The Gobi March 2015: 250km Journey Through Snowstorms, Sandstorms and The Gobi Desert

“I could be killed – if I go for a run.”

Exercising in public in Afghanistan carries significant risk to personal safety, according to a female competitor from Afghanistan with whom I chatted while I was photographing the 2015, 4Deserts Gobi March. The “March” is an annual 250km, self-supported foot race through the Gobi Desert in China’s Xinjiang Province which attracts runners from around the world. 40 nations were represented in this year’s race.

The Afghan runner, was able to travel to China and race thanks to the Free To Run charity. Free To Run creates opportunities for women and girls to get involved in running, fitness and outdoor adventure in some of the most difficult places on earth. This year two women represented Afghanistan as Team Asma’i and finished as 4th team overall.

Runners traverse an ancient canyon in 100 degrees heat. Photo By Zandy Mangold

Runners traverse an ancient canyon in 100 degrees heat. Photo By Zandy Mangold

The order of finish for the Afghan women was not important.  Considering they could not train on a regular basis, and when they did exercise, it was largely in secret.  It was a deeply emotional experience for all – both for the two women who were at last running free, and also the rest of the field and 4Deserts staff who were reminded that the ability to choose to run or not, should not be taken for granted.

The Afghan girls were not the only runners who caused us to rethink what is possible? Also among the 164 competitors were three blind runners. With the help of guides, all three finished the challenging course. Vladmi Dos Santos of Brazil and guide Matt Moroz finished an impressive 49th overall.

Valdmi Dos Santos and Matt Moroz brace against a rare summer blizzard in the Gobi Desert.

Valdmi Dos Santos and Matt Moroz brace against a rare summer blizzard in the Gobi Desert. Photo By Zandy Mangold

When accounting for the extreme climates and treacherous footing, the achievement of the sight impaired runners is even more extraordinary.  Amazingly, of the several sprained ankles I witnessed this past week, none belonged to the visually impaired runners. Also, at different stages of the event, competitors ran through a blizzard, freezing rain, biting headwinds, and through blazing 100 degree temperatures. The cold was particularly painful for the blind runners who could not release their grip on the string which was attached to their guide, and warm their hands in their pockets as did other runners.

Then, no sooner had the final, 80 kilometer stage concluded, and a sandstorm straight from The Mummy Trilogy blew through the campsite. The storm ultimately forced the cancellation of the final 10km stage and a resulted in a bussed retreat to the host city of Hami.

Fast approaching sandstorm. Photo By Zandy Mangold.

Fast approaching sandstorm. Photo By Zandy Mangold.

Runners take shelter from the sandstorm. Photo By Zandy Mangold.

Runners take shelter from the sandstorm. Photo By Zandy Mangold.

The physical and emotional limits of all runners and staff were tested to their limits, and beyond.  While we may have suffered, there was no room for complaining.

Modernity, tradition and runners meet in the Gobi Desert. Photo By Zandy Mangold.

Modernity, tradition and runners meet in the Gobi Desert. Photo By Zandy Mangold.

Overall champion, Adam Kimble. Photo By Zandy Mangold.

Overall champion, Adam Kimble. Photo By Zandy Mangold.