My ultra trip to China was everything it promised to be and more. The preparation for a 400km (250 mile) race is as gruelling as the race itself.
Everything about this journey was big, from the preparation, the travel, the organisation, to every step of the race itself, which I saw as the final segment.
China is magnificent. But to talk about China generally would be offensive to the sheer enormity, diversity and generosity this country personally and physically offered me. I was delighted to be invited back to compete in this epic race. It's a journey along the ancient Silk Road, linking east to west in trade, which this race epitomised with its select but very competitive elite field combining athletes from all over the world.
With every ultra race the preparation - starting with your training, your nutrition and then equipment to a lesser or greater extent - is large. But venturing into the relative unknown of a 400km race across inhospitable terrain in a harsh environment that batters you with knife-edged winds and temperatures ranging between -15 and 35 degrees, then chuck in some self-navigation, mandatory equipment and a plethora of other variables, and you begin to realise the enormity of the task ahead.
I tend to compartmentalise my preparation, beginning with my training and nutrition and then moving onto the other factors. If I didn't, I would become psyched out before I start. There are certain things that are constant and easy. Core to every race:
- My shoes: Skecher G0Trail Ultra
- My socks: Wigwam TrailTrax
- My shorts: X Bionic summerlight shorts
- My base layer: Team Beta Running Craft top
These constants removed one variable. It's basic equipment, but vital. This can make or break your race. One simple blister, one little bit of chaffing, can go out control and ruin your race. Personally, I think I was more stressed out organising myself for this journey than the race itself, including the training. But my mind was set. Disappointingly, I wasn’t able to make the start line last year but I was fortunate enough to be invited this year to begin this journey again and, despite big races in the interim, including another England international at 100km, this was to be my A race in the long term.
The training phases in preparation were not perfect but there were some highlights against some significant lows. A course record on the XNRG Round the Island 70-miler against the back drop of two withdrawals due to illness led to some uncertainty. However, my final phase of training and testing was positive and frankly enjoyable. As I got over the final hurdle of my equipment and kit preparation, I boarded the plane to China with excitement but trepidation of the epic challenge ahead. I had several nutrition plans and also Gold, Silver and Bronze targets for the race itself.
'All of my targets for this race were intrinsic'
One can be drawn into extrinsic targets for normal races but in a race of this magnitude with so many uncertainties, setting extrinsic goals based on time and position would be self-sacrificing, and almost a set up for failure. The only competition you have in a race like this is yourself. If that can be measured, tempered and conquered then everything else will fall into place. One of the best pieces of advice I was given in preparation for the race, was that the journey doesn’t start until the final 100km - maybe even later. I took this into my heart and head and set about three main targets:
Bronze: Reach the finish line
Significantly, we were invited to forward a finish line song to be heard on our arrival at the line - an incentive in itself. My choice: Homecoming by Kanye West feat. Chris Martin. I love the song anyway as it's on my pre-race playlist but hadn’t realised its name until searching for a song. It was made for finishing, IF I made it there. On another level we were gifted half a Tiger Tally, the other half to be given and in presentation WHEN we made the finish line.
Silver: To stay in control as long as possible.
As long as I was in control I was able to make the decisions for myself and not have them forced upon me, either through pace, nutrition or rest.
Gold: To be competitive.
If the other goals fell into place, mentally and physically, I was confident I could be competitive to some degree. I hoped my natural tactical nous and experience would help me be competitive in the overall standings. But I needed to control the controllables.
The race itself was special: 400km (412.9km to be precise) that started with the route master Xuanzang - a Buddhist Linguist who left for India 14 centuries ago along the Silk Road to bring back Sutras for translation. While I hoped my journey wouldn’t take the 17 years he took, it was an adventure into the unknown where sleep deprivation, extreme mental and physical fatigue, and unpredictable environment and navigation were just some of the variables to contend with.
'We were sent on our way with a rapturous roar, fireworks and the beating of giant drums'
We started to Vangelis' epic anthem Conquest of Paradise - a complete paradox to the serenity and solitude of the deeper moments of the race. For first few miles in the midnight hour, already experiencing sleep deprivation, you were put in a false sense of security. Surrounded by the lights of headtorches with relatively solid gravel and firm tracks across clear plains, it was relatively easy going. Many lights disappeared into the distance. Did it concern me? Yes and no. No matter what your strategy is, vast numbers of runners disappearing into the distance is always disconcerting, especially when you know you want to be competitive. But my experience always reassures me, and inevitably these fast starters come back as I get stronger. But another aspect was in play. I had had some stomach issues which had blighted around 8 runners in the community and this had also made me go off with caution, reassuringly forcing me to stay on my early plan. I was in control and stuck to my strategy. The demon inside still asks you questions. This was an elite field of experienced runners, have I got this wrong? But you must be strong in thought and will.
Sharing the early hours on and off with top American ultra distance runner and World 100km silver medallist Mike Wardian, meant the first 6-8 hours passed quite quickly. Mutually, we were both having gastro issues, but I was actually happy with my moving time and speed. Slowly, I would pass runners and the going on the terrain was reasonable until we hit the first round of environmental battering this race would throw up. Rock solid tussocks, with sharp thistles surrounded the miles ahead and navigating your way through this section, alongside the route itself was a challenge.
Now this is where the race really sets you up. You fight your way through this topographical barrier but are led into another false sense of security:
'That’s got to be the toughest bit…'
You tell yourself these things. But like a boxer, sighing with relief after getting through a challenging round, there is only another round the corner. Another. Another, and then another. The diversity was immense. Mountains, tussocks, canyons, sand dunes, razor sharp bushes, salt plains, mounds, and at least 1500m and up to 3600m above sea level (above 10,000 feet).
The environment was beautiful, amazing and awe-inspiring, but challenging. It throws up a range of emotions: despair, anger, frustration, delusion - but paradoxically: elation, exhilaration and such serene peace. A dichotomy of emotions. You form a love-hate relationship as you begin to see the terrain and environment as an enemy to your movement. The challenge is to keep fighting and not succumb to the knockout blow. I yelled, screamed and one occasion cried into the night, flushing out the weakness inside of me and calling upon my strength to carry me through.
After the first 8-10 hours, you are on your own. You see people at the rest stations or check points as the field stretches out, and the serenity and realisation you are in this battle alone dawns on you. At each check point between 10-15km kind volunteers check you in and top up your water bottles. At the race stations every 30-50km you have access to your drop boxes which had food or equipment you had prepped in advance, but also hot and cold water, medics and an army of volunteers who couldn’t do enough for you. These become your lifeline, breaking the race into segments and achievable goals. Here you could rest, sleep, get treatment, but the clock is ticking. My strategy was to get myself sorted nutritionally, prepare in terms of kit for the environment ahead (hot or cold) and iron out any creases if I needed to. Sleep? It is hard to say how long I slept in total in the race. I lay down for four hours in total. But I know for sure I didn’t sleep completely in the two segments which made that total as I clock-watched and shivered with my legs and feet throbbing. But just the change of position from vertical to horizontal did wonders for the legs and while it was agony to get up to get moving again, the muscles and brain soon got you back on track.
'My base kit became almost as much a part of me as my own skin'
In terms of shoes and socks, runners changed en-route. I had prepared changes for the race but also trusted my Wigwam socks and Skechers GoTrail Ultra for the whole route. Either way I didn't dare take my shoes off, and while it was an epic challenge to take tights on and off over my shoes, my feet were protected the whole way. Like all my base kit, they became almost a part of me. The extra kit I took on and off was in response to the environment, but my base kit became almost as much a part of me as my own skin, and I felt any disruption to this fine balance physically and psychological would disrupt this almost meditative running state I was in. I do not advocate running through hotspots and not changing if you have an overt issue. But as I didn’t really have any significant issues, I didn't dare upset the fine balance. As the advice says: if you have to ask yourself a question three times regarding a problem, that's the time to sort it. This was not an issue luckily for me, and I praise my high quality gear for this.
My feet did burn. Whenever I stopped at a race station the early steps on leaving it felt like I was walking on razor blades. But this owed to the sheer brutally rocky, stony, soft, hot, wet and battering terrain. It soon passed and the attention you had to pay to navigate the route, either passing over a gorge on hands and knees or skirting around, almost proved a worthwhile distraction from any pain.
The final 100km were remarkable. At ¾ of the way you could start to sense the finish line, but this is where Ultra Gobi really starts to chew you up mentally and physically. I was told beforehand that the race wouldn’t begin until the last 100km. I envisaged this being to do with pacing, fatigue and tactics. While I had moved up the field to between third and second as I battled with great competitor Nicola Bassi from Italy, it was actually the terrain which would dictate the fight. Though sore and tired, I was in control. I'd achieved my own silver goal, and I was moving into achieving my gold, but this is where the Ultra Gobi throws a series of sucker punches. The mountain pass to 3600m went as expected but the next sections of dunes, tussocks and canyons were a fight as the disparity between navigation, and fluidity of moving forward became a challenge as the environment did everything it could to try to stop you running: stopping you in your tracks, throwing you onto all fours, and tipping you onto your backside endlessly. I fought into the night. The shadow of dunes, canyon tops, and tussocks played with your already tired mind and gave rise to delusion. I had thoughts of moving along a sandy track with my children by my side, and wading my way through bushes and tussocks led by an unknown, faceless woman. You know these are not real. When you reflect, even immediately, you know they have not happened. You're in such a heightened emotional and fatigued state and these are the most bizarre thoughts and sensations.
'I wanted that finish line. I longed for it. I wanted my song'
I didn't intend on staying long at the last rest station. I wanted to complete this not only for myself and my supporters, but also for the volunteers who had helped me on my way. I must say I flew the last 30km. The route was almost kind - almost encouraging you on, pushing you to move quickly - and this energised me. My hollow, empty, heavy legs became rejuvenated. My hips and pelvis lifted. My arms and pack felt lighter. I almost felt like this sheer beast of route that fought to knock me out was now carrying me to the finish. I felt as good as at any point on the route. It was light and getting hot but as the finish line neared I knew I would make it.
Greeted by fireworks, banging drums, and a crowd of cheering supporters, Kayne West's Homecoming blasted out of the speakers. I carried the British flag with pride over the line, tagging European 24 hour Champion and good friend Dan Lawson who had won the race and came out to support me.
'After 82 hours, I could finally stop running'
It was a strange feeling crossing the line. Every outcome was amazing: 3rd place podium, and over 10 hours under the previous record. You would think an overwhelming sense of happiness would take over you, but it was almost like I was desensitised - empty of all thought and emotion. Maybe a combination of fatigue, mentally and physically, and sense of relief had taken over. Relief at not having to concentrate any longer, navigating, the route, your body. You were almost empty of feeling. It wasn’t until back in the hotel room, before I prised off my kit, that the emotion and sheer enormity of the challenge completed hit me when I read some messages from home.
Bronze, Silver and Gold goals were achieved but the journey didn’t end there. Supporting the next runners in over the next hours and days, a trip to the hospital, a drip, x-rays, and then the highlight of supporting the volunteers as they ran their own special race even my crutches wouldn’t stop me missing!
Racing 400km around a track would be challenging enough. But along a self-navigated route in uncertain, inhospitable conditions throws up other challenges. Neither is easier or harder, but the challenge is in the moment. To have conquered this one I have learnt so much more about myself, personally, physically and mentally. This has filled me with confidence for my ultra-running journey ahead particularly in 24 hour running and the mountains where my future targets lay. I am excited by the future, but maybe need a little rest first. It is great when your kit, nutrition and organisation falls into place and, in a race which throws up so many variables, controlling these aspects helps significantly.
China is wonderful. It was my second visit and my second race, but a completely different cultural experience. This is a country of such diversity and excitement and a country I will visit again and race in. My next stop is the Corredors 24 hour in Barcelona: a track race which throws up its own variables but one whose challenges I embrace rather than fear.
Nathan Montague holds a number of UK and international multiday and single stage course records, and has over 10 years' experience coaching and supporting other athletes. He's also a member of our new XNRG coaching team - find out more about coaching >
Follow Nathan on Twitter @Ultramonty