Fear and loathing in the Gobi: ultrarunner overcomes human rocks and bush giraffes to hallucinate his way to record victory

Former football coach Dan Lawson says ‘5 per cent of me knew where I was’ as he just keeps hold of reality to conquer China’s 400km ‘Route of Xuanzang’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 11:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 12:22pm

They called him “da shu”, or “uncle”, because race organisers thought he looked old. The skinny, tattooed Englishman with dyed bright blue hair even showed up in white fluffy slippers – “borrowed” from his hotel in Beijing.

This was not what they expected from an elite foreign athlete and European 24-hour champion.

But last week, Dan Lawson won the third edition of Ultra Gobi, a 400km non-stop, self-navigating race in Gansu province, China.

The softly spoken 43-year-old blitzed the 400km course in a record of just under 71 hours, breaking the previous mark by 21 hours. He slept for less than an hour in total.

Limited to 50 invited elite athletes and designed to put China on the ultra racing map, participants run with limited equipment, thanks to water stations every 10 kilometres and rest stations with drop bags and food every 30km.

Having had some rest,Lawson then went back to the finish line to greet the other athletes, lead by Italy’s Nicola Bassi, who came in 10 hours behind in second. He was also back at the finish for the last runners, 60 hours later in the middle of the night.

The Chinese name for Ultra Gobi is translated as “Eight Hundred Li of Flowing Sands – the Route of Xuanzang”.

Fourteen centuries ago, a now venerated Buddhist master and linguist Xuanzang started his 17-year mission to India to bring back Buddhist sutras for translation.

Having completed his epic journey, Master Xuanzang locked himself in his cell and set about translating, rejecting fame and all the honours offered.

The start of Ultra Gobi is the supposed location of where Master Xuanzang started his quest.

The motive of Xuanzang resonated with Lawson – this former football coach had left his job, sold most of his possessions and his house in the UK to “be in control of his life”. His Bollywood dancer wife brought him to India where he now lives for six months a year.

Lawson wore the same hotel slippers for the lavish prize giving ceremony, but nobody commented.

As far as the organisers were concerned, he was on a different physical and spiritual level from the mere mortals, not unlike Master Xuanzang himself.

What do you think of the course?

I think a genius designed it – maybe it was that monk, what do you call him? Xuan... something!

It has a brilliant natural flow – it is a series of challenges for the mind, you start off with people around you, and at first it is nothing too tricky. Then you get to the mountains and it becomes harder to navigate, and you are never very confident – do I go across these hills, or around them? You work out the best route, and then you are presented with a new section, a new puzzle… it blew my mind how different a desert can be in different places.

Hong Kong’s Samantha Chan overcomes fear of getting lost in Gobi Desert to finish third in 400km race branded one of world’s toughest

The desert is the most beautiful when it is the most challenging. I found the race to be a constant contrast in emotions – you love the stillness and silence, but you also hate this beautiful terrain because it is so hard to run on. Physically, I felt stronger at the end, I was weak and ill on day one, then I got better, close to 100 per cent, and was physically getting stronger as the race went one, doing real running.

How did you deal with the lack of sleep?

That decision to sleep for just one hour affected me. I had only 30 kilometres to go to the finish, but I started to lose it. I had a default setting – running, but I did not know why I was running, I was very confused. At this point I rang my wife and said: “Darling, I am not OK, I am so confused, I am hallucinating”. I asked her what I was doing and where I was. It was bizarre.

What did she say?

“You are in a race, you are first, relax, keep going, you are safe.” I was really loopy, speaking to her brought me back to reality, but after 45 minutes I started floating off again, and it was a battle to bring myself back. It was only me around and nothing to anchor me, I was spinning out of control. I was never completely out of my head, though, five per cent of me knew where I was. My mind was scared, and when you scare your mind, you suffer.

You mentioned hallucinating . . .

The rock formations in the desert turned into faces, contorting, turning around to look at me. Every bush became an elephant or a giraffe… It was interesting at first, but then you get bored of it.

Also, looking down, the gravel under your feet starts flowing like the sea, it was like watching TV. You know that it is all in your mind, that it is not really happening, but you still get scared, you know that you start losing reality.

Was this the hardest part for you?

Using your mind for navigation, when you are exhausted and losing it. Navigation uses up energy, and the mind shuts down other functions of the brain. But, actually, in a way, this also helps you, as it… shuts down pain receptors, so running felt quite easy and effortless.

What enabled you to perform as well as you did?

I was physically in really good shape, running between 200km and 250km per week. Three months before this race I was doing shorter events, getting new 10km and 5km personal bests. There are times, you just feel strong, training is easy, hitting paces is easy. This is how I felt.

How Hong Kong runner in Ultra Gobi race, Samantha Chan, is preparing for gruelling non-stop 400km desert challenge

You always mention your wife’s support . . .

I am really lucky. She is really into it, she likes the ultrarunning scene, and has become exceptional in supporting me. She made sure that all my drop bags were sorted, she took care of my nutrition, she did it all, I did not even have to look at it. It is a passion for both of us. I am not that good at preparing things.

How fast did you run?

Once I got into it, it was all about momentum, whenever the terrain allowed me to run, I locked into a pace and carried on. Comfy pace – 5:30 to 6 minutes per kilometre.

Did you walk at all?

Yes, especially on the first day when I was not feeling too well, stomach problems.

What do you do for a living?

Good question! I made a decision four years ago that I wanted to be in control of what I do. I quit my job, sold my house. I was a football coach at Brighton & Hove Albion, but I was in the office telling people how to coach, and it was never my dream to be in an office. I decided to get rid of as many possessions as I could. I now work when I need to, and I do not work because I have to.

I work part-time – all sorts, delivery, making flapjacks, labouring on construction sites, anything. But only on my terms, nobody else can control my life.

Do you care what people may think of you?

I never gave a toss what people say about me. I came to a conclusion – achievement is not about how many exams you passed, or what you earn, what you wear, what you look like…for me making it in life is following your passion and living your joy. When I sold my house, I said to Charlotte, my wife, all I want to do is run, travel the world, spend time with family and kids. I get to do it now. This is achievement for me.

And, why is your hair blue?

My daughter, she is 14, – every year I grant her a wish to do whatever she wants.