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Tengri Ultra with Jo Meek 'The Running Squirrel 🐿️💨'

by Luke King on May 17, 2019

Tengri Ultra 70km

I can’t actually believe I’ve been to Kazakhstan. I had been nervously apprehensive about the trip in the days leading up to it. I flew from Heathrow to Moscow. Then raced through the airport to make my connecting flight as we landed late only to find the next flight delayed so I just people watched. The Russians are a serious lot; there is no smiling upon making eye contact, no awareness of personal space, no stranger politeness and limited helpfulness. I soon learnt though than on a one to one basis once you’ve been introduced they are friendly and do smile!

I boarded, ate, slept and then woke to witness a beautiful sunrise.

This trip was going to be special.

I got to the bustling airport and tried to use Uber but was directed to Yandex, a Russian Taxi service app. I got a lift with Miras, who obviously supported wholeheartedly Arsenal Football team!

Almaty was just coming to life. The word ‘Almaty’ in Kazakh language means ‘grown with apple trees’ and it’s known as a garden city. I only really travelled through but noticed lots of trees and parks just no real city centre only blocks of buildings.

In 1997 Astana replaced Almaty as the capital city. Astana is now called Nur- Sultan after a former president and is located in the geographical centre of the country.

I boarded the bus with my fellow runners. Despite the fact we were all heading to the same place there was still no smiling on eye contact. It made me laugh! 

After 2 hours on a bus we arrived at the Tamgaly Gorge area.

The fast flowing River Ile swept through the landscape which was sandwiched between rocky hills. The sun shone; it was baking. Poppies were growing in the long grass. It was beautiful. The camp was setting up and the race atmosphere was building.

I had to collect a roll mat and a sleeping bag before finding a tent and settling in.

As horse is a traditional meal here I thought I may be getting some for dinner so unsure of what the meat was I stuck to the pasta and salad. A disco rolled on in the background but I managed to fall asleep.

Up at 4.30 ready to race at 6am. I felt ok considering the UK was 5hrs behind. Some oats and a coffee for breakfast and I was ready!

I wanted to try out a different nutrition strategy for this race because I’m fed up of feeling so nauseous during ultras. I had a feeling a lot of that was contributable to the amount of sweet things and gels I consume. Obviously the rest of it is down to working so hard!! 

The race started on time and it was light and cool. Even before 1km had lapsed I had almost lost sight of the two women in front of me; a Russian and a Ukrainian. I knew I had not done the training appropriate to start at that pace, since returning from injury, so didn’t head off and pursue them.

The course was comprised of two different loops with 1325m of ascent.

We ran up through steep rocky gorges for 20km before heading back to the river and running along side it. I saw wild horses in the pastures, a tortoise crossing the trail, a scorpion (dead! Phew!) and an eagle souring above. Amazing!

We continued through the start still following the river. The aid stations were really regular and so getting water was no problem which was just as well because when the sun came out it peaked 34degs (considering last year it rained I’ll take the sun and its heat!). The next section was steep initially, as we left the river, with loose rock but then on reaching the Steppe grassland it was a long stretch of green pasture.

The descent was pretty technical as we followed the course through dried river beds and the Tas gorge; loose rocks and big slabs. Spiky scrub and tall bamboo I particularly remember fighting my way through. My legs and arms are scratched from the battles.

I continually gained on runners but never saw the other two women again. My results show I moved from 22nd position to 6th overall. I finished feeling pretty pleased. My savoury nutrition plan worked and I didn’t feel sick. I finished in 7hrs 17mins which was the target- the female course record. Unfortunately this year the Russian girl who set it went for a new one and completely kicked my arse!

That evening there was some fire dancing, music and some Shamanic traditions: he was acting as a messenger between the human world and the sport world! Tengrism is a central Asian religion characterised by shamanism amongst other things such as animism, totesmism and ancestor worship. The word ‘Tengri’ literally means sky.

The next day I explored the Tamgaly Tas area with Oksana (the Ukrainian lady who came 2nd). There are old rock carvings, petroglyphs, dating back to the 11-12th century- possibly an old outdoor worshipping site. It was fascinating. The petroglyph below shows a Buddha

The views from the top were spectacular as well…

……with Steppe eagles circling overhead. Wow- just wow!

Thank you Tengri Ultra for having me!