History of the race
The race is based on the journey that a Buddhist monk made, Xuanzang, who 15 centuries ago travelled to the Gobi desert (today it is called province of Gansu and autonomous regions of Western China). In the classical Chinese literature the narrations of Xuanzang are described as a journey the lasted not one, not two, but… 19 years! In the book it is mentioned that “for 800 li (Chinese measurement unit equal to about 500meters) there is nothing but sand and dry river banks. There isn’t enough water to nurture even a blade of grass. You look at the sky for a bird and the earth for an animal but you do not find anything”. He also wrote “when it is hot, the heat goes through you like a flame, when it is cold, the wind cuts your flesh like a knife”.
The Ultra-Trail Gobi Race is a challenge of energy, determination and courage, but also a journey that connects the Chinese with the West civilization. The first race was held from September 28th to October 4th in 2015 with 30 runners, of which 7 were international elite runners. 18 runners finished and the finishing time of the first winner was 92: 52: 58.
Don’t imagine that there are labeled paths and roads! The runners are independent in navigation. The organization offers them the coordinates of the check points and not of the route (they are already posted in the race’s website).
However, the race is difficult for many other reasons as well. The runners are not only protagonists of the race, but they are also responsible for many issues that concern them. The athletes must prepare the mandatory equipment, along with their food supplies, which must be equal to at least 25000 calories. This food can be stored at the check stations, while the mandatory equipment must be carried throughout the race at all time.
Someone would expect that such a peculiar race would be in etaps (stage race). But if it was, then it wouldn’t be too peculiar! For this reason, the race is non- stop and not in stages and has a cut off time at 150 hours. There are also cut off times during the race at the stations, while the athletes can remain at the stations as long as they wish. Note that “rest stations” and “check stations” are two different definitions.
“Rest stations” are every 35 kilometers. They supply the runners with drinking water and hot water, chargers, camping spaces and simple medical services.
“Check stations” are every 15 kilometers and supply the runners only with drinking water. Runners are allowed to stay here for only one hour. If they stay more than that, the organization will consider that as a sign of physical exhaustion and will have a mandatory medical check in order to allow the athlete to continue the race.
This year the race will be held from September 28th to October 4th. Registration has already closed for this year (maximum number of athletes 50), but just for the information, they are held March- April with a lottery (predeposit of 100$) and with the chance to pay until July 1st (a reasonable period for someone to manage their finance).
The race route
The race is 400kms with 10 rest stations. First of all, 80% of the route is in uninhabited areas. During the dynasties of Han and Tang, the troops that were protecting the Chinese borders were strategically positioned at these areas.
The basic altitude is at 1100meters, with a total ascent of +3300m (not particularly large comparing to the total kilometers of the race) and with the highest point of the race at 3800m.
The race passes through sixty historical ancient ruins, among which are two sites of World Heritage (ruins of the city Suoyang and the station Xuanwuan Zhi). Runners will pass through a wide variation of landscapes and geological formations, testing their selves in the huge Gobi desert. They will meet hills, salt banks, landforms, canyons, glaciers, dry river banks, and will pass rivers and meadows high in the mountains.
The weather conditions are hard. In 2015 the lowest temperature was -13οC and the highest was 30,8οC. The location of the route is known for the dynamic of the the winds, since it is famous as “the storage room of the wind”. In the race’s website there is an analytical prediction of the weather for every day of the race, for both day and night.
Conditions for participation
A right to participation has everyone who is aged 18- 60 years. A medical certificate is asked from each athlete. Something that we have not again seen is a list of conditions that exclude the right to participate, such as heart conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, arrhythmia, ect.
According to the new UTMB point system, criterion for participation is 20 points gained from the last two years from up to 4 races. Furthermore, at least one race of 100km (under 22 hours), or a 100mile race during the last year. Of course, those that have finished a previous UTG have the participation criteria.
Registraton cost and travel
The total registration cost of the race is $3500. For transport there is a flight to Beijing and from there again via air travel to Dunhuang. Some prefer to first travel to Xi’an (ancient capital of China) or to Lanzhou for a short holiday, where they can meet the ancient Chinese civilization at the Yellow River and then travel to Dunhuang.
VISA and traveling insurance
Runners must have a VISA, while residents of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan only need the travel permit of the inland. If for any reason someone cannot participate in the race (i.e. failure to gain VISA), the race organization holds no legal responsibility and is not obliged to refund (a tactic which is usual in many races). Athletes must also gain travel insurance, along with insurance for accidents that will cover:
- Death, handicap and burns
- Hospital expenses
- Sudden death
- Repatriation costs
(The truth is that we were startled with the reference of all these situations, since we are not used to seeing them with such… detail!)
There is a check before the start of the race, and also at the check stations and during the race at unsuspected time. In case that something from the list is missing, the runner is not allowed to continue until it is restored. Time penalties are given, and there is even a possibility of exclusion from the race.
- Back pack
- Hydration system
- Sleeping bag (for temperatures of -10 to -5οC)
- Headlamp with a minimum of 80 lumen and batteries that will last up to 70 hours
- Mobile phone with roaming in China
- Medical kit
- Food supplies of at least 25000 calories. Leaving each station (and from the start point as well) the athletes must have at least 2000 calories in food with them.
- Windstopper jacket
- Cap and warm hat
- Two pairs of gloves (one thin quick drying and one pair of warm)
- Sunscreen lotion (SPF 50- 60ml), while at least 20ml must be in the back pack during the race.
- Lip balm UV- blocking
- Down jacket
- Safe mirror
Drop- off Bags
Athletes can leave anything they wish such as food supplies, equipment and clothes at the designated stations. Because they will be carried a long and difficult route to get there, fragile things are not allowed. One drop- bag is permitted at each station, and this must be in the packaging that the organization hands out to ensure that it has the necessary size and weight.
Quitting the race
Something else we haven’t seen before! If athletes announce that they want to stop, they have the right once they announce it to… get back into the race! We all know that there are weak moments in ultra races where our thoughts are not always clear. For sure, many who have stopped a race, as soon as rested a while and calmed down, regretted for their decision.
Because in a 400km race in the desert the athletes are for many hours alone in difficult conditions, they are expected to have “weak moments”. The race organizers give them the right to recall their decision with a time penalty of three hours if they decide to continue the race. They can use this right only one time during the race.
During the race athletes must wear their participation number at all times, their country flag (it is provided to them by the organization) and the logo of the race. At the official race website
you can find the impressions from runners who ran the race. Specifically, Bryon Powell, founder of the running website irunfar who ran the race, mentions: “On Monday I started for a morning run and in 98 hours and 58minutes finished the 400kms of the Gobi Ultra Race in Northern China… incredible experience!”
A usual race? No!
Would we dare? Yes!
Although they are at the peak of their preparations for this year’s race, the organizers of Gobi Ultra Trail found time to answer our questions for Advendure.
[Advendure]: Would you tell us a few things about the inspiration and philosophy behind the Ultra Trail Gobi Race? What is your primary vision for organizing such an event? Why do you choose the specific place on the Globe and time of the year?
[UTGR]: About five or six years ago, Red Bull, the strategic cooperation partner of Xuanzang Route Gobi Business Challenge, put forward the idea of holding a 24 hour challenge and designed the route including the landforms of mountains, canyons and rivers. Thus, Xingzhi Exploration began to organize the thoughts and completed the preliminary plan. However, the environment of the section selected was relatively simple and we wanted to add more elements. The project was put aside due to various reasons.
Then, Xing Bo, an old friend of Gobi Race and the leader of Neusoft found after participating in the polar region expedition that Xuanzang Route Gobi Business Challenge was the only competition with international competitiveness in China currently. However, due to its restriction of regulations, the players that have participated in the Challenge are not allowed to register again. Although the national cross-country races flourish, there is no influential international race in China. Thus, the development plan of a new race was put on the agenda again. At that time, we predicted that a new race of hundred kilometers would appear in China widely very soon. Thus, the race was positioned to be longer than the polar region expedition.
The route of A, B and C sections of the current Gobi Business Challenge is 399KM in total and it is the rudiment of the racing track of Ultra-Trail Gobi Race. The main problem in the selection of the racing track is that the scenery of the latter section is monotonous. Thus, Xingzhi Exploration decided to enhance the historical culture sense on the basis of the international cross country race. Then, we finally determined a racing track along which there are more than sixty historical sites (including two world class cultural heritages and six national heritage conservation units).
With the development of cross country races in China, we have the strength and capability of organizing an international race. We hope to create a race for Chinese runners and attract international players to participate in the race in China. So, Chinese players can compete with the international players in China rather than going abroad to participate in the races frequently.
In addition, with the momentum of Ultra-Trail Gobi Race, we hope to occupy the highland in the field of cross country race in China, create a leading professional race at home and abroad and demonstrate the strength of Xingzhi Exploration.
The main reason is the local historical and cultural background. As stated above, there are more than sixty historical sites along the racing track, which meets our expectation of creating an experiential race with cultural implication.
On the other hand, Xingzhi Exploration has held ten Xuanzang Route Gobi Business Challenges in Moheyanqi Gobi. With this momentum, the basis of Ultra-Trail Gobi Race in the aspects of security and local government support was relatively mature. Regarding the selection of time, the Gobi Business Challenge was determined to be held in the end of May by the company. We plan to hold another race during the Golden Week of the National Holiday（from October 1 to 7, UTG race time is from September 26 to October 5） in the latter half year. Regarding the environment, the natural condition of Gobi desert during that period was relatively fine no matter in temperature or wind force, so the race was easy to be controlled.
[Advendure]: Give us some details about the structure and the technical characteristics / difficulties of the race. What are the most important issues that an athlete must take into consideration if he/she decides to travel to China and visit the desert and the Gansu province to run the race?
[UTGR]: Because Ultra-Trail Gobi Race is defined as a non-stop race which does not set mandatory break time for the players; the players may enter any rest stop. Thus, the rear guarantee is highly required. The arrangement of supply points and rest stops in the full-course of the race should be completed in twice. The support personnel including rear service, medical, rescue and volunteers should be available within 200KM. On the desolate Gobi desert, the materials of food and accommodation depend on in time transportation. We did not lay solid foundation and had no previous experience to borrow in this part. In addition, 80% of the racing track was uninhabited areas and the signal was weak. We set up wireless systems in several sites without signal and used five relays to guarantee the communication requirement in 90% racing track so that we can monitor at any time the positions of the players and handle emergencies.
Advice for foreign players:
- The players should arrange reasonable training several months before the race;
- The players should prepare for the environment and climate of Gobi desert and race route. Since the natural condition of the Gobi desert is special, extreme conditions may appear;
- Due to the auto-navigating requirement of the race, the players should be familiar with the use of GPS equipment;
- The players should understand related regulations of China customs and guarantee that the materials carried are allowed to enter China.
[Advendure]: For a mountain or ultra-trail race, the beauties of the nature and of the surroundings and sometimes the historical background are very important elements for choosing to run the race. What about the Ultra Trail Gobi Race?
[UTGR]: Rich history-related factors are added to the Ultra Trail Gobi Race. Firstly, we copied the medal-“Yangling Tiger Token”, a tiger-shaped tally issued to generals as imperial authorization for troop movement in ancient China. Used by Chinese ancient emperors for moving troops and dispatching generals, it is divided into two, half of which is handed to the general and the other half is preserved by the emperor. The forces can only be dispatched only when the two are combined. We sent half of the seal before the race to all the players and they received the other half from the race director at the terminal point after completing the race. In addition, we conferred corresponding ancient general titles to all the players completing the race according to the military officer ranking system in ancient China. The combination of the military seal (tally) and the title of a general signify the success of the race. The certificate of honor of the first race was in the form of an Imperial Edict. In ancient time, the emperor confer titles for the General on it，which made by bamboo, and luminous cups (Yeguang cup, which in Chinese means night, guang means light, in ancient time, it made by jade and abounded in Jiuquan Gansu, the place UTG held). In legend, if you put the Yeguang cup with wine under the moon, it will shine) with rich territorial feature of the ancient frontier (west part of China) were made for the top three players. Regarding the champion generals, the organizing committee and the local historic preservation department will use the name of each champion general for naming the beacon tower of Tang Dynasty recently discovered as “champion beacon”. The champion beacon was named as “Zhao Ziyu champion beacon” in 2015.
In the aspect of natural scenery, the landform of the Ultra Trail Gobi Race is very complicated. The sceneries of Gobi, yardang, hill, saline and alkaline land, sand, canyon, glacier, river and alpine meadow are entirely different. There are more than sixty historical sites along the racing track, including two world class cultural heritages of Suo yang City and Xuanquanzhi and six national heritage conservation units including Yulin Caves, parent and branch tombs in the big tomb, Kunlun Pass, East Thousand-Buddha Cave, the site of Shibao City and Tuhulu site. Some of the sites are the places of the ancient battleground, which meet perfectly the race atmosphere of the Ultra Trail Gobi Race.
The Ultra Trail Gobi Race is not only a test of perseverance and courage, but also a fantastic journey integrating the ancient and modern cultures in the east and the west.
[Advendure]: Is the Ultra Trail Gobi Race mainly a local event or do you have a significant number of international athletes? Are there any specific tourist packages for international runners in order to reduce the cost for them? How do they find this kind of information?
[Advendure]: Why do you choose the continuous ultra- trail for the race and not a “stages structure” ultra-trail race, whereas the athletes could rest each night once finishing each stage?
[UTGR]: The Ultra Trail Gobi Race does not have mandatory restriction on the break time of the players. The players can choose to run at day and have rest at night. We make the decision in consideration of the different abilities and advantages of the players. Since the players are from different countries and regions and they have different adaptations for the changeable environment and emergencies of the Gobi desert, we tend to allow the players to decide their running course daily according to their physical conditions in case of interrupting the rhythms of the players. This is also a flexible regulation formulated in reference to the executive standards of other international races. Certainly, running at night in the Gobi desert is also a great challenge to the psychological quality of the players.
[Advendure]: From your experience, what are the athletes’ biggest fears before running in the desert?
[UTGR]: Sleep may become the greatest fear of the players. The non-stop of the race brings about the possibility of running at night. However, when players run in the spacious depopulate zone with auto-navigation, they need to keep calm all the time when faced with the yell of the surrounding animals and the difficult environment and overcome their psychological barriers, which may become a fear factor.
[Advendure]: Can you describe to us a situation or incidence from a previous race that is well remembered among the organizers, such as something funny, or scary that happened?
[UTGR]: When the players came to the area of the river valley of Yulin, it was getting late. The snowstorms began to fall suddenly and the wind was so wild. Sekiya Ryoichi, Ding Zhijian and Jeri Hua got lost for many times on the way to the rest stops and were frustrated by the blizzard. They could only sleep in the river valley wrapped in the sleeping bags. The old wound of the hip bone of Sekiya Ryoichi recurred. The young Ding Zhijian could not bear the severe environment mentally. Jeri Hua could run in advance, but she chose to stay there and accompanied her fellows in the blizzard. In the morning of the next day, when the rescue car came, the three sleeping bags looked like three caterpillars as seen from a distance. At that time, Sekiya Ryoichi required the support of the others and Jeri Hua was in danger of heat loss. When her condition was getting better, she said that she was willing to continue her race and Ding Zhijian also said that he was willing to continue his race. Since then, they never separated from each other and dashed the line together. The injured Sekiya Ryoichi did not go back to Japan immediately and had a rest in the county of Guazhou for several days. When Jeri Hua and Ding Zhijian dashed the line, he sent his congratulation to them at the terminal point. They held each other tightly when they met. Although nobody knew what happened at the blizzard night, everybody was touched by the scene.
Another faraway destination was presented for Running the Globe with a goal of extending our images through a window that was opened to various challenging races on our planet. We thank the organization of the Ultra Trail Gobi Race for their cooperative attitude with Advendure and we wish them good luck in their preparations for their difficult but exciting race!
Photo ©: Ultra-Trail Gobi Race, Nick Muzk