I STEPPED THROUGH THE AIRPORT DOORS AND out into China. I paused and let the chaos take a good hard whack at my senses. A thousand revving engines in the parking lot ahead did battle with a thousand voices around me as people shouted at their phones.
The signs were written in both Chinese script and what looked to me like Arabic. I couldn't read either language, so I joined the crush of bodies that I guessed were waiting for a taxi. I stood a foot taller than most people, but as far as they were concerned, I was invisible.
I was in Urumqi, a sprawling city in Xinjiang Province, way up in the top left corner of China. No city in the world is as far from an ocean as Urumqi, and as we'd flown in from Beijing, I watched the terrain shift from razor-sharp snow-capped mountains to vast stretches of empty desert. Somewhere down there a team of race organizers had plotted a 155-mile route that took in those freezing peaks, the incessant wind, and that desolate, lifeless scrubland known as the Gobi Desert. I was going to run across it, knocking out a little less than a marathon a day for four days, then almost two marathons on the fifth day, and an hour-long sprint for the final six-mile stage that would bring the race to a close.
These races are called "multi-stage ultras," and it's hard to think of a more brutal test of mental and physical toughness. People like me pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of putting ourselves through pure agony, shedding up to 10 percent of our body weight in the process, but it's worth it. We get to run in some of the remotest and most picturesque parts of the world, and we have the safety net of a dedicated support crew and highly trained medical crew on our side. Sometimes these challenges can be excruciating, but they're also life changing, and reaching the finish line is one of life's most rewarding experiences.
Sometimes things don't go so well. Like the last time I tried to run six marathons in a week. I ended up in the middle of the pack, in agony. At the time it felt terminal, as if I'd never compete again. But I recovered just enough for one last shot. If I could run well in the Gobi race, maybe I'd yet have some more running in me. After all, in the three years since I'd taken up running seriously, I'd found out how good it felt to be on the podium. The thought of never competing again made me feel queasy inside.
If things went wrong, as they had for another competitor in the same race a few years back, I could end up dead.
According to the Internet, the drive from the airport to the hotel was supposed to take twenty or thirty minutes. But the closer we got to the hour mark, the more agitated the driver became. He had started out grouchy when he realized I was an English-speaking tourist and quoted me a price three times as much as I was expecting. It had gotten only worse from there.
By the time we pulled up outside a redbrick building, he was waving his arms and trying to shove me out of the cab. I looked out the window, then back at the low-resolution image I'd shown him before we started the journey. It was kind of similar if you squinted a bit, but it was obvious that he hadn't brought me to a hotel.
"I think you need some glasses, mate!" I said, trying to keep it light and get him to see the funny side. It didn't work.
Begrudgingly, he picked up his phone and yelled at someone on the other end. When we finally made it to my destination twenty minutes later, he was livid, shaking his fists and burning rubber as he sped away.
Not that I'd been bothered. As much as ultrarunning batters your body, it also assaults your mind. You learn pretty quickly how to block out distractions and mildly annoying things like lost toenails or bleeding nipples. The stress coming from an enraged taxi driver was nothing I couldn't ignore.
The next day was a different story.
I had to travel a few hundred miles out of the city by bullet train to get to the race headquarters in a large town called Hami. Right from the moment I arrived at the station in Urumqi, I knew I was in for a journey that would test my patience.
I'd never seen such security at a train station. There were military vehicles everywhere, temporary metal roadblocks funneling pedestrians and traffic past armed guards. I'd been told to allow myself two hours to get on the train, but as I stared at the great tide of people ahead of me, I wondered whether it was going to be enough. If the previous day's taxi ride had taught me anything, it's that if I missed my train, I wasn't sure I could overcome the language barrier and rebook another ticket. And if I didn't get to the race meeting point that day, who knew if I would even make the start?
Panic wasn't going to help me get anywhere. I took control of my breathing, told myself to get a grip, and shuffled my way through the first security check. By the time I cleared it and worked out where I needed to go to collect my ticket, I discovered I was in the wrong line. I joined the right one, and by then I was way down on my time. If this was a race, I thought, I'd be at the back. I never ran at the back.
Once I had my ticket, I had less than forty minutes to clear another security check, have my passport stared at in forensic detail by an overeager policeman, force my way to the front of a line of fifty people waiting to check in, and stand, openmouthed, panting and staring frantically at signs and display boards I couldn't read, wondering where the heck I had to go to find the right platform.
Thankfully, I wasn't entirely invisible, and a Chinese guy who'd studied in England tapped me on the shoulder.
"You need some help?" he said.
I could have hugged him.
I just had time to sit down at the departure point when everyone around me turned and watched as the train crew swept past us. It was like a scene out of a 1950s airport, the drivers with their immaculate uniforms, white gloves, and air of complete control, the stewardesses looking poised and perfect.
I followed them onto the train and sank, exhausted, into my seat. Almost thirty-six hours had slipped by since I left home in Edinburgh, and I tried to empty my mind and body of the tension that had built up so far. I looked out the window for something to interest me, but for hours on end the train just sliced through a bland-looking landscape that wasn't cultivated enough to be farmland and wasn't vacant enough to be desert. It was just land, and it went on for hundreds and hundreds of miles.
Exhausted and stressed. This was not how I wanted to feel this close to the biggest race I'd faced so far in my short running career.
I'd taken part in more prestigious events, such as the world-famous Marathon des Sables in Morocco, universally agreed to be the toughest footrace on earth. Twice I'd lined up alongside the thirteen hundred other runners and raced across the Sahara Desert as the temperature topped 125 degrees in the day and sank to 40 at night. I'd even finished a respectable thirty-second the second time I ran it. But fifteen months had passed since then, and a lot had changed.
I had started taking note of the changes during another 155-mile race across the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. I'd pushed myself hard — too hard — t o finish second overall, my "first-ever podium finish" in a multi-stage. I'd not kept myself hydrated enough, and, as a result, my urine was the color of Coke. Back home my doctor said I'd caused my kidneys to shrink due to the lack of liquid, and all that running had left them bruised and resulted in blood in my urine.
A few months later I'd started having heart palpitations during another race. I could feel my heart beating wildly, and I got hit by a double blow of queasiness and dizziness.
Both those problems flared up again almost as soon as I started the Marathon des Sables. Of course, I ignored the pain and forced myself through it, all the way to a top-fifty finish. Trouble was, I'd pushed myself so hard that as soon as I got home, my left hamstring went into violent and agonizing spasms every time I tried to walk, let alone run.
For the first few months I rested; then for the next few I was in and out of physiotherapists' consultation rooms, all the time hearing the same-old same-old: I just needed to try whatever new combination of strength and conditioning exercises they were suggesting. I tried them all. Nothing helped me to run again.
It took the best part of a year to find a physiotherapist and a coach who both had running expertise and knew what was going on to discover the truth: part of my problem was that I wasn't running correctly. I'm tall — well over six feet — and while my long, steady, loping stride felt easy and natural, I wasn't firing up all the muscles I should have been using, so I had sharp, painful spasms in my legs every time I ran.
The race in China was my first chance in a tough competition to try out my new, faster, shorter stride. In many ways I was feeling great. I had been able to run for hours on end at home without pain, and I'd followed my usual prerace diet better than I ever had before. For the previous three months, I'd avoided all alcohol and junk food, eating not much more than chicken and vegetables. I'd even cut out coffee, hoping that would put an end to the heart palpitations.
If it all paid off, and I ran as well as I thought I could do in China, I'd tackle the prestigious race that the organizers were putting on later in the year — across the Atacama salt plains in Chile. If I won there, I'd be in the perfect shape to get back to the Marathon des Sables the following year and make a real name for myself.
I was the first passenger off when we pulled into Hami and at the head of the pack as we surged toward the exit. This is more like it, I thought. The guard manning the security checkpoint put a quick end to my joy.
"What you do here?"
I could see a long line of taxis outside the door, all waiting beside a vacant sidewalk for my fellow passengers to lay claim to them. I tried to explain about the race and say that I wanted to go and get a cab, but I knew it was no use. He looked quizzically back and forth between me and my passport, then motioned me to follow him into a trailer that doubled as an office.
It took half an hour to explain what all the packets of energy gels and dried foods were for, and even then I wasn't convinced he believed me. Mostly I think he let me go because he was bored.
By the time I got out and approached the sidewalk, the crowds had all gone. And so had the taxis.
I stood alone and waited. I was fatigued and wanting this ridiculous journey to be over.
Thirty minutes later a taxi pulled up. I'd made sure to print off the address of my hotel in Chinese script before I'd left Urumqi, and as I showed it to the driver, I was pleased to see that she seemed to recognize it. I climbed in the back, squashed my knees up against the metal grill, and closed my eyes as we pulled out.
We'd only gotten a few hundred feet when the car stopped. My driver was taking on another passenger. Just go with the flow, Dion. I didn't see any point in complaining. At least, I didn't until she turned to me, pointed to the door, and made it perfectly clear that the other passenger was a far better customer, and I was no longer welcome in the cab.
I walked back, spent another twenty minutes getting through the inevitable security checks, and lined up once more, alone, at the deserted taxi stand.
Another taxi came, eventually. The driver was happy and polite and knew exactly where to go. In fact, he was so confident that when he pulled up in front of a large, gray building ten minutes later, I didn't think to check that I was at the right hotel. I just handed over my money, pulled my bag out after me, and listened to him drive away.
It was only when I walked into the entrance that I realized I was in the wrong place entirely. It was not a hotel but an office block. An office block in which nobody spoke any English.
For forty minutes I tried to communicate with the office workers, they tried to communicate with me, and the phone calls to I-didn't-know-who failed to get us any closer. It was only when I saw a taxi drive slowly past the front of the building that I grabbed my bag, ran out, and begged the driver to take me where I needed to go.
Thirty minutes later, as I stood and stared at the empty bed in the budget hotel the race organizers had booked, I said out loud my solemn vow.
"I am never, ever coming back to China."
It wasn't the frustration of not being able to communicate properly or even the muscle aches and serious fatigue that were bothering me. All day I'd fought hard against the urge to worry, but as one thing went wrong after another, I ended up getting nervous. It wasn't logical, and it didn't make sense. I'd reminded myself again and again that I had allowed plenty of time to get from Beijing to the race start, and I figured that even if I'd missed my train, I could have found a way to put things right. And I knew, deep down, that any aches I'd picked up from the previous couple of days would soon shake themselves out once I started running.
Even so, by the time I arrived at the hotel near the race headquarters, I was more anxious than I'd ever been before any race I'd ever run. The source of my nerves wasn't the journey, and it wasn't the knowledge of the physical challenges that lay ahead of me. It was something far, far deeper than that.
It was the worry that this might be my last race ever and the fear that maybe I was never going to win a race — winning had been the only thing that motivated me to run competitively in the first place.
Tuesday, January 3, 1984. The day after my ninth birthday. That was when I first understood how quickly life can change. The day had been a great one, soaked in beautiful Australian summer sunshine. In the morning I'd ridden my bike over some jumps I'd put together while Mom and Dad read the papers and my three-year-old sister played out in the yard near Nan's downstairs apartment at the far end of the house. I'd finally managed to perfect my somersault on the trampoline, and after lunch Dad and I went out with our cricket bats and a few old balls. He was just recovering from a chest infection, and it was the first time in ages that he'd joined me for a bit of sport outside. He taught me how to hold the bat in just the right way to hit a ball so hard and high that it sailed way out over the scrubby grass and beyond the far boundary of our property.
When I finally came inside in the late afternoon, I found the house to be full of the smells of Mom's cooking. She steamed her chocolate pudding for hours and made Bolognese so rich that I would hold my head over the pot and inhale the aroma for as long as I could before the heat got to be too much.
It was a perfect day.
Like any nine-year-old, I denied I was tired when it came time to go to bed, but soon enough I was drifting off to sleep, vaguely aware of Mom leaving for her Tuesday night aerobics class while Dad watched cricket on TV with the sound turned down low.
I didn't want to wake up. It was dark and my head was still half-stuck in its curious dream world.
"Dion!" I heard Dad's voice again. There was no other noise in the house, no TV, and no sound of Mom anywhere.
I didn't know why he'd be calling me like this, and I let myself drift back to sleep.
I couldn't tell you how much longer Dad went on calling my name, but at some point I knew I had to get up and go and see what he wanted.
He was lying on his bed, under a sheet. He didn't look at me when I came in, and I didn't want to go too far into the room. His breathing sounded all wrong, as if he was having to use all the strength he possessed to drag even the smallest lungful of air in. Something told me he was really sick.
"Go and get your grandmother straightaway, Dion."
I ran downstairs and knocked on Nan's front door.
"Nan, you've got to come," I said. "Dad needs you. Something's wrong."
She came right out, and I followed her back upstairs. I remember thinking that because she used to be a nurse, Dad would be okay. Whenever my little sister, Christie, or I was hurt, Nan would always make us laugh as she tended to our wounds, telling us stories from when she worked in a war repatriation hospital as a head nurse in charge of the others. She was a tough woman, a fighter who I believed held within her hands the power to make any illness or pain disappear.
As soon as she saw Dad, she left to call an ambulance. I stayed with him while she made the call, but as soon as she came back, she told me to leave the room.
Christie was asleep in the next room. I stood and watched her, listening to my dad's breathing grow worse and Nan talk in a voice I'd never heard her use. "Garry," she said, a little louder than normal. "The ambulance is coming. You're having an asthma attack. Keep calm, Garry. Stay with me."