Race Report

Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset 2011
13th annual Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset, August 2011

Race Report by Karen Reimann

Thursday morning, 4th of August, 8am. The first shafts of sunlight shine on beautiful Lake Hovsgol. The runners’ camp at the lakeshore awakens, and the runners – both men and women, 42km and 100km finishers, are on their way to breakfast. The way from the cosy Mongolian gers to the breakfast room seems to be stonier and longer than the days before. The legs of the runners ache, the blisters on their feet hurt, their knees and their muscles are sore. The 45 athletes hobble like 90-year olds. And though, every single one of them wears a big smile on the face. The 13th annual Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset – the worlds most beautiful 100km run – was a blast. What a race! What breathtaking scenery! What a fun crowd!

But from the beginning… Every year anew, it is a great pleasure to welcome adventure seeking runners from all over the world in the most pristine mountain region of Mongolia, not far from the Siberian border. 16 nationalities – from New Zealand and Australia to the USA, from Japan and Singapore to Switzerland, France, Austria, Denmark and Croatia all the way to China: The Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset family is global! Among the runners in 2011 were true adventurers. For example Marc from Switzerland, who travels by bike through Mongolia every year to attend the Sunrise to Sunset race. He accumulated no less than 17’000km on the bike in all provinces of Mongolia, taking thousands of fascinating pictures (thanks for the impressive slideshow, Marc!). Or Rebecca from Boston, running seven marathons on seven continents in seven months; “Doc Ben”, coming right from Mount McKinley in Alaska, or co-organizer Zvoni, who recently ran the “Maasai Ultra Marathon” in Kenya. This list could go on forever.

The international group of adventure loving people is one thing that makes the Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset (MS2S) race so special. Another is the breathtaking scenery. As in 2010, the weather was perfect during the whole race week. Stunning wildflowers, the crystal clear (and very cold!) Lake Hovsgol, the dark green woods, the beautiful Chichee pass, the steep downhill sections, the mossy forests, the stony riverbeds and the horse trails along the lake – no question, this IS the worlds most beautiful 100km run. And there is a third thing that makes the Sunrise to Sunset unique: the fantastic support of the locals. Be it the horsemen, overlooking the course and watching the runners, the aid station people or the many helpers in the camp – cooks, waitresses, shoe-sole-gluers (Bernhard is still thankful!).

The days before the race were not only used for acclimatizing to the altitude of 1’600 meters above sea level. Runners enjoyed everything this beautiful place has to offer: horseback riding, fishing, mountain biking, a canoe trip on the lake, a walk in the forests. A group of especially motivated participants set out to a mountain hike two days before the race, expecting a five hour trip, according to the information of Mount McKinley experienced Ben. Nine hours, 1’600 meter altitude difference and approximately 34 blisters later, eight of initially 18 people (ten had turned around after a couple of hours) finally made it back into the camp. Extreme preparation for an extreme race!

Race day came. At three in the morning (or better: in the middle of the night), all participants woke up by the sound of Mongolian folk music…the start of a magical day. After breakfast, last preparations and the check of all race items, runners gathered outside at the starting flag to count the last minutes down. The sky was clear with hundreds of shining stars, indicating beautiful weather for the whole race day. And the air temperature was warm enough for some runners to start out in T-Shirts. At 4:30am, with big applause and great expectations, the race started. Equipped with torches, the runners entered the dark forest for the first two kilometres. In the twelve years before, no injury happened on the uphill, downhill or forest tracks of Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset. Sadly, we cannot claim this for 2011. Andrea from Switzerland tripped over a root, injuring her ankle. Race doctors Ben and Martin were there within minutes and helped Andrea back to the camp, where they made a plaster for her and provided medicine. What an unfortunate race start! Courageous Andrea did not despair, a couple of hours later she already said: “I’ll be back next year to finish my race!” We hope you get well soon, and we are looking forward to see you next year, Andrea!

From the very beginning of the race, it became clear that one athlete was running in his own category. German-Japanese Timo, attacking right after 2km, ran alone most of his race (well, not exactly true: dog Sticky accompanied him for quite some time!), finishing first on 42km (4:48) and winning the 100km in spectacular 10:55 – the second best 100km time in MS2S history. In 2005, Gregory Feucht finished the 100km in stunning 10:33, setting the course record. Timo was running for the charity organization Shoe4Africa (check out www.shoe4africa.org). French jokester Jean finished second, after walking the last 30km due to knee problems (14:29). The passionate cross country skier Roberto from Italy, Andrea’s boyfriend, finished first in the 42km category (5:05). Second fastest marathon runner was Bernhard, whose luggage did not arrive until race day. He ran with Zvoni’s old shoes – soles glued by helpful Mongolian friends, as mentioned above.

The first 42km, in other years often a bit marshy and wet, were as dry as never before. Great to run! Views from Chichee pass were spectacular as every year – all the way to the Siberian mountains. All in all, we had perfect running conditions.

The fastest woman on 42km was Aussie Karen (7:19), followed by Monami from Tokyo (7:40). Zenia from Denmark ranked first in the 100km category with the great time of 14:52, Nicola from UK finished second (16:26). Among the veterans, Swiss Walter won the 42km race with a time of 5:52 (which would have been the third place in 42km overall!), and Christopher was the fastest veteran over 100km (16:21).

We have listed the fastest three runners of each category below – congrats to all of you, you did an amazing job!
For those of you who follow the projects that are funded by the MS2S and by your consistent donations over the years, here is a summary of our progress:

  • ecoLeap continues to organize 100% of the garbage collection in the Hovsgul National park (840,000 hectares, bigger than Yellowstone park!), and we have renewed the agreement with Seina, who operates the service for Eco-Leap.
  • We have been increasing the ecological awareness-building activities in the Hovsgul National park, and especially heartwarming successes include the various activities we run at the local schools in Hatgal.
  • ecoLeap is continuing to organize the innovative garbage bag distribution program at the main gate of the national park.The bags have ecological messages on them, as well as instructions that all packaging and other garbage brought in to the park must be carried out by each tourist in the provided bags.
  • ecoLeap is pursing the difficult project to engineer a renewable energy system for a ger (yurt) to avoid the necessity to burn coal for warmth in the winter. Dirty coal burning in the ger districts of UB is the largest contributor to smog and carbon emissions in Mongolia, and is a huge and worrying problem.

Thanks to Kwok Wing, Monami, Marco and Steen additional 2’500 USD could be raised for the Hovsgol Litter project!

The party after race day was great. Especially heart warming was the moment when runners handed over brand new school bags to local Mongolian kids, funded by ecoLeap. After the winners’ ceremony, the participants celebrated until early in the morning at a campfire at the shore of Lake Hovsgol. Sore feet? Who cares!

Thanks everyone for a fantastic week and all the unforgettable memories.

All the best and warm regards,
MS2S Team –
Angie, Tyler, Nicolas, Chris, David, Steen, Shuree, Puji, Erke and Zvoni!

100km Men
1. Timo Meyer 10:55
2. Jean Magnol 14:29
3. Gus Murray 14:52

42km Men
1. Roberto Cagnati 5:05
2. Bernhard Hagen 5:30
3. Steen Holck 5:52

100km Women
1. Zenia Inselmann 14:52
2. Nicola Ogilvie 16:26
3. Sam Caroline 16:57

42km Women
1. Karen Reimann 7:19
2. Monami Yui 7:40
3. Rebecca Frechette 7:42

100km Men Veterans
1. Christopher Miller 16:21
2. Bowen McLean 17:02

42km Men Veterans
1. Walter Herzog 5:52
2. Marc Progin 6:17
3. Nicolas Musy 6:52

Race Report by Karen Reimann

"The most beautiful 100km race in the world" is the claim of the race organisers and although I haven’t done them all to compare, I think it is hard to argue with.

Lake Hovsgol in Northern Mongolia is the venue for this unique 100km and 42km race which has been held annually for the past 13 years.

The journey to the race venue began at Ulaanbaatar airport, sussing out others in the departure area wondering - are they a runner? Once all runners and supporters (55 all up) were gathered in one place we were given race-briefing packs including our travel group and departure times. Then we made a short flight to Murun (or Moron) airport which was being renovated - so unfortunately there were no toilets and no shop to stock up on chocolate - just in case there was none at the camp.

Piling into some old Russian vehicles we were presented with a slight problem - there didn't seem to be enough seats for the number of people. After some reshuffling, with me contemplating a night at Moron airport with no bathroom and no chocolate, we got everyone in and continued the journey. The roads in Mongolia are an interesting concept - not really roads, rather numerous tracks all seemingly heading in the same direction. This allowed a bit of good old fashion racing between the drivers trying to beat the next vehicle to the junction in the paths. Fun - except that we were driving on angles that did not seem to be physically possible without turning the vehicle over. So after 3 hours of gripping on to anything available, and hoping they guy sitting beside me didn't throw up (he was looking a little green) we arrived at Camp Toilogt.

It was dinnertime when we arrived so we all went straight into the dining hall to get some food and instructions for the camp. We also found the bar - which we proceeded to drink dry on subsequent nights.

One of the first things to be pointed out was there was no power at the camp. A generator was turned on between 9 and 11 o’clock each night – which meant no ice for the beers and a rush each evening to charge phones and cameras!

After being told the generator was being turned off - same as lights on in any bar - we finally made our way to our traditional Mongolian Ger which was to be our home for the next week. It was a 4 bed Ger to share with my cousin Lisa who had come from Townsville to support me and also volunteer at the race, another Australian and an American girl who was part way through her quest to run 7 marathons in 7 continents in 7 days. It was nice and cosy with a campfire burning and the promise of a "Ger Keeper" coming back each morning and afternoon to keep the fire going.

Waking up early - still on Australian time - I headed out for a short run to test the body and also do some exploring, remembering of course to take my camera. After contemplating tackling the woods I decide to stick to the roads - getting lost on the first day would have been slightly embarrassing.

I had thought the altitude wouldn't be much of a factor but it didn't take long before I realised my puffing and panting at a relatively slow pace wasn't due to a week of no running. The scenery was enough to take my mind off it and stopping to take a few photos along the way didn't hurt either. When running back to camp I spotted another figure in the distance and fell in beside him to jog and chat. This was one of the many characters I would meet in this trip who had an interesting story to tell. Jamie, a British lad, had won the event a few years ago and was back to give it another go. He met his wife (who is from Mongolia) the last time he was here - she won the marathon event in the same year. He had also ridden his bike from Ulaanbaatar - taking him 6 days to arrive late the night before.

Some of the group checked out the first part of the course in the early afternoon and with Zvonimir, a race veteran and also one of the organising committee, as our guide got a great introduction to the race.

The next few days were spent lazing around camp, canoeing and bike riding while others were taken on a nice "short" trek which ended up lasting 9 hours! We were also treated to a traditional Mongolian music performance, including ‘throat singing’ by music students who were working at the camp. I also was given a quick lesson on how to use my compass - just in case - and also an interesting Northern Hemisphere astronomy lesson.  It was great to slowly get to know everyone else in camp who were there either to do the race, support someone in the race, or assist organising the race - like the doctors and translators.

We were all given a once over by the Doc to see if we needed keeping any eye on during the race. If so, they send a horseman along with you - just in case! Race day was Wednesday so on Tuesday night the camp was deserted by 10 o’clock.

We were woken at 3am to the sound of traditional Mongolian music being played by the music students wandering around past each Ger. With excitement in the air everyone dressed, checked their race gear and went to the dining hall for breakfast. We had a check of the mandatory race items and all of a sudden we were being ushered to the start. A few photos and then the countdown began.

We set off at a fairly steady pace, as the first section is through a wooded area with plenty of tree roots to trip over in the pre-dawn darkness. Headlamps lead the way and there were lots of shouts of "root" and "horse poo" to keep the mood light.

Coming out of the woods the sun was just starting to peak through and a nice flat road allowed me to stretch out the legs and see how the body felt. This is when I started to notice some pain in my foot, but I hoped it just needed warming up, so pressed on. I rounded the bend to see the sun coming up over the lake and was compelled to stop for a photo. I was not the only one and after a few snaps we took off again. This was when I knew it was going to be a long day out for me, as my foot was giving me pain so severe that it made me consider stopping and getting a ride back to camp. I had come a long way to do this race though and still held out hope that it would somehow come good, so I pressed on.

A great group of people started to form with everyone passing each other and then catching up again as the run / walk method was employed by a lot of people. I spent most of my time with Chris and Gary, both from Melbourne, who had come to race the 42km but were quickly persuaded into signing on for the 100km - as were a number of others. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing.

A quick stop at the first aid station and we were on to the first big hill. I picked up a stick to help me up the hill and the views managed to take my mind off the pain for a while. They were amazing! The photos and videos don't capture how breathtaking the view from the top of the first real hill at Chichee Pass (2,300m) was.

Seeing I was struggling with my foot, Chris gave me his walking poles to use to get down the other side of the hill. It was a steep downhill with plenty of rocks around to keep you on your toes - literally.

Aid station two was a welcome sight and while it was tempting to stop for a while I felt I had to keep moving to keep my foot warm so just grabbed some water and an apple and kept going. I had given Chris his walking poles back, and paid for it pretty quickly. The others caught up and with the poles in my hands again I tried to stick with the group heading through some nice fairly flat areas using the poles like crutches. When Bo, a Kiwi living in Perth, asked how I was still keeping on going with the pain - which I thought I was hiding it pretty well - I realised I wasn't even looking like I was running any more. We came to some really rocky sections where I just couldn't stay with the others as the pain in my foot was making it slow going over the rocks so I wished everyone luck and with a pole that Chris had left behind for me I started walking on my own.

I almost missed the start of the second hill up to Khirvesteg Pass but a horseman called out to me and got me back on track. The second hill was tough! It was shorter than the first but much steeper. It was also in a forest area and you had to concentrate to make sure you didn't miss any markers and wander off track. It was also starting to get warm and stopping to take off some layers bought with it a pack of flies. Luckily I had my iPod with me so I cranked up the tunes to keep my mind off the increasing pain in my foot, and the distance I knew I still needed to cover.

Reaching the top gave another breathtaking view that made you stop and take a look around. The downhill was tricky but would have been fantastic to run down. It was steep and grassy with hidden rocks everywhere but made you want to just let loose and fly. Unfortunately that wasn't going to be possible for me and I seriously considered going down bottom first but thought that was cheating in some way, so kept moving slowly down with my pole as a crutch.

Halfway down the hill were two locals manning a water station. They wanted to look at my watch and after some discussion kept looking up the hill behind me for other runners. I figured this meant I had better keep moving so set off after a refill.

Once off the hill it was relatively flat the rest of the way back to camp, which was both fantastic and frustrating at the same time. It was perfect running terrain but I was just managing a limp. On the road back to camp Jamie overtook me. He had been pretty sick all morning and felt he was only just getting into a groove so kept moving. I also ran into some tourists taking photos who stopped and cheered me on and came out to the road to hand me some flowers, giving me a much needed boost.

Six kilometres to go in the marathon and I was limping along at a steady enough pace, having resigned myself to the fact that today was not going to be the day I finished my first 100km race. I made sure I stopped and took photos and videos to try and capture the scenery.

Coming into camp at the finish of the 42km was bittersweet. It was great to have finished the marathon but it was hard not to try and go back out again to attempt the 100km. I knew I couldn't keep going though so gave the walking pole back to Chris as he and Gary were about to head back out of camp to tackle the next 58km (they ended up running a PB over 100km) and went down to the lake to ice my foot. I was glad to have the Doc on hand to get some fantastic painkillers!

Lucky there was phone reception at camp so I could send a message to Lisa to tell her I wasn't going to make it to her aid station and to give out anything I had left in my drop bag to the other runners - even my coke. Lisa had diligently gone out to the 76km aid station as this is where I thought I would need the pick up the most....

The rest of the day was spent cheering everyone on as they came through the 42km and headed back out again, finished at the 42km or finished the 100km. There were long gaps between runners but the excitement of someone finishing their race never died down. German-Japanese runner Timo Meyer won the 100km race in 10:55 - the second best time in race history. When the last runner, Annabel from Australia, came through after darkness had fallen, everyone at camp was there to cheer her through.

So I didn't reach my goal but was rewarded with a first place for the female marathon. Now the only question is - do I go back next year to finish the 100km? That is of course after I recover from the stress fracture in my foot that was diagnosed once I got back to Australia.

Take a look at the Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset website www.ultramongolia.com if you want to read more about the race and the conservation projects it supports. If you are inspired to give it a try get in quick - there are only 100 spots available for next year's race.

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