"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out." -Mae Jemison, astronaut

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Not Jumping Off Bridges in the Gobi

The invitation arrived Friday the 9th of September. The Changan Ford Gobi 100km International Trail Race would be held in the Gobi desert of north-central China in 16 days. Unusually for me, I hadn't committed to a race for the season. I'd only been home a week, after 2 months overseas.

Cramming included my first sauna training. 30 minutes the first time. Awful!
I lay on the floor of the dining room for an hour, weighing up the pros and cons of going - or staying home to do a local WA race. In the end, my "regret principle" for life swayed me to say Yes! And then I promptly started doing some core exercises. Time to cram.

The race turned out to be one of the highlights of my running-related racing adventures thus far. It offered me new challenges. And I LOVE challenges! First, a 100km trail race in desert. Sand, dunes, dried mud flats, and thorny grasses. All new racing terrain for me. Second, it was a bit of a mystery race: no website, no list of competitors. The race had been run in 2015 as a 50km. This year there were two loops. Third, ever since I'd lived in China in 1992, I'd wanted to see this remote desert area along the Silk Road. Funny the way I got there 24 years later. And, finally, though I didn't know it beforehand, this race would stand out for its organisation. I have never attended such a well-thought out, well-run event that catered so much for the individual. Yes, there have been very organised races - but this one was so individually catered. It was a great privilege to be able to go.

I knew the organisers were inviting up to 100 elite 100km road runners from around the world. I had a very realistic understanding of my position amongst such women. It's not at the top. (In 2015, my 8hr32 100k ranked me 53rd in the world - 21 women ran sub 8 hours!) And I'd always been slow when running on the beach with my mates. But I wondered whether in an ultra distance race I might turn out to be more efficient in sand. I wondered if others might burn out their legs bullying their way along. Maybe all my snow running this year had improved my technique - sand is similar.
Signage outside the airport - similar adorned street poles in many places

Arriving at the race hotel 1.5 days after leaving home, I found the start lists. 102 men and 28 women. I quickly jotted down 16 of the names and did a DUV search. Six of those 16 had a 100k time better than mine. Then there were the wildcards. The dark horses. How about that woman with the 3hr36 50k time? How about the 11 women I didn't look up? What about the trail runners with no reported 100k road that I could compare to? There were women from China, Japan, Argentina, Spain, Hungary, India, the UK, Australia, Germany, Mongolia, and the USA. Last year's (50k) winner was there. At least two other women from last year were back. The men's race had similar depth, including Georgio Calcaterra (ITA - world champion with a 100k best of 6hr23) and Zach Bitter (USA - 6h44 best). You get the idea.

Pre-race ritual time. I painted my toenails red, China's favourite colour. I thought of a Chinese character for each big toe - two words to focus my mind on during the race. De for morality/ethics/courage (also in my Chinese name) and Xin for heart. I couldn't focus on winning, but I could focus on running the best race I could, with those principles to push me.


Saturday night 20 of us were invited to a gala opening ceremony and dinner 30 minutes out of town. An amazing riverfront venue greeted us, complete with light show over the water and music. Speeches were given by the mayor, the president of the International Association of Ultrarunners, a Chinese Olympic committee member, and the Changan Ford rep.

First course (excluding the banana peel addition) - I'll pass

They kindly offered to bring me roast potatoes - perfect!
Race morning busses took us 50 minutes out of town, in the dark at 5.40am. A police escort led the way. I tucked myself on the ground in a corner of the big athlete tent and tried not to look at anyone. All the stretching, lubing, and fidgeting can be unnerving. At 7.15, I put my finish clothes in the storage tent. At 7.30, we were herded to the start. They said men left and women right, but stopped enforcing it. Words were spoken, drummers drummed. A CCTV helicopter flew overhead, as did a drone. Though we'd been told it was a 7.40 start, I was caught off guard when the gun suddenly sounded at 7.40. I was expecting more speeches! We were off to a near-deafening but amazing set of fireworks. Wicked. Normally I abhor loud noises, but I decided to smile and appreciate the surprises that the day would hold. I was sure there would be more. Oh, yeah, there was, but nothing like I could have guessed!

I couldn't see any girls in front of me, but guessed there were at least a few. A lead vehicle with bubble camera mounted on top was in front. The course ran between 2 large blue and white "Ford" painted barrels, 5m apart. There were frequent barrels, so you could easily follow the "trail." For a short time, the leaders ran right behind the car, on the dirt/sand track, rather than on the actual course, adjacent. Then they seemed to sort themselves out and got onto the proper course.

At the 2km timing mark, just two girls were in front of me (though I didn't know at the time). The Mongolian was 34 seconds up and Chiyuki (JPN) was just in front - 10 seconds. I had seen one of them pass me in that 2k section - don't know which it was, but she was flying.

The next surprise after the sudden start and fireworks started around this point. The course started to weave back and forth a lot over a 4WD sand track. With the leaders running on the course (between the barrels) in front, the trailing men - and all the front running women with them - started to course cut. As I weaved my way back and forth, staying on the course, runner after runner passed me running on this "road." I felt silly, but also felt they'd see my example and move onto the course. After all, the race briefing had been clear. In Chinese and English, spoken in both languages and written in big RED BOLD font on the screen, we MUST stay between the barrels. Girls started passing me. Then the course headed far right before making quite a sharp left. As the leaders spread out further ahead, runners trailing could see that the leaders were off to the left. Why run all the way out to the right, just to go left? Surely not because that's where the course was?! I started running on this section, and at least 30 men and 3 more women passed me before KM12. I watched Valeria (ARG), Pamela (GER) and Midori (JPN) go by. I called out a few times. The second time, with one of the women in the bunch, as I crossed the "road" and headed away with the barrels, I called, "I'm running the Gobi 100. What are you guys running?"
Two anti-clockwise loops. (I should have turned on GLONASS.)

I got mad. I was disappointed. I'd wasted my fitness coming to race an event where there was no fair play. I couldn't compete with girls who were course cutting. I could ignore the men - that sucks, too, but that's the men's race and I'll just focus on my own. I could not ignore the fact that at least 4 of those 5 women in front of me now had done so by course cutting.

I felt stupid. I looked stupid. Looking behind me in the distance, with at least 30 runners around, I spotted only one Chinese man far back who looked like he was going to follow the course on this very wide bend. I was so disappointed in my running colleagues. These women had been to world championships. They had been to all manner of official races. Would I just run across the grass of a park if I saw runners on the other side of a bitumen marathon course? Just because the course ends up over there? Ummm, no. So how could I short cut here?

I thought about joining the course-cutting, so I could perhaps run more "equally" in the event. But then I imagined someone at the finish saying, "But did you know you were cheating?" I'd have to say, "Yes." And when they asked, "Well, why did you?" I'd have to say, "Cuz everyone else did." And then I could hear my dad saying, "And if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?"

An example of where it was common to course cut - stay on the road on the left rather than the up/down barrel course
No dad, I would not. And I would not dope if everyone else did. I felt right in my convictions, but stupid at the same time. There I was, far off on the right, running between barrels, whilst a long, continuous line of runners passed me far to the left. I passed KM7 checkpoint and tried calling out the problem. Not enough English to be understood.

I passed KM12 in 6th place (though didn't know my position then) and tried again. No one seemed to understand. I was an hour into the race and churning up a lot of adrenaline and cortisol. I didn't like all this anger and frustration. I needed Plan B. Here's a race surprise - forget nausea or a blister. How about an international field of course cutters? I decided I'd have to quit. I couldn't be ranked against these women, as we were obviously running different events. As the course continued, we climbed little roller coasters of dunes and went through shoulder-high trippy grasses. That is, unless you ran on the adjacent vehicle sand track.

The Huacheng Lake "oasis" at 36k and 83k.
I made my plan to stop after the 50km loop. I'd get to see the whole course and I'd remain unranked. I pulled back my pace to make it a little cruisier. I'd come back to Perth and pick a race in a month or so to do instead. I put a smile back on my face and went back to enjoying the amazing surrounds. Sand dunes, red cliffs, old tombs and beacon towers, a lake oasis, and snowcapped 5,000m Qilian mountains off to the south. Little lizards stood up on their "toes" and darted back and forth like crabs on the beach.

Over the next 30 minutes, I passed Pamela and Midori back. That surprised me. The next surprise of the day. I'd pulled back my pace, yet still caught them, as the course shared the most "natural" line for anyone to follow. Then we hit a tougher section around KM20. I was 9 minutes behind the Mongolian girl now, though I didn't know it. Just a few minutes separated me from Valeria and Chiyuki. By KM23.5 checkpoint, I had caught Chiyuki and was right behind Valeria. But I couldn't stay with Valeria, as I moved into soft dunes and she stayed on the road. As I went up and down and zigzagged between low shrubs, I kept my happy on. I wasn't racing her, anyway, as I was planning to quit. I was going to enjoy my Gobi 50 experience. I liked the challenge of learning to climb the dunes most efficiently and bombing down the far side with impunity because of my total-coverage Raidlight sand gaiters - how awesome that was!

Coming through 50k.
I don't have the rest of the splits yet, so it's a bit blurry from here. But I passed another girl. Then I thought, "Okay, I've passed 4 women back. If I can stay in front of them - if they don't pass me again course-cutting, I'll stay in." I came into KM50. Tao, the most amazing race coordinator, was there. I quickly told her the problem and that I debated quitting. I emphasised that I did not see it as the organisation's fault. They had a well marked course and had given a clear race briefing. She promised to do something. But at the same time, she said, "But how did 4 women pass you? You are in 3rd place!" As I filled my little handheld and soaked myself down, I called back, "I passed them back in the straighter sections!" And off I went into lap 2!

I passed the 2nd place girl right away and kept looking back to see if she was following the course. We were headed for another bad section for short-cutting - that really wide right sweeping bend. I got to the furthest barrel, on the widest part of the course, and touched it. Spontaneously, I found myself simply saying, "Ethics" and looking up for those big mountains. As if nature would be my witness. I had to strengthen my resolve, as I still wrestled with the part of me that felt stupid for following race rules when no one except those lead men seemed to.

I'm not wanting to cast stones. There are things I've done that should best stay in the closet with the skeletons. But I aspire to live more ethically every day in my life. And by setting the intention, try to make my actions flow on from that. Then I can say I've done the best I can. Every one of us is capable of that. There is a call in our sport to make it clean of doping. A clean sport is not just about doping. It's about fair play.
These little guys had really good camo! And great sand technique ;-)

The afternoon hours ticked on, with me running mostly in solitude. Aid stations came every 5km or so, which provided an opportunity to refill my small handheld, drink another 330ml bottle at the aid station, and soak myself down. Heat management and running efficiency in the sand were the strategic focuses. I was going through my 7 scoops of Perpetuem (~800cal) and 9 gels (~800cal), so had to augment with aid station bananas. I don't really like bananas. But I was carrying about all the calories I could stuff into my pockets and handheld! Between the fuel, plus mandatory space blanket, whistle, and other treasures, my shorts were so heavy I had to knot the waist cord tight to keep them from bouncing down off my hips! By the finish, I had a new injury - an internal bruise in my belly muscle caused by the pressure of that knot.

Though I haven't been able to get the rest of the aid station splits yet, my memory tells me that I later caught Valeria again - during lap 2. She had such distinctive fluoro shorts on :) She was on the road on the right of me, whilst I was going through dunes. We were approaching an aid station. Again, I couldn't stay with her, based on the terrain we were in. Well, maybe I could have for a while, but my exertion level would have been too high, covering more and hillier ground. I know from asking at aid stations late in the race - after about 80k, that she got about 8 minutes on me and stayed there. But I never tried to chase her down. Really, we were running different events.

Late day, based on the cloud cover.
I started watching my back with 12k to go. I was going to have a hard time accepting a pass, unless I knew the girl had run the true course. It was around this same time - about 9 hours in/~4.30pm - that the sun disappeared behind a cloud. I looked up to see some serious looking clouds off to the southwest. The storm looked to be a few hours away, so I thought myself safe, but wondered for others behind me. As the air cooled a bit and I ran on flatter terrain, I thought about those speedy road runners behind me. I focused on form. Efficiency. Power through the arms. Two more aid stations, two more soakings, and one beautiful apple as a change from bananas to take me into the finish. 2k to go.

I saw the white "tent city" of the finish in the distance and saw the sandstorm coming between me and it. A curtain of orange was making its way towards me. My Montane "tubie" came off my wrist and went over my neck to cover mouth and nose. My sunnies went on again, despite the darkening sky. I took a visual on the finish tents and prepared to hold bearing. The storm was over me within a few minutes. I popped out with 1km to go.
Storm's brewing behind the finish!

The vehicle with the bubble camera was there, waiting for me. It was funny having a giant eyeball rotating towards me. The desert sand truck fired up to follow the camera crew in case they got stuck. I smiled at the guys and said, "Let's bring it home!" As I approached the finish, the drummers started up on my left. I ran though the tape, right into the friendly arms of one of the Aussies. It was a bit of a blur, but I remember looking him in the eye and saying, "Yes!! I did it! Without cheating!" I tried to say it a bit hushed, as I didn't want a camera crew or someone to hear without context and I didn't want the race to suffer because of the problem caused by some of the runners.

It was a victory for ethics. Not my victory. This medal is a gold for ethics. We all have this power. The power to stand true to what's right. To fair play. This is how we save the world. It's how we need to BE in the world. It's way more than just running.

Getting to the grand Qilian Mountains post-race