'It's at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys'.
Emil Zatopek
I've never been to Russia. 

I don't suppose that transit through Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO), Moscow really counts as a visit. 
Apparently, it's 2879.55 miles from SVO to ULN (Chinggis Khan International Airport), Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I was flying there to compete in the Gobi Challenge. Similar to the Marathon des Sables (MdS) it is a multi-day, ultra-distance run across the Gobi Desert where competitors have to carry all of their equipment for the period of the race.

I had met Keith during the MdS, we had bunked in a room together pre and post event and shared what became Tent 88 with some other UK lunatics, eight of us all together.

It was all Keith's fault; he suggested we went out to Mongolia and run the event and, having nothing in the diary, it seemed like a good thing to do.
So, some of the old MdS Tent 88 crew got together and formed 'The Fellowship of the Burning Ring'. Keith, Rhys, Stuart, Owen, myself and Paul (an honorary member, a Brit living in the USA).

Here's how the Fellowship came to be; one of the MdS Tent 88 members was Owen, a GP. Having a doctor in your tent is like winning the lottery. Having already completed one previous MdS I knew the crack (so to speak).

In an adjacent tent to ours on the MdS was a Japanese contingent, proudly flying the flag of their nation.

It's not really a tent but a Berber shelter. Usually made from camel or goat hair ours was old material coffee bags stitched together, with two sides. 

I should also mention that the MdS is a linear race and the tents are moved each day from the overnight camp to the next day finish. We were always near the Japanese.

After a couple of days running sand began to cause some chaffing in some unexpected regions. Having Owen on hand it seemed logical that I ask his opinion on the area in question. The soreness was likened to the Japanese flag, round and very red, a burning ring of fire. Just like the Johnny Cash song it became a hit in our tent, and a standing joke. The Fellowship was born.

The Fellowship members converged on Ulaanbaatar from the UK and USA to join other competitors from China, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Mongolia.

We had an opportunity to look around UB before flying south. The capital city with a population of over one million is the hub of the country. It is at an elevation of 1300m (4,300ft) in the valley of the Tuul River.

It was quite surreal to wander down a street and hear Beatles' music playing in a small square. I guess the Mongolians were huge fans, as we discovered a monument to the Fab 4.

A monument to the Fab 4 in Ulaanbaatar

From UB we were scheduled on an internal flight to Dalanzagdad in the south, towards China. There was a slight problem when we arrived at the airport to board; the baggage allowance for the internal flight was considerably less that that of our inbound international one. Some last-minute manoeuvres saw us either wearing a lot more clothing or packing the carry-on to its max to successfully board the flight.

There was one thing that had become very obvious on the flight from Moscow, and the internal one. Mongolia had a great deal of nothingness, the huge landmass of the Mongolian Steppe where temperatures can range from -40 to +40. The Mongolians are a very hardy people and according to 2010 figures 96% Mongols, 3% Kazakhs and 1% others.

Dalanzagdad is 540 miles south of UB at 1470m (4,823ft). Thankfully a new tarmacadam runway was built in 2007 to replace the gravel one.
We transferred to our camp near the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains. We were to be self-sufficient during the six-day race but would be provided with hot/boiling water for our freeze-dried food. However, on the first night Pietro, a competitor, cooked pasta for everyone which we had with olive oil, it was delicious.

We had an acclimatisation stage on the first day, circular, back to camp. There were some steep hills but I was determined to maintain a steady pace and 'bed' myself in, it had been a long and tiring journey just to get here.

The Gobi Challenge is modelled very much like the MdS. It is multi-day, in this case six, covering 150 miles and each competitor has to be self-sufficient during that time, carrying all their equipment. The only help you receive is water at check-points and at the end of the day's stage.

Lightness of kit is important so everything needs a purpose. Food, day snacks and energy gels are packed into day rations which are opened each morning to ensure that sufficient calories are consumed, nothing is carried that does not have a purpose. Blisters, muscle fatigue, sweat/abrasion rashes and dehydration are the common ailments. The temperature was around +35C so it took its toll on some of the runners.

Yolyn Am is a deep and narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikan Mountains and is known for its ice field, which sometimes remains throughout the year. We ran through the gorge, which narrows considerably at its southern end, and thankfully the ice field wasn't present.

The event route (red). The border with China (yellow). We ran west to Khongoryn Els.

Day 2 saw the route head westwards through the Gurvan Saikan Mountains. We ran through some spectacular scenery, with steep sided gorges through mountains reaching up to 2825m (9,268ft). Running through the gorges meant that we had some respite from the sun and heat but you had to be careful placing your feet, a trip here would see the end of one's race. 

Owen and Paul (USA) were slim, athletic younger men and maintained a good pace. I followed in third, sometimes alternating places with the Mongolian runner Bardjargal, who was the Mongolian Marathon Champion.
Tents were erected for us so we could arrive at camp and not have to start erecting them ourselves after a full day's running. Two camps were in spectacular gorges but the sun still found the tents, which were like furnaces when we finally arrived at the end of the day. 

It was very much the case on arrival at camp of rest and repair, tending to sores and looking after feet, rehydrating and having some food. There was, sometimes, quite a time difference between early and later finishers and we would either stand and welcome them to camp or go out and encourage them to the finish. There is always a great comradeship in events such as this. It is hard both mentally and physically and that mutual support is needed to get through. I believe someone once said, 'Ultra-distance running is 90% mental effort, the rest is in your head'.

I had completed two MdS' before so thought myself mentally prepared for this event, or so I believed!

Day 3 saw us emerge from the mountains and begin the slog on the vast, seemingly never-ending Steppe. It was raining a little when we started but that soon changed to full sun and 40C. It was twenty-seven miles of semi-desert with not much scenery and keeping focused was sometimes difficult. I seem to have a metronome in my head and able to keep a steady pace throughout the day, with the occasional 'blip' every now and again.
The long road west Start of Day 3 Check-Point

Day 4 saw us continue on the Steppe with the mountains to the north. It was the rocky surface again so whilst flat you had to be careful not to land awkwardly and risk injury, so it required concentration. After several miles in high temperatures concentration began to wane and I had a few near misses, placing my feet on small rocks and twisting ankles, but nothing too serious. I was still exchanging positions with Bardjargal but felt good, and confident.

Camp on Day 4 saw us head north slightly, towards the mountains. Route finding around a wadi became difficult and having reached camp we went back out to guide others 'home'. 

Whilst not as sandy as the MdS the route nonetheless allowed grit (and sand) into running shoes. I had devised the use of lycra cycling overshoes which fully enclosed my running shoes and were a tight fit around my ankles. They lasted about two to three days but being very light I could carry three pairs without noticing. They proved invaluable when we arrived at the dunes.

Day 5 was the precursor to the 'big' dunes and a tough day. ​​​​​​​
Whilst the higher dunes of Khongoryn Els would feature tomorrow, today saw us start to enter what is an elongated area of dune.

Bardjargal was trying to catch me and I was determined he wouldn't.

Khongoryn Els extend to over 965 square kilometres (373 sq. mi.) are 6 to 12 km wide and over 100km long. They rise to a height of 80m (260ft) but a maximum height at apex can be 300m (980ft).

We arrived at some of the lower dunes today, those of us who had completed the MdS found these more challenging.

Things were beginning to break. Prior to the dunes we had some hours of Steppe to run and navigate. I was starting to suffer from fatigue but conscious that I wanted to stay ahead of the Mongolian, and another runner Ryan was visible in the distance. At one point I caught Owen and Paul but found it impossible to sustain their pace.

I remember I was asked what music I had been running to. It was Toto and Africa. I remember striding to the beat and at one point almost dancing across the desert. There were definite moments of high and low!

Apart from being very tired I was holding up, physically, fairly well, with no major injuries but mentally it was beginning to become a challenge.

Rhys began to suffer during the day, pushing himself on all the time. It took tremendous effort and courage. The quote at the beginning really says it all. He ended up in a support vehicle with IV fluids being administered to replace the lost water, sugars and salt that the effort had taken out of him. I believe the early intervention put in by Owen prevented permanent damage.

At the end of Day 5 we camped in view of the big dunes, and they looked huge, daunting, but that didn't stop the desire to conquer them.

Day 6 Final Stage - Khongoryn Els.
We set off running from camp towards the dunes and as I got nearer they got bigger and bigger.
You simply arrive at the bottom, across grassed Steppe, stride onto the sand and start climbing. Because they are so large trying to find a route to the ridge is difficult and you can easily end up in a sand scoop and struggle to get out. To compound matters the sand was so hot you could not put your hands out to stabilise yourself without burning them, and because it was so steep you had no choice!

I managed to reach the first ridge and 'ran' along this. I could see the checkpoint flag way in the distance and much higher than I currently was. It was difficult to try and stay on a ridge so as not to loose height or start sliding down one of the sides. I planned my route and eventually made it to the checkpoint.
I have to say that throughout the various runs I have completed I cannot remember feeling as exhausted as when I arrived at the flag. I took a few moments to gather myself and then headed off for the finish. Unfortunately, this meant running some distance on the final ridge before descending back down to the Steppe. I can vividly recall feeling dizzy and faint through exhaustion as I struggled to retain my balance on the ridge. I remember thinking that if I fall now and tumble down the side I am not going back up, both physically and mentally it would have been impossible.

I followed the route and made it successfully down to the grassy Steppe. It was not too far to the camp and the finish but I had no energy remaining. I was handed water at a checkpoint at the bottom which gave me some strength and I ran into camp to cross the line. I simply collapsed behind a support vehicle to try and find some cooler shade.

It was over.

We had some warm beer later and a goat was cooked. After eating freeze-dried food for six days it tasted wonderful. I shared some kidney with the event doctor Orshikh and it was superb.

We bedded down for the night, or collapsed. A huge day's physical effort, a beer and some goat ensured I was asleep before my head hit the desert floor.

We travelled overland to Dalanzagdad stopping for refreshments at a roadside house for Buuz (Mongolian dumpling with fatty mutton).

Back in DLZ we had a night of celebrations. We felt obliged to rehydrate on local beer and eat a great deal of wonderful food before presentations were made. ​​​​​​​
I'm OK - Honest!
I'm OK - Honest!
Ger Camp
Ger Camp
Paul (2nd)-Owen (1st)-Me (3rd)
Paul (2nd)-Owen (1st)-Me (3rd)
From DLZ we flew back to UB and had a further, final, celebration - with pizza!

Then the return journey via Moscow to the UK. I told Keith not to have any further bright ideas!
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