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The Gobi March is a 250km self-sufficient endurance race across the Gobi Desert. This year the event was located along the ancient Silk Road in the remote Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture in the Xinjiang Province of Western China. As this is a restricted area, special permits for competitors are needed to enter. Unspoiled, unknown, beautiful, magical, mysterious, thrilling, spectacular, stunning and dramatic are just some words that come to mind when I think back on this province and this adventure. To put into perspective its difficulty, the Gobi March has been named by TIME magazine as one of the Top 10 Endurance Competitions in the world and is now the largest international sporting event in Western China.

In brief, the race comprises of running 6 stages over 7 days, the first 4 of which average around 40km per day. Day 5 is a gruelling 80km stretch, day 6 is a rest day for most depending on what time one arrives in from the 80km distance, the latest cut off being 7pm. The final day is a ‘fun run’ of 10km as one heads back into civilisation and the host city of Kashgar.

Four of us decided to take up the challenge together – my running partner Dave Pearse from South Africa and Shirley Potter (Galway Triathlon Club) are my closest friends, James Love is a UK veteran of many multi-day events who had shared a tent with Dave and I in the Marathon des Sables last year. So after a smooth 26 hour journey from Dublin to Paris to Beijing to Urumqui to Kashgar, we arrived a day before the event to undergo a series of administrative checks. A highlight of this day and eagerly anticipated by all is the “weighing of the pack” which is aptly conducted against the backdrop of an enormous Chairman Mao statue in downtown Kashgar. In this race format, each runner is required to carry their own food (minimum 2000 calories per day) and mandatory gear for the duration of the event including a sleeping bag, mat, compass, disinfectant, medicine, bandages, whistle, knife, head torch and an emergency aluminium sheet. The only provisions supplied are water rations of 8-10 litres daily and a tent. So it becomes a bit of a contest to see who can pack everything into their backpack and still keep the load as light as possible. I am happy to report that out of 126 runners, I indeed had the lightest pack weighing in at 6.5kg (8kg with water)! Drastic measures were taken to lighten the load, even as bad as cutting the corners off freeze-dried food packets and breaking the handle off a toothbrush in order to save precious grams.

As we boarded the busses and headed into the great stony desert of North-central Asia well known for its bitterly cold winters and short hot summers, we realised that we would be spending the next 6 days in one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Although there was a certain degree of apprehension, I was looking forward to another journey into the unknown and a chance to test my physical limits once again.

Throughout our adventure we crossed rivers with huge stratified unique rock formations jutted out sharply above us for thousands of feet, we saw dry and desolate flat terrain that looked and probably felt like Mars with temperatures that seemed to bake us from above. We ran across sand dunes where we felt like we were truly in a desert. We ran by many a little green oasis, where we'd round a bend flanked by massive flame red jagged mountain ranges blazing in the bright afternoon sun, and tucked back behind a corner we'd see a lush green sanctuary with a family tilling a small field or someone walking a cow down a path. In addition there was the spectacular climb up Heaven’s Gate to an elevation of 3000 meters and Shiptons Arch, the highest natural arch in the world.

Dave and I - Day 2

Dave and I - Day 2

Dave and I - Day 2

Heaven’s Gate, Day 4

Heaven’s Gate, Day 4

Heaven’s Gate, Day 4

Leaderboard

Leaderboard

Leaderboard

By the end of the week, I knew intimate details about the lives of people that were strangers a few days earlier. That’s what is so special about these extreme events .At home it would take years to create this type of bond. Here in the desert, we only have a week so we don’t waste time. Our tent consisted of 8 people including a group of four really fantastic fun-loving friends Hugo, Ben, Ian and George from the UK. At no other sporting event have I ever experienced such a genuine concern for fellow competitors. After each stage every competitor was greeted by the pounding of a huge drum as well as loud cheers and applause by fellow runners. The evenings were spent around campfires and in tents regaling stories of our experiences of the day. The course was really tough/easy today. I have blisters/my feet are perfect. I have diarrhoea/I am constipated. I got lost/the course was marked perfectly. I love this place/I hate this place.

Shirley and I just before the last 10km

Shirley and I just before the last 10km

Shirley and I just before the last 10km

Overall 126 competitors started the race from 28 different countries and 18 abandoned in total. Having read the profile of some of the female competitors including British athlete Sophie Collett who had won the Jungle marathon in Brazil in October 2008 and is UK county champion in cross-country, Canadian Katrina Follows who has summated Everest and skied to the geographic north pole, and American Norma Bastidas who is the top female in the Fast Trax ultra (50 miles) and the Alberta ultra series, I had arrived in China secretly hoping to finish in the top 5 women. From the first day I could hardly believe it but to my absolute delight I led the field. My closest rival was the very experienced ultra and multi-day marathoner Sophie Collett, so even thought I had the initial lead I realised it was going to be a tough contest over the next 5 stages. Fortunately I was able to maintain my position throughout and was ecstatic to win the race in 36.26hrs! I must pay tribute to Dave who ran every step of the way with me and Sophie who pushed me all the way as there were times when I really had to dig deep. I was so pleased that she was able to win the team event and that my great friend Shirley was elevated to 2nd place in the ranking with the very credible time of 40.39 hours in what was her first multi-day event. The third Irish person participating, Shane O’Rourke also from Galway, did outstandingly well crossing the line in 5th position overall and winning his age category. Up the Galwegians!

Dave and I proudly holding up the Irish flag coming into the finish line

Dave and I proudly holding up the Irish flag coming into the finish line

Dave and I proudly holding up the Irish flag coming into the finish line

Celebrations with the best tent ever

Celebrations with the best tent ever

Celebrations with the best tent ever – Ben Marlow, Shirley Potter, Hugo Adair, Diana Hogan-Murphy, James Love, Ian Mitchell-Innes, Dave Pearse and George Arbuthnott

Ben Marlow

14 years 10 months ago

Absolutely fantastic to behold. The grittiest girl in Ireland! And really was the best tent ever. Cracking achievement. Well done. On to the next challenge no doubt...

Tony K

14 years 10 months ago

Hi Di,

Super report and insight into this amazing race...
Congrats again to you and Shirley.....One of the best performances in years by Irish Women in an Ultra event....looking forward to reading your upcoming report on Mont Blanc.

Tough days don’t last.....Tough Women do :)

Tony K

Caitriona

14 years 10 months ago

As I am reading the tears are blurring my vision, Diana, I am so proud of you ! A beautifully written article from a truly beautiful girl both inside and out (who runs in the most beautiful places in the world. You are a champion and officially one of my heros x
Love you
Cait xx