Ultra Gobi During his seventh-century pilgrimage along the route that would become known as the Silk Road, Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang described the Gobi Desert as “nothing but barren sand and dry river beds; at night, stars shine like fires lit by devils… There is not enough water to nourish even a single blade of grass; one looks for birds in the sky and beasts on land, but finds none”. Xuanzang’s quest to obtain sacred Buddhist scriptures was adapted into one of China’s most famous novels, Journey to the West, better known outside the country in its abridged form, titled Monkey. Today, the terrain remains remarkably unchanged and the monk’s route draws a different kind of pilgrim: the ultrarunner. Launched in 2015, the Ultra Gobi is a self-navigating, self-supporting race that follows Xuanzang’s trail along the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau in western China. Once known as the Gansu Corridor, this was the only path for caravans passing between the sands of the Gobi proper to the north and the mountains of Tibet to the south. “The heat goes through you like a flame and the wind cuts your flesh like a knife,” wrote Xuanzang of this route. The Chinese name for the race translates as ‘Xuanzang’s Route: 800li of Flowing Sands’, and 800li (or Chinese miles) converts to 400km, making Ultra Gobi a ‘super-ultra’ marathon that exceeds the world’s most famous desert race – the Marathon des Sables – by 150km, with a soulcrushing 4,000m mountain-pass ascent to the midway checkpoint. It took the legendary monk 17 years to complete his journey; Ultra Gobi contestants – of whom there are only 50 invited each year – have just 149 hours to finish the course. In 2017, British runner Daniel Lawson, then aged 43, did it in less than 71 hours. For the 2018 race, the organisers laid down a $10,000 (around £7,500) prize for anyone who could top that. Fellow Brit James Poole was one of those who took up the challenge. Photographer James Carnegie joined Poole to document his race, and here they take us through their photo diary. It’s a study of attrition, of human determination, and of the toll that harsh conditions and exhaustion can take on the mind and body. “It wasn’t until I was editing the images that I noticed much of what James was going through,” says Carnegie. “The glazed eyes behind his sunglasses as we climbed out of the canyon and onto the 4,000mhigh plateau will always remind me of how far gone he was at that point.” At the stroke of midnight on September 25, 2018, the 50 entrants set off into the vast desert expanse as the clock starts ticking towards the 149-hour completion deadline. This year, there’s an additional £7,500 prize for whoever manages to beat 70 hours and 52 minutes, the record-breaking time set by 2017 winner Daniel Lawson. 76 THE RED BULLETIN
Poole at the start line. Festivities at the opening ceremony – a firework show, a few dozen dancers dressed in Mongolian attire, and a makeshift bar lined with cups of rice beer – belie the gruelling race to come.