I’m writing from the Opposite House in Beijing. Look it up online NOW. It contrasts in the most beautiful way to a week spent in Mongolia. Utterly inspired and pared down to the barest of referencing the landscape.
So. The race began at 4am, Wednesday. At 3am the sound of a flute carried through the gers invoking the sounds of horses galloping through the forests. Wake up call Mongolia style. Head lamps piercing the darkness, about 75 of us jittered about in front of the start. After a rather unofficious countdown we were suddenly off, into the trees, along a meadowed path full of bunch grasses and medicinal flowering plants and a horseman clomping through the trees alongside the trail. We walk for 1/2 and hour before starting to run. Dee had sprained her ankle two days earlier on an easy 50 minute run so we were trying to take care that she would finish this race. Once onto the compressed dirt and gravel road we kicked it in and kept a moderate pace for the next 10 k or so. At the first aid station I ate salted potatoes and fresh apples (the first fresh fruit I’d had all week). Bayarlalaa, thank you, roll the r and slur the rest of it.
The first of the two climbs came as a shock to my lungs. I’ve had a good year as far as illness goes with no pneumonia to get in the way and still I found myself unable to push as hard as my muscles wanted because my lungs just couldn’t get the air in. I think I’ll stop being so stubborn about the inhaler now. Dee was feeling no pain so ahead she would go and wait for me, poor gal, at various bends in the road. Yes, road. The first mountain we hoofed up had a steeply switch-backed road to the top. Easy footing and more distracting dang wild flowers everywhere. My demons were already doing a number on me and it took much energy to keep them at bay. How could I have trained so well, going to Tahoe for a few altitude runs, always keeping to the schedule, pilates, yoga blah blah blah and still find myself lagging behind where I would have liked to be? No matter because finally we arrive at the top of the mountain to views of the mountains, massive piles of shale, beyond. The color of the stone, sodden grey and heavy looking.
We run past occasional solitary horsemen taking note of our numbers and times. Now down the mountain and I’m ready to run but we maintain a careful pace for Dee’s ankle. We link arms with Zvone the veteran 100k-er for a moment and then carry on. We shake off the Frenchwoman, Claire, who had told me that she didn’t really train but didn’t find the race all that hard. This attitude did not improve my own growing anger. It’s so god-damn beautiful here and I just want to sail through it but instead I’m carrying around leaden lungs. oy.
We slog through marshlands (again, amazing variety of medicinal plants, mallows and worts of all kinds), wobble across rocky washes and thump into the next aid station. More salted potatoes and fresh apples, refill the water and off we go up a narrow meadowed canyon carved by a millenia of snowmelt.
Still angry with my lungs and hating being at the back of the pack I try to tell myself to do the best with what I’ve got. Lame. I want to do better.
We begin the ascent of mountain #2. There is not much of a trail, though you can see how animals weave up this mountainside, where the moss and lichen grows more broadly and the trees and saplings thin. And though my lungs were gasping I found mountain #2 FUN. It was like being a kid in the woods again, tromping over fallen trees and bouncing off spongy moss beds. Lovely. And oh, the lichen! ‘nuf said.
On mountaintop #2 there was a cairn that we were told to walk around 3 times but I swore at it instead and carried on. Coming down the mountain the grasses were so high I found myself once again restrained from any full tilt running for fear of falling. Our next aid station was toward the bottom of the grassy slope, a father and son with tent set and horses off grazing and horse meat boiling in the pot. a quick water refill and now there is only a 10k to go. Shit. I’m already at the end of the 5th hour. I’d wanted to do this race in 5.5 hours. Now I’d be lucky for 7 hours. But the hill leveled out, the trail turned to road and off we went, Dee kicked it in and was gone within minutes. I was demoralized. But she is a regular 3:30 marathon runner and my personal best is 3:45, ahem, 10 years ago. I took a few walk breaks in the last 10k but trudged along knowing it would be over sooner if I kept hitting it as hard as I could. The camp doctor came riding up on a mountain bike within the last 2k and asked how I was. I told him I was chewed up but that it still wasn’t anywhere near child birth.
Crossing the finish line there are bodies strewn about, various 100k folks resting before heading back out. But where is Dee? I ask the race director, Angie, and she says, “no, no Dee. In fact, I think you’re the first woman across the line for the 42k.” Ever so chill, or unimpressed. What?! First? That is not right. Dee should be here. Then I get worried that her ankles have fallen off and she’s in a ditch somewhere. We cluck about for a while until a horseman is radioed to look for her and along she comes, 50 minutes after me, having taken a wrong turn. She is super angry. Meanwhile Miss-didn’t-train-it-wasn’t-so-hard has come in at #2. Dee gets #3 and curses herself for not waiting for slow poke me, human GPS.
Of course, there are many more stories to tell.