Running the Trails of Chinggis Khaan
I spent a week in August in a Ger, the Mongolian term for a Russian yurt, in remote northern Mongolia. Morning views were of the sunrise over Lake Hovsgol, the “Mother Lake,” with the reflection of the distant mountains painted across the still water. The mornings were so quite, that if one looked hard enough, they might envision Chinggis Khaan and his men roaming the countryside on horseback. His legend lives across Mongolia and there isn’t a single place that doesn’t bare his family name or display his resemblance. Even the airport in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia was named after him, Chinggis Khaan International Airport.
The journey to Mongolia took two days. I left Portland, Oregon and made a quick stop in Seattle before the long flight across the Pacific Ocean. Spending several hours on a layover in Seoul, Korea was very surreal. I often spend, long days training at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, UT with aspirations of making the 2018 Winter Olympics in aerial skiing. It just so happens, that Olympics will be held in South Korea. I walked through the airport that day knowing that I will hopefully return here in 2018 with my skis in tote, chasing my Olympic dream.
A three-hour trip from Seoul put us in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar. I would later learn to call it UB amongst the locals. We spent one evening in UB and I quickly learned how underdeveloped the area was. The main roads leading to and from the airport were mere dirt with patches of broken cement. A layer of dust rose above the city and mixed with the pollution from four coal power plants used to power the city. The total population of Mongolia is 2.8 million with over 1 million alone living in UB. Childhood obesity is as much an epidemic there as it is in the US. The major contributing factor is felt to be the lack of vegetables and outdoor activities that is compounded by the extreme cold temperatures.
Yet, another early morning flight one hour north put us close to the border of Russia. It would then be a three-hour ride in Russian minivans before we would arrive at Camp Toilogt. This camp is mostly visited by fisherman and avid horseback riders, but has had about 70 runners converge from around the world once a year for the past 15 years.
I have been to remote areas in Kenya and Peru, but wasn’t quite prepared for what we would face in remote Mongolia. Many of us had nutritional challenges the week leading into the race. We were not anticipating such a lack of fruit, vegetables, and protein rich food that most athletes live on the days leading up to races. Refrigeration was limited, the dairy products were unpasteurized and rice was the main staple. The main water filter for the camp had broken so keeping up with fresh water meant boiling water. Many of us tried to keep hydrated by drinking the warm water or trying to cool it in our water bottles in the lake. Camp was at 5,000 ft., so some runners battled to stay hydrated due to the altitude. I normally try to pack dried fruit, oatmeal, and bars, but was limited due to weight restrictions, and like others, didn’t realize there would be such food rationing.
Not only was the nutrition and hydration a struggle, there was a significant language barrier. One of the few locals who spoke English was an 11-year-old boy named Nadsag. He would become our friend and translator for the week. We previewed the run course by vehicle and took him along to translate to our driver. Nadsag also gave us a little history of the 26.2 miles we were about to explore. His story was unique, having been raised by his grandma and aunt. He had already lived in places around the world including Seattle, Shanghai, and Berlin, and spent the past several summers here at Camp Toilogt. English was just one of the four languages he spoke.
Despite not having ideal conditions leading up to race day, moral was kept high by our group. It turned out that 14 of the 70 race entrants were my “Kenyan Friends.” We were runners from all over the world who had previously met at my second marathon in Kenya, at the Amazing Maasai. We developed friendships and a running bond and had decided to meet up again in Mongolia, almost a year later. We were also reunited with the Boundless Canadian film crew. They filmed a segment with us in Kenya as part of their first season debut and were kind enough to put together a great little piece on Team Winter. Having them join us in Mongolia – and include us in their second season of filming – was so much fun. The dynamic Boundless crew added a lot of liveliness to camp and even caught my first “Hash Run” on film. If you’ve never participated in a Hashing, put it on your bucket list. They are very common internationally and it was a great way for us to stretch our legs, make friends, and explore the area around our camp.
Race morning was a 2 a.m. wake up call. My mom had the usual morning fire already going in our Ger and a pot of hot water on the tiny stove for my pre-race oatmeal that I had rationed specifically for race morning. The stove also warmed our four-man Ger as generators were used only two hours each evening to recharge phones and computers. But, an exception was made race morning to provide early morning light.
The weather was a runner’s dream, low 50s, no wind and slightly overcast. The clouds would chase us up the mountain passes all morning but never catch us. About 70 runners – 33 for the 42K and 35 for the 100k – lined up for the 4 a.m. start. By the pace of the first 100 yards of the race, you would have thought we were competing in an 800-meter sprint. The first 2.5K was a very technical single track through woods with roots, low hanging trees, and lots of stones that made the trail difficult to navigate in the darkness lit only by our headlamps. To my amazement, as I navigated the darkness with the lead pack, I would catch glimpses of the camera crew running the woods parallel to us trying to capture vital footage. I was in disbelief at the athletic ability this film crew had. It was still dark for the next 12K, along a rocky road next to Lake Hovsgol. The clouds would hide the morning sunrise as we began our first ascent.
After a rewarding first climb we were greeted with a steep rocky descent with lots of loose stone, making for a difficult downhill run that didn’t allow for much recovery. There had already been many early morning falls, but luckily no serious injuries. By mostly pure luck, I managed to stay on my feet for the entire 26.2 miles. The second climb is what humbled many of us, including myself. It was a steep hill through a mossy, dense forest that never seemed to end. I would occasionally find myself glancing around hoping to catch a glimpse of an area that might be the location of Chinggis Khaan’s burial site. To this day, no one has been able to identify the exact location of his tomb. At the summit of this second climb, stood an Ovoo, a spiritual triangle of stones and flags that are found throughout the land and especially at the highest points of elevation. These are sacred areas thought to house the spirit of the dead. It is good luck to circle them clockwise either once or three times and place offerings. Of course, I made my offering and circled three times before continuing the race.
Volunteers at the three aid stations filled with water, potatoes, tomatoes, and homemade donuts were the only source of spectators on the entire course. An occasional sighting of the filming crew in the most obscure, remote locations would be the only other sign of life. There wasn’t a single time during the race that one couldn’t think about their foot placement due to the rocky nature of the course.
The course proved challenging to many. One person got lost for a few hours and several 100K runners quickly realized at the 42K mark that the course would be too much to continue on. In the end, only about half the 100K finishers that set out that morning completed the course in under 18 hours. The last 42K person came in around 10 hours. The course lived up to its name, “The most beautiful 100K” and definitely can be considered as one of the more challenging races. I was pleased with my 5:55 finish and taking second place only to one of the 100K females who stopped a 42K.
I have fallen in love with the challenges trail running offers. I continue to learn much about running and myself and the limitless capabilities of human beings.
As with every race, I learned afterward of the unsung heroes who had run amongst us. Running in the Mongolian Sunrise to Sunset were the very faces of some of the one in six men battling prostate cancer, who I fight so hard for. After the race, many came to me and shared their personal struggles with prostate cancer. While others, told me stories of family members affected by the disease. Those prostate cancer survivors had been out there running the 42K and 100K in silence, a silence broken only by the presence of a 14-year-old girl out there running with them and for them. May they “Never Give In!”
Although one in six men are diagnosed with prostate cancer, awareness and screenings remain extremely low. Help me to bring attention to this disease that affects almost every family worldwide during September – Prostate Awareness Month – by joining Teamwinter S1X, a month-long charity “run raiser” to raise money and awareness for prostate cancer and research by converting daily running or walking miles into dollars. Like run/walkathons, S1X participants invite friends, family, and colleagues to pledge dollars (or cents) per mile they log running or walking throughout the month of September. Activities are tracked on www.athlete.com/s1x and all proceeds benefit prostate cancer research and awareness.
As a bonus, S1X participants receive a “S1X Pack – with over $200 in swag,” and Athlete.com is awarding the top six men and women with the most money raised, most miles run, and first to six hundred with awesome prizes. There will also be great random raffle drawings – and participants can increase the odds by getting an extra raffle ticket for every $10 they raise. Register here.
Never Give In!