When I awoke on the morning of Stage 4, lacing my shoes up was just about the last thing I wanted to do. These multi-day races are a unique beast. You experience the high's and low's of racing each day, but that can also be transposed to the week. Having just passed the halfway point, I was struggling with motivating myself to continue. However, this would be the last of the shorter stages leading up to the long march to come in Stage 5. That's the test in the stage race. Can you keep pushing day after day after day after....you get the idea. The days terrain looked challenging, but one that I felt would be rather fast-paced.
As we set-off from camp, we traversed a long and open rock-strewn plain before beginning the long and steady ascent out of the valley we had descended into the previous day. As the front of the pack began to partition itself, I found myself on pace with Davide, one-half of the very strong Italian pair that I had been near all week. We pushed together, with rarely a glimpse of any other racers in sight. Sometimes tiptoeing up the ascents, sometimes hands-on-knees, we pressed on at a strong but honest pace until we reached the jeep track that marked the half and beginning of yet another brutal downhill finish. We relaxed the legs and hips and let the hill do the work as we shot like bullets down the uneven dirt road. As we quickly descended, the temperatures began to soar, then skyrocketed once we had reached the final leg of tarmac that would carry us close to our days destination. With legs shattered, I could only concentrate on maintaining my posture and planting my feet, knowing the end was near. The brutalizing part of the day was the final 5km which took us off the blazing tarmac and onto an endlessly straight dirt path. With signs of life ahead, I eventually came upon the very well-hidden Camp 5, thankful to have knocked out another day and ready to tackle the challenge to come.
Stage 5: The Long March. 75km of grueling ups and downs, and all at altitude. After covering roughly 100 miles over the previous 4 days, you have to have some gas left in the tank because this is where one can either make or break their race. I had somehow retained my 3rd overall position, though by a slim margin. The 4th position was only 2+ minutes behind and coming on strong. The stage would be roughly two ascents, separated by an extensive downhill section. The first ascent would cover the first 40km, while its descent would last ~15km before we tackled the 2nd ascent of ~12km. The final 8km would be a gutting downhill shot to the finish.
I set off from Camp 5 in the company of Alex, an extremely strong runner hailing from Hong Kong who I had raced with in South America the previous year. I knew Alex to be particularly strong on the ascents and was hoping to try to pace off of him for the stage. Plus, Alex is just a really nice guy and a pleasure to run with! Excited to have a partner for the day, we plodded through the early hours together, always climbing. 75% of the ascent leading up to the first summit was what we trail runners call "douche-grade" climbing. This means that the terrain is uphill, but runnable. Unfortunately, after 3 hours of this it leaves your legs utterly wasted. Grinding out the long ascent, we wound high into the mountain pass, only speed hiking up the most vertical portions. Just before the final summit push to CP 4, the temp plummeted and we were soon being pelted by ice. Wearing almost nothing, I quickly lost most of my conserved heat and could feel my core temp rapidly dropping. While Alex had wisely donned his jacket before the weather hit, I had not. As my core temp spiraled downward, Alex began to make a strong push up the final and daunting ascent to CP 4 and the halfway point. Feeling on the verge of hypothermia, I stopped to remove my pack and quickly zip into my very lightweight jacket. In the few moments it took me to cover myself, my hands completely froze up. My attempts to re-buckle my race pack seemed for naught. After what seemed ages, I was able to secure my gear and press on upward, little to no feeling left in my hands. Alex had long passed out of sight, so I slogged up the summit face alone and into CP 4.
With no recourse but to press onward, I sped from the checkpoint with the massive downhill section at my feet. Losing altitude quickly, I soon regained the function of my hands and could feel my body slowly warming. I barreled down the descent with purpose, in hopes of regaining my lost ground. Soon, I was upon CP 6 and the start of the second ascent. From the checkpoint, I skirted several homesteads that had been carved into the mountain, as the goat track began to lead me higher and higher into the alpine pass. Gaining altitude quickly, I found myself at the point where my only thoughts were on the small bit of real estate just in front of my feet. To look upward at the climb to come was demoralizing. Several times I wanted to veer off of the track and into the evergreen-studded landscape of this beautiful valley, to plonk down on a rock and take in my surroundings, but my path was clear and the finish line called. Machining out the final ascent with hands-on-knees climbing, I was finally upon CP 7 and the last leg of the days journey.
I rolled through the checkpoint with purpose and began the quad-crushing final section, but not before taking a moment to breathe in the spectacular summit view of Lake Sayram. Truly an amazing site and I'm thankful to be one of the very few racers that was able to experience it. After taking a minor spill along the rocky downhill track, I veered onto the open grass plain that skirted the lake, the camp just in sight. Crossing the line alone (in 8th position for the day) but to the cheers of our ground team, I was hustled into the medical tent to warm-up and receive the news that the stage had been halted due to the extreme weather passing through the area. I was to be transported via 4x4 to a local yurt camp, where I would join those that had already finished and the remaining competitors that were being pulled from the course. As it happened, I was to be 1 of only 9 runners that would complete the days distance. Thankful for the heavy fleece blanket from medical, I was ushered into a 4x4 with the 9th place finisher and quickly en route.
For the next day and a half, we held up at the yurt village that lay just off the banks of Lake Sayram. Thankful for the warmth our new hut provided, I lay in my outmatched sleeping bag and tried to regain myself, enjoy the comradery of my fellow racers, and recover for the final stage. Though many who had been pulled from the course were upset that their race had been cut short, I fully believe that the RTP directors made the wise and safe choice. With extreme weather having moved into the higher elevations and the guarantee of further and prolonged exposure, it was a difficult but necessary decision. My body was coming down off of its racing high and I could now feel how shattered I had become. Getting up to limp to the bathroom seemed a monumental task. We laughed and joked and carried-on, some enjoying the comforts provided by the nearby market, well...maybe a bit too much. Ha!
Stage 6 would be the finale to the week and an absolute lung-burner of a run. The last 14km would take us up from our village, traverse the side of the looming peaks, then slam us down to the shore of Lake Sayram and the race's finish. I set-off from camp sore, but ready to defeat this last section, get my medal, and enjoy the elation that inevitably comes when finishing these huge efforts. Alex, Joe (the 4th place Australian runner), and I set off at a shake-out pace, then began to build until we were moving at a considerable clip, the altitude making it feel as if someone was pouring acid down my lungs. Cursing the cruel joke of having us climb on the final leg, we pressed our pace until we could see the finish at the bottom of the traverse. We congratulated each other and blasted down the descent, happy that the end was near. Crossing the finish line was an amazing feeling, the culmination to a very hard fought week. I ditched the pack, snagged a soda and some warm food, and joined the closing celebration. Many of the locals had turned out and it was quite a scene: traditional dancers, Mongolian wrestlers, an impromptu dance party...we had it all!
For me, there is always a mixture of emotions at the final finish. I'm relieved and excited to be done, but can also feel the sadness setting in that the race has come and gone. So much work and prep goes into getting to the starting line and the effort it takes to complete the race is huge...and it's all over. However, I choose to look at these times like this: the completion of one challenge is simply a prelude to the next. It's a journey and the end is not here. Not by a longshot. Breathe in the experience and take it with you to the next. I was fortunate to meet my goal for the Gobi March and finish in the Top 5 (I finished in the 5th position). I was also blessed to have won my age group (30-39 years). I'm very proud of both of those accomplishments, but they pale in comparison to the experience of sharing the trail with so many incredibly original and diverse individuals during the week. Each experience helps me see the world in a slightly different and better light, and that experience is what really keeps drawing me back to these races. I look forward to what awaits me in the future and hope that this incredible journey won't ever end.
In closing, I wish to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who sustains and carries me through these races and through life (Psalms 121: 1-2). Thank you to Special Olympics for allowing me to be an Ambassador for their incredible organization. Thank you to my sponsors, Nature's Bakery and Swiftwick, for helping me achieve my goals and for allowing me to represent them on the international stage. Thank you to Racing the Planet, its staff, volunteers, and medical support for an incredible event. Congratulations to all of the competitors (especially Tent #6)...it was an incredible week! I dedicate this race to the memory of my father, Frederick Meredith, who never got to see me compete, but who is always with me as I run. Remember: LIVE YOUR ADVENTURES AND KEEP THE FAITH - LIFE IS A GIFT BEST LIVED BOLDLY. Thanks for reading!