2006 Ultramongolia Sunrise to Sunset 100KM race
An “Inside Report” by Marc Progin

It was 4.28 in this morning of 28 June 2006; but not yet a day as dawn, laying somewhere beyond the horizons, was still asleep under a blanket of darkness. The night, in its queen’s wraps of deep blue velvet was ruling the land and the sky of Mongolia.
About thirty, perhaps forty shadowy figures, merged silhouettes in the distance that one could have mistaken for ghosts or spirits, were waiting for the start of a running competition of no less than 100 km that the novices would describe as an insane project, so difficult it looked with 3 passes and well over 3000m. of difference in height, but that the most enduring runners, well-versed on the long distance management, feared only for the mud that was covering some portions of the course. Occasional heavy downpours had showered the area in the weeks prior to the event and the permafrost had maintained in the forests, here and there swampy ground on the top of its ice.
Having reached Camp Toilogt just in time, 3 days earlier, I had only recovered a few grams of the 7 kg that I had lost along a 3525 km bike journey,
a splendid odyssey that had carried me, from East to West, across the entire southern part of the Gobi, over the mighty Altaï range, through the golden deserts of Zavkhan before turning North to end up in the Siberian greens of the Tayga forests. Out of a 41 days voyage I had spent 33 on the bike, another five, let me say a mere nothing, trying to rest and to restore to life my body dead cells, and another four wandering in the deserts of Dzungaria when, having lost sight of the trail erased by sandstorms, my compass was leading me to sand dunes and desolate mountains that the van of my support team could not surmount.
More precisely, 17 days of exhausting face to face meetings with gale force sand, snow, rain and wind storms or, to partially complete the account and the record, 75 mountain passes, some easy, others huge, all in between 1600 and 3600 meters in altitude with comfortable temperatures ranging between –15 and + 35 C. In all, a physical love affair with the desert that had required just a tiny bit of adventurous spirit, and am encounter, in the loneliness of its emptiness, with my deep inner self. A rewarding experience for my soul, but a physical kind of treat for my body, that could have done without it, to get ready for that 100K running race. Humanly tired out, having gone to the extremes by exceeding my distance limits and the rhythm of my progression, I had given a second thought to the necessity of adding that 100K to my “holiday program”.

Three days of rest seemed like an eternity for someone who had moved on trails for more than a month, daily, cycling anything between 10 and 15 hours, but in fact nothing for a sexagenarian so skinny, bony and dry that a simple gentle breeze could have blown him… apart! Although more than fit with a network of dense muscles built up along the bike journey, never was I so carelessly prepared to run seriously such a distance. Almost constantly running for 14 hours has nothing to do with the same amount of time spent touring on a bike. Although timing was not of real importance, I would have hated myself to go for a 24 hours stroll !
Those were the reasons why, on the one hand – some would call me stubborn – I finally decided… to take part to the competition, on the other to run the whole course without the body, but with my head only ! Witchcraft, one would call, of course, that only idiots or donkeys would believe in, but a kind of a magical expertise that, at the end of the race some would call the know how of a shaman !
It was now 4h29…
Amongst the best behind the line there was Nino, a winemaker but not drinker, from Italy, in his thirties, who had run 42 km. marathons in 2h45 in previous years. Several Mongols who, as locals, were at ease in the altitude, knowing almost every tree along the treacherous course of their homeland, and proud to the end to stand firm while battling a foreign invasion. One of them, Tumur Batnyam, a ranger of this splendid, dramatically beautiful, Hovsgol national park where the race was held, in fact as dramatic as the race could easily turn,…Tumur with the hotheadedness of his youth, was the clear favourite, as a previous winner who had blitzed the course in record times.
More intriguing was Heinrich Adamski who, would you believe had motor cycled for some months 10.000km all the way from Germany, and was bound to return across Siberia and Russia, the same way and in time, in order not be fired by his boss ! A short but sturdy built 100k regular and lover, an all smile happy runner, could he be the surprise of the day ?
Well, there was another possible winner ! A third time participant, Jamie Roberts of England, who, I suspect, would soon become a local as he fell madly in love with the magnificence of the country and the genuine simplicity of its nomads; apart from his achievement and fitness, his enthusiasm and pugnacity could well carry him all the way to a victorious lap of honour…of a 2nd 100K in a row after that one!

There were more enthusiasts from other countries, America, Singapore, China, Finland, Holland, and elsewhere, and who could do well, but perhaps on the shorter distances, by stopping at 42k mark and being classified in the marathon ranking.

Also not to be forgotten, an Irish, a Great Dane and a New Zealander who, not exactly firm favourite of the race, were perhaps anticipating an ensuing post race beer massage as, I was told, is usual practice in their own countries; an Aussie, part of the race organization and competitive enough not only to have run that course several times but to have achieved third, and, otherwise, master of yoga techniques who, apart from his ability to fly the course while in transcendence, was smart and flexible enough to practice within the space of a kangaroo pocket; another Swiss, a perennial participant as race director, who had never gave up but was somehow always a bit short in the second part of the course.

Not to be missed on that list, the ladies ! Sarah, Alex, Nanda, Suri, Caroline, Suvdmaa, and more, who were, perhaps, not contenders for an overall win, but determined, strong and above all, serious enough not to dream or to fall - having not much spare time along the way -…deliciously, into the hands of wandering big bad wolves…Rumours telling of the ones haunting the European forests and hiding, naked under raincoats, had not migrated yet as far as Mongolia. Should that fact sadden and discourage animal lovers to further participations, the undersigned certifies that, in Mongolia, love will instantly strike those who know how to love with their heart. They would need to turn up with a great heart as out there, nature is beautiful everywhere.

More participants to pay attention to, those who, during the leisurely days leading to the race, had publicly admitted that they could only worry their mum or their wife…Those would be promised painful memories apart from enjoying milking yaks when dehydrated, plucking daisies and pausing in awe in front the panoramas ! Anyway, there was hope for everyone, as the surrounding forests could provide enough wood to carve crutches to support the post race remains of all these courageous athletes.
As all participants, female or male, knew there were no lipstick, makeup or… mirror for arrogant runners provided at aid stations, the field, I must admit, was a fairly serious one…

To summarize: as in every race, and to put everyone on the same level, all had excuses not to win ! Fitness, pains here and there, age, were all acceptable and fine excuses from a bunch of spirited runners who, prepared or not, were ready to have a go to enter into the legend of the Mongol folk stories, abundant in this country.
It was 4h30 and a five km. dark forest was just meters ahead. Who went in front who stayed at the back ? Who knows, it was so dark. Staying at the back ? What for ? Wisdom and caution, the path being so narrow, undulating around trees and over logs. But habit for any race, reveals that rabbits would dash first. Every year, that flight of enthusiasm was demonstrated by the Mongols who were usually not short of breath until the second part of the course.
Beams of torch lights were piercing darkness trying to uncover marshy ground, and among them, mine was leading and showing the way to a group of unknown followers. With the exception of one, all gradually lost ground and when I came out of the woods Mark Mc Bride, a brave young Scot who was on for the 42K race, sped past.
At that 5 K point, having woken up, almost yawning and stretching arms to the sky in delight I thought, Marc, you are on for another journey into space, where once again, while forgetting about who’s in front or at the back, you will soon have an exclusive encounter with yourself. Till sunset you will have time to work hard to gain your self-esteem by your own action. Forget your amour-propre that depends on other’s judgments. Ignore that unnecessary arbitration that could only lead you to the disillusionments that are pride and glory. Why flatter your ego and for whose eyes ? Run with your head and leave behind the physical aspects that are time and competitors.

I was in that state of mind, arguing with the dark side of my soul, when above the Hovsgol lakeshore, horizons lit and gradually turned brighter before a firework of sunrays set them ablaze. It must have been as beautiful as when, at the genesis of the world, the first light struck the earth !
Raw at the beginning, varying its wavelengths, second after second, light tinged its palette to turn its pure white into the sidereal colours of the blues, the yellows and the reds of a glorious dawn. The race, at that moment was a non-event and, for 10 minutes, should have been frozen, giving time to these athletes to take advantage of the dawn’s magnificence to flood their soul and, why not, shed a tear or two…
Sunken somewhere into the deep ocean trenches of the cosmos I had meanwhile reached the 12K mark where, as planned, I expected to load my backpack with plenty of water at the first aid station. Tables had been aligned along the path, but somehow 2k earlier! A kind of evidence that, physically, I was not there and a mistake that would soon prove to be painful! Was I really running on earth? Well, just to make sure while carrying forward I looked back, in a desperate search for the oasis that had sunk into oblivion and to confirm the body was still following. There it was, not really happy; in fact so annoyed that a lapse of concentration cost it a heavy fall when it stumbled on a bed of rock. So suddenly and awkwardly that it had not the time, nor the defensive reaction to extend its arms for protection. The direct chest impact on a spring less mattress made out of granite stones send me dreaming with a flying herd of stoned elephants. Contrary to those pachyderms I was not, at that moment, exactly in the pink… of condition. Stunned and the lungs folded as an accordion at rest, more precisely breathless, I had closed my eyes for a short sleep. Seconds or minutes elapsed, I am not quite sure, before a clear sound of pounding brought me back on the course just in time to see Nino, the Italian flag bearer, passing, without a word, focused, en route to the first climb. Being at the foot of the highest pass, bound to climb a steep 5 k to the summit, I had to think of something else than the pain that I was going to carry over the whole course and beyond until Hong Kong.
But anyway, for a keen runner the best could only follow: another 88 K !

Strangely, with the exception of a Mongol race officer, no one was in sight from the Chichee pass summit, neither behind or ahead. The ensuing technical downhill on its steep slopes was a real struggle for my untrained muscles, pushed to the limit in flexing and stretching, so intensively that at one point I was about to run in the same direction, but backward !
So tense I was that I started to shout loudly, in fact yelling: don’t let yourself down, no point to bask in the sun, there’s none, move on silly lazy lizard !
Invariably, remaining unruffled – you can whistle for it – was my body’s reply…
Down to the uneven flat, along a soaked trail moving on to the next mountain, tongue hanging out, I was at last in sight of fluid when spotting pools of water in the distance. But closing up to the source it looked more like a muddy tasteless cold chocolate than drinking water. Not being as desperate as a dehydrated camel braying in front of a Gobi dried well, I wisely opted to quench my thirst at the 25K station that was somewhere ahead in the woods. Despite the chilliness of that early morning the reception, I must admit, was quite warm as not hot, but boiling, tea flowed down my throat as volcano lava…But biscuits, tomatoes, potatoes and salt quickly swallowed cooled off that burning sensation. Then already set to head on for more adventure, after refuelling, with a last potato in the mouth I nearly suffocated when I was told to be in 3rd position ! Where could all those runners have been at that moment ? With the exception of Nino, no one had passed me, likewise I had not yet overtaken anyone! There was no news available, except the post race ones that in the meantime I had to guess. At least 2 were in front plus the fastest of the 42 K participants.
Had I misjudged my pace ? Being on the trail for just over 3 hours I was on time, to my surprise for a finish that was a mere…10 hours away. That gave me courage and without looking back I could only improve and perhaps enjoy, selfishly, a shower before the others…Selfishly, better say deservedly as I had none for 2 months washing head to feet in the Gobi, with just a spare litre of water per day!

As a sailor would shout enthusiastically from his look-out post : Land ho !
I murmured in delight: human ho ! The first man on this particular place on earth was in sight ! Yes, not far in the distance moving across a dried riverbed leading to the strenuous climb of the second pass. Not really afraid of me he could not be a primitive living in the wild; not even trying to escape in front of an alien he could only be a tired runner. As I crossed over and entered the thickness of the forest I could not really see who was there. But soon afterwards, when the slopes got really steep and were sparsely wooded I spotted not one but three runners sweating up over fallen trees. Settling for a much lower gear but on a steady pace I was on the summit at the 31K mark having left a trail…of devastation behind me as the perverse side of my imagination, fertile in this lush surrounding, had nailed and buried three coffins containing three runners…
Tumur who looked a pale shadow of his glorious past was in pain with stomach trouble and a knee injury. He would eventually make it to the 42 K to be classified in the marathon ranking together with the other two strugglers.
The race official posted at the Khirvesteg summit was all smiles while registering my bib number, with a thumbs up confirming I was in second position.
Down and after an eventless 11k I was back to the start where earlier Purevstsogt, a local, had won the men’s marathon in 4:46 followed by his compatriot Narmandakh 2 minutes behind with Mc Bride finishing third in 4:51.
Suvdmaa Ichinhorloo, also from Mongolia, had won the ladies’ for an amazing fifth time in 5:05 followed by Caroline Gagne of Canada in 5:08 and Suvi Seppala of Finland in third.
Just as I reached the canteen to look for fresh supplies Nino, the race leader, still looking good, was about to leave. I fell into the arms of race doctor Martin whose stethoscope searched thru back and chest for possible broken ribs that a subsequent check up in Hong Kong proved to be just slightly cracked.
Meanwhile ignoring the sad fact that no spare ribs were available on the menu, I had gobbled down in minutes whatever looked good to me. There were 58K left and I knew, being for the fifth time on the course, the real race was just about to begin. And real means the dramas that inevitably would unfold. Let’s move on to the battlefield where unwise strategies could waste raw energies.

Cheers from Angie the race director and locals sent me out.
But I was late, having spent nearly 10 minutes at the camp, a fact that perhaps played a psychological part in the race’s outcome, and gave a boost of confidence to Jamie Roberts. In third position, he was still well outside the camp when we crossed each other, but just in time to catch a glimpse of me that could give him hope to catch on later.
I had the same feeling when I saw in the wide and far open distance Nino about to reach the 55K aid station. This is where I got lost for the first time, opting for the course markings that were leading to the lake’s forests and returning to the camp instead of going up to the third pass. But eventually after 1k a horseman passing by sent me back on the trail.
Although quite gentle the climb is a test for all runners, whether fast or slow, and I knew that if I could run it all the way I would close in with the race leader.
Swerving alternatively thru fir tree forests, fields of grass and dry river beds the trail was now moving East, after a wide loop, towards the lake. On a stony cart track I was in sight of the 65K aid station where Nino was just about to leave. Was he rushing away urged by the sight of the old man closing in ? Did he take sufficient time to refuel properly ?
I was left to guess but my team of race advisers assembled in a extraordinary general meeting under my woolly hat, quite seasoned to those circumstances, pressed me for caution: when doubting others’ fitness, try to maintain the gap so that you are always in sight just to put the pressure on them. When there are still 3 to 4 hours to the finish, you’ll have plenty of time to get down to real business. Runners that are neck and neck, trying to exhaust each other in the hope that the opponent will give up is just a game, but a tough one, that you simply cannot afford to play ! Be patient.
However the choice of a wrong tactic would soon become obvious along the next 10 Km. It did not really concern the gap that I kept with Nino but the one that was narrowing between Jamie and me. Trying to play that smart game in maintaining the distance with the leader was a real energy saver but Jamie, spotting me in the distance started, I guess, to dream of the impossible. When one knows that the runner who is at the back or in front is dragging bones that are 20 or 25 years older, doesn’t he think granddad will soon or later be burn out ?
At 70K, in real pain, moving up a forest trail I felt I was dragged by a pair of forceps ! My body was suffering so much that he had returned in his mum’s tummy where the atmosphere was much softer and quieter. A foetus, that is what I was !
In other words, as I was half walking and running it was urgent to be in labour to come back to earth…
Although of a rare beauty, it was not exactly the time to stay in awe, while contemplating my navel… I had better to sever that umbilical cord that was keeping me, as on a leash, far from the finish line. In the course of my long and sometimes dog’s life I had been insulted as blissful ignorant, an idiot, a wash-out or of a worse kind but never a foetus !
Just as I was short of energy Nino, not far in the distance, came into sight. With his yellow bib number under his shaven head I had the impression, in front of me, of an egg sunny side up on a plate. A real booster and quite a temptation to enjoy a meal that was, however, still far from ready to be served.
I was slowly coming round to that idea when those wicked suggestions sent me, once again, rolling on the ground. I was so focused deep inside, seeing only fog in the outside that I had stumbled over roots. Probably at around 75K, that was the turning point of the competition. A well deserved one. On one hand Jamie Roberts had caught up with me, on the other hand, angry with my unnecessary stupid sort of game, I acquired the motivation to finish as quickly as possible.
That was when, amicably, I told Jamie he was just about to pass Nino. As he could not have seen him, he could hardly believe his luck. Then while I was urging him to win that race, he hurried up in front, all smiles, having made up his mind.
Minutes later at the 76K aid station I was told Jamie had left in first position. Having given him some pre race guidance on how to beat the laziness in himself I was curious of the result of his running escape. He did not disappoint me, as totally motivated and focused he would never look back.
But the worse and the drama were to come with a tough 12Km thru the ups and downs of a trail of roots and sometimes mud in the forests leading to the last check point.
With another 3 hours to go I ate to the point of feeling the energy flowing back thru my muscles and left full of confidence. The fourth runner, I was told, was so far that I could have enjoyed a 2 hours nap without any worry. But a minor task had to be addressed and on I sped towards the line that was just a mere 24 K away…
The issue, one could say the drama, came when I passed Nino somewhere around the 80 K. Definitely not fresh myself, I was however surprised when staring at him. He was sadly looking like nothing on earth ! So done and down that he would hardly be able, I thought, even with a slow walk, to reach for the finish line. But he made it and managed to stay third, walking with courage and together with a runner who had given up at the 55K check point.
Meanwhile England, with Jamie Roberts, recorded its first ever win in 12h41 and Switzerland its first runner-up ranking with Marc Progin in 13h10.
That was some good reason, at 61, to feel in the prime of my youth, whilst still leaving me with plenty of room for improvement!

Nino finished in 15h54, followed by Liau of Singapore in 16h31, Adamski of Germany in 17h00 and Ravinsky from USA in 17h15. More were still coming in until very late. Amongst them were the ladies with Sarah Booth of England winning in 18h03 followed by Nanda Griffion of the Netherlands in 18h52 and Alexandra Ruch of Germany in 22h20.

Another sunrise was waiting beyond the horizons when the last runners finally made it to the camp. By then, I had been for hours in bed, dreaming of the long promised shower that, somehow, did work for every runner except for that, perhaps, too “dirty” old man…called

Marc Progin of the ger no. 9

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