Saturday, October 1, 2016

2016 XPD - Altay, China

As I opened my eyes I mentally catalogued the parts of my body that hurt and attempted to rank them in order of severity. Rolling out of bed well after the hotel breakfast had started, I groaned as my lower back flexed and my quads woke up. Then I put my badly swollen and blistered feet on the floor. Yep, that’s it – the feet win. As all my shoes were still in our race boxes I donned the hotel-provided slippers and padded around recalling the previous three days in the far northern wilderness of China.

I questioned the wisdom of racing my first XPD (expedition length) race on foreign soil. Having never been to China this was both the attraction but also a step into the unknown. There were doubts about the organisation of the race as it was the first time it had been held. Reports of frequent illness by travellers unused to the water and food also concerned me. But the chance to race in some of the most remote regions in Asia was irresistible and the slick promo video got me over the line.

Our team consisted of two of Australia’s most experience adventure racers, Leo Theoharis and Dave Schloss and young gun Thierry Ellena who had recently relocate back to his French homeland.  I was the ‘green’ racer – goes OK on a mountain bike but unproven in a continuous multiday event and super nervous about making it to the end. The 160km of MTB I was confident of, the 35km paddle I would suffer but rely on the fact that the boats were doubles and I would have a strong partner. One hundred kilometres on foot, however, was twice as far as I’d ever done and included some peaks over 2400m. Would I even be able to pedal a bike after that?

The message I’d received about travel in China was to not expect anything to run as planned but to trust that everything would work out in the end. After a lengthy flight to Urumqi, we arrived at 1am to find the left luggage department closed and us unable to leave our large bike boxes until our flight to Altay the next afternoon. Not only did our shuttle bus from our accommodation not arrive, our hotel gave our reservation away and every hotel nearby was booked out despite the best efforts of a random lady who rang around for us for over an hour. Some racers in the same boat had taken to rolling out sleeping bags and bedding down in the airport nature strips. Winging it we found a couple of taxi drivers with broken English who promised us a good quality hotel with a spare room. It ended up being the best accommodation Dave had seen in China however the lack of Maxi Taxis required some inventive logistics. Yes that’s a $9000 bike strapped into the back seat with a tie down. I did admire the ‘get shit done’ attitude of the Chinese already though.

Looks legit

We spent the next day exploring some local markets and getting hooked on some of the local breads. The north of China is heavily influenced by Islamic culture and cuisine so it wasn’t an endless parade of rice and noodles. Later, a short flight to Altay followed by a 4 hour bus ride crammed in with other racers and, after avoiding a head on with an errant camel, we arrived exhausted to the Kanas Lake Guest house. It wasn’t until the morning that we realised it was a sort of castle in a town of two halves – one of upmarket holiday accommodation for the burgeoning Chinese middle class, and the other a city of traditional ‘yurt’ tents housing the poorer citizens who herded sheep, cattle and camels to greener pastures. While the valley was beautiful it also had an edge of hardness about it, emphasised by the dusting of snow which arrived that day giving a hint of the extreme conditions outside of the mild seasons.

There's nothing like fresh snow to get you excited for an alpine race...not. Yurt city in the background.
Our Chinese Castle at Kanas
I think they spike these with crack cocaine - so addictive straight out of the oven

The day before the race proper, a prologue event was organised for the local media. Many of the rider’s bikes still hadn’t arrived by truck from Urumqi but luckily it was only a run – kayak – run event. Most teams took it easy but it was a good opportunity to test the race-provided kayaks out and gauge how cold the lake would be. The absolutely stunning setting of Kanas Lake also whet the appetite for what was to come in the XPD race. Leaves were turning autumn hues while the lake was the milky blue colour that comes from being fed by glaciers. Canadian water has the same colour and we could very well have been there surrounded by white capped peaks.

Talk from the experienced racers centred around how ‘short’ this event was for an XPD. The winning team was expected to complete the course in around two days with the course remaining opened for around 3 days, although this seemed to be constantly changing. The challenge of a relatively short course is the pressure to go without sleep for the entire race to be competitive. The initial 5 hour mandatory rest stop had been replaced with a 2 hour break in which time we had to complete a ‘cultural activity’.

Pretty much this for days. Put it on your itinerary.

From the gun the pace felt like we were racing for 3 hours not days, as teams ran up the first climb. We avoided the longer, more popular, gentle climb on the road and headed straight up the guts of the 30% + grade grass and rock climb. I was on the tow line soon afterwards struggling with cold seizing calves and a lack of extreme mountain running. It turned out to be a poor route choice and we were 16th at the first check point (CP). Following a ridgeline we then descended to the next points and settled into the race.

It’s the first trek that really sticks in my mind. Perhaps because I was still fresh and noticing the scenery instead of staring at the feet in front of me in survival mode as per later legs. It was breath-taking surroundings and I could scarcely believe I was actually racing in such a place.  It felt like one of the last wild places on earth.  This near-deserted valley which had remained a secret to most of the world would not remain one once racers told of their adventures there.  Our navigator made some great route choices and we moved up to 13th quickly before meeting professional team Adventure Medical Kits along a river trail. They had made a mistake and ended up at the wrong lake costing them around 45 minutes in a race where there was little margin for error. They weren’t with us for long and moved away at a supernatural pace.

Decisions made on the run determine the outcome of these events. Do you take the short but steep route? Or the longer easier one? Stay up high out of the thick vegetation and risk missing a vital turn on the trail? Teams risked dehydration by taking minimal water to save weight in the hope they would be able to find some on the course and use purification tablets to make it drinkable.  Water was not a problem with numerous streams and marshes crossing the landscape.

Once the initial flurry of speed was gone we kept trotting along remembering the drink and eat and pop ibuprofen as appropriate. If that doesn’t sound too healthy imagine living on mainly chocolate bars, electrolyte, gels and biscuits for a few days. Racers need to find the most calorie dense foods to pack to keep them going. Taste fatigue is inevitable and the tolerance for sweet things wanes quickly in preference to salty snacks and Vegemite sandwiches.

All the CP’s were manned which is highly unusual in this type of race. Louise Bycroft, organiser of the Australian version of the event, revealed the volunteers in China were often very wealthy citizens who were quite taken with the idea of being part of the first XPD in the country. There was no shortage of manpower and despite the pre-race hiccups, once started, the organisation was flawless.

We had predicted the first trek to take 12 hours but managed to be back at the transition zone in 8 so perhaps this was to be a quick race? Getting changed into kayaking gear while giving interviews to media was an effort in multitasking but I managed to get all the right clothes on and we were excited to be on the splendid lake in the last couple of hours of daylight. I nearly died of heatstroke in the first half hour as I dressed for the rapid drop in temperature that accompanies the setting sun. Better than that trying to get dressed in a boat in the middle of a cold lake. Unfortunately Thierry was a little underdressed and hunger flat and suffered hypothermia for the first half of the leg, to the point of almost passing out and falling out of the boat. Leo struggled to paddle the kayak by himself to the first checkpoint where we got out at a beach, got Thierry dry and warm and then tied the kayaks together so Dave and I could help pull the second craft along while our team mate got going again. It felt like we were the last team off the water in the darkness but we learned many teams had shortcut the course due to the cold and were now unranked although still racing in front of us.

The transition after a cold paddle is always miserable with cold hands refusing to work to put on clothes and do up zips. I was so desperate to get my socks on I neglected to put more chamois cream on my feet which came back to bite me later when I developed massive blisters on the soles.  The hard climb up to the next checkpoint was a welcome relief and enabled everyone to warm up quickly. This didn’t last long as we crossed snow and frost and the temperature fell to minus three during the night. The only advantage was that the marshes froze meaning we could walk across them rather than wade through them, keeping our feet a little drier. True to form there was a lone guy at CP 11 at the very top of the climb dressed in a sleeping-bag suit to keep warm. He was so happy to see each racer even though he was alone in subzero temperatures for the majority of the night.

Despite wearing gloves I lost feeling in a few of my fingers and they started to throb so badly I thought I’d have to have them amputated due to frost bite. I tried sticking them down my pants alternately to revive them with my own body heat. It was remarkably effective but I was thankful it was dark and I was among friends. We trudged on under the billions of starts while navigating our way through the misty darkness.

There’s a certain excitement that accompanies sunrise on a multiday adventure as it banishes the sleep monsters and enables you to enjoy the some scenery with your suffering. Unfortunately it coincided with the bursting of my first blister and I limped along before a team mate went beyond the call of duty and applied blister patches to my now less-than fresh feet. The trek had taken longer than expected and I was simultaneously hunger-flat and nauseous and struggled into a local town for our mandatory rest stop.  From the numerous wolf-skins displayed we may not have been as alone as we thought the previous night. Although the more skins we saw, the less likely I considered there be any wolves left in the area.

A local cook demonstrate the art of noodle-making which we all had to repeat before cooking our creations. We’d been very careful about eating the local food until that point but when some mystery meat and sauce were added we threw caution to the wind, happy for something that didn’t taste like race food. Huddled into sleeping bags we ended up sleeping through our alarm and lost 30 minutes before rushing to the next transition for the mountain bike leg.

I was overjoyed to be off my feet but my legs were destroyed from the trekking and I was useless for the first couple of hours on the bike. Thierry had regained his strength and was tearing it up and thoughtfully threw out a line to tow me along. Hitting the cattle tramped singletrail we were chewing up the miles and passed a couple of teams who had issues and were retiring from the race. The 600 + metres of vertical hike a bike was named my least favourite section of the race. Stiff carbon soled shoes were a poor choice and I was literally counting 20 steps forward, resting and repeating.  The reward was a smashing singletrack descent with steep technical rock features. It almost felt like a mountain bike race for a while.

Single yurts were dotted in desolate spots with families sometimes tending their flocks of animals. We wondered about their existence: What do they do out here? How do they live? Are they happy with so little? There was a lot of time for reflection about the things we value in our own ‘real lives’ back home.

Night came again and we were rocketing down an endless descent strewn with loose rocks ready to ping your front wheel off in the wrong direction. While not known as the technical rider of the group, Dave was setting a frightening pace, leaving little room for error and I was scaring myself keeping up. I’d been focusing so hard on staying upright I hadn’t noticed the damp air had become cold rain which brought the mood down and had the potential to be life-threatening if improperly attired. Toward the end of the ride I started suffering from the lack of sleep and doing ‘long blinks’ while hammering descents was not optimal. We arrived at the next transition where we had a 20 minute nap in a warm yurt before heading out for the abseil. In hindsight this was a wasted activity and merely resulted in us getting very wet and cold all for a 2 minute drop down a rock face that we couldn’t see because it was around midnight.

Back at the TA and dressing in the last of my dry clothes we were cheered that, by the map, we only had a 50 kilometre mountain bike to go. It was expected to take 5 hours so it was obviously not straightforward, but we were looking forward to being at the hotel in time for breakfast. It did not pan out that way.

After 4 hours of searching in the rain soaked night we not only did not know where CP 27 was – we also didn’t know where we were. There were tracks all over the place made by cattle so it was difficult to ascertain which ones were marked on the map. There was much discussion over things we ‘should’ be seeing that were on the map but what was in front of use just didn’t add up. After trying several different routes we ended up in thick mud that clogged our bike frames and cost us another hour of cleaning to get our bikes working again.

We were cold, wet and demoralised. In our minds racing was not about skipping CPs and taking time penalties, and in other races this is not allowed and results in disqualification. We considered our race was over and headed out onto what we hoped was the highway which would lead us directly to the finish line in Altay. Thierry even gave an interview to a passing media crew about how we were pulling out of the race.

Everyone looked so despondent and Dave and Leo had been in this situation thrice before, having never made it to finish line in a China race due to illness and other bad luck. A team meeting was called and we made a plan – we’d turn around, restock with food at a small town and try again to find the CP. While in town we asked for directions through a series of charades as no one spoke any English. The locals were especially friendly and we were dragged into a house in our filthy gear and served tea and fried breads.  Neighbours were summoned and photos were taken with the strange visitors. I was exhausted but smiled at the touching meeting of cultures and warmth of the people who had so little.

Back out on the trail and another four hours passed, although it only seemed like one, as if I was caught in some sort of time warp. We tried several different approach tracks and even bumped into another team who were having similar issues but the CP continued to elude us. I risked rabies by getting too close to dog-guarded yurts during the search. By this time I was well and truly a broken individual. I’d stopped being able to eat much, feeling like anything I put in my stomach would be ejected.

My desire to get to the finish line by the quickest route possible was expressed in the strongest terms to my team mates. Yes I cracked the shits. On paper the shortest route was still to follow the race course past the last two check points. We should have known that ‘on paper’ means absolutely nothing in XPD and the last few hours of grovelling through the Canyon almost brought me to tears. There is apparently a limit to how many times one can carry ones bike in and out of a ravine at various points while being thwarted by impasses before one wants to slash ones wrist with an empty gel packet.

After the final CP is was fast, flowing double track through another picturesque canyon and we reached the final TA where was left our bikes and hiked the final 2 kilometres into town in our cleats. Rob Preston of 2nd placed AMK met us before the finish lines with beers – what a stand-up guy!  This will explain our finishers photo – no we didn’t carry those with us in our packs the whole way. After 57 hours of racing and 1.20 hours of sleep we crossed the finish line in 14th spot, just in time for dinner at the swanky race hotel.

The next couple of days was spent mainly eating and swapping stories with other teams as they finished. Analysis of what was done and could have been done better is normal. Personally I took away positives and negatives from the race. I learned a lot about looking after myself and my team mates physically and logistically. This was my first attempt at a race of this kind and I couldn’t conceive of the challenges that I’d face until I was out there. Mentally, I cracked a couple of times and while this disappoints me it also makes me impatient to try again to prove I can do better.

I’m not taking on AR because I think I’m suited to it. Quite the opposite. I’m taking it on because I believe it can teach me to become a better ‘me’. If I’m going to survive in this sport I will need to become more resilient, resourceful and skilled at working as part of a team. The next challenge is the XPD World Championships in Shoalhaven which is almost twice as long as the China event. I’m more inspired to prepare for that now and the short run/hobble I did yesterday is the start of the next training block. Yes, I’m crazy, but at least now I’m in good company.

Race kit used:

Liv Lust 0 - maintained by For The Riders and NS Dynamics

Ride Mechanic - Down Under chamois cream (for feet too!) and Bike Mix chain lube

Infinit - XPD carb and electrolyte mix kept in a single bottle for nutrition with a camelbak bladder of plain water in addition. MUD coffee and protein mix with my cereal for hiking on the go and preventing muscle breakdown.

Salomon S-Lab Wings - complete confidence in these shoes and a great fit. From The Trail Co.

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