“How are your feet?” Siri’s electronic voice jars me out of my trance. I shake my head, both to clear the fog from my brain and as a response to the question. “Not good.” I smile. “But we’re only 30 kilometers from the finish; I’ll be OK.”
My Chinese pacer An, the one who just inquired about the state of my feet with the help of his voice-enabled phone’s translation app, nods and gives me a smiling thumbs up. I try to match his pace as he lengthens his stride and we continue plodding down a steep mountain ridge high up in Gansu province, over five hundred miles west of Beijing, while the evening sun is painting long soft shadows in the rice terraces below us. I have been moving non-stop since 3am this morning, and I am ready to stop running.
I am breathing rarefied air here at 11,000ft on the TransQilian course, a gorgeous 100km+ circumnavigation of Qilian mountain in remote China. Ten days ago I didn’t know that this trail existed. A week ago, I had just heard about TransQilian for the first time but I was at home in Colorado and not sure if I’d even be going to China. Yet right now, I am in the middle of attempting to set a new TransQilian speed record; sometimes you just have to go with the flow (read this for the backstory: Ultra Gobi to TransQilian).
Going with the flow is my mantra for the day. I’ve been mono-focused on relentless forward motion since I started running in the middle of the night some fourteen hours ago. Mountain speed records are my specialty - I have set a few of them, and in mountain ranges across the world - but this is different: I typically pursue fastest known times (FKTs) in a solitary fashion, unsupported and mostly under the radar. Here at TransQilian I have a local crew of more than a dozen people supporting my FKT attempt as pacers - like An, who is at my side this very moment fiddling with his phone’s translation app - but also aid station volunteers, logistics coordinators, media. It is amazing to see how big mountain running is rallying excitement from China’s budding adventure community.
But there is another way in which this FKT is different: my past speed missions have often involved projects that are so remote and difficult that nobody else (or at least no other woman) has completed them - rather than being “fastest” known times, many of my past projects were OKTs: “original” or “only” known times. My records on the Aconcagua 360 and in the Colorado Rockies are prime examples. The TransQilian FKT is different: not only has the trail been completed before, there is an actual ultra race on the very same course. This means that I’ll have to break the existing race record of 25 hours and 24 minutes in order to succeed, and I’m in no way confident that I’m capable of that.
Which is why, at this very moment, I am picking up the pace and willing my legs to go faster - despite the dull pain on the soles of both of my feet. I know what this particular type of ache means: trench foot, from spending long hours in water-logged socks and shoes. I also know that there is nothing I can do to change it, other than to stop running (not part of my plan) or taking ibuprofen (not smart). I’ve had to contend with trench foot once before, in 2013 during the final forty miles of the legendary Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race, and I’m not excited about repeating the experience - but I would be even less excited about not finishing TransQilian.
So I plod on. The enormousness of the landscape, bathed in golden hour light, almost makes me forget the pain. An and I are running through the sky but we are now at the very edge of the Qilian mountain range, the plains with their million-person cities and smog-producing power plants far below us; the contrast blows my mind.
I let out a deep contented breath and take mental inventory of all the amazing moments that this run has already given me - from the camaraderie and immersion that I have found over the last few days with China’s core outdoor community, to the brilliant shooting stars that I saw in those early pre-dawn hard uphill miles of the FKT (three of them!), to reaching the highpoint of the course all by myself while my pacers were still struggling through big talus hundreds of feet below my alpine high-pass perch at 14,600ft.
My Chinese friend An feels the magic of TransQilian just as I am. We now move swiftly towards lower elevations, back towards humanity, and there is an understanding between us that doesn’t require a translation app. The life experiences that have brought us here may be worlds apart, but to share the joy of unbridled love for mountains and adventure creates a bond that transcends cultures.
That’s why, when we finally reach the 80 kilometer checkpoint that both marks the end of An’s pacing segment and signals the start of the last 20 kilometers of the run, he doesn’t miss a beat. I turn to thank him for his company and say goodbye, but this time it’s him who shakes his head and smiles. “I go with you to the finish.”
Sunny, An, and a few other hardy Chinese mountain runners eventually crossed the TransQilian finish line together at 11:59pm local time, 20 hours and 59 minutes after Sunny had started out her run. In the process, Sunny became the second woman to ever complete TransQilian and established a new overall course record that is more than four hours faster than the old (men’s) record.