Late on a Sunday afternoon as I was out kayaking in the Estuary with Lara who was training for the World Adventure Racing Champs and I missed a phone call from Flavio. Damn better call him back… maybe I’d left something behind at his place the previous day?
Flavio cut to the chase pretty quickly: ” Would you like to come and race in China next month?”
There was no hesitation at all from me: “Yes! I’m definitely keen!!”
I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been hanging out to be invited to go to one of these adventure races in China. I had previously had to turn down one offer as it was really close to the World Mountain Running champs and in a relatively slack year (overseas racing wise) I was pretty keen for something adventurous to round out the year. This opportunity ticked that box!
In our team of four there was the experienced Flavio, Myself and two other China first timers, Julia Grant and Sam Bell. Flavio, I have raced with and against before, the other two however I had never really met before but I knew both of them were top class athletes in Ironman and Duathlon. The team strength had been built on a foundation of running strength so it sounded like we had the makings for a pretty strong team!
It was only in the airport late on a Wednesday Night we finally assembled as a team to travel over to China. The plane coming in was pretty late and this meant a pretty late get away time for us, 2am I think! The long flight was followed by a short connection and then a bus ride of around 5 hours to get us to Zunyi, South of Chongqing (in Central, sort of South East China).
After a good sleep we were ready to start getting ready ahead of the race, building bikes and preparing gear. Once the bikes were built up we took them out for a little ride on the city streets with a quick side trip to the local bike shop…. bike shop Number 1 turned out to be a pet shop and then Number 2 was gone so it was back to bike shop Number 3 to get a couple of the guys bent discs sorted out. Traffic on the city streets was an experience in itself, everyone tries to avoid hitting everyone else unlike New Zealand where everyone tries to follow the rules…
Day 1 of the race was upon us with the first stage of the race consisting of just a 30km Mountain Run. We thought we had things all sorted, meeting down at the bus on time, only to find we were missing our Bike Helmets-a strange rule in China that we had to follow even though we were only going to be running today! After some stressful moments going up and down elevators to collect our helmets we made it onto the bus, which left 20mins late anyway…
We arrived at the start with plenty of time to spare, although we were told to hurry and assemble in various places while they organised the opening ceremony. The cameras all came out from the crowd, everyone wanting their photos taken with us, the TV reporters asking questions and the obligatory drones buzzing around capturing it all on video. Finally after about an hour of this we were underway, jostling for position on the gentle uphill road run.
We stuck together as a team really well in all the chaos, then we hit the stairs China is so famous for. My first impression was that they were super slippery, and just about arsed over several times! As the stairs rose, the teams gradually seeded themselves, the Chinese out the front and us and a bunch of other Kiwis at the head of the main pack. The slippery uphill was followed by a bunch of slippery stairs down too, then some proper off track running in the cut bamboo forest…try not to slip over and skewer yourself! The legendary descent lived up to its reputation (this section had been a part of other races in the area previously) and was quite steep, muddy and slippery, my favorite part of the race!
This section was followed by some real running, and pretty much the make and break point for most of the teams. I think this is were our strength shone through as a team of strong runners we worked really well together and managed a consistent pace all the way to the finish. The last 2kms on the false flat road was an absolute slog feast however and I’m pretty sure everyone of us was happy to cross the finish line. Happy with our first race together as a team we finished in 5th place, about 20mins behind the first place team. Our split times showed just what we thought, we lost a all of our time on the up and technical running but maintained a good pace through the rest of the course, not losing any time at the end.
Back at the hotel we prepared ourselves for Day 2. The next and final day was to be what I would call an actual adventure race, starting with a 2km run, 27km Mountain Bike, 2-3km Orienteering stage, 7km further Mountain Bike, Archery section, then a 21km “Pavement trails” run ending in town with a Building abseil and then a vertical ramp obstacle to get over before the finish line. I was pretty excited and looking forward to what lay ahead!
The start in Day 2 was slightly less chaotic as there was a no “Public race” runners with us today. Quickly the fast Chinese runners were off at high speed, while we stuck to our consistent pace attitude that was working well for us. Finally we transitioned to our bikes and got to work speeding through the little town, then grinding up the paved roads we had run down the previous day. We slotted nicely into 4th spot as we climbed the roads and eventually got onto a muddy trail for some “real” mountain biking! Here we gained quite a bit of distance on our rivals ahead, for a relatively inexperienced Mountain Biker Julia did a pretty good job. Eventually we caught the Chinese team in 3rd place, passed them and just when we thought we had seen the last of them they rallied and came back at us. There was a bit of jockeying for position, but in the end they managed to get a very small gap in front of us going into the orienteering section.
In a way this was tactical, it had occurred to me and maybe Flavio that if we were in transition together they may pick up on the fact that we could actually navigate and that they would be best just to follow us around. Things were going to plan just how we wanted it really until we rocked up to transition. We came through the gate expecting to find our gear bag but it was nowhere to be seen. After some stern words and some frantic backwards and forwards action, the shoes were on and I was about to step into my element!
I was fairly nervous about the orienteering section, there was a bit of pressure on me to perform, but as soon as I got that map in my hand I switched on and it was all go. Flavio described the look on my face like a little kid with a great big lollypop! I was so excited to be orienteering in a pretty cool area, an old medieval castle. There was lots of steps and quite a bit of route choice/room for errors. This played into our hands well as we caught and passed two of the Chinese teams ahead of us. I even caught a glimpse of the NZ team in the lead at one point, and had to ignore a mashall trying to point us in a less and efficient direction! To come back to the transition having made up ground was a thrill in itself, unfortunately they would let me keep the map at the end though.
Back on the bikes everyone in the team was feeling good. We had worked hard to get ourselves into a good position and things were looking good. The short bike to the Archery went pretty quickly, and then it was Sam’s turn to shine with the bow and arrow. The target looked fairly difficult to hit, slightly lower than the shooting spot and a good 30-40m away. Sam quickly took aim with his 5 arrows but unfortunately was unable to hit the target. Tough luck under pressure! This meant that we had an agonising wait of 10 minutes to serve out as our penalty. About 2mins into the wait Chinese team number 1 arrived, hit the target and were off. Then 8mins in another international team arrived, hitting the target just as we left the penalty box.
Having a bit of a rest may have been a blessing in disguise in someways as we were now eager to get out on those pavement trails to the finish. I was confident we could hold 3rd position at least, and maybe we could get closer to that Chinese team too which could mean 3rd place overall. I was still fizzing from the orienteering and took the tow rope on one of the steep hills, setting a solid pace. The tow rope was really good at keeping us altogether, cranking out the kilometers through the steep hill section.
Cruising up the hills, Julia is hidden perfectly behind Flavio
Eventually it was time to go downhill, then uphill again, down some more and then up again! I’m pretty sure the elevation profile they showed us a the briefing did not have this much climb at the end. About 3.5 to 4 hours in our real strength started shine in the run, Julia was cranking along, with Flavio and I sharing the towing while Sam, even after his biggest run ever the day before still keeping pace. It was great, we were one big(?) unit, and didn’t even pause to take a breath when we went past the Chinese team in 2nd place. The morale lifted a notch when they dropped behind us and were out of sight.
Eventually the massively long bike path we had been following came to an end, descending into town. All along the bike path there was spectators videoing, watching, cheering but in town there was huge crowds of people lining the streets. It got me quite excited and an excited Tane corresponds to a fast running Tane, so probably a good thing I was the tow master at that point. As we made our way through town we approached the abseil, first we had to get to the top of the building, all crowds disappeared replaced by some concrete walls. And then Darkness as we hit the stairwell.
The auto lights had switched off, and it took movement to set them off so I lead the way using my hand as a guide on the wall. Memories of the Skytower Challenge came flooding back to me as I ran up the first two flights a bit fast, then settled down wondering just how many flights of stairs we had to go up. Thankfully the light from the top floor was shining through the stairwell about 5 stories up, signalling the top. Harnesses on and then it was business time. There was a frame overhanging the building and by the quick look I had it wasn’t too high but it still looked quite far down. I tried not to think too much, sorted my harness out and was ready. I abseiled in tandem with Julia who was initially sounding pretty terrified but once we were over the edge the terror disappeared and was replaced with enjoyment as we made our way to the ground and waited for the other two. Sam, as Flavio described him, was as white as a sheet before they edged out and hung over the edge!
Abseil done and another short run to the stadium to the end, but first one short obstacle to get over, the ramp and vertical wall. Sam and Flavio sprinted ahead straight for it, grabbed the ropes hanging down and pulled themselves up first time. Then it was our turn, I sprinted forward, grabbed rope then as I was pulling myself up got a massive attack of cramp, luckily Sam was able to give me a hand otherwise I think I might have fallen back. All up in a matter of a minute or two, and only 100 slippery meters to the finish.
We crossed the line together as we had raced all day in second place, an awesome team performance to end to a great race. For myself I had a really good time out there and I think they others were pretty happy too. To place second on Day 2 as well as finish comfortably in third place over the two days was just so satisfying especially from a bunch of first timers in China! We were rewarded with a trip to the podium, some prizes and some celebratory champagne spraying afterwards!
No time for too much rest once we were back at the hotel, the bikes needed to be cleaned and packed, key for getting back into NZ smoothly. Then it was back on the bus early the next morning, headed back to Chongqing where we had a few hours to have a look around. Some more waiting and shopping around in Guangzhou before the late night flight back home. The Biosecurity team was ready and waiting for us at the border, along with a camera crew from the Border Patrol TV program. They were fairly impressed with most of our gear, all but Julia who needed her bag vacuumed apparently, so watch this space we may make an appearance on TV sometime in the near future!
All told a pretty awesome trip, great team mates, really good time, great result, really keen to go back and do it all over again on another trip or two next year, but for now the next few months the “China” switch is set to off!
Special thanks to St Martins New World, Bivouac Outdoor, Inov8 Shoes