So at the start of 2017 I decided that for my big birthday this year I probably wouldn’t do a big fitness challenge – I had done that before, this year I wanted to do something different. Fast forward 2 months and talk among my colleagues began about the Ulaanbaatar Marathon. Last year Pete had ran the 10k and I had felt like I should have participated so maybe this year, afterall, I would give it a go. 10k felt achievable, an hour of running didn’t seem too bad. For those of you who know me well you will know that I have never been a fan of walking or even running but have in my time completed several challenges, that didn’t make this one any easier. My first training session was not exactly successful, a 20 minute run on the treadmill which involved a minute of walking in the middle because I couldn’t cope and ended in me feeling extremely sick and dizzy, with a headache. 10 weeks to improve the situation, I had thought. After a couple of weeks I decided that it was the room the running machine is in that had been bad for my training! A dim, basement room, stuffy and not much air or natural light – that’s what I liked to think anyway. Several colleagues were now talking about various distances, 10k, half and full marathon. The bonus was that several colleagues were therefore also training and after my first few runs I was never alone with the training. The downside was our training route and weather. The school is on a main road with 3 lanes of traffic in each direction and this is basically the only road to run up and down, most of the side roads from it are dirt tracks. So the choice is yours, do you run to the Sansar Supermarket and back – 3k? to the first petrol station and back – 4k? the green KGB building and back – 5k? the 4th bus stop and back – 6k? the roundabout and back – 10k? you get the drift oh, and the road is straight. Once you turn you can always see the school and sometimes it seems to take a really long time for it to actually get any closer. I don’t have a fancy GPS watch or tracking system but after a few runs with those who did, I knew where each km marker was and just had to decide which one to run to on my training sessions. At times the training was quite therapeutic, especially on a Tuesday after an SMT meeting, it gave me time to clear my head but the people who trained with me knew that most times I wasn’t ‘up for it’ and I didn’t often actually really enjoy it. Despite this, every now and then when running back to school I would look around me and even though I have been here for nearly 2 years I would still think it strange that I was running in Mongolia and would marvel at the beauty of the rugged mountains that were always a backdrop.
Jump ahead 10 weeks to the actual race day.
In the middle somewhere when I had already ran a 10k by week 5 I was secretly persuaded that maybe I could do the half marathon – so here I was Saturday 20th May lined up ready to run a half Marathon in the coldest capital city in the world. Problem was it was raining (we hadn’t had any rain since the end of September – not proper, pouring, English, get you very wet, grey skies, rain) and it was 8.50 and the race didn’t start until 10. My TA – or more often than not PA – had met us at 8.30 and confirmed that it did not start for another hour. It was a bit of an anti climax, we were all ready to go, psyched up, despite the rain, and +5 temperature (on Wednesday just 3 days ago it was +32), and here we were being told that we had to wait another hour – the usual Mongolian organisation – to be honest none of us were surprised. 9 of us were participating and the one full marathon runner amongst us had had the genius idea of booking a hotel room just across the road from the start/finish line. The decision was made to camp out in the hotel for the next hour as we were all cold and pretty damp – not the best starting conditions. We all jollied each other along and an hour later walked back out onto the main Sukhbaatar Square once again. Personally since the end of work on Friday I had felt sick and had no appetite, not great when I should have been topping up my carbs. I think it was a combination of exhaustion due to a very busy, demanding and tricky week at work and my body showing nerves that I wasn’t expecting. As I walked across the square for the second time, I felt like I was not prepared sufficiently at all, had I done enough training? All of a sudden the self doubts I had had during the week multiplied. There was no going back now but the way I was feeling was not ideal when 2 and 1/2 hours of running was ahead of me – more than I had done, ever. Working out how to actually get to the section of road where the marathon started was the next challenge and my TA informed us that over the tanoy they had announced that the race was about to start and all competitors needed to get themselves to the start. All of a sudden we were in a mass of people, some participants and some supporters, and we were all trying to reach one gap in the fence. It was my worst nightmare, not an inch to move and being carried along by the wave of people, no option but to keep moving forward in a crush of people. I hated it, I shouted at people to stop pushing, I pushed people, I just wanted to be out of there. There were plenty of police around but not one of them seemed aware of the issue that was going on. Just before the fence that separated the crowd and the start line was a huge puddle, ankle deep and muddy, a safe haven. Nobody else was willing to stand in it but I was, anything to avoid the crush. I then saw a gap in the line of people and realised I could climb over the fence onto the starting section which had far less people on it than the crowd side! Not the ideal preparation, my mind didn’t know what to think and my feet were soaking wet and muddy, I hadn’t prepared for that in all my training either. As I climbed over the fence I saw Pete and Mark who gave me a big reassuring hug, saying “I never thought I wouldn’t complete the marathon because I was crushed on the way to the start line.” Jokes over, the whole period only probably last a couple of minutes and there was no time to focus on it. We checked everyone was ok and with us and then it was time to go. I ran with Roger, a seasoned triathlete who seemed to have a pace that matched mine the closest.
He also had one of those special watches that measured our times and distances so he told me when we reached every kilometre. We joked when I tried to drink from a cup at one of the water stops, drinking from a cup whilst running was another skill I hadn’t practised pre-race so it just went all over my face and we had a laugh. That was at about 4k, when Roger said I could easily do the next 17k as that had been my longest run in training. There was long, gradual hill at about 6k and according to Roger’s watch it was the fastest kilometre we had run. The next stretch was a gradual downhill which I enjoyed, Roger didn’t. He was an understanding running partner, we didn’t mind if we were silent at times, he checked that I was ok if I went too silent and we had time for a joke or 2. The next joke being when we hit the half way mark and high fived and missed. It took 3 attempts to get it right. Running on the car free streets in Ulaanbaatar gave the city a completely different feel. Most of the route was familiar and we had to complete 2 laps. At about 14km, Roger checked his watch again and said we could get under 2 hours 15. In my usual dismissive, ‘I don’t like running’, voice I said something along the lines of I wasn’t sure I could. At this point I decided it would be good to resort to listening to some music. I had included my ipod as a last minute thought. We were two thirds of the way and although that felt good we had 7k to go – in my head I knew that was just past the 4th bus stop and back in training, but also in my head it was still a long way to go. As I was untangling my headphones which took an age and slowed me, Roger finally decided to go for it and said he was going to push on. Ok, no problem I called out and then it was just me. This is Mongolia, not London and the numbers doing the half and full marathon are maybe just in the tens, not the thousands, good for me who doesn’t like running with lots of people around me but now it really was just me, smiling at the policeman every 20m in their special wet weather gear. It felt strange for the first minute or so but my music was familiar songs that I use when running on my own for motivation. It was then that I realised the only person who would get me to the finish now was me.
I knew I had the up hill, the down hill, the British Embassy, Peace Avenue, the Sky Department Store, the Shangri-La and the home straight as my landmarks. The uphill stretch was slow but I didn’t stop and even managed to overtake another runner. The runners were few and far between and now it was the final downhill before Peace Avenue(one of the main streets through the city). As I turned the corner onto Peace Avenue and passed the British embassy Take That kicked in and I knew that now I could do it. I even picked up my pace slightly. As I headed to the finishing straight I started looking out for familiar faces – as soon as I saw them I knew I wanted to look good. I could hear my TA shouting out and I could see the clock – 2:12 – not what I was expecting – so that was it, I upped my pace again, waved, took in the glory and sprinted to the line passing another competitor with 5 metres to go. I passed under the finishing gantry amazed at my time, amazed that I didn’t feel I was about to collapse and amazed that just a minute after me the first athlete finished the full marathon!
We all showered and changed then came out onto the square to cheer on Mark who completed the full marathon and then spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in a cocktail bar in the Shangri-La, joyfully retelling our versions of the race, recollecting the rain at the start of the day and generally just giving each other a big pat on the back for all that we had achieved. A great memory to take away from our time here and something to tick off the bucket list before hitting 40. Just 50,000 words to go and I may have another item ticked off too.