Come to Mongolia they said! It will be a laugh they said! You will enjoy it they said!…
100 miles, on a frozen lake, in northern Mongolia – by any means. A RatRace “bucketlist” trip.
My friend Marcus Liddiard told me about the RatRace site so we sat down over a beer and decided that the Mongol100 was about as much adventure as we could pack into just over a week of work/kids/life. So we signed up. A 100 mile race by foot, ice skating or cycling over four days in the wilds of Mongolia with the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25.
We put in around five months of intense and dedicated research and purchasing of shiny new high tech kit. The type of kit heroes wear as they conquer unexplored lands or claim victorious new records. Training consisted of some dark, damp runs slowly building up distance (just not nearly enough). I even grew a beard to stave off the cold! We were ready.
Marcus and I set off from Jersey to London to Moscow to Ullannbator to Muran to a camp by the lake.
On the flight from Moscow, I got talking to Geoff whose business card read: “Geoff Hill – Author and Adventurer,” so I knew we were heading in the right direction. He was traveling to Mongolia to write a piece about a motorbike trip he was doing somewhere in the north of the country.
Unfortunately my bags (and 4 others) did not arrive in Ullan Bator. We were assured they would turn up, but just in case, I was advised to look for some more appropriate footwear. I had travelled in jeans and a pair of brogues. In an emergency, most of the other kit could be rounded up, but borrowing some size 13 footwear would be an issue. We found a department store in UB with lots of big name brands so I thought I’d grab a pair of running shoes. The unfortunate thing about the diminutive Mongolian stature is that they apparently never, ever, have feet bigger than a size 11. With my luggage lost in transit all I had for race equipment was my Fastpack 25… which I “carried-on” fortunately!
We arrived at the camp at the southern point of the lake Hovsgol. The scenery was beautiful, the air was cold and crisp. We had started our adventure.
The first night we began to meet people. Lots of nice, ordinary people. A mixed bag from all walks of life. Some athletes, some adventurers, and like me, some soft office workers. All walks of life.
The next day, to much relief, the missing bags turned up as promised. Four big bags full of that shiny new adventuring kit… Four? That meant someone’s was missing. Which meant my adventure had taken a bit of a turn. 100 miles in a pair of brogues and jeans wasn’t quite what I had in mind. The good news was that the kit was still on its way and would “probably” turn up the following day. No worries.
We drove up the lake to the start line (the race ran north to south the length of the lake) and it began to dawn on us that running 100 miles was a bloody long way. Hours of driving and in the distance was an island. That was camp 2 which meant that there was lots more driving. In the build up to the race I hadn’t really given a huge amount of thought to the distance other than its a long way. But when you have flat open space and look to the horizon as far as the eye can see it became somewhat intimidating.
We got to camp in the north and got to know people a little better. Turns out the ordinary people I had met were a little less ordinary than I had first assumed. Forbesie, who described the most interesting thing about herself as having very small ears is actually a Lynx helicopter pilot. Mickey – as well as being the sharpest wit known to man, was also the founder and CEO of the Bonanza Peanut Butter empire (other brands are available – just not as good apparently). Steph, who has an amazing full body tattoo, used to be an analyst in the city, runs a successful clothing business, and is the best example of why you should never judge a book by its cover, I have ever met. Everyone on the trip was interesting in so many different ways. The one common thread was that they all had a lust for life and wanted a bit of adventure.
In camp I spoke to Jim (founder of RatRace) who broke the news – my bag was not going to turn up. I was racing in the kit I had and that was when those ordinary people became quite extraordinary.
The word got around of my missing luggage and people started to come up to me to offer clothing, kit, food… People who I had just met and didn’t know from a bar of soap were offering me their clothing and equipment. The weather on the lake is extreme and people brought their kit to deal with the discomfort of the environment. Giving it up meant they were placing themselves in a worse off position and they did it in a heartbeat. It was truly amazing. Michael, a quiet giant of a man, summed it up plainly and simply when I tried (badly) to express my gratitude; “they wouldn’t offer it, if they didn’t want you to have it”. “Want” you to have it. That was the extraordinary thing about the group of people on the event. Everyone was desperate for everyone else to have a great time. No egos or attitudes just a bunch of people wanting to be in the wilds and do something different with like minded people.
Race briefing that night for me was intense. It was when the penny finally dropped that I was about to start a 100 mile running race in a pair of jeans and some old leather brogues. I had a serious discussion with Jim about safety and we went through my newly borrowed gear together to ensure I’d be safe and warm. The main issue was my feet. I didn’t know if my shoes would be warm enough on the ice. Uncomfortable? Possibly, but if they were too cold there was a risk of frostbite which would essentially mean the end of the event for me. I targeted stage 1 (the 10km mark) as my new goal for the trip. If I made that I would be happy enough.
Marcus was an absolute legend through the drama – he lent me various items of equipment and importantly, a full set of thermals. He was constantly positive. I would not have made the start line without him.
The start of the race was all about nervous energy, excitement and hugs. Lots and lots of hugs. Genuine well wishes from new friends excited about the days ahead. We were off.
I ran with Marcus and Forbesie for a few kilometers but like the song says; these boots were made for walking. Not running. We made it to stage one and the good news was that my feet were warm and toastie. Again, loaned gear to the rescue, Kerry had given me a pair of his cold weather socks which had saved the day.
And so it was for all of us – one foot after the other until you reached the next, much loved stage checkpoint. Warm tea, more hugs and the legendary RatRace pit-stop bars.
Camp at night was stories around the fire, tales of ice and the cold and the magnificent feats of the day. The organisation behind the event was supreme. Logistics were flawless – Dave and Phil from Sandbaggers even managed to have a rolling bar each night complete with beer and G&T. They can only be described as “double hard bastards” who have seen and done it all but their constant good humor and words of encouragement were a real lift. They could have so easily commented that we should get on with it or speed up but they just kept smiling and let everyone to go at their own pace. They were perfect.
The ice and the landscape was mind-blowing. Ever changing “big sky” country.
Highs along the way included randomly bumping into Geoff the adventurer who took me for a quick spin on his on his Royal Enfield, everyone getting cheered into camp at the end of each day and at my very lowest moment (stage 3 day 3) – I had sore feet, was struggling and pretty much spent. The camera boys, Leo and James pulled up next to me in their van, wound down the window and James gave me a steely look before pressing play… Northern Mongolia, on a frozen lake – listening to NWA’s “Straight outta Compton” pumping from the stereo! I started running again.
James (a seriously competitive runner) gave words of advice: “it’s all in the head.” Never a truer word spoken. When I shuffled across the line on the fourth day I had completed the event and felt over the moon.
As it progressed (for me anyway) it turned from a race to an adventure. The format of 100 miles on ice was in no way diminished (it is a great event) but it seemed to become more of an enabler for the real adventure which was about being in a wild place, the interactions with people and the experience of it all rather than simply getting from A to B in a certain time. Whether that was sharing a bit of a tear on the news of Mark becoming a grandad, being woken up by the “fire fairies” as they stoked the fire in the wee hours of a freezing night or just learning that Michael hasn’t eaten an Indian takeaway in 20 years. It was all an adventure.
I expected it to all be about a race when in fact it became all about the people and comradery of doing something amazing.
Thanks so much to all who were on the trip and those who organised the whole thing.
Come to Mongolia they said…and it was extraordinary.