MONGOLIA’S snow-capped mountains and ancient horse trails are spectacular to look at – so why would you want to run up them? But that’s what a group of ultra marathon fanatics are about to do, writes Sam Riley
Shanghai marathon runner Tang Yong can’t decide which is tougher – his punishing training schedule or the grueling 100-kilometer race through the wilds of Mongolia he is about to take on for the first time.
The 40-year-old will compete in the Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset ultra marathon which requires runners to cover 100km in a day.
Set in the pristine wilderness of one of Mongolia’s most beautiful national parks, runners must first traverse mountains passes before pushing their bodies to the limit on ancient trails used by the country’s nomadic horseman to complete the race before sunset.
The race was launched in 1999 by Shanghai resident and Swiss engineer Nic Musy and now attracts long distance runners from Europe, America, Asia and the Pacific. More than 70 runners from around the world will compete in the event on July 9 including Tang and three others from Shanghai.
It is the first time Tang will compete and he plans to tackle only the first stage – a testing 42km course that involves negotiating steep passes twisting through snow covered mountains more than 3,000 meters above sea level.
Tang has traveled to Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, and other hilly areas to train for the event. But in flat Shanghai, he has had to grind out the kilometers in less than inspiring training surroundings.
“Preparing for mountain running in Shanghai has been difficult and when you are running three to four hours on a treadmill on a Saturday morning, you sometimes think this is terrible,” he says.
Admitting the lonely hours of training for long distance running requires a certain kind of personality, Tang says he feels competitors in his sport share a unique sense of achievement from having pushed their bodies to the limit.
“Running like this is very unusual. There are not so many people who really do this and it makes me feel different because nowadays everything becomes merely fashionable,” he says.
“People drive a sports car because it’s the fashion, not because they particularly like driving well. Or they play golf because it’s the latest fashion and not particularly because they may be passionate about the sport.
“But running is for someone who really loves it and to prepare for the competition takes a lot more determination and is more difficult than the competition itself.”
For those like Musy, who are tackling the 100km course, the challenge will have only just begun after the initial 42km stage. While their legs will be feeling the effects of climbing up and then down mountain passes more than 2,000m above sea level, they then face the task of grinding out another 58km through a rugged variety of terrain.
At the same time, runners experience some of the world’s most spectacular and pristine trail running on a course set around the shores of Lake Hovsgol – a 2,700-square-kilometer lake flanked by mountains and larch and spruce forests.
All funds raised from the event go toward the maintenance of Hovsgol National Park and organizers involve locals in the event such as horseman to provide safety and support for runners.
Runners must also abide by strict environmental and cultural race rules that require them to safeguard the rare ecology of the region.
Musy is set to compete in the event for the 10th time and completion will mean he has clocked up 1,000km on the horse trails and mountainous paths of Mongolia.
Inspired to kick off the event after a horse riding holiday in Mongolia, Musy has competed in a number of ultra marathon events, including the grueling Hong Kong Trailwalker, which requires runners to finish a steep course set in the hills around Hong Kong in less than 48 hours.
Musy has been running 50km to 100km a week in preparation for the event and recently completed two consecutive marathons in a single weekend to prepare his body for the challenge of running 100km in a day.
Runners have 18 hours to complete the event with the course record standing at an amazing 10 hours and 33 minutes. Musy said he usually finishes in about 16 hours.
While the average gym goer might be just a little daunted by the idea of punching out 100km in a day, Musy says the body adjusts and actually benefits from being pushed so hard.
“When you finish this race you really get a great sense of achievement but physically after these long runs you actually feel really good,” he says.
“It strengthens the body and you feel very healthy after you do these kinds of things and long distance or endurance exercise is very good for your health.
“You get tired at times but you also recover – just like any normal day.”
posted by Stuart Barrington