Right from the beginning there was signs that this race was not going to go to plan. Our original flights fell through and we had to re-book a week or two later costing us a bit more. We had trouble finding a 4th team mate, eventually Dayne was called in. Initially it was going to be easy for me to get time off work, then it seemed like quite an exercise to actually get the paperwork signed off. Some mis-interpretation of the required equipment caused a bit of extra stress too, so it was a relief that we all arrived in Nanning Airport (after an 8 hour stop over and quick trip to a hotel in Guangzhou) with all of our gear.
There was no mucking around once we were through the doors of the airport, it was straight onto the bus and on the way to race headquarters in the small town of Leye. Packing the bike boxes onto the bus turned out to be a bit of an effort, as there seemed to be a load of chickens stored in one of the storage lockers! Never the less this is China and we were quickly on the move as there was a 5+ hour bus ride to the hotel and it was already late in the day. As the light faded so to did my memory of this trip and I drifted off to sleep several times. Sleep was broken every now and then by the particularly rough roads and then at one point due to an accident. This lead to the bus driver and all the other traffic around trying to make up time by pulling off some sketchy passing maneuvers. I was pretty glad to drift off to sleep blissfully unaware of the next hour or so it took to get to the hotel.
We arrived quite early in the week, several days before the race officially started, so we made ourselves busy, shopping around for food, building up bikes, going for a run or two and generally just mucking about catching up with all the other guys as they gradually arrived.
Finally the day before the race was upon us and we could start to get into race mode. The day before the race there is always the gear checks, registration and all the jazz to get done. This race there was a rope ascending stage and this created a bit of controversy and looking back now created the rift in our team which plagued us for most of the race. Unfortunately there was some disagreement as to what was the best technique to climb the rope and there was a few raised voices which embarrassingly had the other teams looking over at us. We eventually sorted things our or so we thought…the briefing through a few curve balls (and maybe a lifeline to me) we were going to need to wear our bike helmets and lifejackets for the 1km swim on day 3! After the briefing was a banquest dinner near the town square with all the dignatories. We were served up a wonderful array of the finest dishes of the area, all of which seemed to contain some sort of offal. Unfortunately a lot of this probably went to waste as for us westerners, it was all a bit much and the chances of getting sick prior to the race were too high to try anything too risky! After sneaking back to the hotel for some Backcountry meals (Freeze-dry food) we packed our gear and prepared ourselves for the race in the morning.
As with the majority of these international china races, it seemed to be the biggest event in the town in a while so all the school kids were out and the opening ceramony was quite spectatular for such an event. Soon it was time for bussiness and the race was underway, yay, four days of pushing it to the limit and going hard!
800m run, 1.8km Wheelbarrow run, 32km MTB, 3.5km GPS Navigation, Rope Climb (15m) and Flying fox (20m), 14.8km Run
Right from the start line the pace was hot, Julia shot off like a rocket and we followed to the human wheelbarrows (more like a sack barrow actually). Julia jumped on and Flavio pushed with Dayne and myself helping him out with a one handed push to the back. The 1.8km was hard work, but im sure for those Chinese spectators it was great to watch! From there is was straight onto bikes, and the pace was hot. We knucked down to work and fought to catch a bunch in front to try and get some drafting benefit. We quickly fell into a good rythmn, but the quick start was a bit much for Dayne and he dropped back. Flavio dropped back to help him out and once he had some food and drink into him he was back online. We lost a little bit of ground on some slippery wet single track descent through the jungle and then a bike carry. It almost felt like it might have been rain a tiny bit too. The chips were down a bit as some more epierenced teams came flying past, but as we climbed up the hill and got back onto some seal Julia’s road descending skills came to the fore. The placed we had lost were gained back by the time we were back into transistion. Transition struck us a bit earlier than we expected, so we were a bit unprepared for the first GPS checkpoint. I was hoping that the checkpoints were going to be marked on the map like orienteering controls but unfortunately it was just the co-ordinates. Considering the averageness of the GPS interface, we did pretty well at this stage and made some ground right up until the next Chekpoint which was actually the start of the rope climb, and international standard sport climbing wall. The rope was overhanging and although 15m doesnt seem long I can assure you it feels very high!
After the controversy of the day before it was good to actually get onto the rope and climb up. Julia once again excelled and showed us all how it was done, pretty good effort for second time out on the rope. Dayne was next and then myself. As I climbed the rope I noticed about 5m up that one of my carabina’s had opened! As I climbed up the screw lock had unwind as it rubbed on the opposite sling, and once it opened the sling slipped into the carabina. This I tightened the carabina again, but I thought it was too much of a risk to try and sort out while I was up the rope, so I left it, this restricted my reach a bit and consequently I had a hard time getting up the rope. Once at the top I think Flavio probably clipped in before I was able to get the rope over the edge of the railing, loading the rope and making it really difficult to get over the edge, luckily the safety guy was able to pull it over for me. There was also quite a drop inside of the wall. From the back of the wall to the cliff behind was a “Flying Fox” (actually a Tyrolean traverse) hard work especially when you pick the rope with the tree in the way! I was feeling pretty exhausted at the end of it all, and Flavio was close behind so there wasnt much time for a rest before we were back at it this time running.
The run went straight uphill, I had been lacking a bit of water and after the rope climb not in a good space for stair climbing. I felt terrible as we ascended, probably flagging a bit at the back while I tried to sort myself out. Almost as soon as it leveled out, so did I, I was back on my game for the technical downhill over the back. The highlight of this stage was the cave section, hence why we needed to run with a headlamp! It was very cool running through the cave, there was a river running through it and much to our surprise a whole bunch of people fishing in the middle of it! Only in China! The race wasnt over when we were out of the cave, there was some more climbing to do and some hard yards to knock off. Finally we got back to the climbing wall and realised that we were not quite at the finish yet, still about 1.5km on the road back to the square where we started! We finished strong, cementing our position ahead of our closest rivals on the final stretch, but that was only one stage down and three more to come.
The afternoon was filled with cleaning, packing and preparing for the next day, then at dinner that evening we found out that the kayaking stage on day 2 had been cancelled due to low water in the river. Sad but also good for us as we were not what you could considered a great paddling team.
10.4km Run, 20m Flying fox, 47km Mountain Bike, (10km kayak: Cancelled)
We had to be up earlier for this stage as there was an hour or so bus ride to the start of the race. The buses rolled up outside at a tourist information gatehouse, the staging area for us pre-start. Its was a pretty cool morning I an was pretty reluctant to shed the down jacket. Soon enough the pace was hot and we were clocking sub 4min kms down the soon to be sealed road. The tow rope was on and I was feeling strong so I capitalised on this and kept the heat on the teams around. I was getting a bit annoyed however at the team in front with their annoying walking poles, which I thought were actually quite dangerous flicking up behind them in my face all the time. Anyway once we hit the hills they were soon history and fell behind us as we turned out to be a good climbing team. We emerged to the tops and into the stairs above a massive chasm and cool looking cave. I wasn’t too long until we hit the flying fox which two of us had to do while the others ran around.
The wait time here was untimed, so we had a chance to catch our breaths briefly before clipping onto the rope and jumping on board. Unfortuantely the fall on the rope wasnt great so we quickly had to reach up and pull ourselves along Tyrolean style. Right to the end it was quite hard work, Flavio went so hard that he kept going and smacked his head on a rock to bring him to an abrupt stop! Julia and Dayne were at the end waiting for us, so we hurried to meet them and get to the transition as fast as possible.
Onto the bikes we quickly got some speed on, Julia again pushing hard on the downhills to keep the gap. Soon we got to the offroad bit and our on road adventure came to quick stop. Julia’s chain jumped off almost immediately but we kept a good gap on the team behind. We worked well here to keep moving as quick as we could but that chain just didnt want to stay on. Halfway though the ride we had a small reprieve with a long descent on the road, although one team snuck past us right at the beginning. Eventually it was time to go uphill again and then the long bike carry section. This was one of the toughest sections of the race I think in hindsight.
Up and over slippery rocks, almost rid-able but definitely not at the same time! it was such a relief to be back riding again, unfortunately the chain was playing up yet a again but it was what it was and there was not much we could do about it, other than fix it for the time being and keep moving. There was some pretty cool downhill single track for the next part of the ride, Julia was starting to get a better handle on things and I had a little moment down the side of a bank that luckily no one saw…. It was a good 2m to climb back up to the track! I pushed my hardest at the end of this section feeling pretty much like we were in the middle of some bad Vietnam movie, pushing our bikes up a humid scrubby bank. We got over it quickly and it felt like we were on the home straight, just a few kilometres through some back alley of a village, keeping our mouths closed and trying to avoid stray animals on the trail. Unfortunately one chick was quick enough to avoid one of our wheels! There was a bit of a rush for us at the finish but we maintained our position in front of our main rivals clipping at our heels!
We were pretty happy to finish when we did as there was a bus leaving for the hotel very soon after we got there. We quickly jumped on and were on our way back to the hotel. It was a seriously rough ride and after an hour of driving it seemed like we were still in the middle of nowhere. Then the bus came to a tight corner, didn’t quite make it, tried again, still didn’t make it… we all got off the bus and the driver had one more go…nope stuck and it seemed like he was out of petrol too. So about an hour and a half we were stranded there watching the saga unfold. Eventually we managed to get back on the bus and underway again, but it was clear that the suspension was definitely stuffed.
Back at the hotel we quickly packed our gear up, had our dinner then made our way back out to the busses, interestingly enough the broken bus was not there waiting for us, thankfully! Ahead of us was about 2hours to our next location, another interesting bus ride in china I am glad to say that I survived. Once checked in it was straight into sorting out gear for Stage 3 probably the biggest day of the whole race. Unfortuantely in all of the mess of organising our stuff there was a bit of a disaagreement within our team which lead to a bit of a heated discussion…. not really good for the team morale at all, anyway tomorrow was an other day so to speak.
1km Run, 1km Swim, 3km Kayak, 18km Mountain Biking, 20 Running, 17km Kayaking, 2km Running
As it was again a big day out with a bus ride to the start again, we were up bright and early and ready to roll… well sort of. The bus trip was fairly spectatular, and we were asked by our interpretor to put on our seat belts! The terrain we were to be racing in was an area of limestome karst terrain with lots of sink holes, caves and steep hill tops, all encompassing the lake we were about to race around. The lake itself was not what one is used to in China, and was in pristine condition, obviously there was some protection in place to keep it that way. This was reassuring for us as we were about to race in it!
I was quite nervous about the swim, probably one of my biggest weaknesses in everything that I do, so the sound of a 1km swim was quite daunting. For better or worse we lined up on the start line in our Lifejackets and Bike helmets, let off at 30s intervals according to our race position. The start was a couple of hundred meters above the lake front, so the first 2km was a run, straight forward until we got to a cave, and a series of Bamboo ladders to climb down and through, a very cool addition to the race!
At the bottom of the cave was the lake, there was no hesitation and it was straight in. It was pretty nice water to be in acutally, but quickly from the speed of running down the hill then the stress of trying to keep up with my team mates without a tow rope, panic started to set in. I was going to be left well behind the others, only 50m in and they were probably 50m ahead of me, too far to call out to them apart from Dayne who was close enough to help me out. He had a tow rope from the start line for the run and was able to tow me up to the others. Then Flavio was able to hook me in. I was in a right flap no, trying my best to keep up without stressing or having a panic attack. I went from freestyle to a bit of back stroke every now and then to try and calm myself down. By the time I reached the island with the kayaks I was not in a good place, I was broken, out of breath, had swallowed way too much water and a bit embarrassed by it all especially for slowing the rest of the team down so much that we had lost the lead teams.
Then the short kayak was not all that flash, the team did not work very well at all to get moving together. Eventually we got to a point were the second kayak was sort of drafting, but not as well as I thought we could be. Anyway, in the stress of the transition I was unable to set my peddles correctly which threw my paddling off a bit. This was not a good start to stage 3! Finally we were at the bikes and I was able to finally get myself out of the extreme panic I had got myself into. It was quite a short ride, a nice ride through a cheering village and then a climb up a mountain that one could easily mistaken for somewhere in Europe! Again this was only a short stage and the king maker stage was bearing down on us from just above.
The run was just amazing, one of the coolest pieces of trail running I have ever experienced in all of the places I have been able to run. Very cool views, very interesting running, and very tough going. After 1 hour we had gone something like 6kms and there was still another 14km of it to go with no let up. We quickly moved up a few positions getting a good start. We even caught site of a team in front, our rivals from the day before. This is where we cooked the goose so to speak! It was hot and humid (not extreme, but still uncomfortable) and Julia just unleashed down the hill through some terrain that was a bit like Mt Somers (her backyard). I was able to keep up but Im not sure I could go much faster without blowing myself up, I think Flavio was thinking the same, and Dayne was defiantely in net deficit.
Unfortaunetly for us when they saw us coming for them at a great rate of knots, they kicked it into another gear too and we never actually got more than within 20m of them. We slowly started to pay for our games, and everyone started to fade a bit, Flavio smashed his shin, there was a bit of rain so the rocks were slippery and Dayne was out of water and not in good shape. I was starting to feel ok again, but defiantely ready to get down that hill and into the kayaks. There was still a good few kms of suffering to go on the run, so when we finally reached transition we took it easy and made sure we were hydrated again and ready for action.
The paddle didnt really go to plan I felt, we didn’t paddle together as two boats very well and we were down on a bit of motivation. With the team apart, one boat going faster than the other is was hard work to feel like we were still racing. I hate that feeling of wanting to try but not being able to because the team morale is low. This is were we lost it pretty much. Not that we were going to win, but we threw away the chance to keep ourselves in the top ten overall.
I was so motivated by the time we got into the end of the kayak, and knowing we had a 2km run uphill on a road, I was ready to smash it and get us home as quick as possible. The tow was on and I was feeling strong, after getting quite cold at the end of the kayak, I quickly warmed up and hopefully some of the time from our woeful paddle was made up for. Finishing stage 3 wasnt the celebration it was the previous two days, and the general team mood was pretty low.
Packing for the final day was fairly minimal so there was plenty of time for recovery for the final day of the race. Getting up the next morning was not easy, the body was starting to feel the 3 days of racing and the had Chinese beds were not helping.
27km Mountain Bike, 28km Running, 3.4km GPS Orienteering with 30m Flying fox
Reaching day 4 was a relief because it was almost over, but still the task ahead was a daunting prospect with 33 odd kms of running and GPS orienteering and a 28km ride consisting of mostly climb. I was feeling excited, my team however we not appearing to be firing on all cylinders, so today was going to be a challenge. The bike ride to start with was fast and furious through the streets of town, then up a huge steep hill, that seemed to climb and climb and then climb forever. Eventually a section of single track broke up the bordem of the road riding. It was a little bit tricky, made tricky by a few less than confident riders going slow, stopping and falling all over the track. I passed one girl that was pulling herself up from down a bank on two different occasions, then proceeded to go over the handle bars myself. As we were not super fast through this section and I was able to ride a good proportion of it I had a chance to recover a little and by the time we hit transition I was again ready to fire on the run.
I think I was definitely running like a bull at a red flag way too early on, but it was such a cool place to be running up though a series of Garden shelters on a ridge line, it really felt like we were racing around in China. For a long time we were around other teams, quite close, some we passed, some fell behind and eventually we found ourselves in the forest out on our own. Pleasant for the time being but there was still a long way to go. The way down on some single track was quite fun, a good gradient to go fast, I enjoyed it as much as I could but needed to get some food down to keep the foot on the accelerator. Once the single track ran out there was a brutal section on the road. We pounded the pavement for the next few ks and it finally felt like we were almost home.
Not quite, there was still a huge hill to climb up and over before we could even catch a glimpse of where we had to go. At the top of the hill I reached a point where I needed some electrolytes, I was thirsty but still things were not right. I took some time to get some into me as we ran down the road. Unfortunately there was some badly timed advice directed my way and I finally cracked, my frustration came out, I was mostly disappointed that we were not working as a team. I had been feeling like I was doing everything I could for the team and now I was not even allowed to take a few moments to make sure I was going to be able to concentrate through the last part of the course. I lost my cool and let rip, not something I am proud of and even more so I am now embarrassed about. Anyway the effect of making me upset caused me to run fast and Dayne on the tow rope was possibly left feeling a bit punished as Flavio with Julia under tow was working hard to keep up.
Finally we reached the GPS orienteering, there was a fair amount of haste to get to the first checkpoint, in hot pursuit of the team just in front. The second checkpoint turned out to be the flying fox section across the river, but apart from myself the others were left a bit perplexed that we had reached it already. In my reading of the instructions it was mid-way through the GPS orienteering section but the others had somehow got it in their heads that it was right the end. As it turned out I was ready to go, so to save time I went across. I went so quickly across that the carabina I was hanging on brushed my arm as I got to the other end a I got a nasty burn from the heat! All my haste was a bit wasted as I then had to stand and wait for the rest of the team to sort themselves out. I was able to assist them once they got to the end, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Two controls to go to the end, but first we had to wait to punch in the co-ordinates! Finally we were on the move again, racing right to the finish. What a relief to be over, it was all a bit of a let down crossing the line feeling a bit deflated even though we had given it everything. More of a let down for me was the dynamics of the team, and how it overshadowed what I thought was an amazing race to be a part of. I thought I had had my run of bad team dynamics and learnt from it, but it appears that just like everything in life you keep on learning!
We ended up finishing 11th overall, just enough to enjoy a trip to the podium to collect a novelty cheque at the banquet afterwards! Cleaning the gear to get it back into NZ is always the worst part of a trip away, all you want to do a the end of a race is to sit down and chill out but we were all packed and on a bus at 5am the next morning. Well it was almost on time, except for the fact that there was a lot of people wanting to get on the bus with bike boxes and all sorts of other gear so it turned into a bit of game of tetras to pack the boxes and then to find a seat for the next 5 hours back to Nanning airport!
What was a long race, turned into a long trip home, we ended up travelling 40 something hours back to NZ, first going north within China with a crazy stop over in a no-name town full of less than frequent flyers. Then an epic series of elevator rides with bike boxes to catch a bus between airports in Shanghai. Such a relief to finally be on the flight home to NZ. One thing I wont be doing on the way home next time will be having a go on a VR simulator! After 5mins of that I was drenched in sweat and left feeling very ill from motion sickness, not really a great state to be in before long haul flying!!
(Congratulations for making it to the end, sorry for the long winded saga…)
Thanks to Bivouac Outdoor, St Martins New World, Cycleways and Inov8 for their support!