I'm grateful for a decent beam with my Led Lenser H07R, best purchase so far! It allows be to project some light further ahead too, avoiding some dead end climbs. But our hike in the cold and dark is ENDLESS. Everytime I think I've found a track that will take us to the river, it stops short. My frustration is growing and I'm worried for my two tired friends. There's no shelter from the wind, and where we think we should be crossing the river, there's no SUV waiting. All I want to see now is the comforting beam of car headlights.
5.30am - we've been enroute to R5 for nearly 6h now, and according to my GPS, we're just over halfway, only 6km covered. We've been down the same track twice now and it's ended at the river. We're all freezing and I don't know what to do next. My present state of mind has crested past despair and descended into resignation. I can't keep dragging the other two round what seems like a wild goose chase. We decide to call Race HQ, but there's no mobile signal. Zhijian and I make a choice. We activate the SOS on our trackers and try to find a spot out of the wind to wait. There isn't much shelter but the wind buffets a little less just on a slope to the right, so we stop there. I help Ryoichi into his sleeping bag and make sure he's as warm as possible. He doesn't question anything, and is asleep almost immediately. Zhijian and I try our mobiles again, our headlamps on high strobe, and we try to get some sleep as well.
I doze a little, and open my eyes to find the sun is coming up and snow has fallen. There's a light cover of snow all over, and as always, everything feels a little better with the sunrise. I hear a car beeping it's horn - it must be our rescue! But my amazing new JetScream whistle sounds like a damp squib .. DO NOT, ever, buy a JetScream whistle! The car horn gets further away .. will they come back again?
We bundle into the truck and take stock. It's 5km to R5 once we're over the river, and Ryoichi decides to call it a day. He looks cold and knackered, plus he's carrying a couple of injuries that will only get worse with 230km still to go. I'm of the same mind. I'm cold and more than ready to throw in the towel, I didn't sign up to freeze my ass off and wander for hours hopelessly lost. Embarrassingly, I also burst into tears. I didn't realise how responsible I'd feel for the other two, and it's a huge relief now that I know we're minutes away from hot food and shelter. Understandably, Zhijian opts to continue. With no injuries and a fresh day ahead, it's a good call. He gets out once we're over the river and makes his way on foot to R5.
Back at R5 (176.9km), there's all sorts going on. Bryon, Betsey and Benoit are all getting ready to head out. They've had a long enforced rest overnight there sheltering from the crazy weather. Good to see some familiar faces and so nice speak in English for a bit. I wrap up in my sleeping bag and try to get warm and get some food in. Bryon gets my hydration bladder filled with hot water .. best idea ever! My new hot water bottle is awesome :)
|Warming up at R5|