Gobi Marathon - A Walk in the Desert

October 2007

There are marathons and then there are marathons. This is a story of two in one

When I started telling people that I was "doing the Gobi Marathon" there were three reactions:
#1 You are doing WHAT????
#2 Are you CRAZY????
#3 That was a silly question, the answer to #2 is obvious.

It started innocently enough. Brigitte is the primary instigator for the local hashers (runners/walkers who go out to see the local sights on a regular basis) but prefers a leisurely walk to a true running event. One day she announced that her friend Joachim is the organizer of the annual Gobi Marathon held as you can guess in the Gobi desert, otherwise know as "the middle of nowhere". So being Brigitte she started recruiting a team. By the time we departed there were 11 of us (Brigitte, Anne, Allison, Len, Kathleen, Chablise, Dennis, Lyn, Joscha, Sook Suan and yours truly) and one puppy (3.5 month old Bella was our beloved mascot) from 5 countries with an age span of some 46 years and our Mongolian driver who spoke no English in a small bus. Brigitte had been shopping and the coolers were well stocked along with freshly baked breads from her bakery.

After lunch we departed downtown Ulaanbaatar (UB) and drove out in the direction of the airport, The driver suddenly turned left onto a dirt track, put the pedal to the metal and launched south towards the Gobi desert in search of a town called Mandalgobi where we were to spend the night. The plan was to drive part way in both directions each day and split up the travel time (a wise choice as you will soon see) into 4 days instead of 2.

Outside of UB there is little in the way of paved roads. These are all dirt tracks across the Steppes some times 6 or 8 "lanes" wide, sometimes a single rutted track. The local maps actually have what look like highway numbers on them. If you don't like the "road" you just make your own in this land where you see no fences except around a few gers. How do I describe such a journey? The words to describe the ride include; lurching careening, jolting. And tourist buses are not known for having comfortable seats. This was a vehicle designed to haul tourists around town not a four wheel drive Russian Jeep or Toyota Land Cruiser like most everyone else out there with us was using.

We saw one road sign in 6 hours on our way to Mandalgobi. How the driver could even find this town seemed amazing, we chalked it up to experience but later found out that he had never driven this route before and was "winging it". Around 9pm we encountered a mile stretch of paved road and entered Mandalgobi soon to pull up to the Gobi Hotel. This one was easily zero stars and if there is a ranking below zero it might qualify. After some negotiations in Mongolian by Anne (the only one in our group who actually spoke Mongolian from her Peace Corps days) we rented 4 rooms for the 11 of us and moved into their dining room where Brigitte brought out her pot of homemade split pea soup and bread from the bakery and we settled down for a lovely meal.

The rooms had been locked up and after dinner I asked for the key to the "guys" room. For a while we got a bit worried when no one seemed to know where it had gone until Anne finally fessed up and handed it over. Len and I went upstairs and I put the key in the lock, it was tight, and I turned the key opening the door. The door opened fine but when I tried to turn the key back to take it out it was stuck, I wiggled it for a while and when I pulled the whole doorknob came out in my hand. I could have pushed it back in but could not pass up the opportunity so hid the doorknob behind my back and went back to the dining room. I asked Anne "are you sure you gave me the right key?" "Yes" she replied, then I handed her the doorknob with key stuck in it. The look she gave me was priceless and the room broke up in laughter. This sense of humor would serve us well.

After a simple breakfast (no shower available) we hit the road for Dalandzadgad, expecting another 6 hour journey. About two hours out the driver was trying to keep up a good pace and gunned the engine as we went over a rise. The road he was expecting was not there and we found ourselves airborne, little Bella flew at least 3 feet in the air in front of me before we rudely slammed into terra firma once again. Kathleen had cleverly tucked herself into a comfy slot among the luggage which now all flew up and forward and we had to dig her out from under the backpacks. After a short break while the driver bent the rear bumper back into the neighborhood of where it used to be, we did some repacking then continued on. A short while later the bus stopped and the driver dug out a bag of tools. Not an encouraging sight since we were 2 hours from the nearest town. Seems the short flight had done some damage and we now had a problem with the brakes. He crawled under the bus and emerged with what appeared to be a brake line in hand. Sook Suan led an impromptu Tai Chi class while we waited. After some work with a file, bending and frowning he crawled back under the bus, reattached things, poured in a bottle of brake fluid and we continued on. When you are "out there" you are on your own and if something breaks you better hope you can fix it.

It was almost dusk when we finally got to Dalandzadgad and a petrol station, which had a rare treat, a real outhouse. Then to find out we had another 55 km ahead of us to find the Gengis Bull Ger Camp. The only directions we had were turn right after the airport. We drove on as it changed from a beautiful sunset to pitch black. The driver stopped at gers to ask local nomads for directions and eventually abandoned the "roads" and drove across the desert. Soon we saw headlights and vehicle in the distance. When we finally met the blue four wheeler it turned out to be Joachim who had gone out looking for us. We followed him to the ger camp. The camp had a big amber flashing light mounted on top of the "facilities' building which alas was useless to us as their generator was not working tonight and the whole camp was dark so we never would have seen it. But anyway, somehow we made it.

Joachim assigned us to gers with 3 beds each and we soon gathered in Brigitte's ger for refreshments while we waited for Joachim to call us for the "second seating" for dinner. Lyn sat on the edge of one bed and a couple of slats popped out and it promptly collapsed. That was to happen to more of us before we left the next day. Brigitte handed out the bright orange tee shirts that would identify our "team" the next day. they were the loudest and most garish ones she could find.

Sunday morning September 30th 2007 after a simple breakfast we all piled into our vehicles to follow Joachim to the starting line. The plan was for the full marathon runners to start and us half marathoners would drive to the halfway point and start from there. After driving around for a while we stopped by a red ribbon tied to a small sagebrush plant. There were mountains on one side and nothing else in any direction as far as the eye could see. Two of the drab grey Russian minibuses pulled up along side each other and Joachim stretched the starting banner between them. There were at least 10 different countries represented including an international running group from Japan.

The runners jogged off into the desert to follow the trail of red ribbons and we drove on ahead. We stopped to climb the sand dunes one of which had a red ribbon on top. As we drove around the dunes the bus got stuck in the sand and we had to push it out backwards.


At the halfway point the starting line banner went up again and the halfers chugged off through the desert. Now I may be crazy but not that crazy so four of us and a puppy walked the half marathon. OK I ran about 10 feet just to say I had "run" but this was to be a walk in the desert.

We followed the red ribbons but more so the orange shirts ahead of us. There were to be water stations ever 5 km and we reached the first one in about an hour where our bus was waiting. By this time Bella had worn herself out and Chablise was carrying her so Bella ended up back on the bus for the rest of the walk. We walked on and we soon were passed by Joscha who by this time had run over 16 miles. After another hour and a half we had seen no more water stops and it had been a while since we saw a red ribbon. Eventually a minibus showed up with our bus behind it and we were informed that we had taken a wrong turn as had Joscha and Dennis (the orange shirts we were following) and were well off the planned route. At least they came and found us. We went up and over the next hill and saw the finish line at the top of a hill in the distance. We walked the final leg and crossed the finish line. Soon to find that not everyone had arrived. Our runners and many of the Japan team had not arrived. Seems we had cut off a bit of the distance by our detour and the "walkers" arrived ahead of the runners. As Anne slogged on up that final hill and saw me standing there she yelled out "cheater, I know you didn't pass me".

Joscha actually ran the whole thing and finished second. The standing joke was that all full marathon runners could say they finished in the top 4, since there were only 4 runners anyway. The winner was Salvador from Leon Spain in 2 hours 58 minutes, a very respectable time for rugged terrain but he is a pro at this and also runs ultra marathons.

About 3:30pm we gather the team into the bus and headed north on our homeward journey. After a brief dinner break a hour out we arrived in a small village and enquired about lodging for the night. Both Anne and the driver returned to the bus with the impression that something was just not right about this place. The consensus was to push on northwards and the driver assured us he was game for the trip. We stopped for fuel at the only station in town. Only one minor problem; no electricity in this village. It took 3 people to fuel the bus; one to hold the nozzle in the bus gas tank, one the crank the pump by hand and a third to hold the piece of firewood behind the cranking mechanism so that the fuel would pump. About a half hour and 50 liters later we finally left to drive then next 170km.


Soon the light faded and we were driving in darkness on a road the driver had never been on before with no signs or directions. The driver would flash his lights to get someone coming the other way to stop so he could ask directions. At one point we were told we were 90 km from our destination. By my reckoning we were no longer going north but more northwest and 30 km later we stopped another driver who told us we were now 95 km from our destination. "kinda lost" seemed a good description. After following the power lines for many more hours we eventually found our way to a town somewhere at around 1:30am where the only movement was the dogs roaming the streets.

Our driver stopped at a petrol station (which was open) and asked for places we could stay. We drove around to two of them and one turned off the lights as we drove up. There was no room at the Inn and the legendary Mongolian hospitality reverted to mere legend. After filling the gas tank we headed north into the desert for about a half hour and pulled off the path. The hearty younger ones with winter sleeping bags slept out under the stars (where you could see your breath) and the rest of us stretched out (as much as possible) inside the bus and tried to keep warm. By daybreak it was just as cold inside as outside. The propane camp stove afforded us hot water for coffee and tea along with a cold breakfast before we once again plunged northward following the winding brown tracks in search of civilization. Eventually the cloud of smoke from the UB power plant snaked into the sky in the distance ahead. And then that amazing sight, an asphalt highway that led back into the city. I turned to Chablise and asked the rhetorical question; "did we really do that?" About 4:30pm we dragged our dirty and weary bodies out of the bus and split up to head "home" to a hot shower after the 4 day "road trip"

So you see it really was two marathons. The first was the officially organized one, our "walk in the desert" and the second one was the 35 hour 900 kilometer marathon trip down and back. And yes I have a tee shirt from the 2007 Gobi marathon to prove it.

The Orange Team

breakfast in the desert after sleeping outside

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