Forsman ’09: Running through the Pain

Elisabeth Forsman ’09 crosses the finish line of the Gobi March while carrying a U.S. flag.

Elisabeth Wang Forsman ’09 did not distinguish herself as an athlete at Mount Holyoke. A swimmer since the age of five, Forsman joined the swimming and diving team during her first year, but serious injuries—rotator-cuff damage, slipped discs sustained in a fall from a horse—sidelined her for the rest of her college career. So, her classmates might be surprised to learn that she is one of only a few thousand people in the world to have completed a grueling, weeklong “ultramarathon” known as the Gobi March in China’s harsh Gobi Desert—despite the pain that still plagues her. Here, Forsman, an English major and Asian studies minor who lives and works in Hong Kong doing fixed-income sales and trading for Wells Fargo, discusses her unlikely emergence as an elite athlete.

Men’s Fitness has called the Gobi March “the ultimate test of human endurance.” How would you describe it?

Essentially, it’s a marathon a day for the first four days, and then the fifth day it’s an 80-kilometer (50-mile) run followed by a rest day, and then after that it’s a 14K to the finish line. And the entire idea is that you’re self-sustainable, so you carry all of your own food, all of your own equipment, and all of your own medical supplies for the week with you. The only things provided are water, medical care, and shelter.

That sounds impossible! How did you do it?

It was horrible. In retrospect, it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done, but when I was there it hurt more than anything I could’ve ever anticipated. I had a backpack that weighed 20 pounds when I started the race. Twenty pounds is a lot to carry on your back, especially when you have back problems. The first day went really well, but then on the second day I injured my left knee because I rolled down a hill at one point. I strained my meniscus, and by day four I was reeling in pain. I had to self-medicate really heavily just to keep going.

Did you ever seriously consider quitting?

I did. Day two was the worst day for me. I was by myself, I couldn’t see anyone around me for miles, and there was a moment when it started pouring rain and thundering. It felt like everything was against me. I thought, I don’t know how I’m going to get through this. I’m cold, I’m tired, I haven’t eaten in hours. I sat down in the middle of the road and wondered, what the hell am I doing here?

What got you through?

The people. There was something about being in the Gobi and being a member of this clan that was going through the desert together that brought out the best in people. I would be on my last limb, and then I would run into a Singaporean kid who would stuff meat into my hand and say, “Eat it, take a breath, keep going.” And a lot of people would offer to carry my backpack when my knee was hurting too much. The fact that everyone around you is helping so much was beyond anything I could imagine.

Did you meet anyone particularly memorable?

There was one person in my tent who is probably going to be a very good friend for the rest of my life. He was a Turkish guy who worked for the navy in Turkey. He was running with two stoves in his backpack, so he must have had one of the heaviest backpacks there. But he was this incredible athlete, and he had the best food with him. By day four, I stopped eating my own food. What you bring with you is a lot of freeze-dried food, and that stops being tempting after about day two. You have no room in your stomach anyway because of the stress from what you’re doing, and I kind of stopped eating–and this guy would sit there and force-feed me tortellini that he had cooked.

What is the appeal of doing something so punishing?

When I got my injuries (in college), I felt like there was nothing left for me—that I couldn’t do anything else anymore, and that I probably would get old and fat and realize that I died when I was 18. There is something about that that seems so horribly depressing, and I didn’t want to give up. I thought, “That’s way too young to feel like a dead person.” So, I’m going a bit extreme right now—I know that—but I think for me it’s how I feel most alive nowadays. I’m pushing myself past what I ever thought I could, and I’m forcing myself into experiences that most people will never have.

What’s next for you?

My meniscus, which I injured during the Gobi, has stopped me from doing a lot of the training I would like to do. I reinjured it in November during a triathlon in Phuket (one of the southern provinces of Thailand), so I’ve been taking it easy for the past few months. But I’ll be competing in an ultramarathon in Madagascar in August/September, and I’m looking at doing the Atacama Crossing (Chile) in 2015 and the Sahara Race (Egypt) the year after that. I don’t think you have to be a good runner to do any of these things. It’s more willpower than anything else. It’s about focusing your mind and realizing that one step leads to another, and eventually you’ll get to the end.

Christina Barber-Just