This desert race is so tough that many runners suffer hallucinations. But those who are not worried by imaginary giraffes and laughing mountains are free to push their limits on the Ultra Trail of the Gobi. The role model for all runners in this race is a monk who crossed the world’s windiest desert 1,400 years ago.
Xuanzang’s backpack weighed heavy on his shoulders as he traveled westwards. There was no comfortable, lightweight outdoor gear in those days. The Chinese monk carried a heavy construction made of bamboo canes on his back – the usual form of travel baggage about 1,400 years ago. But the weight was the least of his worries – the mission that lay ahead of him was much more challenging. Xuanzang was on his way to India to find the source of Buddhist teachings. In AD 629 this was a daring undertaking, particularly since Chinese Emperor Taizong of Tang had forbidden anyone to leave the country without permission. Undeterred, Xuanzang set off without a visa, taking the Silk Road from the Chinese province of Gansu, through what is now Nepal, to India and back again. His return, bearing a number of Buddhist texts and relics, was triumphant – but at no point was it certain. On the way, he was arrested by border guards, attacked by robbers on more than one occasion, and almost buried by an avalanche. Another of the tests that he survived – and one of the most dangerous – was crossing the Gobi Desert. This was a journey into the unknown.
Today, even Google Maps can trace no paths along the route that Xuanzang, the backpacker monk, once took. His journey lasted 17 years. His Great Tang Records on the Western Regions are an invaluable resource for modern-day researchers and have even helped archaeologists identify ancient sites. Reason enough, then, to commemorate this pilgrim pioneer. And what better way to do so than with an ultra run across the Gobi Desert, of which Xuanzang wrote, “When it is hot, the heat sears you like a flame; when it is cold, the wind cuts your flesh like a knife”? Since 2015, ultra runners have been able to see what it is like for themselves – on the Ultra Trail of the Gobi in China. The Chinese name for the “Ultra Gobi” translates as “Eight Hundred Li of Flowing Sands – the Route of Xuanzang”, where one Chinese “li” is equivalent to 500 meters, making the trail 400 kilometers long.
The race is limited to fifty participants, but sometimes does not even attract this number because the Ultra Gobi sets the bar high even for experienced ultra runners. They have to survive 400 kilometers in the desert, battling temperatures that can fall to -20°C at night and rise to 30°C during the day. Then there are savage winds and even heavy snowstorms. It’s not for nothing that the Gobi Desert is known as the world’s windiest desert. It sounds tough. But there’s more: The participants have to take care of almost everything themselves, including their food and finding their own way through this hostile landscape. The only navigation assistance provided by the organizers is a list of checkpoint coordinates. There are no course markings and no paths or dirt tracks. What about signposts? No, that’s something else the monk would not have had when he set out. “Navigation is simple,” the organizers say. “Most of the routes through the desert are straight lines, but it’s important that participants know how to use the GPS device. In the past, many runners arrived thinking they would simply be able to follow the trail, and of course, they went the wrong way.”
As if this wasn’t enough, the run is also advertised as a non-stop race, with a time limit of 150 hours. There are checkpoints every 40 kilometers, where runners can drop off food supplies in advance to cut down on the weight they have to carry. There is also a tent with beds – but runners are only allowed to sleep there for a maximum of one hour. Then it’s time to move on. However, provided they follow the correct route, the runners will come across a water station every 15 kilometers – a luxury not available to Xuanzang.
The race starts at midnight. The runners gather in front of the ruins of Suoyang City, a Silk Road settlement founded over 2,000 years ago. It is dark and the temperature may already be ten degrees below zero or colder, but that’s a minor inconvenience. What matters here is running, whatever the circumstances – past dried-up riverbeds, ravines and mountains. For 400 kilometers, the participants are left pretty much to their own devices. Most of the time they are completely alone in what seems like an endless expanse of desert. This is a feeling Dan Lawson knows well. The British runner won the Gobi Ultra 2017 in a record time of under 71 hours, beating the previous record by 21 hours. “I think a genius designed the course,” Lawson said in an interview with the South China Morning Post following his victory. “You work out the best route, and then you are presented with a new section, a new puzzle.” Lawson loves this kind of challenge. For him, the hardest thing is “using your mind for navigation, when you are exhausted and losing it.” The race not only demands a huge amount of physical strength, but also, and above all, mental stamina. Running 400 kilometers and sleeping for no more than an hour every 40 kilometers has a big psychological impact. And Dan Lawson slept for less than an hour – in total. “I was hallucinating,” he says. “The rock formations in the desert turned into faces, contorting, turning around to look at me. Every bush became an elephant or a giraffe and the gravel under my feet started flowing like the sea.” But Lawson was not fooled. He knew that it was all in his head. “Of course you still get scared,” he says, “You know that you start losing touch with reality, but it’s interesting, like watching TV.” So Lawson simply carried on running – the protagonist in his own personal movie. Like Xuanzang all those years ago. The difference being that there was no winners’ podium waiting for the Buddhist monk when he returned. He probably just took off his bamboo backpack and sat down to meditate.