MINUS FORTY IN MONGOLIA MARK 2

Very few places excite taxi drivers, but Mongolia seems to do that to everybody.  Pavel was chock full of questions, of a place that at this time of year is one of extreme beauty, temperatures and terrain.This time last year, I was running from the reputed birthplace of Genghis Khan to the modern day capital of Ulan Bataar, thinking it was much easier to run in the extreme cold, than it was to drive.  Temperatures had dipped to minus 45, and the driver had the blowtorch out to unfreeze the radiator and the diesel tank.  Interesting.

In addition to the longer run, last year I took place in the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon.  There is something very special about running on a frozen system in Outer Mongolia, with a yurt as the base camp, and the howls of huskies ringing in our ears. Eleven hardy competitors took to the start line, and only two got a touch of frostbite in temperatures of minus 35 (it was a beautiful clear day).  The question I get asked most is what I wear.  In short I use lots of thin layers, including two pairs of gloves, and a special ice shoe with studs in the bottom (Merrell All Out Terra Ice).

So this year, I am joining Sandbaggers at the World’s Coldest Burns Supper, followed by the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon mark 2.  We will have the opportunity to catch up with old friends, and to update on the various Yamaa trust projects that are ongoing.

It will not be boring, and it will not be warm.

RUNNING 100KM AT MINUS 40 CELCIUS. JOB DONE

Having found the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon both arduous and spectacular, it was with some trepidation I looked at the map plotting the route that Genghis Khan took hundreds of years ago from the Tuul and Terelj gorges at the base of the Khenti mountains, the land of his birth to the modern day capital of Ulan Batar. Estimates of the distance varied wildly, from 100km, to 100 miles depending on the route taken, and the estimation of locals.

On the run in Mongolia-Credit John Graham

It is a route laced with history and scenic beauty, but perhaps one also that carries an element of jeopardy. To that end, Sandbaggers had provided a vehicle, and a highly experienced driver to set off from the rugged interior southwards, with the van fully stocked by my parents who had come to Mongolia not only to help, but to experience riding huskies, playing wild golf and this most beautiful of countries for themselves. It was bitterly cold driving across a frozen expanse to the start.  We were not on a road, but cutting tracks across the frozen landscape. Frozen really did mean frozen, with despite the engine having been on all night, everytime the vehicle stopped, the diesel and radiator froze, forcing our driver to defrost it with a blow torch.  I didn’t say anything when I saw this, but it would be fair to say that the prospect of an immobile vehicle, off the beaten track, in temperatures below minus 40 was not attractive.

An easier form of transport

Reaching the start felt like an achievement, when I set off following the historical route south, jumping out the vehicle exposing zero flesh to the elements, and just putting one foot in front of the other until the sun came up offering up improved temperatures in the minus 30’s.  It is amazing the difference that this can make, and I slowed to a more sensible rate at daylight having ran faster than I did in the marathon for the first hour simply to keep warm. 50 odd kilometres elapsed before we hit the junction for the road to Ulan Batar, a road sign that brought me more joy than any of the other road users. The fact that there was actual consistent traffic brought me some baffled looks, while I just concentrated on eating frequently, and warding off the early signs of frostnip I had in my right hand.  I had the Merrell All Out Terra Ice shoes, and decent clothing on which kept the rest of me toasty.  As a stiff headwind picked up, I was joined by a friend Ally, who knocked out a few miles with me and kept me sane until the high rise of Ulan Batar emerged.

Having jumped in the support vehicle to warm up and refuel a few times, I felt relatively OK at the finish.  By that I mean that I was not completely wrecked but still mentally and physically shattered as the signs for Genghis Khan International Airport emerged from the dark that had fallen. I had covered a distance of 104km in a none too speedy 11 hours, although to be honest I was extremely happy with that given the terrain and conditions.  It would have been a tonne slower without having my folks feeding and helping me.

This week’s adventures have been captured by Johnny Graham, and award winning adventure photographer from DigitalPict, and Rich Alexander, a TV presenter and producer who is making a film about the adventures.  Having seen some of the footage already, these guys are awesome and we are all looking forward to seeing the finished products.

We have also been raising some cash and awareness for the Scottish Association for Mental Health and for Riding for the Disabled. People have been hugely generous in donating already, for anyone that would be kind enough to spare some pennies the link is below

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/donate/makeDonationForFundraiserDisplay.action?fundraiserActivityId=628029

As always these adventures are only successful with the help of many. In particular thanks to my family in Mongolia, and back home (our 1 year old Nina did not fancy the trip!), Sandbaggers for their utterly first class organisation, Merrell for providing the best kit and their support, Arnaud Le Marie for his excellent work on the website, my coach Donnie Campbell, and the many other people that make these things possible, and most of the time enjoyable.

Trying out husky riding the day before

THE GENGHIS KHAN ICE MARATHON- PUT IT ON YOUR BUCKET LIST

Put it on your bucket list, but pack your gloves and balaclava. I have just completed the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon in Outer Mongolia, which is just an incredible event. Standing on the start line it was -34 celcius.  This was better than expected, with temperatures of -47 celcius recorded the week before the event which took place on the Tuul/ Terelj frozen river systems in a country with the lowest density of human habitation on earth, in an area where wolves are more prevalent than people.

At the finish

Mongolia in winter is a place of dreams as well as nightmares. Perhaps it is unsurprising that few have attempted any serious endurance challenges there in winter, given the consequences of anything going wrong out there.  But fortunately a real expert in adventure, and Mongolia in particular was behind it. Dave Scott from Sandbaggers had brought together a hardy group of athletes, many from the UK but others from further afield. Dave has led expeditions to Outer Mongolia over 20 times, and had hired staff, vehicles, and even huskies to ensure the event whilst intimidating was as safe and enjoyable as possible.

Virtually no frostbite!

We huddled on the start line listening to the howl of huskies, before everyone set off at a rapid pace simply to keep warm. I set off with Doug Wilson, who I had met at the Antarctic Ice Marathon in 2012. Since then Doug has had major brain surgery to remove an acoustic neuroma and also developed meningitis, but post recovery has won races like the Volcano Marathon a couple months ago. I pulled clear and headed up the ice river, highly impressed with my footwear the Merrell All Out Terra Ice Waterproof which gripped the sheet ice surface with their tungsten tipped spikes slowing me far less than many of the other competitors.

All Out Terra Ice

With 20 odd km gone I had a 14 minute lead, and reassured by this enjoyed looking around at the mountains, and scenery that dwarfed the vehicles and competitors. With a full complement of fingers, and only the smallest amount of cold damage to my nose I crossed the line 1st in 3 hrs, 7 minutes, with Doug second in 3-42, and Lucja Leonard taking the women’s title in 4 hrs 19. The course was exceptional, but with difficult visibility due to goggles steaming up, and the extreme cold there were a couple wrong turns taken by a couple of competitors, leading to a Search and Rescue which efficiently found the remaining competitor, which would not be part of my usual recovery strategy but highlighted what a slick operation Dave leads. By way of celebration, I planned to spend the next day riding the huskies, followed by a 100 odd kilometre run in the hoofprints of Genghis Khan back to the modern day Mongolian capital of Ulan Batar.  Obviously that distance in the terrain and weather expected may take a while. 

BLOG- KEY KIT FOR RUNNING THE DESERT

Running with the seals (DigitalPict Photography)

It would be a lie to say that the running is the easy bit, but the most common questions I get asked after running say the Namib, the Sahara, or in the Namib desert is around kit, and specifically being a doctor, around medical kit.  Here are the lightweight things that I carry, and maybe of help during for example to Marathon des Sables or other races and events like this.

  • Footwear

Running day after day in the desert, your feet swell up.  I use a pair of shoes ½ a size bigger than my standard shoes.  For a lightweight shoe that is comfy and has a bit of grip, I use the Merrell All Out Rush

  • Sandgaiters

Having worked at many desert ultras as well as raced them, if you are racing on sand, do not leave home without sandgaiters. These prevent sand getting in your shoes and causing blisters.  The best on the market by far are “Sandbaggers Gaiters” made with parachute silk.  Stitch these into your shoes rather than glueing, as the glue will melt in the heat.

  • Clothing

The key thing is to have clothing (including socks) that are lightweight and wicks moisture away from the skin keeping blisters and overheating down to a dull roar. Some clothing has the additional bonus of sun protection. I use the Merrell clothing range which suits me perfectly

 

  • Sunscreen

Do not skimp on this. Buy high factor sunscreen that stays where it is when you sweat, and only needs applied once or twice a day. P20 has never failed me, while Himalaya is great also

High in the dunes (DigitalPict photography)

  • Blister Kit

The largest study of blisters in ultra-runners showed 85% of competitiors got blisters. This number would probably be even higher in the desert. So take some Sterets to clean the skin, some sterile needles to pop the blisters, (pop at the lowest point, squeeze fluid out, and leave to dry until the morning), and zinc oxide tape to put over the blisters in the morning to prevent them getting worse

  • Vaseline

Stick small amounts of this in the areas you are vulnerable to getting chafing

  • Hand Sanitiser Gel, and toilet paper

Use the hand sanitiser as directed, to cut down the prospects of getting diarrhoea nad vomiting, one of the most common causes of medical withdrawal from races.  Drink bottled water, and avoid foods that look dodgy.

  • Med Kit

Paracetamol, 2 tablets 4 times a day is good for pain.  NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory meds like brufen and voltarol) should not be taken for endurance running. There is a risk of stomach ulcer, kidney failure and other badness. Lyprinol likely has anti-inflammatory actions and I take (batch tested) version of this to combat this.  Immodium/ loperamide is worth carrying in case diarrhoea and vomiting does occur

  • Fuel

Like a car, if the human body is out of fuel, it will not go anywhere.  Small amounts of carbohydrate taken regularly in any race longer than an hour boost performance. I use Science in Sport gels, and carbohydrate and electrolyte powder, whilst post exercise REGO helps by providing carbohydrate to replace used up stores, and protein to repair damaged muscles

  • Ear plugs

These and eye masks help sleep on flights, as well as in noisy tents. Well worth the 6 grams

Sandbaggers gaitersRunning with the Seals
All Images by DigitalPict Photography

BLOG- RUNNING ACROSS THE NAMIB- PART 2 OF 2

Genuine challenges are always a roller coaster of emotion.  Both Donnie and I reflected upon what it would take to get us to the finish.  The first 3 days had proved we could have absolutely every confidence in our support crew.  Their route finding had been superb and we had been kept well stocked up on food, sun cream and anything else 2 men traversing the Namib desert could ever want.  We probably needed to conserve a bit more energy, by covering good distance, but running slower, and we needed not to think too far ahead.  Breaking the challenge down 10km by 10km, and day by day would keep anxiety about the scale of the challenge down.

chameleon

In good spirits we set off again through the dunes on day 4, trying to avoid having to go over every dune by hitting the cols, and using the sand valleys between the dunes where possible.  This made progress a lot easier.  Having run in deserts including the Sahara and the Gobi, I must admit I had not expected the Namib to be so hard.  It is partly the size of the dunes, but also the fact that everything in the Namib desert is sand, and heavy sand to run through.  Running races like the Gobi Challenge, the Sahara Race, and Marathon des Sables usually at least half of the course is a more runnable hard sand, or rocky terrain but this just wasn’t. But after a few days our bodies were settling into it, and we knew that the second half of the challenge would feature some beach that although sandy is a good deal easier than dunes.  I felt after day 4 we had at least a 50/50 chance of getting it done>

 

A suprising feature of the Namib is the plethora of wildlife.  This is due to it being coastal, and although it on average receives the least rain of any desert, a fog in the morning from the sea sometimes rolls over bringing moisture.  The next 3 days allowed us opportunities to run past seal colonies (we even went for a swim with the seals), as well as spotting chameleons, giant spiders, antelopes and the tracks of hyena’s and sidewinder snakes on incursions inland. There was also the bizarre sights of various shipwrecks, some well inland, for example the well preserved carcass of the Edward Bohlen, a 1907 ship marooned in the desert showing that the desert is alive and moving week by week and year by year.

Success_diagram

With covering these distances there were issues.  Donnie and I both ate a fair bit of the sand blowing in our face, Donnie had sand in his eyes, and my back totally seized up one day leading to an uncomfortable time at the end of day 5 unable to move for half an hour.  But we were getting there, and thanks to the expert route finding of our Namibia hosts we thought we could emerge from the desert a day early, on day 9 rather than 10, allowing an extra day for community work.

 

So with the hammer down we progressed over salt flats, dunes, and the coast on day 8.  As we were within 100km of Walvis bay, flamingos greeted us regularly, and on another occasion we were hemmed in by 300kg of Oryx, a huge antelope with massive straight horns that have been known to kill lions. That evening was one for celebration.

Dune Running

We had only 55km to do on the last day, over manageable terrain, which we knew would be a formality. So relaxed were we that we staged an impromptu game of golf over the sand dunes before setting off.  With sand valleys of 300 metres, good scoring proved difficult, but it was a grand warm up for tanking the last leg into civilisation.  Apart from our tight knit group, we had seen no humans at all during our time in the desert, so seeing Chief Kooitjee and members of the local Topnaar tribe welcoming us to Walvis bay was special.  Any finish line is great, but one with a pint of beer and the promise of a shower is even better.  It was a great moment that we shared, expeditions like this are just not possible without expert help, and having Jurgens, Hein, Len, Paul, Wossy, Percy and Luciano, as well as Dave, and our fantastic documentary team Brian and Gayle of LittleBigShot productions, and Jonny Graham of DigitalPict the expeditions professional photographer.  Donnie deserved more beer than me.  He had put up with my whining about my back and various ailments and stayed strong throughout.  When he was asked by a newspaper if he had thought of giving up he simply said “I was in the marines. So no”.

At the end of the Namib Desert

The 2 days after allowed opportunities to share experiences and assist locally with community work. More about that in the next blog, but we did also raise a glass to Bert Jukes, who both through himself and Lyprinol UK had unswervingly supported the expedition, and to Merrell UK, who as ever had supplied top quality kit not only to myself but to support local athletic projects.

PRESS RELEASE- RUNNERS COMPLETE EPIC NAMIBIAN DESERT CROSSING

UK runners Dr Andrew Murray and Donnie Campbell have successfully completed a  first – running across the Namib desert from Luderitz to Walvis Bay, Namibia.  The challenge was set three months ago by Scottish Expedition organiser David Scott, and supported by Lyprinol UK.  The record breaking run crossed the highest sand dunes in the world including the formidable ‘Devil’s Workshop’, in punishing conditions with the pair running over 50km every single day, completing 504.1km in total almost entirely on punishing heavy sand, and crossing the finish line on day 9 of the expedition, at 1430 on 10th February 2015. The pair are no strangers to racing in extreme conditions, with Murray having completed an epic 4295 km run from north Scotland to the Sahara desert, and won races at the North Pole, Antartica and Outer Mongolia amongst others, while Campbell, a former Royal Marine Commando completed a 184 mile run from Glasgow to Skye without sleeping.

Near the start at Luderitz

Speaking from Walvis Bay, Aberdonian Dr Murray 34, of Merrell UK said

“The Namib desert is, hands down both the most spectacular and gruelling place I’ve run in.  Every step through the sand was energy sapping, and my feet are destroyed with blisters.  We were in hefty trouble even after 2 days, but our support team and the incredible views got us to the finish. There were times every day I felt like stopping, but taking on many 300 metre dunes, passing shipwrecks miles inland, and seeing the suprising plethora of wildlife were particular highlights.  We don’t advise everyone to run through the Namib, but would like to promote the value of exercise. Even 30 minutes of walking 5 times a week helps you live on average 7 years longer.”

Edinburgh resident Donnie Campbell, 30, added

Running 500 odd km though the Namib desert was extremely tough and we could not have done it without the expertise of our expedition leaders David Scott, Bert Jukes and the support and superb local knowledge from the team in Namibia.  Their route selection was incredible considering no one has ever driven parts of the route never mind ran it, so this was a huge them effort to deliver Andrew and myself to Walvis Bay a bit battered, bruised and tired but still in one piece. We even ran through abandoned diamond mines, although my fiancee Rachael will be disappointed to learn I couldn’t find a big one ahead of our wedding next month!”

David Scott, from Glasgow added

“Three months ago I challenged Donnie and Andrew to deliver a World first – to run from Luderitz to Walvis Bay across the mighty Namib Desert, supported by a joint Scottish, South African and Namibian safety team.  As expedition organiser I was faced with huge logistical and safety concerns which we tackled as team and overcame to a successful and, more importantly safe conclusion.   The physical demands we placed on the guys were immense and throughout the challenge we were never certain we would emerge successful.  Apart from seeing the guys cross over the finish line my lasting memory will surely be having the privilege of tackling terrain through special concession areas which had never been driven (or run) over before.   We are indebted to Bert Jukes and Lyprinol for believing in this expedition, and supporting it from the outset.  I am also indebted to our excellent African partners Live the Journey
Near the Finish pictures
and the Topnaar tribe for allowing us to pass through their stunning desert.’

Following the run, the team are now engaged in some community work and the sharing of medical and athletic equipment, and education in the Kuiseb river region with Chief Kooitjie and the local Topnaar Tribe, the custodians of the Namib desert work supported by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, Lyprinol, and Merrell UK.