I came back from Mongolia the other day, three weeks there, few stories to tell you.
I don't know what motivates me more, a travel or a competition; i don't have to make difficult decisions, fortunately we have good challenges in very beatiful places. That's why i choose Mongolia, a country i wanted to visit from long time ago, and a race as an excuse to be there. Also i didn't want another Jungle Marathon for this year, a bit less os suffering. The race is called Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset for obvious reasons, 100km run, and a slow circuit, that will take you most of the day to finish. Ultramongolia is their site; as always, founded through Eventrate the best ultrarunning-adventure site. But it is expensive enough for my pocket just for 100km... and after reading Lonely Planet guide ('Mongolian roads are made for strong mountain bikes and masochist riders ...') you can imagine that my second goal and big challenge was gonna be on mountain bike, around 800km solo and unassisted trip -my first one- and with all the difficulties of the less populated country in the world.
The race takes place in western shore of the Kvösgöl lake (northwest Mongolia, here), an alpine lake at 1600m height, surrounded by big mountains, and a very quite place. To be there i had to make the longest and most boring travel of my life, around two days and a half, but the wake-up with a very awesome lake 100m from us justifies the effort. It is around 130x35km, 200m deep, it freezes in winter (trucks can cross it from the north, in Siberia, at 100km), and i would not take a bath for 1,000,000€ (it's incredible cold). It is a really beatiful place in which you can spend your three pre-race free days trekking, horse riding or being as lazy as possible (something i was training for). As in every mountain, weather is unstable, bit fresh and rainy afternoons. As always, a nice group of people we met there begin to know ourselves.
The competition took place on 2005-06-29 (in the date order mongolians write, year-month-day, reasonable for PCs) and started even before sunrise, at 0430h... bit later for the two stupid spaniards, who, again, started a competition later than the rest of the pack... Five minutes is nothing in a 100km run (or is what i thought in that moments) and i took it easy the first 4,5km in a very dark forest taking care of my weak ankles i always twist. Once in the piste, paralel the lake, i could switch off the headlamp, you could see a little, and noone knows where are you (strategies...). I was overtaking people easily, stopped for taking a picture... and 'no batteries', fuck me, i don't have any photos of one of the most beatiful races in my life.
First uphill was a serious one and i was disappointed when a guy catched me when i was thinking that i was catching people; now i know he was the winner. In the first downhill i overtake him, confirming me that i am not the worst downhiller in the world. I think that my enjoying finished here, because, i don't know why, i had an horrible day in feelings and the worst in athletic competition in years. I notice very soon that wasn´t my day; that was the worst part (...80%) of my race, i train a lot, more for feelings than for ranking; this year i combined it with mountain bike, but it was even better because those days were a rest for me and my legs were fresh most of the days. Very rare in me during competitions, i ran with heart rate monitor and i was shocked with what i was reading 160 bpm, tooooo high for me, and i am not usually on those rates. The only explanation i can have is that two nights previous the race i was bit cold and maybe a little ill, and the pulse was very high for that, and my feelings, really bad. If not, i cannot understand being destroyed at 42km -not easy ones, mountain, but nothing specially tough-, really fatigued: if you are not pushing a lot, a marathon is "nothing". And in the marathon (you can only ran it, or the whole 100km) i had to rethink my possibilities, not for being in good position (i didn't know it in that moment) but to finish alive. I had to take it easy until km 55, and i had there the good new of knowing i was second. Well, not bad at all.
In the second loop, 42-100, it was gonna be substantialy easier (but i never run easy with 70km on my legs). The landscapes were indescriptible, enormous valleys with dry rivers, being alone there (90% of my race was solo, 75% seeing nobody) was a pleasure, even with the bad feelings i had. My critical moment went on km76, where a drop-bag must be waiting for us in an aid-station... but two first were too fast and there was no water, no food, and some angryness. Until km88 i was very very hungry, thristy, no-energy, low motivated and just surviving, not racing. It was an organiser's mistake, the first -hope, the last- time happens, and involved only first two guys. Those kms where just horrible, the ones i'll never forget, maybe the ones i do appreciate. I thought km88 was gonna be the end of my suffers, just 12km to go, just finish; but last's years winner -a local guy-, catched me in that moment. These kind of things must be prohibited by laws. Wake-up man, you're racing. Probably when someone catches you as late as km88 it is cause he's better than you; i agree, but i turned on my competitive side, and started to run to defend my position. I ran as fast as i can during three kms, a pace i couldn't keep to finish line, for sure, but he didn't know it; i killed him sooner than i killed myself (i had to stop four times before the end), but surely i desmotivated him. Also there was another fact made me ran fast: one vodka-drinker spectator tried to catch me with no good intentions as i could read in his blood-injected eyes, as abnormal Cornelius did with Vanderlei da Lima in Athens 2004 Olympic Games; fortunately my Cornelius was absolutely drunk and not able to catch me, even, he failed with the stone! Despite this incident, mongols, specially in the contryside, are really gentle people, nice, and always helped me. On the other hand, I must thank him my 100m grass world record.
With nothing more noticeable i crossed finish line, bit exhausted but satisfied, not for my perfomance (i was second, but with bad feelings) but the way i use my resources; first guy was unbeatable for me, the best or worst day in my life, he was the best, for sure. My time, 11h37', not bad for the course, but i think that i could be around 11h in a better day. Very recomendable race.
After one day of pain and hurts i recovered fast (i could run 15' without problems the day after) i started my very own chalenge, come back Ulan Baatar, mongolian's capital, with my bike. Since the first km i could notice it was not gonna be easy, i had to carry around 50kg (bike, trailer, everything-for-13-days-maximun, water); i even had stability problems, the front wheel slided very very easily; the speed was
also really slow (around 11km/h) and i started to calculate how many hours i had to pedal daily... Firsts days are the ones for making mistakes and show how tough you thought it was gonna be. One stupid mistake was not eating nothing in the whole day, and after 80km i had to stop to eat a Kit Kat; i was as tired than i was very close to fall asleep with the Kit Kat in my hand. Very imbecile. I also face one of my biggests concerns: water (uus in mongolian, most used word). After 8h30' i ended in a lake, i found my Camelbak broken, and the water of the lake was... salty!!! My survival knowledge told me that i could drink and cook with salt water, but it was gonna be a long night for my lips, tongue and motivation. The water was, indeed, a real problem: i only crossed three major rivers in +800km; few more lakes were salty; and only locals knew where and how to find water. That meant i was not very clean, i rationated water sometimes, and have another critical moment because of that in day seven. But first day i learnt a lot: first, be patient, second, be tough.
Since day one i found my nightmare: my butt. Last time i ride a bike was in 1996; but i had two/three months to train, a mere 800km, enough, i thought. But not for the most delicate part of cyclist's body. It has been one of my biggest sufferings in my life, close to ruin my travel, and the worst remember i have from these weeks. Now, I hate bikes. I took two shorts to use them alternative, and from day two i used both; i changed saddle angle; nothing worked. That's why my travel became much more tougher than expected, and was very close Jungle Line (Jungle Marathon is a reference os how much i can suffer... but i suffered once a bit more). The rest of my body worked perfectly, my legs never got tired, knees respected me most of the time, etc.
Orienteering was also a big concern; i speak mongolian as fluent as chinese, there were no signals; my map was 1:2,500,000; and with eight points for 800kms, GPS is a mere Playstation. But soon i learnt how to find the right way: mongol GPS (Ger Position System; gers are the locals tents, those white, rounded, felt-made, nomadic homes), ask and ask, and intuition (work in necessity). In the end, there are no main roads, everyone is a civil engineer and drives his jeep where he wants, and i used the track i wanted, better not bumpy or sandy. This one was my biggest entertainment, find the fastest line (fast is 11-13km/h of average speed); also i had hours and hours for my future thesis 'What's worst terrain for a bike?' I thought it was those bumpy tracks made by trucks and jeeps, but no, there's even a worst terrain: sand. I had a lot of sand, even, i had to cross few dunes!
Fourth day, in the first's day downhill -km15-, i had a little crash -20/25km/h- with more pain for my proud than my knees; when i tried to restart i notice something was not right: front derailleur shifter was broken (one of the 0,1€ plastic pieces), rear dropout twisted and trailer desaligned. Took me an hour put things in order; since that day i just have 9 speeds instead of 24 (and lasts days i had around three), but not very serious problems. The best part of the incident was how serene i was in those moments, i even was very surprised with some of my reactions. Mechanical respected me, helped by some good decisions i took before depart; for example the only puncture i had was in my pillow, not any tire.
The weather was mostly hot, and with those enormous valleys could take you day and half to finish was a bit tough; few rains daily 'til day five; and a very big electrical storm (not very confident with a bike and a trailer 40cm my head) that night: hopefully i have a impressive bivy sac.
The best probably were the landscapes and the local people. Valleys of 150km, towns 200km between them, no asphalt in +700km, incredible sunsets (maybe sunrises too, but i was K.O.), a really demanding terrain (fifth day i needed 80km to find a downhill of more than 200m; was also my weakest day), and no fences or any interruptions for the views. Locals were just a pleaure to met, specially kids, even with the serious difficulties in communication, always tried to helped with water, orienteering and also gave me food; i couldn't gave them nothing but short rides with my bike and some delicious spanish ham.
After six-seven days i started to get too tired and thin; i decided to end as soon as possible, and push myself to my limits, riding 300km in three lasts days. In the end, it was not a Jungle, but was very very close, really tough. Also it was the dryest section (no water in 350km), were i founded more mosquitos (bit desperate), and were i had a serious encounter three times with dogs (once with three agressive ones; my spanish was perfectly understood by owners; also i showed me how much adrenaline i was accumulating). And, day eight, at 105km to finish line, i found asphalt. A shock.
These last two days were really bad, tired, very thin, and bit dangerous once i was approaching the city (...not to mention my poor butt): for sure, mongolians are really good drivers in 4x4 conditions, but very poor on asphalt; in Ulan Baatar i had few not very gentle encounters with drivers, closing few rearview mirrors with rude manners.
One day before i expected, in nine, i finished my trip in Sükhbaatar Square, the Ulan Baatar center, much more tired than happy (for this it'll take time to assimilate). And very hungry.
Distances were 93-90-73-112-87-86-100-113-87km, a lot, for me, for those trails and with the weight i had to carry; very slow, as i mentioned, 11-13km/h; and between six and more than eight hours over the saddle daily.
Fortunately i had four days for rest with a very nice group of people (who were in horse ride at the time i was with the bike), and my entertainments were sightseeing, eating, and being as lazy as possible. Also we could see the Naadam, major mongolian festival, an old Chinngis Khan training for their troops -when they were not in wars-, which have three major sports (archery, wrestling and horse riding). The big one is in Ulan Baatar, but there are in every little town of Mongolia, and i had the luck of see two in the countryside and the major one in Ulan.
Few technical data for those who wanted:
Simple bike, nothing risky for traveling, spring fork (not air), mechanical disk brakes (for not trueing wheels); improvements only on chain (XTR), handlebar (wider, higher, Tom Ritchey one), pedals (Shimanos). Good results. Rock Machine
Trailer, a good solution for carrying things, but... it was bit broken, nothing serious, but i was surprised, it can carry 32kg and i just carried 20-25; i'm waiting for an answer because it is covered by warranty, for sure. As they told me, first time that happened any trailer sold in Europe
Tires, very important. Puncture+snake restistant, good rollers, kevlar for easier repair. With Specialized liquid tubes. Schwalbe Marathon XR
Bivy. The best money spent. A must have for solo, light and fast trips. Awesome. Four years, zero water inside. Breathable. Best gear. Bibler Tripod Bivy Sac
And i think it's enough.
I recomend the race, for sure, and also the bike travel with some experience and the necessity of doing omething for you. The country is also a great place to spent your holidays.
For me, 90% was perfect, I knew a bit from a country and much more from myself.
+: Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset, Mongolia Crossing Waypoints
+s13: Index: Mis otras ultramaratones