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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
of the ger no. 9
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