We headed to China for the fifth year in a row for the race in Wulong. This year we had the support from Champion System and APA.co – based in Hong Kong. Joining Elina and I were Nathan Fa’avae and Trevor Voyce, both from our hometown Nelson in NZ.
Our summer in Europe has been different this year with a break for a few weeks and then a great block of training. The change of focus meant we arrived in China feeling much fresher than in the past and ready to begin what will be a super busy 3 months of racing.
A few teams were already suffering the effects of food poisoning or something similar - among them Dougal and Jacob from Team Toread. The Prologue this year was in a new venue and so no one knew what to expect. After the usual fanfare, speeches and displays it was down to business.
Our race almost came unstuck seconds after the start when Elina was trampled to the ground along with several other members from leading teams.
We were dead last by the time we'd picked her up off the ground and started chasing hard.
By the end of the 2km uphill run we had fought back to mid pack and jumped many of the teams in the transition to the rickshaw carry. This involved three team members carrying the lightest team member who got to enjoy the ride in a local chair with long poles for the others to hoist on their shoulders. This was a good leg for us and we emerged at the start of the Biathlon in second place behind one of the fleet footed Chinese teams. Their girls are also very light to carry!
The biathlon enabled us to gain more time and despite being a little undone by a shorter than expected course we headed into the MTB portion in first equal place.
We decided to use just running shoes on the bike given it was only six kilometers and save the time it would take to change into and out of our MTB shoes. The course was actually quite rough in places making it a bit tougher than expected, especially in running shoes on our small clip in pedals. We seemed to be coping better than the other teams though and managed to build a good lead. After safely negotiating some pretty loose down hills we raced back through the outskirts of the town and into the final transition.
Just under 1500 meters later it was all over for the day.
We managed to build just over a minute over the second place team, Out there USA and team Toread came through for third despite the sickness issues around 4 1/2 minutes back.
The Australian team Peak Adventure actually crossed the line in third but were penalized two minutes for riding in transition and ended up out of the top five. Thule who were also involved in the crash at the start came home in fourth, only 10 seconds behind Toread but with their girl Mimi with a injured arm.
Up tomorrow is the longest day - some swimming to shake things up and apparently a big uphill on the bikes along with a canyon section and a long kayak.
Was super hot at start and looking like one of the hottest days that we've ever raced in Wulong in.
The start was a biathlon (2 bikes per team, only one person per bike at a time) and everyone set off with their different strategies, we seemed to choose a good one and after a couple of bike to run swaps we were out in the lead.
It was already heating up and by the start of the swim it was a welcome relief to hit the water. We made good time across, albeit very slow due to the shoes and lifejackets required for the return with 2 bikes and a raft.
Once we were all safely on dry land it was up to pick up the bikes and then while Nath and Trev strapped them on the tiny 2 man raft I started swimming while Elina was tucked down on the floor of the boat. As they caught up I got a towrope and tried to avoid being keel hauled.
Onto the bike section and after some fun undulating riding we hit a monster climb that we were on for well over an hour and topped out almost 800 meters higher. A fast descent followed and led us into the 15 min rest area.
We'd been there 10 mins before ‘Out There’ arrived after some mechanicals on route, but we'd left for the next section before any others arrived. We all agreed it was a super tough ride and that all of the teams that had sick members would be really feeling it.
Trev and Nath got to abseil off the bridge as the weight of the ropes meant it was more practical for the heavier members of the team to do it. Elina and I got to run down a road that for a couple of kilometers appeared to be heading in the opposite direction - not that much fun on tired legs. We all met up at the bottom for a really fun hour of canyoneering.
The water to start was so refreshing but as we made our way down the temperature became like a warm bath and did nothing to cool us.
I was starting to feel a bit low on energy but nothing seemed to be helping. Just before the kayaks we had to progress through some very deep sticky mud as the lake was super low meaning an extra kilometer of running and the last portion literally crawling trying to stay on top of the mud.
Into the kayaks and I was going downhill so we switched boats and I tried to help Trev as much as possible to keep up with Nath and Elina.
It was relief to get to the only CP on the lake meaning we'd covered at least 65% of the paddle but it wasn't so nice to then run out of drink. Luckily between the team we had a little and we made it the final few kilometers to the last stage, a run and caving sections.
The hike up from the lake is hundreds of steep stairs and Trev kindly gave me a tow and Elina helped out with a push.
We also finally got to gauge where the next team was and it looked like we might have around 20 minutes lead although my speed on the final section was probably meaning they were cutting into it. The cool of the cave was a welcome relief and so was the finish. It was a super tough day, very hot and possibly the hardest course we've ever done in Wulong.
Out There arrived about 16 minutes later and then it was another good gap back to Swedish team AXA who took a very good 3rd for the day.
Thule and Toread arrived close together about 40 minutes down before teams started arriving at more regular intervals.
The prize giving was held in conditions that resembled an oven and my body showed its displeasure and I had to make a hasty trip behind the podium to throw up what seemed like about 5 liters of fluid and a smattering of this mornings breakfast.
I almost instantly felt better and a few ice blocks later the pain of the day was slowly fading away.
I'm pretty sure it was a case of too many gels and sport drink and not enough water to dilute it mixed with the vicious heat. I’m usually fine and enjoy racing in hot climates but it can bite anyone quickly if you get things just a little wrong. I don’t think this case was the food here luckily but it does feel a bit like Russian roulette going to eat at the hotel
A good day for us considering, about 10pm last night Elina started throwing up and joined the ranks of the sick, by 1am it was only getting worse so we got the doctor which was a weird and frustrating experience trying to get some medicine and being told she was sick because of the weather and too much Red Bull plus a host of other suggestions which firmly smacked of a large dose of denial.
Finally we managed to get some stuff to help, we have no idea exactly what it was but at least she stopped throwing up every 30 minutes.
By the morning she was feeling worse although thankfully the vomiting and diarrhea abated long enough to get down the hill on the bus to the start.
Given the circumstances we were firmly focused on just getting through the day and trying not to surrender too much of our lead if possible, only time would tell.
Getting under way with the kayak we were probably fortunate that it was a staggered start and we were able to make it to the kayaks still first and get underway without any hassle. Nath was with Elina and flogging himself to help take some of the load for her.
By the end we had a small buffer and during the next MTB stage we managed to cling to some advantage up another long hill climb before we missed a turn off on the course and ‘Out There’ slipped by.
We backtracked and shortly after arrived at the rest TA. This broke things up well and once we restarted we surprisingly caught ‘Out There’ during the cave and Abseil section. Nath had a scary moment when the webbing on his harness broke right at the top of the rope and although on later inspection it didn't seem a complete failure was eminent he wasted no time in getting to the bottom of the ropes.
Onto the last ride and we could see ‘Out There’ for most of the ride and final run and we finished just under 3 minutes down to preserve a good chunk of our lead and leave ourselves well in the fight for the top spot tomorrow.
The racing was far closer today and teams were pouring in soon after we got back. There were a lot of extra sick people today including staff of the race so it sounds as though it is finally being taken seriously.
AXA were 3rd again continuing their impressive race and after that it wasn’t long before Thule and Toread arrived - Dougal still looking terrible but the rest looking a little more alive than yesterday.
Tomorrow is looking like a hard day - a lot of running so we will be looking to race for the overall rather than the top spot on the day. Hopefully Elina recovers a bit, she was pretty amazing today given she hadn't eaten anything that had stayed down in almost 24 hours by race start.
It was a great team effort though and everyone did everything that they could to make the whole team move as quickly as possible.
Elina was thankfully feeling a lot better but still very wary of any food and Nath has had the flu all trip so our game plan for the final day was to be more conservative and just try to make sure we were in font of ‘Out There USA’, our closest competition.
Toread's sick team members were all starting to improve and keen to prove a point as were several other teams who'd had issues with sickness.
The start was a lot cooler as we started at almost 2000m elevation which in turn had some of the athletes more worried about the height than the heat.
The race started with a relay where each member had to run to a point, pick up a type of vegetable and carry it back in a traditional wicker basket. After this initial scramble Toread showed their intentions and pushed the pace.
We already had a small buffer on ‘Out There’ and were content to track Toread and Thule who were also keen to push the pace.
By the end of the first run we'd dropped almost 800 vertical meters to a small lake and started on short paddle section. We quickly pulled away from Thule and closed surprisingly fast on Toread so that by the end of the paddle we were on a few seconds back.
The next bike looked like it would be difficult and the final run at over 20km was consuming our thoughts though and we decided to stick to our plan of covering the other teams and racing for the overall rather than put it on the line for the daily top spot. The ride started with a big climb and we were able to see Toread for most of the ride, the gap stayed almost identical but for the extra minute we had taken in transition getting a bit of extra hydration. The pace was very easy though and with no teams catching us from behind it was just more of a buffer we had for the final stage. Once the climb topped out we had a fast and long descent that we were all mindfull was dropping us further and further from the finish elevation, now almost 1km above us.
The ride proved to be a bit shorter than expected and so the 15 min mandatory TA was reached with everyone still well prepared for plenty more climbing.
As teams arrived we were able to gauge our buffer to ‘Out There’ which now had an additional 6 minutes and over 20 minutes in hand for the overall.
A spectacular abseil followed our short break, down through an amazing set of natural arches and we then set off on the final run.
One of the hardest things about the race sometimes is trying to decipher exactly what we are in for - the last run was predicted to be 1 hour 45 minutes but was listed as 22km. With over 800m of vertical to gain it was obvious one or both of the predictions was out.
We climbed surprisingly quickly and we would occasionally see Toread a couple of minutes up a head, we were more than content to take it a touch easier with two further running races immediately after the conclusion of Wulong and so we weren't taking any stress about keeping it close.
Once we topped out onto the flatlands at the top of the mountain we assumed that the time must have been right and it wouldn't be long - maybe 30 minutes to the finish.
This proved to be wrong as the course seemed to wander along forever, often past points we were sure would lead to the finish. After almost 20km and 2.5 hours of running we finally spied the finish line only a short distance away. All that was left was a quick shooting challenge. With high-powered Paint Ball guns we each had to hit a target within 5 shots or run a short penalty loop. No one was that keen for even a small extra run and provided the necessary focus for us all to be successful with the shots.
Toread took the day and also did enough to secure third overall after AXA had a nightmare day and dropped over 40 minutes with mechanicals and other issues. Surprise of the day was Champion System Adventure team from Hong Kong taking 3rd on the day for there best ever finish in Wulong.
It's always a great feeling to cross the line of any race in first but especially a big one like the Red Bull Cup Wulong Mountain Quest. We felt like we had dodged a bullet with Elina's sickness not proving costly as well as the remainder of the team avoiding any issues from the food. It is was obviously tougher on a lot of the other top teams but in the past two years we've also encountered the same problems, unfortunately it has become part of the race for these few years. The organization has already announced though that the race hotel will be moved next year and that should hopefully solve the sickness issues and create a more level playing field and add more depth to the top tier of racing, as at the hotel prior to this one there never seemed to be any issues surrounding the food and illness.
I can't say enough of our team, It's always great to race with Nath, he was a bit sick this year but is so good at managing himself and adds so much to any team, Trevor was a rock, super strong all race and I'm sure he will be on many more winning teams in the next few years. Elina went to Wulong so focused and even a night of throwing up and no food for 24 hours in the middle of the race barely seemed to faze her.
Also massive thanks to Champion Systems and APA.co for their sponsorship of the team for Wulong.
The day after the finish of Wulong we headed for two more races, this time in the very north of China along the border with Mongolia. The races were both running only and set in different portions of the Gobi desert.
We’d been told varying things of the races but they all proved to be widely inaccurate and the trip descended into a bit of chaos and at times felt like a bad dream you just can’t wake up from.
The main issue was getting there – our travel itinerary was like this – 4 hours Bus, 4 hours flight, 1 hour bus, 8 hours train plus all the waiting time and with tired and sore bodies from the Wulong race it was hard to see ourselves getting great results in the runs!
The first run was a 25 km desert run, the first 10 kms were quite pretty with some dry canyons and interesting features before we headed out onto what seemed like a never ending flat gravel plain and into the teeth of a howling wind.
Elina and I raced side by side with Marcel and Fleur and Jacky and Mimi but lost out on the sprint to the line by virtue of our towline being too long. We had the strange situation of being first and last in a group of six!
None of us however we any match for the Chinese with the first 3 places all going to them. The leading mixed team had some pedigree though with them being from the Chinese national marathon team and PB’s of 2:12 for the guy and 2:29 for the girl.
See how they go in a kayak though!
Another monster transfer – this time 7 hours on a bus to the hotel and then another 90 minutes to the start meant weary bodies and subsequently quite a few people didn’t start the last days 30km individual run, Elina among them after deciding she needed to focus on recovering from some injuries and the racing in NZ and Australia coming up.
I set off feeling pretty good but lacking much zip in the legs. The quickest of the Chinese runners disappeared quite fast and I ended up pacing off the second group of Chinese runners.
The route was very flat but covered in spiky bushes and so there was a lot of weaving in and out between them. The lighter runners were able to stay on top of the crusty sand it seemed but in places I was breaking through with every step – oh to be 50 kg!
I was actually feeling pretty good for most of the run and ended up coming in 10th overall and first westerner, the same Chinese guy 2:12 marathoner won easily by about 6 minutes and I was only about 4 minutes off 2nd so that was positive plus some great training.
With the run done, it was time for the epic transfer in reverse to begin, unfortunately there were no showers either so it was a rather ripe bus heading back to Hami.
All in all it was an interesting trip – very different than expected but unique and a place very few westerners apparently get to see. Now all any of us wanted was some normal food and some proper rest in a bed and not on a bus!
We would almost literally have spent more time on buses and trains than at hotels or race venues on the trip.
We’re now heading back to NZ, will be great to be home after 3 months away. We’ve got plenty of racing planned in the next few months so should be a few more regular updates.
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