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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A post on food!

I know you are all curious about the food here. We have eaten Mongolian food for ten days now and are still alive, even though we are happy we brought some of our own food.

First of all, you can not drink water from the pipes here, which means either buying bottled water – which we never do in Europe – or boiling it, waiting for it to cool down and only then drink it. We were extra careful, even brushing our teeth with drinking water from the bottle, but keeping hydrated was not easy. I think the most critical point was the second aid station during the race: we had been told that there would be drinking water at each aid station (and mind you, there were only three over the 42 k course), but they only had boiling hot water at the 24 k aid station, which meant we couldn’t drink or refill our bottles. Luckily we still had most of the water we had carried from the beginning.

The food we had in UB was good. The first night we tried a Mongolian grill restaurant, where we picked our veggies, meat and noodles and brought it to the chefs for them to sauté it. The second night we had my favourite meal so far: we decided to be brave and give a try to a wonderful street food stand where we were given huge beef skewers with pieces of fat in between the chunks of meat. The end of the world.

At the camp we alternated between the food we had brought from home (dried meat, parmesan, crackers, tunafish and ready-to-eat rice salads with tuna and veggies, biscuits, chocolate and nuts) and the local food. Breakfast was usually one egg plus two slices of some sort of sausage (which we tried the first day and decided to avoid, as they were impossible to digest), and some sweet fried bread (boortsog), but sometimes we complemented with bread peanut butter and jam. On race day I stuck to my typical pre-race breakfast (banana + peanut butter), as I really wanted to avoid tummy issues as much as possible. Lunch was always some kind of soup + one sandwich. The soup was usually very unappealing, as it was some kind of broth with floating, unknown vegetables in it. Eating sandwiches every day for a week is tough too, especially when you are getting ready for a trail marathon and are trying to get all the nutrients you need, so we were once again grateful that we had brought food that we knew would sit well in our tummies. The dinners were always the same: beef stew or minced meat with rice or pasta and stewed vegetables. At the end of the week we were a bit tired of that as well, but we enjoyed the last dinner we had at the camp. It was a traditional Mongolian buffet dinner and we had sooooo much food. It wasn’t much different from what we had been eating all week, but we could have as much as we wanted, and we made the most of it.

Yesterday we had the final dinner in a typical Mongolian restaurant in UB, where we had some of the local delicacies, which unfortunately tend to always feature mutton meat (which I can’t eat). We had steamed dumplings (buuz) and fried ones (khuushuur), and khorkhog, which features a stew with sheep bits (head included) and veggies that are put in a huge pot with hot stones for a long time. I had beef tsuivan noodles, and they were undoubtedly the best noodles I have had in a long time. We were also served fresh salads and steamed and roasted vegetables, which we enjoyed very much. They brought us way too much food, so we asked to pack some and we had leftovers for lunch today. It was still good, even if re-heated, but I must say everything is quite fatty and fried, and definitely not the easiest food to digest.

We have also tried some local chocolate!

In a nutshell, if you are interested in Mongolian food, expect plenty of meat loooooots of mutton and no chicken whatsoever – and fried dumplings. Vegetarians might have a hard time in Mongolia, but we have been told UB has several excellent vegan restaurants.

Thoughts of the day(s) after

  • My knee is sore.
  • Did I really do it?! I don’t feel like a marathoner.
  • I really did it!
  • My legs are stiff, but it could be worse.
  • (After sitting down for too long) God I had almost forgotten I ran a marathon yesterday.
  • Food! More food!
  • Shower. Hot shower. Maybe it will help with the soreness (S*** there’s no hot water).
  • When is lunch?
  • Remember to drink plenty of water.
  • Keep walking a little bit.
  • Lunch, finally! Weirdly enough I don’t feel nauseous.
  • Nap. Can’t sleep though. Oh wait, actually I can.
  • Let’s try and run a couple of miles veeeeeeeery slooooooooowly.
  • (Running) Oh, this doesn’t feel as bad as I thought it would be. Oh wait, actually, it does. Nope, it doesn’t. Try to pinpoint where it hurts. The usual places. All good then. 20 minutes done.
  • That was a good idea.
  • Sip some water.
  • (At the traditional dinner) Eat all you can, who cares about potential tummy issues now?
  • (Getting up to get more food) Heeeeeey, easy baby (said the legs)!
  • Let’s take a walk, it’ll help some of the food go down.
  • I’ll go to bed now and feel better tomorrow.

… (6 am) No, I don’t.

Rain, rainbows and reindeers

Yesterday was a hard day. Let’s just say tepies look a lot less romantic when it rains inside and everything is wet and full of giant mosquitoes and huge spiders.

But since after the rain comes the rainbow…

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today was a much better day.

We accompanied the three participants from South Africa on their hike for about 3 km, then did a 11 km trail run to include the first 2.5 km of our race, which is a super technical trail in the forest (and which we will face in the dark at 4.30 am in two days’ time). We then spent some time in the sauna and even took a dip in the frozen lake.

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The afternoon was lazy for me and active for Francesco. I took a nap and chatted with a couple of Croatian participants in Croatian (so happy to speak Croatian again after so long!). They had been travelling on a motorbike for three months before getting here. What a story! They have a blog on Facebook, so if you want to follow then, just type in ‘Wheels on the run’ and you’ll get to their page.

We also spotted plenty of animals. Will post pictures when we have real internet though. So long!