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How This 52-Year-Old Crushed His First Ultra, One of the Hardest Races in the World

Ken Rideout had never slept in a tent, run with a backpack, or been in a race longer than 26.2 miles — but when the 52-year-old heard about the grueling Gobi March ultramarathon, something told him he could win it.

Ken Rideout Gobi March, Mongolia Winner 2023(Photo/Racing The Planet)
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Ken Rideout had just successfully won the 50+ division of the New York, Boston, and Tokyo Marathons, and he was looking for his next big challenge. The financial services sales executive turned ultramarathon obsessive was on a roll. And he didn’t want to lose his momentum.

“I always need something on the calendar. I just do better with structure. You know, I’m a recovering drug addict, so when there’s structure, something on the calendar, it keeps me honest,” Rideout says.

It’s part of how he restructured his life after kicking an opioid habit he’d developed during his time in financing. He needed something to look forward to, something to train for.

That’s when another runner and friend of his off-handedly mentioned something called the Gobi March. It’s a brutal 155-mile, self-supported, 7-day stage ultramarathon through the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. It’s one of the top 10 endurance races in the world, according to TIME magazine, and follows the historical footsteps of Genghis Khan. The race has claimed lives.

Rideout had never slept in a tent before. He’d never run with a backpack before. Hell, he’d never even run more than 26.2 miles in a race. The racer describes himself as “the biggest baby of a tough guy you’ve ever met.” He likes to stay at nice hotels and fly first class when he’s traveling for races. He had no experience whatsoever with outdoorsmanship, wilderness survival, or camping generally.

And yet, something in him was drawn to the challenge that this cruel ultramarathon presented.

“I don’t know what the fuck made me say this, but I was like, ‘Dude, I think I can win that.'”

So with just 4 weeks’ notice, he entered the race, flew (yes, in first class) to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and embarked on what he called the most intimidating physical challenge he had ever considered.

Not only did Rideout win the Gobi March at 52, taking first place out of 124 runners from around the world, but he also beat second place by a full 90 minutes. And he did it running in a women’s backpack he had to borrow after his fell apart on him.

We caught up with Rideout following his triumphant return to talk about the ultramarathon, his gear, and what might be next.

Q&A With Ken Rideout: Gobi March Ultramarathon Winner

Ken Rideout Gobi March, Mongolia Winner 2023
(Photo/Racing The Planet)

GearJunkie: So, how did you manage to get into the Gobi March Ultramarathon with just 4 weeks’ notice?

Ken Rideout: I emailed the race director, and he said it was sold out and there was a waiting list until 2024. So, I sent them some of my running accolades and some of the media I’ve done recently and said, “Hey, look at this, this is what I’ve done in running. I’d love to come and have a crack at this race in 4 weeks if you’ll let me in.” And they were like, “Yeah, you’re in. Let’s go.”

Were you nervous at all?

The thought of going to the desert and publicly competing against people that have a shitload of experience from all over the world was overwhelmingly nerve-wracking and anxiety-ridden. There are two voices [I hear]. One voice was like, “Don’t do it.” The other voice was like, “We can’t lose. We’re the best.”

What was it like when you got there?

Saturday night, they shipped us out to the desert. They drove us out on these rickety old busses and we were going to sleep in the desert that night and then run the next day. So we get there and it is fucking pouring out. I mean, raining sideways like it’s drilling in the tent. I’m super anxious as it is. Like I said, I’m a big baby. I want to stay at the Four Seasons.

The idea of sleeping on the ground in a tent out in the middle of nowhere and it’s raining like a monsoon … Dude, I was on the verge of tears. I was like, “What the fuck am I doing here? I didn’t need to do this. If I’d kept my fat mouth shut, no one would know and I wouldn’t be the hook for this.”

Ken Rideout 2023
(Photo/Racing The Planet)

The ultramarathon starts — what happens then?

We take off and some of it is on what you would call a “fire road” where a car had maybe driven through the desert a few times. But a lot of it was just open pastures, up the sides of mountains and with multiple river crossings. They make it as difficult as they can as far as I’m concerned … I started thinking, “I’ll be happy to make top five.” I was going through all these doomsday scenarios in my head. It was so hard.

Did you change your strategy after that first day at all?

Yeah. So it was 21 miles the first day, the second day was 28 … I just stayed back and slowly I just started to move up. I wasn’t making an effort; I was just staying steady. And with about 10 miles to go, I just pulled away from them and ended up winning the day by like 12 minutes. And that was when my backpack ripped. I fell down, busted my elbow open, so I was covered in blood, dirt, and my backpack ripped.

Then at the end of the third day, someone ended up dropping out and they gave me their backpack. But it was a woman, which the backpack didn’t fit. So it just wore me out. I mean, it just tore the shit out of me.

Ken Rideout Gobi March, Mongolia Winner 2023
(Photo/Racing The Planet)

Was it extremely competitive among the racers? Or were people helping each other out?

It’s almost like you build such a bond [with other racers] and it becomes such a camaraderie thing that you’re not trying to kill each other. You’re definitely racing. But it was the most sportsmanship I’ve ever seen at any type of race. Because, again, there’s almost like a responsibility when we’re alone out there in the desert.

Can you give us an example?

[On day 4] we get to like 32 miles-ish, maybe 30 [out of 50]. And me and a Swiss guy, we’re working together at this point we’re walking on the uphills and then running decently hard on the downhills and the flats. And now we’re in the flats and he’s like, “I’ve got to walk a little bit.”

At this point, we’re both on the limit where we’re both hurting. So I figured, all right, good excuse. Let me try and get some energy while I can. While he’s resting, I’ll rest. No sense in pushing myself. Then he said he wanted to sit down and I’m like, “Dude, please don’t sit down in the desert. It’s only going to get worse.” … I said, “Let me carry your backpack.” And he’s like, “No, I don’t want to get disqualified.” I’m like, “You know what? I don’t want you to die either.” But he said, “No.” And then he sits down.

So I’m shading him with my body and my backpack, just trying to provide a little shade and I’m getting antsy now because we built a huge lead. And as much as I want to help, I also don’t want to get caught … eventually, thank God, a support vehicle went by … So anyway, they’ve got him, they’re sitting with him, and so I take off … At that point, after that day, I had an 80-minute lead in the race and it was over. I just took control of the whole race from there.

Ken Rideout, Mongolia
(Photo/Racing The Planet)

The last day was just 5 miles — with a nearly 90-minute lead, did you consider just taking it easy and walking the last stage?

I would never, ever let anyone win. I would die to win a stage. I’m going to run like the race is up for grabs. And sure enough, the Swiss kid and I got into a dogfight. I mean, we were moving; I was running as fast as I could for 5 miles with a backpack, and I ended up winning by a minute and a half on that stage.

I almost felt like I was at the Tour de France, right? Just because you have the yellow jersey, you would never let someone win a stage.

Are you ever going to run the Gobi March again?

It wasn’t fun, it was a mission, you know? It was like, “All right, we killed Saddam Hussein. There’s no need to go hunt other guys. We’ve got him. Let’s get out of here. I hope I never see this place again.”

What Was in Rideout’s Gobi March Pack?

Ken Rideout ultra pack
(Photo/Ken Rideout)

Of course, it would have been remiss for GearJunkie not to ask Rideout what gear he used during the race. He’s sponsored by Reebok, Athletic Brewing, Athletic Greens, Equinox, HVMN, and Rhone. Most of his gear came from those brands. But there were a few items that he had to buy himself based on his admittedly shallow depth of knowledge on camping and outdoor gear.

His backpack, for instance — which catastrophically failed on day two — was a piece of gear he’d never used in a race. Rideout tried several different packs prior to the Gobi March but admits he didn’t really know what he was looking for. He tried some Ultimate Direction and Ultra Aspire packs but says they wore through his skin. He eventually settled on one, but wishes he’d chose differently.

We asked, but he wouldn’t tell us what pack it was, because he doesn’t want to “talk shit about any particular brand.” But, he added, “That bag sucked.”

Rideout also said his choice of footwear is always Reebok. But for the Gobi March, he had to use a pair of Hokas because Reebok doesn’t make an adequate trail shoe.

Rideout left most of his Gobi March gear with shepherds in Mongolia, he said. So he didn’t have all of it to take a photo of for us. The photo above is just some of the gear that made it back with him. But here was his full list, from memory (minus the mystery backpack).

Rideout’s Gear

What’s Next for Ken Rideout?

Ken Rideout Gobi March Winner 2023
(Photo/Mike Blabac)

Throughout our conversation, Rideout brought up his past issues with drug abuse multiple times. He said became addicted to opioids when he was working in finance and struggling with imposter syndrome and burnout. He found relief in those drugs, he says.

But after getting clean, he focused his seemingly inexhaustible energy on running. It was one of the biggest driving forces that helped him rewrite his narrative. And it’s why he’s always looking for the next race to train for.

Going forward, Rideout hopes he can share his experiences and knowledge about overcoming drug addiction through speaking gigs, and a book he’s mulling over in his mind. He’s stepping into the world of motivational speaking, although the humble Bostonian wouldn’t ever call it that, himself.

“I would never call myself an influencer or a motivational speaker. I’m just sharing stories. I’m speaking about my experiences and if it motivates, great,” he said. “But I don’t profess to have any special skill set.”

As far as races go? Rideout is keeping an open mind. He says he’s never done a 50-mile or 100-mile marathon before, and that might be his next goal on the calendar. He’ll be running races between now and next August — but his eyes seemed to twinkle when he talked about running the Leadville 100 ultramarathon.

“I would love to do that [race],” he said. Then after a thoughtful pause, “It’s almost like that beta voice is hearing me say that out loud, and is like, ‘What the fuck are you doing, man? Everyone’s going to try to kill us now.’ But then I’m like, ‘Fuck it. Let them try.'”

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