Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset

Hear from Wellington squaddie Kate as she tackles something more than a little bit intrepid,

Ever woken to the sounds of flute and a primal drum? Compete in Sunrise to Sunset in the Mongolia’s wild mountains and you will!

You’ll also see the sun rise – and if you do the 100km – the sun set.  I did 42km, so it was all over by lunch time for me after a 4.30am start.

We listen to the safety briefing before the race. There are dedicated medical staff for the race, but safety becomes even more important when you’re thousands of kilometres away from any decent medical facilities. If in trouble, the race director tells us to write a note and hand it to a passing runner who would then take it to the nearest aid station where they would radio back to base.  Those running the 100kms and finishing their race in darkness are warned to watch out for wolves, Mongolian dogs protecting camps and even bears. If we got lost, use your compass to head east to the lake, use water purification tablets,the high calorie snacks and the standard rain gear we all have to carry.

After almost missing the start with a painful tummy (yak yoghurt from the day before?), the light from my head torch bobbed in unison with 55 other runners through one of the vast fur tree forests throughout Lake Hovsgol National Park.

Starting at 1600m altitude, I was puffing fast and furiously without much effort, but soon ignore it and push on. Aside from the Mongolians and a Colarado local, all of us feel it.

The light of the most perfect day arrives. The 12km aid station heralds the first climb of the race from 1600m to 2600.

A weaving four wheel drive track bordered by pretty alpine meadows with wildflowers takes us up. It’s warm and sunny and the insects create a very loud buzz.

I marvel at how well my body holds up after pre-race Mongolian vodka tipples. At camp, a gaggle of Kiwi runners – two anaesthetists, a plastic surgeon and an orthopaedic surgeon – tell us confidentally drinking before the race is OK, as long as it’s not the night before. 

Chilled out Mongolian herdsmen with leathery faces wait at junctions to make sure we don’t go off course.  They must think we’re complete weirdos. Dolling ourselves up with our sports watches, fluorescent colours, expensive trail shoes, fancy sports nutrition, huffing and puffing, red faces writhing in agony with runny noses. All the same, they cheer us on and go back to their smokes.

I summit and my breath is taken, this time with the magnificent view of higher mountains behind. Everything is peaceful and right and in place. It’s like nature has sorted it out, for that moment, just for us. The views take your eyes towards the top of the lake, where Mongolia stops and Russia begins.

The descent is wickedly steep and my quads call for time out. Must push on though. It will get better on the flat.

I reach the flat and it’s around 5km of marshy soup following days of rain. I slow to a walk and know that the next aid station is near. My old school friend Amanda has come to Mongolia to support me and is a volunteer at the second aid station. She’s a mum of four and a highly experienced emergency department nurse. As I approach the aid station her hilarity knows no bounds. “Would you like a vodka Kate?”. I answer her by pointing out the incredible job the other volunteer is doing by wiping the mud and yak poo off my legs with a tissue. After a bit more banter, I head off. I can barely run.

One runner, Luda, a 60 year old Russian, hires a horseman to guide her through her 100kms.  Markers are smears of green paint on objects (mostly green trees) along the way. They aren’t always easy to make out.  I run with Luda for a while, and the horseman’s quiet presence behind us up the second hill is extremely welcome.

Luda worries about the horse. “It’s got four legs, and you have two, so concentrate on your own energy” I say.  I remember the Mongolian woman sweeping past me on the first hill and the stick that gave her support.  I follow suit with two sticks from the forest floor and it instantly gives my aching thighs a boost. I yell downhill at a fellow New Zealander who is struggling: “Get some poles Michael!!!” The horse gently picks its way up through the forest. He’s not worried and neither am I.  All hills come to an end and I know I have the endurance to make it.  We reach the summit and circle clockwise three times around a Shaman shrine to bring us fortune for the rest of the race. I’ll take it anyway I can get.

A young Mongolian joins our crew. It’s still 70kms to go for him and his knees are painful and swollen. He assures us he’s ok and beams out a smile. I’m pretty sure he’s faking it, but one of the race crew is right behind us and will keep an eye on him.

I’m picking up my pace, and soon we see horse trekkers and know the ger camps – and the finish – can’t be that far away. Who cares what happens now?

Which is why it surprises me when I reach the last, flat, 2kms. It feel as if I am crawling. I pump my arms to keep me going and it seemed to help.

I cross the finish line having started 7 hours and 17 minutes earlier. I’m the 6th woman home and am stoked. Nothing else matters now except rest, enjoying time with my fellow runners and comfort.

We stay up late to see all the 100km runners come in. Our fellow New Zealander Michael is travelling solo, so we’re especially keen to see how he does. He arrives hand in hand with two Japaense runners. He puffs out his first word over the line – it rhymed with the word ‘luck’. 

I muse over the race. I wanted to go to this place. I’d experienced its beauty and was in wonder at the awesome people I’d run the race with. I’d done the work, I had some setbacks in training, got through them and had a couple of awesome coaches behind me (Ali and Kerry from Squdrun). Nothing would bother me now. What a thing.

Our Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset 2019 crew are a team of united nations – Dutch, Hong Kong Chinese, Japanese, American. Polish, LIthuanian, English, New Zealanders, German, Belgian, Australian, South African, Russian and of course, Mongolian. No country comes out especially on top, but it turns out New Zealand had the biggest representation at the event with eight of us there. We’re now fimly the wolf pack from the 2019 Mongolian Sunrise to Sunset. 

Want to do Sunrise to Sunset and find out more? VIsit There’s flights into the capital Ulaanbaator from Hong Kong, Korea, China and other airports.