Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sunrise to Sunset Race Report: A Mongolian Advenure

This race report has been provided by Mary, who recently returned from a very unique adventure in the landlocked Asian country Mongolia.  She graciously offered this race report.
Why would a person go to Mongolia to run a marathon?  To a country farther away than the Great Wall in China?  Here's why I went.

At least five years ago a running friend told me that he had run this amazing race called the Sunrise to Sunset marathon and 100K in Mongolia ( aka MS2S ).  I checked out the website, was impressed with what the race stood for and determined that I would do it some day.  In the meantime, I managed to run a marathon in Australia and Antarctica and so decided it was time to do the last two continents I had left. Mongolia qualified as the marathon in Asia.

MS2S is more than just a race. It is a cross cultural experience in one of the most pristine parts of the world. It begins at Toilogt camp along the shores of Lake Hovsgol, one of the deepest freshwater lakes in the world, and continues into mountains surrounding the southwestern section of the lake. The run is on single track trails, many of which are used only by horses as well as gravelly roads which are not used that frequently.

The participants gather at Camp Toilogt 3-4 days before the race to acclimatize and for the race organizers (who come from Germany, Switzerland and Shanghai) to execute the event with the help of Erke, the very capable Mongolian camp manager. We stayed in "gers", which are the round movable homes, covered with felt made from sheep fur. These have been the traditional homes of the Mongolian herders/nomads for centuries. You may know the gers as yurts. That is the Russian term for gers. Each ger sleeps 3-4 people. The beds are wooden framed with a comfortable mattress. There is a stove and chimney in the middle of each ger. We were able to have 2 fires a day. The fires were started by camp staff. These fires keep the gers very warm at night-sometimes almost too warm.

To participate in the event it is mandatory to carry an emergency kit which contains rain gear, an emergency blanket, a compass, a whistle, a map of the course, a chocolate bar, an ace bandage, a flashlight or headlamp, water disinfecting tablets, a notepad/pen and 2 small plastic bags, and 1.5 litres of water.  Some of these emergency supplies were provided by the race organizers.  A couple days prior to the race the medical director gave a detailed lecture on accident/injury prevention. He informed the group that in the 14 years of the race there has never been a medical emergency. Each runner was required to fill out a very brief medical history and the medical director reviewed this with each runner as well as their current weight and blood pressure. It was essential to have an excellent prevention program since the area was so remote and there were no medical resources or emergency facilities closer than a four hour drive.

The runners and their families, which totaled about 70, were a very international group representing about 20 countries, in addition to a number of expats who were living mostly in Asian countries. Some of the runners had lots of experience running ultras, but there were a few who were running their first marathon and several also running their first ultra. This was quite a choice for a first marathon. There are many races in Asia and the 100K distance is quite standard, so that is probably one reason for the choice of this distance in addition to the marathon or 42K distance.

Since I was traveling alone I had many opportunities to get to know the runners and enjoyed my conversations with runners from Norway, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the US and a few other countries. There were runners who studied the event with extreme intensity and were familiar with all the energy drinks, supplements, compression garments as well as some of the "newbies" who had never even worn their backpack/hydration pack until the day of the race. Some runners brought their families since there were opportunities for many activities, such as horseback riding, kayaking, swimming in the freezing cold lake, fishing and mountain biking.

Some of the runners helped mark the course. The day before the race was aid station orientation. Some family members or friends had signed up to help as volunteers to assist the local Mongolians who have been helping put this event on for the visitors/runners for 14 years. It was quite interesting to observe as the camp manager and the race directors reviewed locations and supplies to go to the aid stations. It was a wonderful demonstration of foreigners working with indigenous people to put on an event in their community. It was also helpful to have some English speaking people at the aid stations in case we ran into difficulties. Since the aid stations were so far apart, they were a very welcome sight when we finally got to them.
One of the highlights of the days prior to the race was a slide show put on by one of the runners. Marc has done all but one M2MS and has also done many hundreds of miles of biking in the Gobi desert and other parts of Mongolia. His slide show could easily be a documentary on its own. The story of his biking in the Gobi desert was quite unusual. He has biked in Mongolia in the winter as well as summer, so has seen the contrast in the seasons which are quite extreme. The other activity that was unique was the music and dancing program which some of the young staff put on for us the evening before the race. Most of them were kitchen staff so we had seen them as waitresses or cooks. After they served us dinner, they changed into their clan costumes and performed a wonderful array of singing, dancing and musical instrument playing that is typical of the local area. The most unique performance was that of "throat singing" which is singing like I have never heard before. Here is a short movie of what it sounds like: LINKThis program was an excellent distraction from the pre-race nerves that some runners most likely be had.

The race started at 4:30 AM, so wake up call was at 3:00. Breakfast was provided and we had to check in with the race director to show that we had all our emergency supplies. There was much anticipation at the start. The morning was much warmer than expected. All of us were hoping that it wouldn't rain, since we had had almost a daily shower or downpour each day before the race. The race began on a single track trail through a lovely wooded area just beyond the camp and slightly away from the lake. It was hilly enough that the mid pack runners were taking it easy and the back of the packers were walking. The race is perfectly timed because almost all runners were able to see the sun rise over the lake as we were ascending the first long climb, which is 5 KM and an ascent of over 2250 ft. This climb starts at the first aid station which is at 12 KM into the race. The hill was long and gradual and felt like it would never end. After several false summits we arrived at our turn-off from the road which was indicated by a lone horse. There was a green marker there also, but the horse was the giveaway.

The steep decent at this point was so rocky and steep that it was impossible to make up much time going downhill. Following the steep downhill there was a lengthy run along a river, which in the past has been overflowing and the trail has been very muddy. We were lucky this year as this trail was quite dry and grassy, which made the footing a little difficult, but much better than running in mud so deep you could lose your shoe (as in other years.) This area was well marked but since I was running alone, I kept thinking I must be lost because it was taking so long. I had neglected to check at which points the aid stations were!!! So finally when I arrived at the 25.5 KM point I was extremely relieved to find that I had not been lost and that this was the last real aid station. I enjoyed the potatoes, salt and other things they had for us to eat and was on my way.

The 3rd section of the course was by far the most scenic and really quite difficult; even though the climb was not as steep as the first climb; only about 1400 ft. in 4 KM, but about half the trail was a horse trail through very dense forest and the footing was not always very good. It was a little creepy being alone and one had to pay close attention to the markings because it was very easy to go off the trail. Upon arrival at the top I felt like the race was basically over, but then I noticed the extreme downhill. By now I had caught up to a few runners and they were going down the meadow trail quite gingerly. I'm sure the lead runners just flew down this section. At the bottom of the wild flower-filled hillside was the last water stop which was operated by a Mongolian father and his two sons who had come by horseback with the water and then hauled the water the last portion on a motorcycle. (the young son is in the picture with me). This was the section where I was able to get some quite lovely pictures of wild flowers which were in full bloom in the meadow section.

At this point it was only 10K to the finish and it felt like the race was over. This last section was all gravel road with lots of rocks and rolling hills. By now it had also become quite warm and humid, so this added to the challenge. But knowing that I was close to the end I picked up the pace and passed a few runners who had been ahead of me for most of the race. The finish is a short mile around the pond around which we had done some horseback riding and kayaking, so it was quite familiar. And you could see the finish line for at least a mile before getting there. However the cheering of the few spectators was very inspiring. Crossing the finish line was a rather moving experience for me, since it was the culmination of a dream which I had all those years ago. And the mother of the winning woman who is also a nurse and about my age cheered me across the finish and said I had set a good example for "old women". 

The winners of the open female division were 2 young American women who were in the Peace Corp in Mongolia. Neither had run a marathon before and both arrived at the camp the day before the race with family/friends in tow to be their cheering section. They finished the race in a respectable time of 6:16 and crossed the finish line together. The male finisher was a Mongolian who trained with a team in a town about a 4 hour drive away.

The 100K open division was a sweep by the Swiss. A course record was set by Florian, whose 26th birthday was the day of the race. It also just happened to be the Swiss nationally holiday. The women's winner, Vivienne, qualified for Boston this past May in Burlington, VT, but she had never run an ultra. She lives in Shanghai, so didn't do much hill training. She was recruited by one of the race directors and I'm sure he could tell she had the determination to finish an event like this. There were only 3 women who finished the 100K this year.

It was fun to be at the finish, in spite of the rain, which started around dinner time. There were long gaps between finishers, but especially after dusk it was fun to look for the flashlights bobbing along and speculating who the next finisher would be. The last runner finished in 18:10 with a big smile on his face. This is a little past sunset, but the rules are that if a person passes the last aid station at a certain time they are allowed to finish. This finisher was a Japanese man with an interesting story. He started running about 10 years ago when his Dr. told him he was a candidate for a heard attack. He started on a low fat diet and took up running. Within 6 months he had lost 30 lbs and was really enjoying running. He has not looked back since then and was extremely proud to finish his first 100K. He just happens to be 62 years old.

The finisher's t-shirt was cotton, which is chosen to save costs so that more of the profits from the race can be contributed to several projects in the community. But I'm sure it is the only shirt you will ever see with the Mongolian script on the back. It is one that I will always cherish because of the fond memories of all the interesting people I met and the awesome scenery along the course.

1 comment:

Don said...


What a great story, well written. And what a challenging marathon. Good for you!