Saturday, 4 February 2017

Genghis Khan Ice Marathon

Well where do I start? So much, what an expedition! I think I’ll tell you about it by picking on a few highlights and showing you some photographs.

After nearly 24 hours on the go I arrive at Ulaanbaatar with Dave Scott, expedition leader, owner of Sandbaggers and Honorary Consul to Mongolia for Scotland. We are met by Timoruu, Dave’s man in Mongolia - a passable double for Oddjob, and Darkha the driver. Into an ancient Hyundai mini bus, into the traffic and chaos of UB, skies blue and sharply cold. Around -25.

First stop is for vodka. The first cup goes out of the window to honour the “gods”, then it’s my turn. Do my duty, hand the cup back, then Dave’s turn, then Timoruu. Oh my word it’s back to me again. ¾ of a bottle of Chinggis Khan Gold vodka later and we arrive at the hotel. A great room in the Best Western with amazing views over the city. The BW in UB is a very high quality hotel, entertains ambassadors etc and is run by Mike Booker from Yorkshire who was most kind, genial and generous throughout our two stays.

I’d obviously passed muster with my vodka drinking as I was invited to spend the evening at Timoruu’s own house – a tremendous honour. This meant still no sleep but I couldn’t refuse. His flat was in a soviet era tenement block. But inside his family had made it very individual, interesting, warm and comfortable. His daughter is a Shaman and we saw her room with all the icons and artefacts.

I realised that evening – with still 3 days to got to marathon day – that this was a trip largely centred round vodka, meat and a good dose of superstition / appeasing the “gods”. There aren’t many vegetables (weather), but as I was told – “we are herdsmen. We herd goats, sheep, cows, horses, yaks. We eat them” Eating meat was either the meat made into meatballs and served in dumplings or pasty-like pastry; or simply huge bones with all the meat on, a sharp knife, and hacking chunks off!

Audrey, Alistair, James and Andrew arrived in the morning and we departed for the next 2 nights in gers in the national park. Ger (hard “g”) is the Mongolian for yurt. I slept in ger 9 with anaesthetist  James from Ireland, now practising in Scotland and Dr Andrew Murray, renowned ultra distance adventure runner and superb marathon runner. Reassuringly doctor and adviser to many world leading sports teams including Ryder Cup golfers, Scotland RFU etc. The gers are heated with a wood and coal burner – stoked throughout the day and night and so darned hot on the first night it was like a sauna.

However, the 100 metre walk to the long drop toilet in the night with temperatures down around -30 to -40 meant getting fully kitted up and with headtorch. The long drop is a hut, with wooden floor, a hole to straddle over a huge deep pit – a long drop!! In winter it didn’t smell too bad as the cold kills the bacteria – I dare not imagine what it’s like in the summer! (I have a photo, but private viewing requests only!!)

The following day saw Sarah arrive, weather colder so that you could see the air as crystals tinkling in the sun. A short test run – kit fine, breathing difficult. Altitude of 5000 ft and desert aridity were enough to make a difference.  

A trip to national park and turtle rock, and a visit to a family living in a ger as most do outside UB. Everything is round the circumference – beds, wardrobes, dressing table, all dominated by a big TV with satellite box and sound system! Home for whole family with a total lack of any privacy.

And so the day of the run – breakfast at ger camp, then a drive to the start. It is cold – below -30, but not -40. Enough to need full face protection at least to start with. Various runners didn’t make it so we line up – all three of us!. A bit disappointed that there are no huskies this year and I only saw a couple of yaks. You could hear the wolves but they were too distant to cause a threat. So we each had a support vehicle – mine was yellow and stayed just in sight ahead of me so I knew where to go. Occasionally stopping to give me drink and check I was okay.

We ran out for 7 miles or so – breathing was very difficult and although my legs felt fine I was struggling a bit in the crystal clear but frozen air. It turned out this section was more uphill than I imagined so when I turned it all felt better and I picked up pace and ditched the facemask.

I felt warm but realised I wasn’t as my left eyelids froze together for a moment, saw my reflection and had icicles on my goggles and balaclava! My support vehicle had Doctor James in it and it had to leave me to see Audrey who had the beginnings of frost bite. At one point I lost quite some time choosing the correct route, but then arrived at the main ice-river loop.

Andrew was waiting for me which surprised me – he’d just completed the first loop and had fallen through the ice at one point!! So he took me round this point of the course – disconcerting to hear the ice cracking like glass under my feet, but I was told that underneath was simply more ice! As it would be at -32.

The final miles were simply very hard work. I wasn’t on top form to be honest having struggled with a cold and then the breathing difficulties. I came in in 5:15 – but after a couple more stops than I would normally have etc. So Andrew beat me by about an hour (he is a sub 2:40 marathon runner!) and I beat Audrey by roughly the same. 2nd!! But it wasn’t about the times – it was about the experience, the conditions, the journey to get to the start line in Outer Mongolia, the customs, the traditions, my wonderful fellow travellers.

Dumplings and a beer post race!

And then Saturday back to UB and prepare for Burns Night Supper – all whiskey, vodka, Ali the piper, real haggis and a great night.

Before my adventurous trip back with weather causing severe delays and an extra night in UB we did some sightseeing. Escaping the smog of UB we went to the famous Genghis Khan Statue. Words cannot describe how awe-inspiring it is – simply huge at 130ft/40m high – on top of a building which is itself 33ft/10m high. And unbelievably you can climb up inside it and appear on top of the horse’s head. Here are some pictures – I think my video, however, captures it best. See my YouTube Channel link on the right.

 At the same location are Mongol Warriors on horse back. In themselves amazing life-size statues conveying movement and the fear they must have inspired as they swept across the plains.

And finally to the Gandantegchinlen monastery
And the black market – where amongst many other things you could buy a bronze bust of Hitler!! I didn’t – nor did I photograph it sitting alongside those of Lenin and Stalin!

There we are – an amazing trip and the 9th person to complete the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon (10th finisher as Andrew has done it twice!). A land of contrasts – smog-ridden traffic laden chaotic haphazard vibrant Ulaanbaatar with 1.4m inhabitants. Isolated, remote, crystal clear, plains, mountains, sparsely inhabited (the other 1.6m) chillingly cold, where eagles soar and wolves howl and nomadic herdsmen drive their animals. Mongolia. Generous company, wonderful people. Thanks to Dave and everyone for enabling me to take my part in an amazing adventure.

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