Race Report: Gobi March Mongolia

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The Gobi March is part of the 4 Deserts series of 250km self-supported stage races. The terrain varies, but the format of the races is similar – four stages of marathon length, a long day that is about twice as long and a short last stage of 10K to the final finish line. Since these are self-supported races, you run all of that with a backpack containing sleeping bag, food for the week and various emergency gear. Only water and shelter is provided by the organizers along the way. 

The Gobi March was held in Mongolia this year, which meant more grass lands and rolling hills than desert heat, but the course still included sand dunes and soft sand as well as several river crossings and other fun. I had completed several stage races before, but I had never been to Mongolia and seeing a new part of the word was part of the appeal for me. I was also looking forward to reuniting with running friends from previous races, the Gobi March in China in June 2017 and the Atacama Crossing in October 2017 and I was curious to test how I could do after a year of training and was ready to be less conservative and run fast from the start. 

Training

After a cold and some down time earlier in the year, I started training again in April and had about four months of training, including a mountainous 200km stage race in Bhutan in late May. I averaged about 75km per week with some bigger 100+km weeks and some lighter weeks in between. I included more hills leading up to the Bhutan race and a few runs on the beach in soft sand in the weeks before Mongolia and also started training with my backpack in the weeks leading up to the race. In addition to more back to back long runs to simulate running on tired legs day after day during a stage race, this was probably the most specific training I did.

Running with the backpack and the race gear is important to test the equipment and make sure everything works without chafing or discomfort (once the race starts, there is no way to change anything and you are stuck with whatever you have for the week). I also find that my body has to get used to running with the pack and adjust to slightly different gate and center of gravity, especially for technical trails, but I don’t run with the pack every run. 

Gear

This was my third self supported stage race and even though the previous race had gone really well, I changed a lot about my gear and equipment (some might ask why, but optimizing and continuing to reduce the weight I carry was part of the fun for me). I kept my sleeping system from previous races (Marmot Phase 30 sleeping bag and a short Thermarest NeoAir Xlite sleeping pad), but I changed my backpack to the very light Raidlight 25L Race Vest (the latest version is the Revolutiv 24L Race Vest), switched to the included soft bottles, changed my running outfit and some of my food and hydration plan.

I had switched shoes and was running in Hoka Speedgoat shoes a lot leading up to the race, but in the end I decided to switch back to my trusted Inov-8 Roclite 290 shoes I had used in the previous races. For warmth in camp, I brought my Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer down jacket and a thin Icebreaker merino hat again. At night, I stuffed the down jacket into my sleeping bag’s pack sack as a pillow and during very cold nights I occasionally used it as an extra blanket inside my sleeping bag. I also brought extra socks, underwear and two shirts (a short sleeve shirt I ran in and a long sleeve shirt I changed into in camp and to sleep in), because I expected that we would get wet and that a change of dry clothes after getting soaked in the rain would be nice.

Since I get cold easily, I don’t skimp on staying warm, but otherwise try to bring the lightest gear possible. I also brought my trusted Garmin Fenix 5S to record my runs and check my pace, a small battery to charge it and my phone for photos. I didn’t bring headphones and generally don’t listen to music during my runs, but some people do, especially for sections when they are struggling. In the end, my pack weighed 6.75kg without water (which adds 1-1.5kg) at pre race checkin, which was about 1.5kg lighter than my previous race pack. 

Competitor with gear and backpack at gear check for the Gobi March
Gear check in the hotel

Nutrition

For a self supported race, finding the right balance to bring enough calories, but not too much since you have to carry everything on your back, is an interesting additional challenge. The mandatory equipment list for the race requires 2000 calories per day for a total of 14000 calories, but I ended up bringing a bit more than that for the first few days. 

I started the day with about 500 calories of porridge from Lyo Foods (coconut porridge with figs is my favorite) and had a mix of 150 calorie Stroopwaffles from GU and Honey Stinger (light and easy to eat and digest while you are running), liquid calories in the form of powder from Tailwind and Maurten to mix into my water and some GU and Honey Stinger chews that are still easy to eat later in the race and in small portions. How much I used each day varied and I planned for roughly 200 calories per hour after the first hour.

After each stage, I had a 240 calorie recovery shake from Tailwind and a bar or nuts for a total of about 500 calories, which was basically my lunch, a bottle or two of water to rehydrate and then a 800 calorie freeze dried dinner around 6pm.This added up to around 2500 calories for the first few days. After the long day, I start to feel hungry constantly and unfortunately, I bring less calories for the following rest day and the last few days – enough to maintain performance, but not enough to feel satiated. This plan worked out well, I was able to keep up my pace until the last stage, but I did lose some weight and I was quite hungry and excited about the food at the finish line and continued to eat constantly for the next week 🙂

Runners eating dinner at camp during the Gobi March
Enjoying some freeze dried dinner outside of our yurts we slept in that night

Planning and Preparations

I wasn’t sure what kind of weather we would encounter in Mongolia, but I wanted to be prepared for heat and I often ran during the hot afternoon hours and also did a couple of hot yoga classes in the two weeks before the race. Then I flew to Hong Kong a few days earlier to get over jetlag and meet up with friends and took a short flight to Mongolia a day before race check-in, equipment check etc. For these stage races, I tend to bring everything I need on the plane, because I don’t want to risk checking and potentially losing important gear I need for the race (which happens at every race I have been to). I wear my shoes, bring my backpack with all mandatory gear as carry-on and bring an additional bag with less important additional clothes and stuff separately. 

Reflections

Overall, the race went really well. There is really no obvious place where I feel like something went wrong that I want to improve. My gear worked great, including the new backpack. Food and hydration worked well and pacing worked well, too.

I never got too cold during the night and was able to sleep well, which is important for recovery. I woke up a few times the first night and tossed and turned a bit, but over the course of the week, I got used to sleeping in the tent and sleeping bag and was usually in my sleeping bag by 9pm. I shared a tent with a fun group from all over the world and we particularly enjoyed the night we spent in a Mongolian yurt after stage 3.

In terms of pacing, I decided to be quite aggressive and see how long I could maintain a fast pace. I ran with a group of guys in the top ten for the first few stages, sometimes fell behind on the climbs, but usually caught up again on the downhills.

Stages 1 and 2 took us across beautiful rolling hills and lots of grass land. Stage 3 started out with a fun rocky climb and steep single track descent and later about 10km through sand dunes and soft sand and it ended with a long slow climb up to camp that I really enjoyed, but it wasn’t an easy end to a difficult stage and it also started to rain right after I arrived and many competitors got very wet.

Apparently my fitness had improved enough that I could maintain the pace even on the long 71km day. I finished in 7:29 hours in 4th place overall with my friend Ben. This was probably my best long run yet and encouraging to see that I was able to run longer distances without reducing my pace or extensive walking breaks. 

The medical team took some blood samples after the long day and apparently my kidneys were still functioning, which was good news. We had a recovery shake and some food and went to hide in the tent, because it started raining again. People arrived throughout the night and the camp started to get more and more wet. Apparently, this was an unusually wet year and when our camp turned into a swamp the next day, we got evacuated to a gym in a nearby town for our rest day.

We had beautiful weather again for another 40km stage in the  UNESCO World Heritage Centre of the Orkhon Valley. Due to the rain, we weren’t able to cross the river right before our camp and the stage ended with a rafting adventure to the finish line (the time for the stage got taken before we crossed the river).

The last day was only a 10km sprint to the finish line inside the ancient city of Karakorum. Backpacks were light and everyone knew there was pizza and beer at the finish line. I kept my 1st place among the women and finished in 5th overall with a total time of 25:10:30, my best time for a 250km stage race to date.

Female winner Angela Zaeh at the finish line of the Gobi March 2018
Happy and exhausted at the final finish line after stage 6 in the ancient city of Karakorum

About a year into this stage racing journey, I went in well prepared and everything went according to plan. These races do require some good preparation and adjustment along the way, especially if things don’t go as planned. And while this race went incredibly well, I am sure this doesn’t mean the next one will necessarily go as planned again. A lot can happen during a week of racing, but I guess that keeps it interesting. 

As with previous races, I really enjoyed the week away from everything else without any internet or distractions and I loved reconnecting with friends from around the world who I had met at previous races. That is really what I appreciate most about these races independent of any race times or results.

Group of runners with medals at the finish line of the Gobi March
At the finish line with happy friends from the Atacama race in 2017

The first thing I did after crossing the final finish line of stage 6 was to eat – a lot! We had a long bus ride back to Ulaanbaatar ahead of us and took plenty of snacks with us to eat some more on the bus ride, had an extra long shower and a massage back at the hotel and then continued to eat at the award ceremony in Ulaanbaatar. Ate some more at airports and on planes on the way back and for the next week. Other than that, I took it easy for a few days, did some shorter easy runs after a few days and I was pretty well recovered after about a week and ran around in the Alps the following weekend.

For more impressions of the race and Mongolia, this video gives a nice 7 minute overview.

#racingtheplanet #gobimarch #morethanarace #ultrarunning

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Angela Zaeh

​​Outdoor lover and ultra runner. Exploring the trails of Marin or the Alps when I am not working on Prokit.
Trail Running, Ultrarunning, Mountain Biking, Climbing, Ski Mountaineering
San Francisco, California

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