Michele Graglia crossed the entirety of the extremely windy Gobi desert in southern Mongolia. Graglia arrived on October 13th, 2019 in the village of Altai, right at the footsteps of the Altai mountains, considered by the locals to be the western gateway to the Gobi. He completed 1,703Km effort in 23 days, 8 hours and 46 minutes. During the crossing the Italian ultrarunner had to deal with scorching temperatures during the day and polar conditions during most nights, especially in the central area. To make things even more challenging the steppe was constantly beaten by a relentless and heavy head wind in addition to the brutal monotony of such a vast and infinite landscape. The expedition began in Bayandelger, the eastern gate of this desert, and crewed by three Italians and one Spaniard, while the logistics and navigation were curated by local Mongolian guides. During his long journey the ultrarunner divided the day into three stages, breaking the run for meals, massage treatments and power naps when necessary. The desolation of one of the most inhospitable and uninhabited lands on the planet was only alleviated by random encounters with heard of goats, horses and camels, and in a few occasions with foxes, wolves and eagles. The landscape transitioned from a seemingly endless gravel steppe, partially covered with sterile dry shrubs, to high sand dunes and even high mountain passes. Despite a well thought-out hydration and nutrition plan, Graglia lost about 8kg in those three weeks of running.
Like last year’s Atacama desert (925km) crossing in Chile, this one was also a key test to check out technical choices and materials that will be the basis of the next adventure, a full Sahara desert crossing, from west to east. An expedition that will go through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan, expected to be over 5000 miles.
Asia Trail asked a few questions to Michele to better understand his adventure.
AT: You seem to have an attraction for the deserts. What drives you to set such challenges, and why Gobi desert?
MG: I have always been drawn to nature and exploration. Right from a very young age my family instilled in me a deep passion and a sense of respect for the wilderness. For some reason the big Deserts always fascinated me the most and my curiosity often brought me to wonder about those vast and desolate parts of the world, their magnificent expanses and powerful energy. The opportunity to explore these extreme environments with just my own two feet was something special I dreamt of since before I even started running, actually.
Perhaps it’s a quest to ever changing horizons. I am driven by a sense of freedom and sheer thirst for adventure, being able to explore my limits while exploring the extreme nature all around me, I consider it a blessing and a true journey of the self. As a matter of fact I consider ultrarunning somewhat of a spiritual practice, some sort of movement meditation. It’s only when you push past your physical limits that the magic happens: those are unique moments, where there is no doubt nor fear, just full presence. You open up to a more aware and conscious version of yourself, connecting both body, mind and soul. That’s when you come to appreciate and find that deeper connection with the powerful and unforgiving beauty of the nature all around you… its most extreme side only emphasizes the experience.
The Gobi is one of the biggest deserts and one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. When I dreamt of the 4x4Deserts challenge (crossing the 4 most extreme deserts in 4 consecutive years) the windiest desert: the Gobi, was an inevitable choice along with the driest: the Atacama (2018), the hottest: the Sahara (2020) and the coldest: Antarctica (2021).
AT: How did you prepare for such an adventure?
MG: Needless to say to run ultramarathons one must train the body first but I believe the main and most important part of the training is conditioning the mind to such a prolonged and strenuous effort. It does not matter the distance, if the mind is focused, in tune, the body will follow. I, of course, run a lot, I love to run, sometimes well over 250km x week, but also practice yoga and meditation which, in many ways, taught me how to control the mind and helped me throughout many ultra races.
AT: Were you running mostly at night or during the day, considering the temperature contrast?
MG: During the crossing we had to prioritize daytime due to the tricky paths and difficult navigation in the desert.
We took on pretty much all conditions as we usually woke up around 5:00 and started running by 5:15, for 30 to 35km, well before sunrise. The freezing condition of the night were soon dissipated by a scorching heat right from the early hours of the day. We then had a little break for a meal, a quick massage perhaps, then head out in the late morning for another 25 to 30km. This was usually the most challenging leg of the day, all exposed under a beating sun. We then had another little break for a meal and finished up the afternoon/evening with another 15 to 20km. By the time I was done running it was then dinner and bedtime to repeat the following day.
AT: How many hours/km were you running per day on average? Your longest day?
MG: Usually 4 to 5 hours during the first leg (depending on physical and terrain conditions), then 3 to 4 hours during the second leg and another 2 to 3 hours in the evening. I covered an average of 73.1 km per day. My expectations were much higher to be honest as I started off with 80km a day during the first week, planning to actually increase the mileage as the body broke in.
Unfortunately the 7th day I suffered a pretty intense intestinal flu that kept me bedridden pretty much all day. I was still able to cover 44km that day and 55km the following one. I was in recovery mode for several day but it was a crescendo, ramping slowly back up to 70km by the end of the second week. Towards the end the effort seemed to be getting easier and, to my personal surprise, it felt good pushing well over 80km per day the very last week. The longest day of the whole crossing was in fact the second to last, where I ran 85km. The lofty initial predictions didn’t also quite take into consideration the difficulty of the terrain and the relentless head wind that, at times, slowed the pace down to a crawl.
AT: What were your tricks to prevent dehydration?
MG: I have followed a very rigorous routine throughout the whole run in order to keep the hydration levels up.
Thanks to an amazing Team of support, Dino Bonelli, Lorenzo Lanzillotta and Aitor Medrano, I was able to stay on top of both nutritional and electrolytes needs. One car, composed by a local guide and the crew members leap frogged me pretty much the entire way, covering small sections, most times 5km, to give directions and pass along food and bottles when necessary. It was very much a team effort and it couldn’t have been done without their relentless support!
AT: Desert crossing is an uneven ground that promotes injuries, particularly tendinitis. Any special treatment to prevent such injuries?
MG: I must say, the diversity of the terrain in the Gobi created quite a few issues and setbacks. It was brutal at times. While the Atacama offered a more consistent and “comfy” hard dirt, the Mongolian desert was ever so difficult. From extremely uneven hard packed dirt roads, to deep sandy dunes. From powdery soft grounds to high mountain rocky passes, we experienced it all! The plantar and the Achilles tendons definitely took the tool during those long soft footing. Thanks to our “Doc” Lorenzo Lanzillotta massages though, I was able to release some of the pressure and that is what allowed me to be consistent throughout the whole run.
AT: How was Gobi different from the Atacama? What is the next desert in your mind?
MG: When in 2018 I ran the Atacama I was mesmerized by its lifeless and vast expanse, the driest place on earth lived up to its name and was by far the most extreme place I had ever been to. Finding myself a year later in the Gobi, surprisingly enough, I had that same feeling, again. As if the Gobi, with its strong character and endless landscape showed me an even more remote and unforgiving environment.
Up next year is the Sahara, in the fall of 2020, an entire crossing of the Northern African continent from Mauritania on the west coast to Sudan on the east coast. Perhaps its extremes may then take the Gobi crown.
[Editor’s Note] Michele’s story of incredible transformation from top international model to top ultra runner is masterfully told by Folco Terzani, in the book Ultra.