In the Wake of Heroes: Volunteering at Racing the Planet’s 2015 Gobi March
When Edna and I boarded a Beijing-bound plane from Chicago, neither one of us really knew what I should expect. For her part, Edna was pretty clear: run 250k over 7 days across the Gobi Desert, carrying all her own gear and supplies for the journey. Having successfully completed the Atacama Crossing in 2013, she knew exactly what type of pain and suffering lie ahead. The only question mark was the terrain.
For me, as a volunteer making his first Racing the Planet appearance, I didn’t really have any idea what I would be doing. I speak Chinese, so I figured I might be doing some of that. I know my way around an aid-station, so I assumed I would be handing out lots of water. Somehow climbing a sand dune in a snowstorm didn’t make it onto my pre-race assumption list. Nor did fraternizing with a precocious camel, busting balls with the Xinjiang locals over fruit and tea or making instant friends the world over. Had I known about any of the above, I would have joined the Racing the Planet ranks a long time ago.
It was a long journey. A very, very, long journey. We left our Chicago apartment around noon on May 24th; 38 hours and 50 minutes later we were finally collapsing on our hotel bed in Hami, Xinjiang, China. The trip included a 14-hour direct flight to Beijing, a 4-hour+ flight to Urumuqi, a not-so-welcoming stay in the Urumuqi airport (we arrived around 1am and were kicked out onto the street where we slept in our sleeping bags), an adventurous death-ride to the Urumuqi train station where we eventually endured three separate yet equally vigorous shouting matches with Chinese security officials about our possession of multi-tools before waiting in line for 90 minutes to buy train tickets for a train we just barely boarded in time, for yet another 3-hour trip to our final destination: Hami.
We arrived on Tuesday the 26th in the afternoon sometime. We checked in our hotel, ate and then went right to sleep. We woke up on Wednesday, went to eat and came back to our hotel, to sleep. Again. We woke up around 5 o’clock on Wednesday evening, went to eat, went for a walk, then went to sleep. AGAIN.
Our bodies were confused. So we slept a lot. And it paid off, because we woke up on Thursday and everything was back to normal.
I spent the entirety of that Friday learning the ins and outs of volunteer protocol for the 4 Deserts race series. Always the nerdy student, I sat right up front and soaked up all the information given (there was a lot). Feeling confident that I’d retained at least 75% of the training, I also enjoyed getting to know my fellow volunteers. We were from the US, China, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, Hong Kong, India, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Canada. Our dear leader, Tony, was a lighthearted yet focused Englishman from Manchester who peppered his instruction with well timed humor.
At the end of the training, I realized that volunteering would be more work than competing. At least as a competitor one would be able to rest after doing his job. For the volunteers, our days would begin around 4:30 am and end around 10:30 pm, though I imagined we would have less blisters and skin maceration, so that was a plus. Knowing just how much time we would be spending together seemed to motivate us to get to know and befriend one another rather quickly.
Want instant friends? Gallivant in the remote desert for a week without bathing!
Checking In… And We’re Off!
On Saturday morning and afternoon, I spent most of my time checking competitors’ mandatory equipment. This would be my first major duty of the contest, one that would also give me the opportunity to meet many individuals with whom I would come to call my friends after the event. Among them were a host of Chinese, a trio of Belgians, a pair of Spaniards and an American from my own Chicagoland backyard. What a small world!
This early post also helped me prepare my language palate for the days to come. In a matter of a few hours I found myself comfortably switching between English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, something that I would be doing non-stop the rest of the week.
The buzz around the check-in was global in nature. Surrounding me were people from 40 different countries and various cultural backgrounds. I was in my element. Soaking it in.
Of course, I took my checking mandatory equipment job very seriously. Race officials require each competitor to carry a list of essential survival items. In the middle of nowhere, anything is possible, so making sure each individual was prepared to deal with whatever might come her way was paramount. I didn’t have any major issues. Everyone I checked-in was well prepared. I marveled at how small some competitors’ items came, while others’ did not. The difference between an 11 kilogram pack and a 9 kilogram pack might not seem that much at first glance, but when you consider hauling that pack for 250k through a dastardly rugged landscape, a 2 kilo difference suddenly takes on greater significance.
Edna’s pack was around 11 kilos. I tried not to worry about her small frame handling the weight across the desert. After all, I thought, she is coming in to this extremely well trained (I helped train her!).
After everyone’s equipment was checked and okayed, the 163 competitors gathered themselves onto an army of buses while I and a few other Chinese speaking volunteers tattooed 4×4 jeeps with sponsor decals alongside our new friends, a fleet of Chinese local drivers.
I carefully chose car #8 to be my transport vehicle as all cars and buses, full of staff, volunteers and competitors made their way out of Hami and into the middle of nowhere, bound for camp before Stage 1.
When we arrived at camp, located in a lush, green valley at 2400 meters of altitude, the air was as chilly as the wind was brisk. We were greeted by a lovely sight of local foods, music and dress while the buzz of pre-race jitters filled multilingual conversations in every direction.
After a volunteer meeting where I found out I would be working Checkpoint 3 the next day, I found Edna, wrapped her up in my arms and gave her a long hug before wishing her good luck and good night.
Stage 1 – 34.4k
Sleep? I didn’t get much. The winds whipped through our tent all night. It was cold. And it rained.
Weather is fickle in the mountains, especially here. One minute the winds spear rain sideways, the next minute it’s clear and sunny.
We would have a little bit of both, and everything in between the rest of the day.
After a 6:00 am briefing, the volunteers and staff scattered off by 4×4 to our respective posts. Checkpoint 3 was located beside the sand dune of Barkhol — a seemingly displaced sand dune that towered above and alongside a happy little mountain valley.
We arrived and set up our checkpoint in good time. The air was a bit chilled and there was a steady wind zipping through, but all seemed tolerable… until, of course, it was not. Out of nowhere came violent, sand whipping winds that uplifted our tents, forcing all hands on deck to scurry towards anchoring our infrastructure. The temperature soon dropped, and with it came a torrent of icy, chilled rain.
And it rained.
And it rained.
Then it snowed.
You haven’t seen the truly bizarre until you’ve seen a sand dune covered in snow. I saw most of it from inside the jeep, where I had the heat cranked so I could feel my fingers as I reigned over the most important part of any checkpoint: keeping the book.
My duty was to record every competitor’s name, number and time as they came through our checkpoint. The difference between being accurate and being lackadaisical is a full-fledged wilderness search team and lots of heartburn, so I put my anal retentiveness to work, making sure to get everything right.
It was quite the chaotic day to test such retentiveness. With visibility poor and extremities constantly numb and/or frozen, our entire team was challenged to match the toughness of the competitors, most of whom probably did not expect to traipse through snow and freezing rain on their first day in the Gobi Desert. Hypothermia effected several. Pure insanity effected others.
But at the end of Stage 1, everyone found him/herself back at camp in one piece.
Our camp before Stage 2 was a quaint Yurt Village, surrounded in every direction by green. Upon arrival, my body throbbed with exhaustion. The extreme weather of the first day combined with little sleep zapped by body of any energy it might have had left. All I wanted to do was sleep.
But I couldn’t do so without finding Edna.
I went looking for her, and when I finally found her, we both couldn’t wait to tell one another about our day’s adventure.
Stage 2 – 40k
For the second stage, I was assigned as “sweeper”, which meant I got to wear a sweet pink kit over my gear while going along for a 40k hike at the back of the race.
And oh yeah, I got to carry a 12 kilogram pack and dress for a temperature range between very cold and I-have-way-too-many-layers-on. Still, like Edna, I was all smiles.
This was my first chance to see the entire course of a Racing the Planet stage and wow, did I have a good view! I made the trek alongside fellow American volunteer, Liz, whose husband was also competing in the race. Together with a Kazakh, a camel and a horse, the five of us would start off in the mountains, up a steep, snow-covered 574 meter climb, then descend over 1000 meters through a rocky mountain valley, into the barren desert towards Camp 3.
Having to stay just behind and in sight of the last competitors in the race, while also picking up all the course markings throughout, it was a very long yet uniquely gorgeous 12ish hour day.
When we arrived at camp, a small village in the foothills of Tian Shan, I found Edna and caught up with her about her day. She was tired yet full of elation. She was in her element, pushing her body to the limit in a picturesque surrounding, and I was there to see her. Our love was growing, even though we spent most of the day apart.
That night, in the village where we stayed, the locals made a deliciously spicy noodle dish that I devoured; I even went back for seconds! Later, we volunteers gathered for our nightly briefing and there I learned I would have what seemed like an easier post for Stage 3 (yeah, right!). My job would be to stay at camp and do whatever odd jobs might be necessary in maintaining the finish line and overall well-being of the competitors as they came in.
Little did I know it would be yet another day of extremes.
Stage 3 – 42.7k
We volunteers were up again at 4:30 am, adding water to our dehydrated meal bags while sipping instant coffee from plastic bottles. Since my day would be a little less labor intensive, I was able to take my time getting myself together. Once the checkpoint crews left around 6:00, I had some time to wander around the village, chatting with locals, competitors and of course, Edna.
After all the competitors left the village, the remaining volunteers and staff hurried about tidying up the village before departing for Camp 4.
When we got to Camp 4, a small plateau at the foot of a mountain, it was quite chilly, and the chilliness was only exacerbated by… THE RAIN.
It rained. And rained.
But we had to get the camp together so we bustled about, the best we could, frozen digits and all.
The end of Stage 3 was tough for Edna. She came across the finish line smiling, but because of the long day of cold rain, she was struck with hypothermia when she got back to her tent. It took a good hour for her to stop shaking. Her tent-mates encouraged her to strip down and snuggle up in her sleeping bag with bottles full of hot water. Eventually she was able to regulate her body temperature, calm down and eat a good, hot meal.
She then burned her socks over a camp fire, trying to dry them.
Seems like those are the types of breaks that are common in events like these. But it would take a whole lot more than some burned socks to erase Edna’s smile.
Despite the cold and the rain, I went to sleep a little better than the previous nights. I imagine this had something to do with being exhausted. Volunteering was a lot of hard work, with a lot of time on my feet, having to be actively engaged with my surroundings. I couldn’t wait to rest my eyes.
Besides, they told us we were going to the desert the next day — the real, HOT desert.
Stage 4 -42k
Another 4:30 am wake-up call and finally, the pre-dawn rising didn’t seem so abnormal. I quickly fell into my regular routine of coffee, breakfast and preparing my mind for another long day.
My post was Checkpoint 1, and once we had it set up next to a remote camel watering hole, I was assigned the task of roving back and forth along the course to check up on competitors coming from the start line.
It was only a 9.5k jaunt from the start to Checkpoint 1, but it included a steady bout of numbing cold, misty rain and whipping wind as the competitors made their way out of the mountains and into the more traditional, black Gobi desert. With the snow capped range at their backs, each competitor approached Checkpoint 1 with the ability to see off in the distance for miles and miles.
All of the competitors were through the first checkpoint by late morning, so we tore down the station and headed off towards Camp 5. Along the way we had to make a stop to check on a roving vehicle that had a competitor sequestered due to health reasons. As we stood along the silence of the road, overlooking vast desert where little found life, this medical stop was a humbling reminder of just how serious this event could be. Each competitor was taking a risk by stepping off into the distance; 250k through remote landscapes and weather extremes is no joke.
Eventually, the competitor was taken to the hospital (he made a full and healthy recovery) and the rest of us ventured to camp.
Camp 5 was an old clay village leftover from what looked like 50s era occupational China. Having never seen anything like it, I was marveling at the interesting architecture as I quickly stripped out of my cold weather clothes (it was now about 85 degrees and sunny) and in the combined excitement I totally missed Edna crossing the finish line.
Once I did catch up to her though, she was smiling her trademark grin. She couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was to be somewhere hot (words she would regret later).
She was right though. After several days of being cold and wet, the heat felt fantastic.
Adding to this wave of pleasure was the fact that Edna was right near the top of the competition among women. Having been in the top three since day one, she was still there going into the next day’s Long March (80.4k), her signature distance. I encouraged her to eat, get some rest and put her feet up before the long day.
Meanwhile, I got a chance to eat before being sent back out on the course in a roving vehicle. The temperature was rising and the competitors who were still out there were suffering considerably. My Chinese driver and I parked a couple of kilometers from the stage finish line, in a tiny village. There we hung out with two local policeman and four PLA soldiers curious about the goings on.
They fed me fresh fruit, bread and tea over introspective conversation (“why are they running this far again?” seemed to be a recurring question) while simultaneously topping off water bottles for the competitors, encouraging them to finish strong to the end.
After a couple of hours, I too, could feel the restlessness settle in. We were called back to camp where I banged on the drum at the finish line for a couple of hours before eating a hot meal and attending the nightly volunteer meeting.
The next day was the Long March and I would be all over the place. I did my best to get to bed early; unfortunately, that meant drifting off around midnight…
Stage 5 – The Long March – 80.4k
…and a wake-up at 4:30 am. It would have been easy to complain, but considering the barrage of blistery feet and dehydration zombie’ing around camp, I managed to keep my mouth shut.
My duties for the day would be to set up Checkpoint 2, work it until close, then sweep with Liz again through Checkpoint 4 (a total hike of 18.6k) before seeing what would happen next. I was told to be ready for anything. I was, including baking in the 120 degree sun for hours on end.
Since this day would cover over 80 kilometers of terrain, the checkpoint teams were a little spread out. Liz and I were assigned to help Dr. Avi at Checkpoint 2 and once we arrived at our location — a desolate wasteland where one could see for miles — we wasted no time getting set up.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, everyone had made it through our checkpoint. It was time for Liz and I to suit up and take to the deserts ourselves, keeping a close eye on those at the back of the pack.
This is exactly where my phone died. From here to the end, I would have no more camera to capture the mesmerizing images around me. I guess that’s what memories were made for.
We toiled. We sweat. We plugged away.
By the time Liz and I finished our sweeping duties, the sun was going down and the familiar chill of night was beginning to set in. By 10 pm, we had hitched a ride to Checkpoint 5 (60.4k), the overnight checkpoint where many competitors were taking advantage of the campfire and tents to eat a warm meal and catch a quick nap before soldiering on through the night. Liz and I ate a little something and chatted with the busy volunteer staff before heading back to camp to get a little rest ourselves.
We arrived at camp around 11 pm and I found Edna, who had finished about an hour beforehand. She was nearly in tears during her retelling of her day — a battle that took as much mental strength and courage as it did physical. She had coasted along until she hit the burning canyon section, enduring searing heat that forced her to scream out loud at no one in particular. But like she always does, she battled through and brought it home, pain and all.
I hugged her and let her know I loved her. I told her she inspired me, and that I was proud to be alongside during her big moment. It was an emotional 10 minute exchange.
But then I had to get back to work, and she had to rest. We parted ways and I reported back to the finish line. Luckily, I was told to take a nap. Unfortunately, I was told to report back at 2 am. Yikes!
I got in my sleeping bag, by now completely immune to the stench of my own being (six days in the wilderness without a shower will do that), and just as I was drifting off…
My alarm went off. 2 am. Oh boy.
I went to the finish line area and if I was feeling sorry for myself for not sleeping much the last several days, that sentiment changed immediately upon seeing the competitors coming into the finish after suffering along the lonely, Gobi Desert for 80 kilometers.
How inspiring it was to see them! Oh the smiles on their faces! And the tears springing from their eyes! How could one not be moved to do something epic himself upon seeing such a feat!
Inspired as I was, I was asked to go out on the course in a roving vehicle from 2 to 4 am, checking on competitors to make sure they were doing okay. Sarcasm and delirium aside, everybody was moving forward, which at this point, was all one could really ask.
After my two hour shift, I got to take another nap. This time I was out before I even zipped up the bag.
I woke up drowning in a pool of my own sweat.
Wow! It got hot quick! And it was only 9 am.
The only thing that made the scorching heat tolerable was the steady breeze accompanying it. When the wind blew, all was well. When it didn’t, things got uncomfortable.
This was very telling later that afternoon as Edna and I lounged in a shaded area in the middle of Camp 6. With all of the competitors finished with the Long March, we had the day off to recuperate before making the last 12k jaunt to the ultimate finish line. All around us was carnage — competitors dehydrated, windburn and covered in sand — but the jovial stories and upbeat smiles countered any physical deterioration. With the breeze, things felt even better than they were.
Until they weren’t.
The breeze became stronger. And stronger. And stronger.
Eventually no longer a breeze, but rather a violent whipping wind powerful enough to uproot tents and send anything not anchored to the ground flying through desolation, this seemingly angry force of nature started to make things very uncomfortable. The only way for me to combat it was to simply lie on the ground, near Edna, going back and forth between chatting with her and catnapping. This is how we spent most of the day.
But later in the evening, as I was making my way to my tent to get some dinner, I overheard one of the local Chinese staff members yell: “EVERYBODY TAKE COVER! IT’S COMING AND IT’S COMING QUICK!”
Baffled, I followed his pointed finger towards the sky and what I saw was right out of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, dropping my jaw to the ground: A SANDSTORM. A real, ominous, terrifying sandstorm.
“Edna!” I screamed heading back to the center of camp. “Edna! Come with me!” I shouted. I grabbed her hand and pulled her, limping legs and all, as fast as I could towards a large rock formation at the height of our camp. I had never been in a sandstorm before and I did not know what to expect, but the panic I heard in the voices of the locals was enough to make me take it very seriously.
With our mouths, noses and eyes covered as much as possible, I hovered over Edna, faces toward the wall of rock standing between us and the brunt of the storm. For the next three hours, the sand whipped and screamed, pelting us from every direction. By 10 pm the worst of it had passed and I was discovering sand in every part of my body, something I never imagined possible.
The storm destroyed our camp. It knocked down all the tents. It sent much of our gear and supplies off into the unknown. Everything was a mess. Still, the weather forecast looked better on the horizon, and due to the late hour, race officials decided it was safest to stay at camp and do our best to continue on with Stage 6 the next day.
Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, the wind picked up again. It was very violent, again pummeling us with sand from every direction. There was even rain! With this sudden change in weather, having to think quick on their feet, race officials decided it was the best and safest decision to immediately evacuate camp, cancel Stage 6 and head back to our final destination in the town of Hami.
Let me tell ya, that first shower after a week without was NICE! Better yet was the beer (or three) that I had while waiting to actually get in a room to take a shower. Of course, the latter only intensified the former.
After cleaning up, Edna and I passed out. SLEEP! It never felt so good.
That evening we attended the awards banquet where we chummed with over 200 new friends, all of us drawn closer after a week full of adversity. Competitors, volunteers and staff all joined in reminiscing over the week’s dramatic achievements. It was evident to me that the heroes in the spotlight were the competitors, no doubt. After all, they did have the hardest job of all, covering over 100 miles on tired legs over unforgiving terrain. Yet, I couldn’t help but marvel at what we as volunteers and staff had accomplished as well. We put on a full fledged marathon a day in hostile natural environments — environments that changed dramatically each day, from snowy mountain tops to searing desert canyons to full fledged sandstorms. Each stage of the race was so robust and detail dependent that it could have very well stood on its own.
For being a part of this, I was immensely proud.
I was also IMMENSELY proud of my girl! Edna WON her age group while also finishing as the fourth overall female. Woo hoo! And of course, she did it ALL with a SMILE!
The extent of memories we took away from this event could fill hundreds of pages, but one thing is definitely cemented in our minds: Edna and I, are very much a part of the Racing the Planet and 4 Deserts family. We look forward to being a part of another adventure very, very soon…