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ill titlePuddle In The Desert

Some memories from running in China.

ill_1I fell into a puddle in the desert the other day and it set me thinking. Was it just an unhappy coincidence that a puddle and a desert and myself happened to be in the same place at the same time? Or perhaps my life was just a sequence of events pre-ordained by a mystical deity with a wicked sense of humour, and for more than half a century, every twist or turn had steered me inevitably towards that puddle.

What, I hear you say, was I doing in the desert and what was a puddle doing there? Let's deal with the last question first. A desert is a region that is almost devoid of vegetation because of limited rainfall. The key word here is limited - not no rainfall, but limited rainfall. Now this particular section of the Gobi Desert had had its full quota of limited rainfall just a couple of days before I arrived there. With the western end of the Great Wall of China providing a bit of shade from the relentless sun, large pools of the precious liquid lurked in sandy hollows. And what was I doing there?

It's running that's at the root of it all. I blame the endorphins - little molecules seeping out of brain cells during exercise that actually act on the same receptors as other, more sinister 'recreational substances'. Suppressing pain, producing calm and well-being, it's the dreamlike world of the runner's high. But beware, as with their narcotic cousins, the effects of endorphins can be addictive.
From humble beginnings, my races became longer and longer, and then further and further away from home. Then, according to some of my closest confidantes, I lost the plot. I became an endorphin junkie, and to celebrate a half century of birthdays, raced for 6 days and 140 miles through the Sahara Desert and the feeling as I crossed the finish line in Erfoud in Morocco was as good as anything I'd ever experienced.

And now I was going to run China. Not all of it you understand. Even endorphins have limits. The race was Les Foulées de la Soie, a frenzied fortnight in the People's Republic where, with the aid of coaches, trains and planes, you pack in eleven races and enough sightseeing to satisfy the most voracious of globetrotting appetites. I was the only Brit running, the first Brit in the race's five year history. I slapped a Union Jack on the front of my baseball cap and appointed myself national team captain.

Having loosened our jet-lagged muscles with an early morning prologue in the streets of Shanghai, we jetted off to Xi'an where the racing really started. The Grand Emperor stage had us racing up and over a mountain in wonderfully British conditions - rain, mist and mud. The next morning, the shoes were pounding out a time trial on the flint ramparts of the 700-year old city wall. Having fitted in a visit between races to the awesome subterranean Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, which had lain buried and unknown for more than 2,200 years, you trod lightly when running for fear of breaking anything that might lie beneath your feet.

On to Dunhuang, an oasis in the vast western desert, a strategically important caravan town on the ancient Silk Road. The 500 Mogao caves sculpted, like a honeycomb, into the slopes of Mount Mingsha by Buddhist monks over a period of a thousand years, were filled with many thousand paintings, statues and sculptures of breathtaking size and complexity. How? Why? China asks so many questions but gives up few answers. We ran the same narrow, mountain paths as those monks must have walked centuries before; lightning flickering between the peaks. Then down the slopes, and off to face the rigours of the Gobi. Perhaps the monks would have had questions of their own if they'd been there to see us.

Only hours later, the shoes were on again and ploughing up strength-sapping sand dunes that towered 450 feet overhead. The "grumbling sands" Marco Polo had called this region, from the drum roll rumblings of the desert wind cutting between the dunes. And then on to Jiayuguan, a town of contrast. Face the west and you look out on hundreds of miles of sun-baked desert. Turn ninety degrees to the south, and your view is filled with the 5,500 metre snow-capped peaks of the Gilian Shan. Our run started at a Buddhist temple overlooked by the western extremity of the Great Wall and it was in the shadow of this unfathomable structure that my puddle lingered, laying in wait to lower my runner's high. As the old proverb says, the sun loses nothing by shining into a puddle and, take it from me, if fate ever has you running in a desert, then to spend a few seconds immersed up to your neck in a cool, sandy broth is no bad thing. I might have drawn a few odd looks as I stumbled like a clay-clad terracotta warrior out of the desert and across the finishing line at Jiayuguan Fort's Gate of Conciliation, but I was a lot cooler than most.

Boulder-strewn mountain roads for our coach to negotiate and on into Linxia for a road race. Four laps of the town with crowds that the London Marathon would have been proud of. We shared the pot-holed road with battered cycles, tractors, dogs, cattle, donkeys and chickens and, by the end, our palms were sore from high-fiving every child in town - four times! And then up into the foothills of Tibet and Xiahe. Beautiful Xiahe. Dominated by the Labrang Monastery, grafted onto the face of Feng mountain, and home for 1700 red and purple clad monks of the Yellow Bonnet sect. Bubbling mountain streams served as playgrounds for the children and launderettes for their mothers. On the mountain slopes dusted with colourful wild flowers, Tibetan shepherds under their wide-brimmed hats watched over the yaks. Medieval. Tranquil. Who has it right?

Two races here. Mountains, so up we must go! Turn at the top and run back down again. It had been steep going up, but the gradient seemed to have doubled for the return. Lots of loose rock. Lots of tumbles, blood and work for the medics, but we weren't finished yet. Barely twelve hours later and we lined up at the start of the longest stage. The good news was that the route was slightly downhill. The bad news was that we started at an altitude of over 11,000 feet, so even running on the flat left you light-headed. Crystal clear air laced with the aroma of wild mint. They really ought to bottle it.

ill_1A contrast then next morning to be looking down on to the smog-laden industrial city of Lanzhou. Now Lanzhou is overlooked by a mountain, Goa Lan, and if the organisers had been feeling benevolent, they would have made us run up it. They weren't. We had to run up it, back down the other side and then back to the top again! My calves were still screaming from the lack of oxygen the day before but with only one stage to go, there was no stopping now.

Before I could say Little Red Book, I was standing on the start line on the final day, waiting for the signal to run. In front of me stretched the Great Wall of China. Sweat poured from me even before I had started, for to get on the Wall we had to climb 1,000 steps through humid, steaming woodland, our eardrums battered by an insect cacophony.

Allez Doug! The Wall seemed to plummet almost vertically downwards at my
feet as I struggled to find a pace somewhere between tip-toeing and a hospital bed. And then it was up. Some steps barely warranting the name, others with which a small ladder might have been useful. A bit of down, a lot of up. And up and up. And then the finish. I gulped in the thick, humid air. I had run the Great Wall. Okay, only a few kilometres of it, but what would the millions of soldiers and peasants who had hauled huge blocks of rock up steep mountain slopes over 2,000 years ago have made of us using the fruits of their labour as a running track?

And so it was over. Another 120 miles to record in my log book. And do I curse the day I yearned to run? Not when I can walk into a bar and say "Did I ever tell you about the day I fell into a puddle in the desert?"