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ill titleLes Foulees De La Soie

Published in Runners World, 2001.

ill_1The leader in the yellow jersey; a red one for King of the Mountains, the Prologue, time trials - no, it's not the Tour de France. Replace the mountains and roads of France with those of China, throw in the Gobi Desert, change two wheels to a pair of running shoes and you have Les Foulées de la Soie - a multistage running adventure that carries you at breathtaking speed along the Silk Road - the ancient trade route that opened up China to the West.

After the untimed Prologue around the streets of Shanghai, the competition begins in earnest in Xi'an with the 15 km Grand Emperor stage. A steep climb on a winding mountain road in wonderfully British conditions - pouring rain, dense fog. The road turns first to track and then to muddy footpath - cross-country running in August! The next morning, a time trial on the ancient city walls if Xi'an. Slowest goes first, the rest at 30 second intervals, 8 km on the hard cobbled ramparts. Within hours you're flying into Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert and the first of two stages barely 15 hours apart. In the Mogao Caves 18 km you are one minute precariously balanced on narrow mountain footpaths, the next exposed to the full power of the desert sun. A few hours sleep and then it's 15 km into the awesome Mingsha sand dunes that tower 150 metres above your head. A day off, THE day off, and a coach journey across the desert to Jiayuguan, a city where desert landscapes and snow-capped mountains can be viewed side by side without moving your head. Starting in the shadow of the western end of the Great Wall, the Jiayuguan Pass half marathon takes it's toll - a prostrate runner is attended by medics for dehydration.

ill_1A recent storm has left huge puddles of water in amongst the sand dunes and I manage to fall into one. How many people have fallen into a puddle in the desert! An overnight train journey and onto Linxia, a place of pilgrimage for Chinese muslims, and a 10K road race taking in 4 laps of the town. The crowds are enormous and you seem to high-five every child en route. And so to Xiahe in Tibet, and now altitude is the enemy. Race up a rocky mountain pass in amongst the Yak herds before turning and racing down again. The descent is steep and several take a tumble. The medics are busy. The finish in the shadow of the Labrang Monastery is thronged by Buddhist monks in their red and purple tunics. Nearby the Tibetan women wash their clothes in the roaring mountain streams and wonder why we do it. The next morning we are at 3,500 metres to start a 25 km race. The air is thin but rich with the aroma of wild mint. What a contrast next day then to look down upon the smog-laden, industrial city of Lanzhou. In the space of 16 km, we race up Goa Lan, the mountain that overlooks the city, descend alongside the layered fields behind before climbing once more to the top. Fly to Beijing and the final stage - a 3km time trial on the steep, slippery and uneven steps of the Great Wall at Mutianyu. No need to warm up; in oppressively humid conditions, there are 1,000 steps to climb to even get onto the Wall! The schedule is relentless but superbly organised. The rewards are great. The entry fee (17980 FRF) includes all travel, hotel accommodation, 3 meals a day, and sight-seeing visits including the Terracotta Army. This relatively small race (there were just 93 runners this year) offers great value and the opportunity for runners of any standard to visit parts of a country few tourists would ever see.

Further details from SDPO, 16 rue Jean Cocteau, 95350 Saint Brice sous Forêt, FRANCE, or from www.sdpo.com