re-sized Gaochung Village

Stage 5,The Long March in the Gobi Desert is over and July has just begun

The climate in the Gobi Desert is one of great extremes – temperatures can soar to +50° C  (122°F) in the summer and plummet to -40 (–40°F) in winter – snow can fall. The temperature can fluctuate wildly in a short space of time, not only through the year but even within 24 hours, by as much as 35 °C (95 °F).

Generally precipitation averages less than 100 mm per year, while some areas only get rain once every two or three years. It’s rain shadow is caused by the Himalayas blocking rain-carrying clouds coming from the Indian Ocean.  Strong winds of up to 140 km/h can make travel dangerous at certain times of the year – June/July should not be one of them!

It is a desert that is expanding at an alarming rate. 3,600 km2 (1,390 sq mi) of grassland are overtaken every year by the Gobi Desert on the southern edge of China. The expansion of the Gobi is attributed mostly to human activities, notably deforestation, overgrazing, and depletion of water resources.

And it is into this hostile environment that RacingThePlanet takes it enthusiastic followers in one of their ‘4 Desert’ events, an event that take place over 7 days and 250 kilometres and will have an overall finishing time ranging from about 25 hours to 80 hours. These are combined times over the seven days.

RacingThePlanet's 4 Deserts ultra-endurance races

RacingThePlanet's 4 Deserts

The Long March is, as the name suggests, the longest stretch of the course. A forbidding 80kms or 49.7 miles. Doesn’t sound much does it? Well, if that’s what you think please read the above paragraphs again! And you might be interested to hear that yesterday was 42°C at the beginning of the day! The day before that, the Stage had been thrown into turmoil by thick fog and had ended with torrential rain…

Gobi March, Turpan Basin  - Xinjiang, People's Republic of China

Gobi March, Turpan Basin

Risks cannot be taken in an environment such as this and so race organisers have ensured that there are checkpoints every 10 kilometers (6 miles) or so along the course.

The Southern Hemisphere is still dominating the race. Damon Goerke of Australia, a first-timer to a RacingThePlanet event, continued his winning streak, securing the 80km Stage 5 – the Long March – in just under 10 and a half hours. Goerke, 37, crossed the finish line into Camp 6 ahead of South African Dirke Cloete, 43, Italian Paolo Barghini, 51, and Spain’s Jaume Toloso Anglada, 43, who all arrived within minutes to an enthusiastic welcome from volunteers and withdrawn competitors. Goerke crossed the finish line at 18:25:45. He said, “I was pretty nervous about this to be honest. The last bit coming across I’ve never felt so bad… I just couldn’t cool down. But as soon as I came around the corner and felt the breeze I felt better.”

I’m re-showing a video from last year which gives you an idea of the terrain and atmosphere of Stage 5 of this endurance ultra-marathon.

Australian Jennifer Madz, 31, is still leading the field… she’s going strong despite the adverse conditions. “Wow… what a day…over 50 degree heat and dunes as far as you can see them,” she blogged at the end of Stage 4. When thinking about The Long March to come she said: “No strategy except to try and stay alive!” She did that very successfully coming in 11th overall and first woman over the finish line.

The day began promptly at 8 a.m. and competitors had to cross open terrain and dunettes before continuing into the Turpan Basin salt flats. Most had a strategy for this gruelling session – to push hard in the morning, covering as much ground as possible during the cooler temperatures and then having the night and the coolth again to complete the stage. As Britons James and Jonathan Hext, who are competing as part of the four-man Team Hext Boys, said “Our strategy [was] to get to Checkpoint 3 as quickly as possible to avoid the heat. If we can do that, we’re good. We have the afternoon to get to Checkpoint 4 and then we have all night to finish.”

Canadian Jim Willett, 37, on completing the race, said that he “loved the section before Checkpoint 5. The locals were so friendly along the way.” To the competitors delight they were offered watermelon by the villagers of Gaochung, an ancient pre-Uyghur cities in the Turpan basin region – a real treat after 5 self-supported days!

Gaochang Village in the Turpan basin region, Gobi Desert

Gaochang Village in the Turpan basin region

It’s hard to believe that watermelons grow there isn’t it! Hami melons too…

Ninety two competitors have already crossed the finish line, 121 are expected to finish The Long March and volunteers are, as I write, walking the Long March as a sweep behind the last competitors, followed by camels, picking up all course markings and keeping an eye on the back of the pack competitors… if past years are anything to go by… they’re having fun too!

Photos courtesy of  Mark Lehmkuhler and Mutantfrog

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