The good, the bad… and the fun

After telling you all about our experience, the time has come to give you an overview of what this race (and everything attached) might have in store for you. Virtually every person whom we have told about our project of running a trail marathon in the mountains of Northern Mongolia has reacted with (polite) scepticism: why would we want to choose such a remote place, let alone such a hard challenge, for our first steps as husband and wife? Why not choose to spend a fortnight on the beaches of Bali or in a luxury tourist resort on some African coast?

The answers are manifold, but can be perhaps summed up in one. We took a giant leap of faith, getting married and promising to ourselves that we would forever be together. It was only logical to take another little step in the direction of being brave and making the most of this unique opportunity and this very special time we have now. We feel extremely lucky and privileged. We can always go to Bali and join the scores of British pensioners on the safaris in Kenya, but honestly I had my doubts as to whether in ten years time, hopefully with some kids around, or in forty years time, probably with more than a few aches and pains if I continue to be so reckless, I’d be able to run a trail marathon (although after witnessing the incredible feats of our fellow runners in Mongolia, I am much more optimistic about my future running career for the long haul). The good news for you is that you don’t have to get married to run this race. Francesco wrote a beautiful post about the people we met there, and we were the only honeymoon couple there.

If you are interested, I hope this post will help you make up your mind as to whether this race is worth it. I promise I will not sugarcoat anything at all. Conversely, I hereby declare that it is my intention to point out all the things that I didn’t like, regardless of the fact that you might think I am a pain in the ass for complaining so much.

I am not a camping enthusiast. When I started dating Francesco, one of the first conditions I put was that we would never go on a camping vacation. This honeymoon of ours went dangerously close to it, but does not fall into that category because we did not have to set up our own tent and we technically had a bed. That said, do not expect a luxury accommodation. The tepies and gers all look very cute, but it rains inside – and it rained a lot during our week at the camp… In fact, we only had two dry days and luckily race day was one of them (until late at night, when the last 100k runners had to finish under the pouring rain).

The food – as already mentioned in my previous post – is very much the same all week: nothing to complain about, but if you don’t want to eat sandwiches every day you might want to bring some food from home (also, I think comfort food can go a long way when you find yourself in a new place and when the conditions aren’t always ideal). You will also have to bring warm clothes with you, as the temperatures rarely, if ever, go beyond 20 degrees, and the nights are cold (around 5 degrees). You can ask to have a fire made in your tepie/ger, but communication with the locals is very limited. Everyone will say “yes” and flash a giant smile, but rarely do things get done. For instance, we were told that we could have hot water (in a giant 2-litre thermos) in our tent any time, but whenever we asked we were reassured that they would bring the thermos, and most of the times it never materialised. There were basically three levels of (non)communication: we talked to the organisers, who talked to the people who managed the dining ger, who talked to the boys and girls who served the gers and the tepies of the guests.

The bathrooms and the showers are located in an autonomous building. The lavatories were clean, which I appreciated, but the showers have absolutely no pressure whatsoever and hot water is rarely available, which makes taking a shower very difficult, as it is usually not warm enough outside not to freeze to the bone. Considering that this is a camp for people who are training to run a marathon/100k and are pretty active, much could be improved. I am proud to say I managed to wash my hair three times over the week, mainly thanks to the above mentioned thermos of hot water, which I sneaked into the shower to have enough hot water to rinse the shampoo. On the plus side, there was a sauna available every day for 90 minutes for the ladies and 90 minutes for the men, which was nice, even though it wasn’t quite hot enough.

As for the leisure activities, we didn’t take part in too many, as our body was already struggling to adapt to the changes and we didn’t want to make things even harder before the marathon. Some participants took the opportunity to use the kayaks on the lake and do yoga, and we went on a horse riding 1-hour tour the afternoon after we ran the marathon. There is no wifi available at the camp, so we spent the rest of the time taking naps, walks, pictures, reading and writing. Getting to know the other runners and chatting with them over a cup of tea was perhaps the best part. It is so rare for people from so many walks of life to find themselves in the same place for so long and to be able to share a passion. Every one of us had a very different story to tell, but all were incredibly interesting.

The race really showed how selfless trail running is. Nobody was racing against the others. Instead, everybody was just trying to find out how to overcome the rough patches, when to push harder and when to slow down, when to tap into their mental resources and when to enjoy the scenery and stop to take pictures. At the same time, everybody was cheering for the others and encouraging them. It was truly moving to see how everybody was greeted at the finish line, regardless of their time or ranking.

The race itself went well (of course it did, we won! XD) but for some people it didn’t go as smoothly as they would have hoped. Some got lost or struggled to find the green marks that indicated the trail to follow – I was lucky enough to run with my very own hero, camel, and guide, aka my husband, who showed me the way, but not everybody could count on that. The aid stations were placed every 12 k for the 42 k distance, and then at the 55, 65, 76 and 88 k for the 100k distance. Before the race we were told that there would be drinking water for us to refill our bottles, but when we got to the second aid station we discovered that they only had hot water, so we had to carry on with what we had. There were no gels nor electrolytes or packaged foods that one could carry to have in between aid stations, so we ended up relying entirely on what we had brought. The runners who finished the 100k were very happy about the warm pumpkin soup they were served from the 55 k aid station on though.

I really liked the blue t-shirts that were given to all the finishers, even though the sizes were all wrong, as were the sizes of the technical white t-shirts that were given to the winners. Had I known, I would have bought one of the right size for 15 dollars… We also got very pretty medals: they are shaped in a little ball that recalls a traditional Mongolian badge of honour and are engraved with the shape of the two mountains we climbed and the distance (either 42 or 100). Our photographer’s pictures were also one of the best parts! It is great to run a marathon, but if you can’t prove it on Facebook it never happened 😉

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To Those That Made This Such A Special Adventure

This post goes to all the people that made our trip to Mongolia such a wonderful experience, all those that with a simple word, a kind smile or a long conversation left a mark in our honeymoon, making it an unforgettable adventure (PS: in this post, I won’t talk about the organisers of the race. They did a great job and deserve all our gratitude, but I want to focus on the other runners of our group. Thanks also to the organisers anyway!). You can have the most pristine and wild nature and location in the world, but if you are stuck with the wrong kind of people, well, it does not take much to turn seven days of adventure into a nightmare.

This wasn’t the case for us though: all our “partners in crime” over the last week proved to be one of the most interesting and entertaining bunch of people that we have ever met… It’s unbelievable if you think that technically speaking they were our “competitors”. It is indeed true that in trail running there are no competitors but yourself!

Photo by Enkhbat, Ms2s.org

We can start with John, an Irishman living in Singapore who came to Mongolia to celebrate his 40th birthday, started with the idea of finishing the 42k, and ended up winning the 100k, showing amazing determination whilst facing all challenges with a smile on his lips and the politeness of a Brit – even though he would never forgive us for defining him a Brit. The humility, kindness and determination of John will always be a source of inspiration.

Then there is Randy, a Canadian living in Japan with whom we did not speak much, but who became the main entertainer of the group in no time. His big-mouth lifted the spirit of everyone, even in the most dire situations, and he made each and every one of us laugh at least once, conquering the respect of everyone else in the camp.

Carolyn and Bruce were one of the other couples in our group: two Americans coming from the pancake-flat Illinois with the hobby of travelling and taking part in tough competitions that had hundreds of stories to tell, making us understand that exploring the world by doing sports can provide uncomparable emotions.

Another couple held high the colours of Poland. It was composed of Beata and Tomasz, who are probably the people boasting the highest number of “strange marathons” attended, including destinations such as Nepal or Teheran.

The day after our arrival to the camp, yet another couple joined the group, this time with a Croatian number plate: Jelena and Igor made their entrance on a motorbike that they had driven around over the last three months, ready to challenge the climbs of Mongolia with minimum training. Showing a great deal of courage and ability to always stay positive, Igor ended up completing the 100k in the direst weather conditions possibile, while Jelena closed the 42k with a wide smile, jumping with joy. (If you want to follow their adventure around Asia, take a look to their blog on FB, WheelsOnTheRun).

Photo by Enkhbat, Ms2s.org

Going from couples to trios, let’s spend some words for the South-African team composed by Warren, Tanya, and Clare. Starting with Warren, I’ll be always grateful to him for sharing with us the story of his worst trail-experience ever on the eve of the race: the emotions he conveyed in relating how despite all difficulties, accidents and problems it is always possible to come to the finish line, made me certain that we would finish also our race. And on race day, the way he just enjoyed the whole marathon is just the embodiement of trail running, selfies and pictures included. It is not by chance that he also organises trail runs in South Africa and we are already planning to pay him a visit sooner or later. Tanya and Clare are instead the most running- and hiking-enthusiast mom and daugher I’ve ever met in my life and the strength they give to each other can be felt just by looking at them. Just think that 22-year-old Clare completed all alone the 100k, the first in her life, coming in at the 42k mark only few minutes after Chiara and me and restarting from the camp only few minutes later, crossing her mum on her way out. When Tanya got to the finish line of the 42k and decided to stop there, I told her that her daughter had just left, fresh like a daisy, and she just replied with a smile “I know, she is 22”. Later in the evening, a storm hit the lake while Clare was on her last 10 or 20k, but her mum never worried too much, sure that Clare would able to keep safe and get to the finish line. After a while, she arrived, South African flag in her hand, a proud mum at her side…and still full of energy and smiles. Besides, the calmness and ability to listen that both have is so refreshing that we already look forward to meeting them again, on the trail or somewhere else.

And then there are many others: the trio coming from Japan, with Ando, Kato and Imai San, who I met in the sauna the day after the race and asked me “did you finish the 100k?” And I told him “No, I did the 42k with my wife”, to which he replied “Aaaaah, yes, family hour”. I will never forget it.

As I will never forget the determination and self-discipline of Hugo, who came all the way from El Salvador to complete his first 100k. His ability to stay focused on his goal while being so open, forthcoming and friendly with everyone is unbelievable and I wish that this will be just one of the successes that I’m sure lay in front of him.

Photo by Enkhbat, Ms2s.org

Then there are Paul, Robin, Naomi, Vladimir, Fang, Berend, Chao, Wendy, Hooi, Emmanuelle, Janie, Lewis (who could not finish the 100k because of a twisted knee but has already promised to come back to finish it), Jamie (who travels only by bike and train and came to Mongolia just to take part and finish the 100k…I guess he is a machine!), and Reanna and Bayannyam, who finished the 42k together even though none of them had never run more than 20 minutes in the park.

A special thanks goes also to Ben, the doctor, a huge Dane that took care of our health and mood with jokes, friendly conversations…and drinks.

Oh, I almost forgot Darya, the ladies’ winner of the 100k, a Russian skyrunner that for more than half of the race led the race, showing how much ladies can compete with men on longer distances. She did great and we cheered for her so much. After the race, with typical Russian spirit, she commented her performance by saying that “she did normal”, claiming that it was not such a big deal to finish a 100k race on the podium, doing better than most of the men… One can only hope that she will realize what she has done over the next weeks.

And finally there are also Stephen and Fiona, an Irish couple who did not take part in the race but stayed at the camp the same days we were there and, guess what, they live in Brussels! It seems that we had to travel for more than 8000 km to meet the neighbours, since they live only 20′ from our home… Currently they are continuing their journey in the Gobi desert, but we look forward to the day we can invite them over for dinner to see the pictures and hear the tales of their days in Mongolia.

So, this was it, a very long post to write down the names of those starring in our unforgettable honeymoon: to all of you goes our heartfelt thank you and the best wishes for your future, looking forward to the day our roads (or trails) will cross again.

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Where eagles (and marmots) dare

We have to leave soon because we are on a mission – eat at the only authentic North Korean restaurant that we are ever going to find (with all likelihood, but never say never). Update by Francesco: we couldn’t find it, so we decided to “defect” to South Korea…worth it, we found a nice spot at the end of Peace Avenue, with menus only in Mongolian and Korean. We do not know what we ate, but it was basically beef with rice…

But we wouldn’t leave you without an update. In a nutshell, today we went up and down a mountain. The most dangerous and adventurous part was definitely having to catch the bus to and from there (and buying the transport card). We felt much more like locals that way than if we had taken a taxi. We will publish the picture of the card needed to ride the bus, so you know what to look for if you need one. It is a prepaid magnetic card that you have to recharge at bus stops or bus stations. One ride costs 500 T and the same card works for more than one people if you wish so (tell the driver how many people you are)…then find a spot to sit very fast and brace for the ride!

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Once we got there, it was clear that there were no signals, no marked paths, no nothing, so we just went up the mountain where we could – and of course we happened to choose the rockiest, steepest way up. It took us more than half an hour to get to the top. It was less than 2.5 k, but with an elevation gain of about 500 m (we went up to 1.850ish metres). The way down was no easier, but Francesco enjoyed it better because he was able to spot not one, but two marmots (he’s the one into animals – and dinosaurs). I was able to spot the giant eagles who were flying alarmingly close to us (but they were probably after the marmots, not me with my blue tank top, or I wouldn’t be here writing). It is quite easy to navigate on these mountains: there are few trees so you can basically go wherever you want. There are many paths (marked with flags or bulks of rocks), but they can be very steep and not easy to follow. Anyway, the experience is mesmerising: plants, animals, nice views… If you wish to see the marmots (NB you can also taste them in a national dish, no kidding), head to the last part of our hike. There is a valley where the road ends and there will you find the marmots’ dens. By the way, the bus stops (we took no. 8) in what is still a working site. It looks like the authorities are trying to move people from yurtas (there are many of those in the outskirts of the city) to houses. Living conditions are pretty basic here, with cattle pasturing among yurtas, but there are markets, schools, and playgrounds.

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We also circled the traditional ovoos three times, anticlockwise, as instructed. It appears to bring good luck and we’ll definitely need plenty of it on Wednesday for our race – even though I bet Francesco is much more afraid for the internal flight we are taking tomorrow than the race itself. We are going to take it in few hours…looking forward to the second we touch ground again…

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Francesco took beautiful pictures so I’ll leave you with them.

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Interested in our hike? Here comes the map!


https://www.strava.com/activities/1105271183/embed/b48b9e6379f7c667d0bed51773254e6c3d31803f