4 Deserts Recap: Gobi March 250 km
I am finally relaxing! This is my first R&R from Afghanistan, and my hypothesis was correct: the best way to rest and recuperate is to run.
I had a great night around the campfire last night. Some of the locals put on a welcome show for us, which was a bit like Britney Spears Kashgar-style (think karaoke and funny costumes outside in the desert). Then came the horses. The men rode them around playing some game where they chased each other around in circles…. then I realized the game involved trying to grab a dead goat, clutched in the hands of one man on horseback, and trying to tear it apart. Hmmmm…. I stuck to my freeze-dried food and concentrated on the campfire. Although we are a few time zones away from Beijing, everywhere in China runs on Beijing time. As a result, it stays daylight until about 1030 or 11 pm here. Many people stayed up late, but by about 915 my eyes were drooping and I headed to my tent. Even though I don’t have a sleeping mat, I slept very comfortably in my sleeping bag, cuddling my afghan flag.
Photo copyright of RacingThePlanet / Zandy Mangold.
Honestly, it was the best sleep I’ve had in weeks. Go figure.
This morning I felt like a million bucks. I had saved a pepsi and that bubbly goodness was just the thing I needed at 6am. My tent is full of characters, including the oldest competitors here (Hutch). He is a real riot. His hearing isn’t that great, so this morning he was complaining that his alarm never went off while his watch alarm was beeping loudly away (ha).
A few blips today – my backpack strap broke about 5 minutes before the start, which isn’t surprising as it is the same pack that I used in Nepal. They are lightweight, but not super sturdy. With a couple of safety pins, I was back in business. My left shoe now has a nice giant hole in the side, but it isn’t affecting me too much.
I was positively giddy before the start. Open space!! When the clock started for the race, I was OFF. I started running with the top group and kept a pace of about 12km/hr, which is much faster than I would normally go with a backpack on. The scenery was stunning. Orange rocks jutting sharply to the sky and layers of blue and green mountains behind. There was someone drafting me for the first 45 minutes, and although it was nice to have the company, it was still a bit unnerving to hear someone else’s breathing, burping and footsteps right behind me. Once I hit some of the hills I really felt my lack of training. In the compound in Kabul, my running ‘course’ is entirely flat and I don’t have access to stairs. I’m really have a lot of work to do to get ready fI kept up a pretty good pace for the first hour, but then I felt like I hit a wall. I’ve never done one of these races without training with a backpack before, and I really felt the difference. I did one run in the compound with about a 12 lb pack, but that really wasn’t sufficient. I felt it. I started dragging my feet and, inevitably, my super klutzy tendencies struck. I was trying to lightly hop over a very rocky section that took us through dried riverbeds and my foot caught on one, sending me flying into the dirt. I banged and scraped both of my knees and bruised my left quad/IT band area. My left hand also took a bit of a hit. It shook me a little, but it wasn’t too bad and so I bounced up and kept going. It did make me look a little more hard core though running with blood running down my knees!
After about 15 km I slowed down even more. The 4 deserts race series are held in the hottest, driest, windiest and coldest places on earth. Today I learned that Gobi really must be the windiest! It felt like no matter what direction I was heading, I was facing a strong headwind. Whenever the course shifted a bit and it was blowing across me though, my speed picked up by 1.5 km/hr. It was incredible how much it slowed down the legs. To get me through, I may or may not have channeled a little Tom Petty, Free Fallin’… then a rendition of Against the Wind… Singing at the top of my lungs while running through the desert? I’m starting to think this is how I should spend every R&R(&R).
I finished in second place for the females, but quite a bit behind the first placed women. Totally comfortable with that. I really took my time today and enjoyed myself. I also really did push myself, but my lack of training (and my poor training conditions in the compound) will definitely limit my performance here… but not my enjoyment, that’s for sure.
When I came into the village where the finish line is, there were local women, men and children lining the streets. Some women smiled shyly, others pointed at my knees with concern, and the children reacted with a mixture of confusion and excitement. The little girls ran with me to the finish line, and I’m pretty sure they out-sprinted me. After dropping my stuff off inside one of the houses (sleeping on the floor, not beds – let’s not get crazy with the luxury now), I took the kids back out 500m on the course with me to cheer people in. I loved spending time with them. It is something I simply don’t get to do in Kabul, and I’m going to make the most of every moment to hang out with the little ones.
Today rocked, in more ways than one (emphasis on the word ROCK(s)).
After I blogged yesterday, I spent some more time with the kids in the village (taught them how to say ‘awesome job’ to the other competitors, but couldn’t get a ‘booyah’ out of them) and then hung around with some of the other competitors, engaging in some of the most hilarious chat I’ve had in a while. British men in particular are particularly adept at talking nonsense and after a full morning of running, I think the nonsense-factor increases ten-fold. There is one tent (tent 13) full of rookies, and they are just so much fun to hang out with because they don’t take themselves seriously one bit. One of them was pretty upset that his automated water spritzer broke on day one. To someone who breaks her toothbrush in half and forgoes bringing a sleeping mat to save weight, the fact that someone brought his own misting machine on the course just sent me into fits of laughter (and luckily him too). This guy (Ian) insisted yesterday that he had once beat the rock-paper-sissors’ world champion and therefore, by default, he was technically the world champion. This prompted an immediate competition between Ian and one of the other guys, who wanted to fight for the title. Twenty minutes of discussion ensued about whether to go ON three or AFTER three obviously had no effect, as when the rock-paper-sissors moment finally came, each competitors used a different method. Then when they got themselves sorted, Ian was destroyed and there was a new reigning world champion. I’m not sure if it made the international press, so I thought I should let you all know.
I won’t bore you with the other conversations (what words each of their wives/female friends hate and whether this was divided along gender lines), but I will tell you that their stretching session this morning rivaled any jane fonda video.
It always feels good to get the first day out of the way and staying in the village was the icing on the cake (day 2 and I’m already obsessively thinking about cake). In addition to our usual hole-in-the-ground toilets, we also had the option of going in the cow shed, complete with a cow and bull. I almost fell into the ‘toilet’ (hole) when I squatted down and the bull let out a loud moo (?) and sent me flying. By about 8 pm, my eyes were getting heavy again and I tucked into bed. Only woke up once – pretty much slept through the entire night. I was WRECKED. Not necessarily a good sign at the end of day one, but I think it was a combination of the run, travels, and decompressing from Afghanistan. It was a good kind of wrecked though. My tent slept in the same house as four other tents, so it was one big happy slumber party (with really smelly guests) . Luckily I brought ear plugs as the rooster outside our window didn’t seem to know that nighttime was not for cock-a-doodle-doodling.
I woke up this morning at 6am and just wanted to stay tucked in my sleeping bag. We were lying on the floor, but it still felt a million times more comfortable than the tent. Day one destroyed me and running a marathon was not exactly what I felt like doing. My knees and my left hand were also smarting from yesterday’s fall, and the night hadn’t seemed to help too much. It didn’t really matter though. While I didn’t feel like running, I definitely felt like doing some more exploring of the Gobi, and if I had to run to do that then so be it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect today, but I felt much more like my running self on this stage. I certainly wasn’t any faster, but the course suited my plodding style more than yesterday. I tend to do better at the longer stages, so I was actually happy to have the full 42 km today. The first part of the course is dubbed ‘mars’ as we ran over red sand and outer-space-like rock formations. It actually felt like we were on another planet. It was hard on the legs to continually run up and down and up and down… but easy on the eyes and that always helps the heart keep pumping. When the hills got steeper, I started to get quite nervous on the downhills. Especially while wearing worn running shoes rather than trail shoes, my footing isn’t exactly the surest and I didn’t want to repeat yesterday’s fall. A few times I simply sat on my butt and slid down the hills, rather than risk falls on the loose rocks and tumbling downwards. Wearing a backpack throws off your center of balance quite a bit, so one tiny false move could spell disaster. Also, I realized yesterday that if I (god forbid) twisted my ankle or seriously hurt myself, that would affect my ability to return to work in Kabul. Living inside the compound, we have to physically capable of running to the bunker at all times in case of attack…. and if you can’t, then it is home for you!
I tried to eat and drink more than yesterday and just fell into a pace. The sharp stones underfoot were my biggest challenge today. My right foot, the one I had surgery on, is very sensitive and can get inflammed easily. I could feel every rock poke into the balls of my feet as I attempted to dance over the rocky fields. After a couple of hours, it really started hurting and I could no longer push off with strength from my right side. I just tried to shorten my stride as much as possible and unfortunately I had to run more on the outside of my foot. I will try to massage it back to health this aft to make sure it gets through another day! The hole in my left shoe is now as large one whole front section of the shoe, so rocks, dirts and sticks were collecting nicely inside. I may try to sew one of my head buffs onto the front as a makeshift repair. We’ll see how energetic I am! It was also a little difficult getting up and down the hills because I normally would have used my hands quite a bit to help with the scrambling and balance, but my purple-bruised left hand wasn’t too keen on that idea. Tomorrow will be better!
All in all, I had an absolute blast today. I’m excited to be at camp with a wonderful view of orange and purple hills around me. We are sleeping on hard earth covered in very dry and sharp hay, so I imagine it won’t be the most comfortable night in my mat-less sleeping bag bed… but we didn’t come here to be comfortable, did we!!
Thanks so much for your messages from other RTP alumni (rob g, rob h, meg, belinda, emma, devrim, denvy, alasdair, michael, karen, and others!!), my family (mom and aunt julie), friends and blog readers (thanks for the note steve!). If anyone from the UN is reading, please do send me a note – i’d love to hear from you!
But mostly, I would like to thank the board members of Women for Afghan Women for sending me their encouragement! I was so touched to receive some messages from the New York office that it spurred my first salty mid-race cry (just a little one, thank goodness – too dehydrated for anything more!). I learned of WAW during my first few weeks in Kabul, but I hadn’t yet been in touch with the people in New York (where the charity is registered and where they also do really important work for Afghan women). I hope I will get to meet them when I am in NY next (presumably on an R&R in the not-to-distant future), or when they come to Kabul! (I will be in Kabul until my contract with the UN ends on March 31, and then I hope to stay, doing what I love, working with women or NGOs and living in Afghanistan without severe security restrictions).
I’ve got lots in store and in mind to support the work of Women for Afghan Women, in Kabul and in New York…. and I hope you will think of donating to the cause!! Thanks to all who have generously shown their support already. Please visit ultrarunnergirl.com for more info and links!!!
Wish me luck tomorrow – I’m having the time of my life.
We set off at 8am through the nearby village and started our slow climb. At the start, the scenery was brilliant – tree-lined dirt paths, semi-green fields, and of course a view of the mountains. But then, after the first checkpoint (I think), it was aaaaall rock. Running for kilometer after kilometer over small, sharp and loose rocks. Brutal. My feet were mangled after no time at all, especially the right one (the one that went through surgery). I fixed my left shoe with a piece of duct tape and a thread and needle, so at least I didn’t have to worry about too many rocks entering my shoe this time. I was struggling to keep my pace even after the first hour. I kept telling my legs to move, but they simply weren’t listening. All I could do was move forward at whatever my pace would allow. In the words of Matt Nelson (an RTP friend), Relentless Forward Motion is the name of the game!
After the rocky fields, my legs and feet were shot. We were sent over medium-sized hills covered in more loose rocks; a nightmare to run up, and positively terrifying to run down. As soon as we got to the bottom of one hill, the little pink flags sent us straight up another one. It just wouldn’t end. I was cursing my meager amount of training and the poor quality of training I’d been able to do – particularly the lack of hills available inside the UN compound. I could feel my heart pounding at the base of my skull and the ground started to sway a little underneath me. Relentless. Forward. Motion. The past two days I’ve comfortably held second place for the females, but today I was barely sitting in third. I regained second position for a while by using the sit-on-your-butt technique to get down the treacherous slopes quickly, but by the time I hit the last checkpoint, I was doing really badly.
I was nauseous, dizzy, and starting to mumble my words. I couldn’t figure it out (still can’t).I was drinking, eating and taking electrolytes. Nothing made me feel better. The last stage was on a dirt road – again – straight uphill. I tried to run/walk, but soon enough I was brought down to a slow crawl. I was struggling to even keep 4.5 km/hr and inevitably I was passed by the Cuban woman (in third) and Emily (in fifth), along with a couple of men. I tried to say a few words of encouragement, but I was mumbling nonsensically. I couldn’t figure out how to time my arm swings with my legs (left foot, right arm?) and so I just clutched the straps of my pack. I felt uncoordinated, so tired, and ill.
But I made it. I was slow, but I made it. I fought back the tears (unsuccessfully) when I finished, partly out of relief and partly out of some kind of emotion I had been bottling up. Make no mistake – this race is tough. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done these races, or even if you’ve been lucky enough to win some… this race is no joke. Perhaps I was naïve to think I could rock up to the Gobi desert and cruise through without getting in the months of training I need… who knows. But I’m not here to win. I’m not here to do well. I’m here to struggle, to fight, to enjoy, and to raise some awareness about the challenges that women in Afghanistan face every day.
Thanks to all for your messages – many more came in, so sorry if I didn’t mention you in my last post (there is a delay). They encourage me so much. I will look forward to reading more tomorrow. Apparently tomorrow’s stage is incredibly tough.Right now, I can’t imagine walking let alone running further than the bathroom, but maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow. I hope so. In any event, I will try to have fun.
My friend Cat send me a good quote: “There are two types of pain: pain that hurts, and pain that changes you.” I’m definitely feeling both.
Ultrarunnergirl.com (look for links for Women for Afghan Women!)
I couldn’t figure out how I’d messed up so much, but I thought well, I’m just going to start drinking water religiously. At camp, before bed, while running. Maybe I had forgotten how hydrate properly, but I was going to try to remember quickly! I had a good meal and lots of hot and cold drinks (mainly nuun), and tucked into bed later than usual.
When I woke up this am I felt like a new person. No aleve. Lots of water. I didn’t really have a plan for the day – I just thought I would see how the legs felt once I started moving…And they felt GREAT. It was a few kms uphill over loose rocks again to the base of the climb to Heaven’s Gate, which is a hole in a rock that is higher than the empire state building. We had to drop our packs in order to start the ascent, which included twelve sets of stairs. I can’t describe in words how amazing it felt to run without weight on my back!!!!!! I zoomed up the ascent and puffed my way up the final steep climb to the view of the gate. It was stunning. I allowed myself a full 5 seconds before I turned around and tried to head back down. This was a really cool part of the course because it meant that we got to pass by other competitors on the course that we normally don’t get to see. Everyone was so encouraging – it was a koom-bye-ya moment for sure. One of the french competitors flew down the rocks (the french are known for downhills) and I just enjoyed the feeling of letting my legs turn over faster than they had all week, unencumbered by my backpack.
After the first 7-8 km stage, we were sent straight over a neverending series of steep climbs. The uphills actually weren’t as bad as the downhills, which at times were downright terrifying. Wearing running shoes rather than trail was a definite disadvantage today – and wearing shoes with holes in them was near idiotic. As the ground moved underneath me, often unanticipated, I just kept trying to grab onto anything to steady my descent: dirt, small shrubs (all spiky) or rocks. A few times I slid down on my rear end, which was more painful but less scary (not as far to fall!!). There were some flats on this part of the course, either through the dried riverbeds in between hills or running along the ridges at the tops. Mom, you would have hated it – major vertigo!! This 8km section felt like 20km, but the scenery was so stunning I felt like I burned through iEverything seemed to be working just right. The only major difficulty, which now has turned into a bit of a problem, was my right foot (the one I had surgery on). All of those sharp stones, sliding, and running sideways along steep hills really need a number on the ball of my foot where the sesamoid was removed. I couldn’t tell whether it was just a nasty blister from the friction or whether it was internal (bruised) – turns out it was both.
I kept my head down though and tried to think of something other than the burning pain in my foot. Like how good my head felt. Or how good my legs felt. I noticed at one point that I was starting to run on the outside of my foot, which was starting to really strain the outside of my calf. If I wanted to save my muscles for the long day, I was going to have to try to sink into the foot pain instead of changing my gait.
I made it to the end with a huge smile on my face. AWESOME day. I’m off to the medical tent now to sort out my foot and hopefully with a night’s rest it will be good to go for tomorrow.
Thanks for your messages of support (and thanks Sam for your very kind words!!! shame you aren’t here). Hope your exam went well Rob!! Looking forward to some food, some blister popping, and a good night’s rest. Love to all. Women for Afghan Women!!
I have four words to describe the long day: obscene, emotional, painful, and heart-warming.
I’ll start with obscene. At least the first half of the course was uphill, which meant that I walked a few of the sections. The problem is that my walking stride is longer than my running stride, and as a result, my thighs rub against my shorts more than normal. Constant thigh rubbing leads to the dreaded thigh chaffing. UGH. I had my inner thighs taped up from the previous days, but the chaffing spread and soon little droplets of blood were creeping through the tape. I was too sweaty to try to put on more tape mid-race, so instead I took out my body glide and tried to keep lubing on the run (these races are glamorous, no??). It didn’t work. With only about 15 kms in, I knew it would be a long day so I had to come up with a solution fast. In a stroke of genius, I converted my modest nike shorts into the shortest, tiniest european speedo you’ve ever seen by rolling up the waistband. I was giggling uncontrollably for a good 5 minutes at the sight of white, chaffed thighs exposed above my brown, tanned and bruised legs. Many of the areas we were running through were muslim areas, so I had to keep an eye out to make sure I rolled my shorts back down before I saw anyone. The french might be able to pull off the speedos (and a few have been rockin’ them around camp), but it really wasn’t a good look for me.
On to emotional. Running always brings out the tears for me – tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of relief. I don’t know what it is about this sport, but when my legs get moving my brain is freed. Ultras in particular seem to release some deep-rooted emotions that maybe I haven’t had time to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Well, coming up on checkpoint three, I had one such release. The checkpoint was set next to a snow-capped mountain range which separated us from Pakistan and Afghanistan. I mentioned this to one of the medical staff and she said “yes, your home is right across those peaks!”
That’s when it hit me: Afghanistan is home now. I don’t know what it was about those words, but I felt like a heavy weight had been placed on my chest and then it all seemed too much (luckily I had left the checkpoint before the tears came). I realized at that moment that this was one of my last runs outside of an armed compound for a while and that made me quite sad and wistful. I thought about the women I had met through Women for Afghan Women, my family, my friends…. I thought about the long year I have ahead. I decided then and there that I would not kill myself like I normally do on the long day – I would enjoy it. Sure, I would push myself, but I wanted to remember every minute.
That brings me to painful. The first 50 kms of the course were painful. I had nothing left in the legs from the prior day’s hills (I really need to figure out how to do hill training before UTMB!). The legs weren’t hurting, they were just spent. What was hurting, however, was my damn foot. It was like jumping up and down for hours on sharp rocks with a mangled, bruised and battered foot. Nepal was my first multi-day race after my sesamoidectomy and my foot held up; here, however, the terrain is completely different and it definitely took its toll. My tunes definitely helped though. I’ve been running this whole race just listening to the sound of my own breathing, but for the long stage I saved my ipod shuffle. Anytime I had a low moment, I just focused on the music and hummed myself along the trail. At the hot water checkpoint (around 47 km I think), I snagged a couple of pills off the medical director and pretended they were much stronger than tylenol. Boy, did they do the trick!!!! I was flying!!! The constant burning and pain in my foot lessened, and I was OFF! Woohooo!!!! I realized at some point that it had been 7 hours and I still hadn’t peed, so I tried to focus on drinking. A huge windy sandstorm blew up, which was absolutely incredible. The force of the wind kept pushing me sideways and visibly reduced significantly. To be honest though, it was pretty nice as it was at least better than the heat! Then came the rain. I loved it. Rock on, Gobi.
And finally, heartwarming. Virginie, the Belgian girl, was having an amazing day and was in front of me pretty much the whole way. Then at the second to last checkpoint I caught sight of her. Just after the final checkpoint with less than 9 kms to go I caught up. She was having some stomach problems and waived me on, but I was very happy to have the company so I told her we would finish together. I’ve never finished with someone before and I really wanted the experience of going hand-in-hand with someone across the line. For the next 8 kms I counted out every km we finished (using my new polar watch, which was amazingly accurate!!!). Side by side, we trudged along. We passed two boys along the track and kept going. She is a strong, strong woman – a lawyer and mother of three – and it was an absolute pleasure to run beside her. I had so much fun running in silence and in unison with Virginie – I hope there will be more races to come with her!!! Emily, from Hong Kong, finished just 15 minutes behind us, which was AWESOME. This is her first multi-stage race and she really doesn’t realize how good she is (Emily, are you listening??). Keep it up, girl!!!
I’m totally destroyed now, but it is a good feeling. Limping around camp like a wounded war victim. It takes me about 5 minutes to stand up or sit down, but I’ve got all day to recover so hopefully I’ll be able to run the final stage tomorrow. I had my final test in the medical study yesterday, and I messed up AGAIN – the doctor came over to my tent with another polite scolding and a note of caution. Arg. I felt a billion times better than day 3 though, so I wasn’t too worried.
Your messages have made me laugh, cry and smile (Dad, you’re killing me on all three counts 🙂 ). Big hello to folks at the UN in Afghanistan, Independent Diplomat in NY, friends in all places of the world from Hong Kong to Guyana to the Canadian Maritimes. And a huge thank you to my coach, Ray Zahab of impossible2possible.com!!!
I am looking forward to a shower, a beer, and a really good meal.
How are my donations looking? I would be immensely grateful if you would consider donating, just any amount, to Women for Afghan Women, the NGO I’ve become involved with in Afghanistan. They are doing amazing work helping to rescue, support, save, and encourage vulnerable and abused women across the country, as well as in New York… I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Please visit ultrarunnergirl.com for more info and links to my fundraising page!!! Love to all and thanks from the bottom of my heart and the soles of my (battered) feet.
Categories: Race Reports