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Mar 07, 2017

Days in the Life of Professional Ultra Runner Krissy Moehl

Being a professional ultra-distance runner is certainly not the planet’s worst job.

WRITTEN BY

Krissy Moehl

You may not sign advertising contracts worth millions, but you get to do some serious travelling. This is a firsthand account of a trip Krissy Moehl took to Chile to compete in the 63km ultra leg of the Patagonian International Marathon.

I woke up early and did a double take on where I was. Frequent travel often leads to unfamiliar wake up situations. A quick scan of the room and recalling what I did to arrive in that bed usually helps to calm that initial eerily unfamiliar feeling. As I scanned the room, I saw the running clothes I had laid out in my exhausted state the night before, complete with my bib number folded and pinned to my shorts. I smiled a big smile. I was in Patagonia, South America. The mountains I photographed from the airplane window only a few hours ago were now looming in the predawn darkness right outside my window. After 30 hours of travel—including a cancelled flight—from my home in Boulder, Colorado, I was in Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site and biosphere reserve in southern Chile. This would be the first event of its type in Chile’s most visited park.

VERY BAD GOOD TRIP

I retraced the vaguely familiar path back to the lobby to find the friendly faces of fellow racers. Long hours of travel followed by less than 5 hours sleep had left my head a bit foggy, but with a 63 km run awaiting me in an hour’s time, I had to quickly snap back into reality. The sun was starting to illuminate the Patagonian mountains as the coffee worked its way into my blood stream. I’d only viewed these mountains in photos and now their grand silhouettes made me tip my head back to take in their full shape. It was a reality I was more than happy to wake up in. Though hungry from the long journey, I tried to make smart decisions about how much breakfast to enjoy, knowing that I had to race soon. Coffee first to stimulate the foggy mind, toast with jam for carbs and sugar, a banana because that always seems like a good breakfast item and a few fancy figs just because they looked delicious. The lodge did well to accommodate foreign travellers with strong coffee—a rarity in Chile. The opportunity to race in foreign countries is a special way to experience the terrain and people in the different corners of the world. I have wanted to travel since I was a little girl. At 18, when my mom asked me what I wanted to do, I told her I just wanted to see the world. Her advice? “Just find someone to pay for it.” The path I followed in the ensuing 18 years that eventually led me to Patagonia is a unique one, with luck being in the right place at the right time. I worked for Scott McCoubrey, owner of the Seattle Running Company and race director of an 80-km trail race on Mount Rainier. I also worked with American ultra-running legend Scott Jurek at the onslaught of trail running in Seattle. Committing time to lots of training, racing and travelling while managing my private life and a job was never easy. Tough risky decisions were taken, involving a divorce and leaving a full-time job. But that’s how I managed to give this life as an athlete a fair shot.

Photo from Patagonia International Marathon

The 7:15am call for the bus prompted us to hoist our backpacks onto our hips and head out to the parking lot to wait for the bus in the chilly morning breeze, which seemed to hover around 4°C. Thirty minutes later, a 15-passenger bus arrived to retrieve the nearly frozen group of awaiting runners. We piled in with our backpacks and goose bumpy legs for the short drive. We then had 10 minutes to cover the 20-minute walk to the scenic start line on Lago Grey (Grey Lake) beach. Our point-to-point course started on the beach and followed the dirt road we’d just driven on, turning instead towards the Torres del Paine 63 km away. We stripped down to our running shorts and T-shirts and utilized the short journey to the start as a warm up. We descended the marked walkway onto the rocky beach that opened up to icy waters and glacier views. Huge glacial chunks bopped along in the lake like ice cubes in a fancy blue cocktail drink. No wonder they chose this magnificent beach to kick-off the Patagonian International Marathon. It was soon 8am, and we started running back across the beach, up the marked trail and through the parking lot we had left minutes ago. I was now running in Patagonia!

LOS CINCO CABALLOS BLANCOS

In addition to this 63 km ultra, there was a 44 km, a 22 km and a 10 km race. Each started at the appropriate point and time along our 63 km course so that all 350 runners could reach the finish within a few hours that afternoon. The lead men of my 63 km race took off at what felt like a sprint, maybe to keep warm, maybe to compete. I got a little caught up in both and moved along at a fast pace that allowed me to warm my icy legs and stop the shivers. I soon settled into a slower pace that felt more manageable for the long miles ahead. It is no secret that I am not a fan of running on roads; my body just doesn’t manage the repetitive nature. I prefer to bounce around, change direction, climb and descend. But if I am going to run on the roads, I decided I want to run on the roads…in Patagonia! With my camera in the van, the many stunning images were burned into my memory and have often reappeared in my dreams since. Travelling opens the mind to adventure and different realities, pulling the explorer out of his routine to understand that there is more than his own little world and little life. Each time I exit a plane in a new land, I am reminded of how lucky I am to witness a new place with my own eyes, to shake new hands and lace up my shoes to cover miles over new terrain, sometimes where no one has ever run before. Each place offers its special taste, vibe and awakening of the senses. Of the many highlights that filled the morning and early afternoon, the most magnificent happened in the first 5 km. On the long road ahead, off to the right, I saw five white horses, or los cinco caballos blancos in Spanish, burst into motion as one. The sun illuminated their manes like a silver lining and the magnificent force of their movement nearly stopped me in my tracks. The surge of rippling muscles joined the runners on the road just ahead and continued up the track. The road curved to the left and then climbed the hill in a switchback, enabling me to admire their smooth stride as they climbed, reached the top and moved out of sight. A few minutes later when I finally reached the top, los cinco were on my left in a golden field. I kept my head turned to watch them instead of the road ahead until it was too much for my neck. I continued to glance back and soon saw them surge into motion again, this time through the field and further away. Absolutely magical… what a way to start!

The marathon benefits conservation in the National Park through its association with the Corre y Reforesta campaign. Photo: Patagonia International Marathon
The marathon benefits conservation in the National Park through its association with the Corre y Reforesta campaign. Photo: Patagonia International Marathon

RUNNING CAN BE MEDITATIVE

The snowcapped peaks rose up in front of me at every turn as the gravel road twisted, turned and rolled along as dictated by the terrain. The rhythm of the repetitive turns was meditative, allowing thoughts to come, be processed and forgotten. This state of mind is one of the many wonderful gifts of running. I made it my goal to run every step knowing that the climbs were relatively gradual. Running vs. walking would help me cover the 40 miles a bit quicker and hopefully keep me in position for a win. With only water and fruit provided along the way I was thankful for the energy gels and bars I had stuffed into the pockets of a new tester pair of Patagonia shorts. I carried a single UltrAspire isomeric pocket handheld water bottle for easy refilling and hydration along the way. The combination was just enough for the hours spent traversing the 63 km of the race.

Earlier that morning, during my race, I had passed through the starting points of the marathon and half marathon a few minutes before these races began. Running through each starting area brought a surge of energy from the cheers by the runners as they jogged around and stripped down to their own racing attire. Soon after I passed through, the lead men of each of those races passed me in beautiful form. The leader of the marathon slowed his pace to chat with me a bit and I soon realized that we knew each other from prior email communications. And off he went to win the marathon. The lead men of the half surged past me in a group of three, as quiet and efficient as can be.

In the final miles I started weaving through a variety of runners, some that had passed me before, some that started the 10 k before I had reached their start. All brought energy to the experience. After the final rise, the view of Hotel de los Torres was a welcome sight to all of us. The grand archway of the finish was apparent even with a kilometer to go. I tried to quicken my pace in spite of my tight, limited hamstrings. Running 63 km after 30 hours of sitting in planes and cars does little for my flexibility. Covering these final strides, along with the realization that this was my final race for the season, brought a smile to my face. As much as I love racing and travelling, I also thrive in being at home, finding routine, cooking meals and sleeping in my own bed. After a full 18 months of travelling and racing, I was looking forward to a bit of downtime and having time for other passions like cooking, yoga, reading, climbing, kickboxing and sewing. But before letting my mind wander too much I snapped back to the hay bales that lined the finish line and hi-fived the spectators alongside who looked at my bib number to realize that I was finishing the 63 k. “La primera mujer!” they exclaimed. “The first woman!”

The celebrations were grand. That afternoon after a hearty barbecue lunch, the organization put on a show complete with corking the champagne for all age groups and overall winners. The women I stood with all agreed to not spray each other and instead aimed at the awaiting crowd. Stiff and sore we found our way to dinner and bed without much hesitation. The next morning marked the second portion of our Chilean adventure: a difficult and scenic trek.

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Krissy participates in races worldwide. Here, she becomes the first woman to cross the finish line. Photo: Patagonia International Marathon

TRAVEL, RACE, WIN, TRAIN, REPEAT

Some people thought we were crazy. We finished the 63 k and after one night’s sleep—my first full night since leaving Colorado—our small group started a 3-day hike on the “W” route, which most people completed over a week, or more! To me, this knowledge of my physical ability is empowering. When you know that no matter what, those pistons and engine can carry you wherever you want to go… that is a kind of power few know and cherish. It is not something that ultra-runners take for granted as we know it is something we develop and train for.

The way the landscape unfolded before us was completely unexpected. We started on the southeast “corner” of the W and headed west along the bottom of the W, planning to cap off our adventure with the final east arm of the W when we returned. From the start we marveled at the way the lakes met the mountains and the latter screamed up to the sky without hesitation. We had no idea that terrain could be so stunning every step of the way. I have seen many gorgeous places in the world, but I heard myself repeat, “This is the most beautiful place ever.” I loved that everyone we met on the remote and amazing trail had to arrive by foot and therefore on their own leg power. This created a sense of unity that transcended the barriers of language. We were all in the same place on the same power—our own. My hiking buddy and friend of many years, Yassine Diboun (placed 4th male in the 63 km race) and I carried a continuous conversation during the entire hike, constantly interrupted by the beauty around us: “Can you believe this?” Or “Wait, did you see that?” Each time we picked up from where we had left, sharing stories, pondering issues, recounting race stories and—like only good friends can do—getting to know each other better while enjoying this new discovery of the Chilean trails.

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The race route has views of snow-capped mountains, glacier-fed lakes and unique wildlife of the area. Photo: Patagonia International Marathon

THERE IS NO PERFECT WAY TO ARRIVE SOMEWHERE NEW

Every race and travel experience gives me opportunities to open my mind and to learn something. It might be a lesson that I needed to be reminded of, it might be a new one, but there always is at least one. One that I have had to learn over the years is that there is no perfect way to prepare for any event. Planes might be delayed, people might change their minds and you might cook your favorite meal… or not. We can only influence our approach, execution and attitude. The arrival in Patagonia was a challenging experience. My first flight was cancelled and I was delayed a full 24 hours. I arrived at the race start at midnight, before a 5am wakeup call, and managed only a piece of cheesy pizza at the airport bar before the four hour drive into the park. But persistence and optimism led me to an experience of a lifetime. To see the mountains I’ve only heard stories about, to experience the international race at the furthest southern point I’ve ever travelled to and to spend the extra days hiking the “W” and viewing the mountains up close, was the perfect way to wrap up a long season of racing and travelling. It is an experience I know I will not be able to repeat, nor do I want to with the crazy travels involved to get there, but Chile is a place that I want to revisit to hopefully explore deeper in the mountains, perhaps to climb and definitely to complete the “O” route. Maintaining a positive attitude and keeping the end goal in mind are the two things that drive me through life. It worked on this trip and has mostly guided me through my time on this planet.

Through the bumps and twists, highs and lows, I continue to fulfill my dream to see the world. Someone isn’t always picking up the tab, as my mother had advised, but I have found my (running) mode to explore the world.


Feature Image: Runners from North and South America, Africa, Europe, Australia and Asia fly in around the world to participate. Photo by Christian Miranda / Patagonia International Marathon

 

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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