A DNF to be Proud Of

By Stephen Price 5 years ago
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One of the greatest races in one of the most spectacular of settings that I ever ran was also my one and only DNF.  Did Not Finish.  Three words that a runner never wants to hear and especially after spending an entire year training specifically for that race and, more than $10,000.

Yes, some of us are silly enough to pay such an amount to run just one single event.  Spoiler alert: It was the best $10,000 I ever spent!

It was spring of 2007 and I was sitting in my office flipping through running magazines when I came across an article on a race that made my heart start to speed up and then jackhammer in my chest.  I wasn’t necessarily looking for a new adventure but as soon as I saw it I knew I had to do it.  I had to do it, you see, because it scared me half to death.

Ever since I was a child I had this funny thing with fear.  Fear of the dark?  OK, so let’s go downstairs into the basement which was simply a half-dug hole in the ground beneath the house, turn off the lights and see why I’m so scared!   Fear of what was lurking under my bed?  Guess I’ll be sleeping there tonight to ensure it’s only my imagination. Run a 250+ KM race through the “world’s least hospitable landscape” with 35lbs on my back and rationed water?  Guess I’ll be heading to China to run the Gobi March!
It was that simple:  it scared me senseless so I had to run it.

More than anything it was the idea of running back-to-back-to-back marathons when I originally read repeatedly that one should only run 4 marathons a year, at most, in order to prevent injury and allow the body to fully recover between races. 

However, the Gobi March is set up as so that one ran “roughly” a marathon a day for 4 days straight, the fifth day a mere “80-100”KM and then the sixth day a nice little 10K leg-stretcher.  Distances were rough because the course was literally mapped out the day prior by race staff.

Runners need to carry their own food, medical supplies, clothes, toilet paper, books and whatever else they may want, on their back for the entire 6 days.  Runners would be given enough water to get through the first leg of the race on Day One and then additional water every check point which could be between 10 and 25K depending on the terrain.  That rationed water would be used to not only drink but cook dehydrated food over an open fire, to bathe with and to potentially wash your clothes with.

Basically this event went against everything I had ever learned about running yet it intrigued me so much that I signed up immediately … and perhaps so that I wouldn’t back down. 

I put down the hefty deposit then tore the pages out of the magazine and printed more off from the website and then posted them all about my desk so that I could be scared daily.  Scared into putting down my Snickers bar and scared into putting on my running shoes.

With my money down and a set race date it was time to develop a training plan for something that I still couldn’t quite comprehend.  I had built custom training schedules for many people over the years but this would be a whole new challenge.  What sort of distances would I need to get up to in order to run 250KM in 6 days?  How could I mimic the extreme heat of the desert in Alberta, Canada?  What about nutrition leading up to and during the event?  I had more questions than answers but I knew that I’d figure things out along the way.

Step one of actual training was to purchase a running backpack.  I had never used such a thing before so I had to research that as well.   Once that was sorted out I immediately started running everywhere with it.  At first I had just a change of clothes on my back so it was quite light weight yet it still felt very awkward.  The plan was to get up to 40lbs on my back during training as I figured I’d be running the race with between 30 and 35lbs.  That seemed crazy because even having 5lbs on my back to start felt like a lot!

Little by little I started adding more and more weight and I was surprised at how quickly I adapted.  Eventually I put actual workout weights into my bag, wrapped in towels, to prevent from banging into my back. 

Everywhere I ran, I ran with that bag.  It didn’t matter if I was running other sanctioned races during my training I still ran with my weighted bag. 

Just a few months into training I ran a marathon in Mississippi with more than 20lbs on my back to the surprise of other runners who came up to me on course and asked what I was up to.

I did take the bag off for a few 5K fun runs and was absolutely impressed at how fast I ran without it!  Every short “fun run” ended up being a new Personal Best. 

I became almost obsessed about running everywhere with my bag.  It was my friend, my sidekick and we were inseparable.  Even when I was invited to a friend’s place for dinner I would ask them first if I could shower upon arrival as I would be running to and from their place and not driving.  It was difficult at first but eventually it became habit and people always supported me. 

When I wasn’t running I was in the gym lifting weights, running stairs with a large weighted bag across my shoulders, swimming and doing spin classes.  I ate, slept, breathed and lived training for almost an entire year.  I had never been in such great shape and I was very proud of my physique and strength.   And fortunately I stayed very healthy and injury free throughout which allowed me to push myself to new limits. 

My last week of training I ran a total of 210KM and although it wasn’t easy it wasn’t difficult either.  I was surprised at what my body could take and how quickly I recovered after a run or workout.  I was starting to truly believe that running the Gobi March ultra-marathon was very doable after all.

Taking part in the Gobi March meant getting myself to literally the other side of the world.  I had to consider that it would take me the better part of three days to get there including the drastic time change, then, a few days to recover from the flights.

To get to Kashgar, China where I’d meet up with race organizers and other runners for the Gobi March, I’d have to fly through Beijing or Hong Kong.  I had never been to China before and thought that it would be a wonderful idea to do some touring prior to the race or perhaps post-race assuming I could still walk. 

As luck would have it, the Great Wall of China Marathon happened to be 13 days prior to the start of the Gobi March.  It seemed like a perfect fit and a fantastic “last long run” before the big race! However, rather than tour China on my own I decided to build an escorted Dream Travel tour for my clients that included running a race on the Great Wall. 

I built an exciting itinerary that included visiting Hong Kong, Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Macao and a few other wonderful locations in east and central China and of course running the Great Wall of China Marathon.  

The tour with my clients went fantastically well and I ran the extremely difficult Great Wall of China Marathon with my friend the weighted backpack. 

The GWC Marathon includes “only” 7KM on the Wall doing virtually nothing but stairs.  Huge stairs.  Stairs that require legs considerably longer than mine even though I’m 6’1”.   Up and down, down and up.  And when we weren’t running stairs on the Wall we were running up and over two enormous foothills that seemed more like mountains.  It was easily the hardest marathon that I had ever run yet it was also one of my absolutely favorites!

After celebrating the victory of completing a marathon on the Great Wall of China with my clients, I headed back to the hotel to check out my feet.  I knew that I was in the process of losing some toenails after the race but I had no idea that it would be as extreme as it was.  From all of the training that I completed for Gobi March and then running that marathon, all those stairs and putting constant pressure on the front of my feet (plus added weight from my backpack) I ended up bruising and losing every single toenail. 

All ten and yes, I have the photos to prove it. Although that may seem like a bad thing to you it actually turned out to be a small miracle.  I had been concerned about running the upcoming ultra with dead and dying toenails (a good runner always has some dead toenails in a state of falling off) but now that was no longer an issue!

After my group tour of China I said my goodbyes to my clients in Hong Kong and headed 4,058KM west to the city of Kashgar on the other side of China.
I arrived with a few days to spare and decided to check out the sites, hire a local guide (a kid with an extra bike) and taste the local cuisine. 

Kashgar is a city with more than 2000 years of rich heritage and history.  The city was the major hub on the famous Silk Road that connected an important trade route between China, Europe and the Middle East. 

My guide took me around to all the important sites, Mosques, Tombs and Bazaar (where almost everything is for sale from spices to camels) and through the Old City which was all a fantastic experience!

After a while I ditched my guide and headed out on my own in search of more adventure and some food.  It turned out that ordering meals in restaurants without my guide was certainly a challenge but definitely added to the adventure! 

In the first restaurant that I chose on my own I was offered a menu written completely in Chinese Characters and didn’t offer a single photo of food to point at.  I desperately looked around the restaurant for a picture of some sort of food but there was nothing at all.  However, I did notice that they had wastebaskets beside each table so I routed around in one until I found a chicken (hopefully) bone and a grain of rice.  I put them both on the table and looked at my waitress with a look of hope.  She smiled politely and then went off to make me what turned out to be a wonderful dish of chicken (probably) and rice.

The second restaurant didn’t have photos in their menus either but they also didn’t have wastebaskets.  I looked around the place with a confused look on my face when the waitress indicated that I should follow her.  She escorted me into the kitchen where the waitress motioned me to look around and point to food that I wanted.

In the end both meals were absolutely fantastic and made even better by the experiences themselves.

The next day all Gobi March competitors were to meet in the International Hotel in the afternoon, check in and ready their gear for the drive north towards Mongolia and into the Gobi Desert.  I was already staying in the hotel so used the morning to do some last minute exploring. Upon my return the hotel was overflowing with runners, gear, volunteers and staff members running around organizing the international group of overly excited runners. 

It was then that it hit me! All those months of training, thousands of kilometers and multiple pairs of running shoes that I killed off in record time.  The early bedtimes, skipped desserts and greasy foods, the sacrifices that I made and time I invested was all to get here.  Here, the middle of nowhere surrounded by other equally crazy people that also sacrificed so much to make this a reality! 

I looked around completely bewildered.  There wasn’t a place to sit in the entire lobby as enormous as it was. A pile of luggage that started out in a far corner spilled outwards eating up a quarter of the entire lobby.  People were scattered about, sitting wherever they could find space whether it was on a chair, on the floor or on their luggage.   

I heard English, Spanish, German, French, Italian and a host of other languages I couldn’t even place. Ages ranged from surprisingly young to surprisingly old.  There was such a mix of people but everyone seemed to have the same, dumbfounded smile dominating their face.  It was impossible not to smile, even with a little fear behind it!  We worked our tails off to be here and spent a small fortune each. We made our ways to the other side of the world to a place that few tourists will ever reach.  We made up an ecliptic group of runners who were about to run one of the hardest running events on the planet! 

I took a long look around me and through all the organized chaos I realized that I was standing in the middle of some of the greatest runners known today.

Race workers weighed all of our gear and ensured that we each had the requisite amount of calories for the entire 6 days.  It didn’t matter how you got the calories in as long as they added up to the minimum required amount or more.  I was impressed with my choices for light-weight, calorie dense food until I saw the Italians who showed up with nothing more than a single bottle of olive oil each. 

Oil, that’s it!  They were going to consume nothing but oil for 6 days!  It blew my mind but at the same time it made a ton of sense.  Their 2lb bottle had the same amount of calories that I had in all of my food combined but at a weight of roughly 20lbs!

Once everyone was verified we were divided into small groups and driven out of town in 4×4’s to an autonomous zone roughly 4 hours north of Kashgar.  Autonomous zones are self-governing towns or villages that do not receive benefit or assistance from their country.  

Race organizers had to obtain permission for us to enter as this particular autonomous zone had never previously received foreigners.  Some of the people living in this area had never even seen a foreigner before we arrived yet they put on a spectacular welcome party and show for us as if we were royalty! 

Locals lined a dusty road as our vehicles approached and cheered us upon our arrival.  They danced for us, sang and lined up to be in our photos.  They shook our hands and patted us on the backs and made us feel like we had already completed the race.

We spent the balance of that day enjoying their hospitality and then settling into the various buildings that the locals offered up that night.  The buildings consisted of a church, makeshift school and the likes and all that had been around for easily a few hundred years.  With stone walls and mosaic tile-laid floors and throw pillows everywhere it felt like a desert oasis.  I was bunked that first night with famous long distance runner Dean Karnazes.  It was both an honor and terrifying to be in such company.  Honor as I had incredible respect for what he had accomplished in running, and terrifying because I had the thought that maybe I was in over my head.

We dined early on whatever dehydrated food we each had brought while the Italians cheered with glasses of olive oil.  I met runners from all over the world including another famous long distance runner from Brazil who ran 9000 KM’s in 100 days, in Croc’s, and was about to attempt the Gobi March in them as well.  A reporter from CNN who was supposed to only cover the event but at the very last minute decided that the best way to cover an event like this was to participate in it.  A fellow from Hong Kong who did these sorts of races all the time and another fellow Canadian living in Prague who was a full-time adrenaline junkie.  The crowd of runners was as diverse as could be yet we all shared a common passion and were all crazy enough to take on this 250KM foot race through the desert!

Early the next morning we formed a large mob at the start line while the locals prepared to send us off with the banging of their gong.  My heart was racing and as I looked around I thought again that maybe I was a little out of my league.  I was just some runner from Canada mixed in with actual running celebrities!

I only let myself think negatively for a few moments before I realized that I too deserved to be here.  I put in almost a full year of specialized training for this particular event after double-digits marathons all over the world.  I may not be famous and I may not have written any books but I certainly had the same will power and determination to tackle this race!

I started to smile and before I knew it the banging from the gong became louder than the banging in my chest.  Somewhere a gun went off and the crowd surged forward.  I took off way too fast but felt as light as air despite having the heaviest pack in the entire group.  My smile broadened and I took in the amazing scenery as I ran off into the desert with the world’s greatest runners!

Day One of the Gobi March consisted of running over desert floor (rocks, sand, pebbles, rocks and more rocks) and crossing the same winding river at least 10 times (I stopped counting after that).  The first time we had to cross the river I stopped to take off my shoes. I got one off when I realized that the front runners were just splashing through, shoes and all.  I quickly re-laced my shoe and did the same.  The cold water on my already hot skin was a beautiful contrast.

The desert heat was so intense that by the time I reached the next river crossing less than 5 minutes later my shoes and socks were bone dry. That, or I forgot all about them.

We ran on crossing and re-crossing and then crossing again this same river.  Up and over foothills of rock and down the far sides, always with more desert ahead.  We followed animal trails and motorbike tracks and all the while following little pink flags that the organizers stuck in the ground every 100 meters or so. 

Six and a half hours later I crossed the finish line of Day One in the top 25% of the runners.  I felt great and my body didn’t hurt at all.  It felt easier than any previous marathon and more like I did a nice and easy 10K run despite the heavy backpack, heat and terrain.

That night I witnessed many runners throwing away food and trying to lighten their bags.  There would be no more gear checks so I too decided to pare down my gear.  I threw away my spare pare of runners and all of my powered sport drink.  I squeezed out 90% of my toothpaste and snapped off the handle on my toothbrush.  I ripped out half of the empty pages in my journal and ditched the deodorant and magazines I brought. I then donated all of my clothes other than one pair of running shorts, one running shirt and one spare shirt to sleep in.  I cut and slashed and ended up with a much lighter bag and still more than I would end up needing.

That night we were given our official rooming list for the balance of the race.  I was very fortunate to have been roomed with the Italians along with their constant optimism, smiles and laughter.  We shared an 8 man tent and did our best to sleep well on the ground after a long day of running.  There was no need to sleep in my sleeping bag as it was very warm at night so instead I used it as a mattress pad. With a change into clean clothes to sleep in, I laid down and instantly fell asleep.

Day Two started out with more freeze-dried food, water rationing for drinking, cooking and bathing and then the ceremonial banging of the gong to symbolize the start of the next 45 or so KM.

I felt confident starting out on the second day even though I had run a full marathon and then some just the day before and under hard conditions.  My only concern was that I hadn’t urinated since the day before.

Considering the heat it was important to keep the body functioning correctly and lack of urination was definitely a cause for concern.

I ran a large part of Day Two with the CNN reporter and a military fellow, chatting and getting to know each other.  The day was extremely hot and as we progressed the course became more and more difficult including running up and over a series of 8 or so large foothills.  Going up was fine but running along the ridges and coming down was quite treacherous. 

Many runners had fallen and cut open their palms and knees but continued on as if nothing happened.  It wasn’t like there was an alternative; medical attention would only be available at the next check point except for dire situations.

Upon arrival into the first check point one of the staff members asked me when the last time I urinated was.  Apparently what I was experiencing was something that these race organizers had seen before.

I assumed that telling the truth would slow me down therefore I told them that I had just gone a few KM’s back. The truth was that it had been roughly 13 hours.  It was a terrible mistake lying to the staff and one that I came to deeply regret.

I ran off after just a short break in the checkpoint tent.  I decided to set my watch to beep every 10 minutes so that I would take a sip of water, thirsty or not, and hoped that would rectify the situation.

The three of us continued running together for a while, then separated for a few hours, then we’d bump into each other at checkpoints or other points along that days’ course. 

When I wasn’t running with them I was lost in the scenery and my thoughts.  I lost track of everything other than what I was doing and the next time I heard my watch beep I was astonished to see that more than 7 hours had passed.  I had been in a running trance while following the little pink flags and carefully watching my footing that I completely forgot to drink!  

I took some long swigs but my body didn’t seem to want it.  It was already too late, I was beyond normal dehydration.

I pushed on knowing that I had to get to the next checkpoint, sipping as much as I possibly could.  By the time that I bumped into the CNN reporter again I begged her for some water. I had somehow managed to get two bottles of water into me but now was thirsty for more.  Extremely thirsty. It was against the rules to share food, supplies or water but I was beyond desperate.  She looked at two full bottles of water strapped into holders at my waist and asked me what was wrong with the water I had.  I was stumped.  I had been running for another hour and change with such extreme thirst but also the inability to see what was right in front of me!
She pointed down to my water belt and I realized that her hand disappeared from sight when I turned my head a little.  Without realizing it I had gone partially blind in my right eye.  A little freaked out I told her what was happening and so she decided to run the final 10 or so KM’s into camp with me.

As we progressed my vision in my right eye became worse and worse and eventually I became completely blind in that eye.  To top it off I started to see things that weren’t there…  

Let me explain:  I had thought it wise to bring a small bag of peanut M&M’s with me to consume on Day Five, the 80-100KM day, as a treat.  However, they only survived part way through Day One when I opened the bag, had two and felt like throwing up.  Turns out sugar isn’t what a body needs under those circumstances.  I tossed the bag that night in camp but now, on Day Two and half blind, I started to see M&M’s scattered everywhere.

At first I thought I dropped my bag of M&M’s but then I remembered that I had tossed the bag.  Or at least I thought I had.  It didn’t make any sense.  I ran on and didn’t say anything to my running partner for fear that I was losing my mind as well as my sight.  More and more M&M’s appeared and eventually I saw something else: a garden gnome sitting on a rock.  By this point I wasn’t certain what was real or what wasn’t but once the gnome started chattering I realized that I was totally losing it.  I had just enough mind left to know that I was indeed losing my grip with reality and desperately wished to be back at camp.

Eventually I saw the finish line for that day and I crossed it feeling like death warmed over.  Just under 10 hours of running, hiking up mountains and gnome-spotting.   The reporter and the army fellow dragged me to my tent and I passed out instantly.  Minutes later I was being dragged back out of my tent by my roommates as I was vomiting God knows what. I hadn’t eaten that day since breakfast and definitely wasn’t enough fluids in me to vomit.

After allowing me to dry heave a little my new friends dragged me to the infirmary where I spent the entire night while hooked up to a constant IV drip and received 6.5 bags of saline.  By the time I woke up I felt substantially better and could almost see 100% out of my right eye again.  I didn’t see any more M&M’s nor gnomes and I was starving.  All very good signs!

I called over the doctor and asked for my backpack so that I could find some tasty dehydrated breakfast. I was going to need to regain some strength so that I could complete another 42-50K that day.  I also requested that someone look at my feet.  I wasn’t entirely certain but was pretty sure that something wasn’t right.  I was definitely experiencing some pain but this felt unlike anything I had previously experienced.  On top of everything, I was in a hurry since Day Three was to be underway in less than an hour.
The doctor sauntered over and told me to relax, there was no need to rush.  He informed me that I had already been disqualified.  D.N.F.

My heart sunk and for a few minutes I was confused.  How could that be?  I finished both Day One and Two on my own, I didn’t receive any food or water from anyone and was ready to go for Day Three.  It was simple, I thought, but as it turns out when you require enough saline solution to bring back the dead you become what is considered “High Risk”.

I explained that I would be running with or without their permission so begged them to please have someone look at my feet, and, straight away!  Reluctantly they found a foot person but made me wait until after the official start of Day Three.  I was upset and disappointed but it seemed that I was not in control and did my best to accept that what I could not change.
When the foot specialist removed my shoes and socks he sat back, looked solemnly at me and shook his head.  Apparently my feet didn’t dry so well during those river crossings on Day One after all.  That, or in my drunken state during Day Two I ran through more water without even realizing it.

The doctor placed his hand on the bottom of my foot and moved his hand up and down by a few inches.  All of the muscles, tendons and the likes that should have stayed in place moved with his hand.  Large blisters created a broken ridge of skin, through every layer, from below my big toe right across to my baby toe…on both feet.  On top of that my feet were so swollen that it would prove to be impossible to put my shoes back on again.

The doctor told me that only once previously he had seen feet in such a terrible state. He told me about a fellow that I had actually read about in that very article that started this entire journey.  He was my “worst case scenario” and “well, I won’t be that guy”!  Turns out I was that guy.

While I watched the last of the runners disappear from view into the desert, the doctor told me that I couldn’t have continued in that state anyway.  My feet were a disaster and it was time to accept the inevitable. 

He was being very considerate and gentle with me as he realized that it wasn’t easy hearing this information.  He had volunteered at many of these sorts of races previously and knew what it took to run in one.

I appreciated his candor but instead of accepting what he said, I took a deep breath and then explained that I wouldn’t be giving up that easy.  My feet hurt but they weren’t hurting enough to stop me. 

Neither doctor would give me the OK to continue so I demanded to speak to the person in charge.  I assumed she would back down after hearing my pleas but she didn’t and I completely understand why.  I have never blamed her and she was right, I was done for, I just hadn’t yet realized it.  I did, however, manage to convince her to let me run unofficially, DNF or not.  I didn’t put a year into training to only run 90 or so KM.  I’d be giving this race my all.

She said that I could run unofficially but not until Day Four.  Besides, everyone had already taken off more than an hour before and I’d have to play catch up and under less than optimal circumstances.  Instead, I’d relax, hydrate, eat and wait to cheer in the runners that evening. I also had to come up with a solution for my shoes now that they seemed about 6 sizes too small.  

The solution, as it turned out, was much easier than I would have guessed.  I had brought a pocket tool and used the knife to cut along the seam where the sole and fabric met.  By cutting some of the stitches the shoe opened up which meant substantially less support but much needed space.  I also loosened the laces and cut additional holes along the side of the fabric for sides of my feet to hang out a bit.  It was very makeshift but it worked just fine!

By the morning of Day Four I was feeling pretty good, all things considered, and so eagerly lined up with the other runners.  I noticed that the group of runners had dwindled substantially, many having been DNF’d as well due to injury and illness.  Some quit simply due to the severity of the course and how much it beat us up and some had been airlifted out of the desert to a hospital.

There were always two starting groups each morning, the non-elite runners who went out first and then the elite runners who got to start another hour or so later.  I started in the front of the first group but managed only 10KM before I fractured a metatarsal bone in my right foot. 

We had been running down a dry riverbed for what seemed like an eternity.  Every footstep had to be carefully considered to prevent from rolling an ankle or twisting a knee.   I had avoided both of those things but when the bone leading from my big toe finally had enough abuse, it fractured and stopped me cold.

At first I thought I had just stepped on a sharp rock so I tried to run a little more but quickly I realized that running would no longer be an option.  Runners passed me in trickles and eventually in groups.  People stopped to ask me if I was OK and I nodded and smiled and said everything was fine.  Nothing was fine but I still wasn’t completely beaten.

The next checkpoint was only a few KM away and I had to make it there.  I hobbled and limped wildly along before realizing that walking was just as painful as running.  Slowly I quickened my pace and before I knew it I was at the next checkpoint but I was delusional again.  This time from pain, not from dehydration. 

The staff, sensing something had happened by witnessing the way I was favoring one foot, hurried over and helped me take off my shoes.  They were horrified by my feet but I assured them that they looked like that the day before and that wasn’t the current issue.

My mind was racing from adrenaline and I still wasn’t 100% in the head because someone asked me if I wanted painkillers and I turned them down and explained that I needed to carry on. Only 40+ KM more to go on a fractured foot.  No problem.

They topped up my water and off I went looking to get that day over with. I hadn’t even considered the fact that I still had another 140-160KM left in the race.  I didn’t think like that or I may have quit right there.  Instead I considered that I just needed to get through that day and that I would worry about tomorrow when I needed to.

I managed another 26KM before the pain in my foot finally got the best of me.  I could barely stand let alone walk by that point.  I had completed 126KM of an estimated 250KM.  A hair over half. The race had beaten me and there was no denying that now.

I had started Day Four in the front of the group and finished it dead last.  Even the walkers were miles ahead of me.  Some race officials had found me on course and helped me hobble for another few KM’s more before they could bring in a vehicle to take me to camp.  I was finished both physically and emotionally.

We rode back to camp in silence and I took in the desert from another perspective. My driver, sensing I wasn’t in the mood to talk, focused on the road and I focused on my inability to finish a race for the first time in my life.  I felt weak, lost and beaten.   

When we finally made it back to camp I was immediately offered a ride back to the hotel in Kashgar, a cool bed, a hot shower and real food.  It was an offer too good to refuse and I wanted nothing more than to be away from this desert, the harsh conditions, the crap food that I brought and the race that I couldn’t finish…but I didn’t.  I stayed.  I had to, there was no other option.  I didn’t come to other side of the world to completely give up. Maybe I couldn’t run or even walk the rest of the course but I could still cheer my fellow runners on, support them to the best of my ability, and be a part of the team.

And so I did just that.  I won’t lie to you and tell you that it was easy or that I didn’t have some soul-crushing moments.  Helping organize the finisher’s medals at the end of Day 6 was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  Those medals were the nicest I’d ever seen and I really, really wanted to take one and put it in my pocket.  There were roughly 30% more medals than finishers, maybe more, so no one would ever have known.  

In the end the only thing that I stole was a photo of the medals that I set out for the true finishers.  If I wanted to take one of those medals I’d have to go back and earn it.  

I watched the fellow from Brazil in his Crocs cross the finish line, fall to his knees, shoulders wrapped in the Brazilian flag, crying and clutching a photo of people important to him.  As he kissed the ground I too had a few tears of my own for him, my other fellow runners and for giving my heart and soul to that race and not giving up until I truly couldn’t take another step.  I felt what he felt, I understood.

The CNN reporter who was so completely and utterly under prepared for what she needed to do finished looking stronger than the toughest man on that course.  She earned my respect the moment she signed up for the race which was the day before it started. And, while she ran around a town in the middle of nowhere looking for running gear, food and a backpack.  
The army fellow strutted in like it was no big deal although if you looked close the wear and abuse showed on him as it did on the faces of all the runners. 

My friend from Hong Kong who walked the race beamed like he won the lottery.  The Italians could be heard 2KM’s back from the finish line and closing in, laughing and signing and chanting and clinking their nearly empty bottles of olive oil.  

The scene was overwhelming to say the least.  All of these amazing people that I barely knew, coming together and taking on one of the world’s toughest challenges, crossing the finish line 260’ish KM later, laughing, crying, singing, hugging and kissing the ground.  I didn’t just mist up for them, I cried.

I spent the day after the finish line festivities with Carlos from Brazil, the fellow that ran in the Crocs.  Turns out he was sponsored ever since he ran around the entire country of Brazil, non-stop.  Now he runs the world and gets paid to do so.

The following day I spent with one of the Italians as we further explored Kashgar.  Turns out he worked for a famous chocolatier who asked him to gather a team to invent a new chocolate for their company.  He invented Ferrero Rocher, those wonderful-wrapped chocolates found around the world.  After that impressive invention he opened up his own bookstore in Italy and ran in his spare time.

Everyone that I met had an amazing story to tell, yet everyone was extremely humble and gracious. Some beat cancer before coming to the Gobi Desert, others beat serious addictions or fears.  Some were there to drastically change or reboot their lives, others to push themselves to new limits.

We all came from different walks of life and different parts of the world.  We came together to run and share in an event that taught us all something special about what we’re really capable of.  We realized that the Gobi March wasn’t just a physical event but a spiritual, emotional and psychological battle and that running was only a small part of it.  We came together and conquered our fears, we laughed and joked, we shared and we overcame and eventually we went our separate ways, every one of us a hero in our own right.

–Stephen Price

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