Entry is very restricted so a team captain will generally sign up, pay the entry fee and then hope like hell they can put a team together for each race. Failure to field a team means losing $1000 race fee and deposit so there are always messages and emails coming around about joining this team or that as people get injured or very sick of rice and noodles. This time I was invited by a rider who knew me from The Hell of the Marianas road race I did in Micronesia many years ago. I would be racing for Vladivostok Adventure Team from Russia for the three-day Weng’an Outdoor Challenge.
As it turned out we were 50% Russian with a Hungarian/American and me. We all assembled at Weng’an which is like a Vegas in the midst of rice paddies. It’s my second time in China and I realise what a large, diverse country it is. It’s also permanently under construction so everything is dusty and dirty while buildings continue to seemly spring up overnight where once there was only farmland. Three-wheel tuk-tuk style vehicles share the road with new Audis. Gleaming buildings with all the modern conveniences dominate the skyline with 10 minutes down the road a man plows a field with an ox. The surroundings were luminous green with water-hungry crops like tea and rice. This should have been a hint as to the regularity of rainfall in the area which we would experience first-hand. Mixed with the soft, fertile soils it would be a farmers dream and a racer’s nightmare.
I’d like to be able to tell you all the towns we started and finished stages at, but the guide book is all in Chinese and I couldn’t get Google Maps, because…China. They all started to look the same – run down, dominated by concrete and populated by builders, street stall workers and people just ambling along the highway, oblivious to the heavy vehicles weaving around them recklessly. Driving here is a reality TV show just waiting to be made. A competitor remarked that the cities looked more attractive at night when the darkness covered the dust and the neon lights illuminated every building. While Europe has its church bells, China has fireworks, although not on any discernible schedule. I complained that 7am was a little early for fireworks but I have to admit I’m not up on cracker-protocol.
|Dan, Alexey and Aleksander|
DAY 1 – 7KM RUN – 42KM MTB – 18KM RUN – 90m ROPES
The first day of competition would be logistically the easiest with only a run-MTB-run stage. We were bused to the start line to find it pouring with rain and much colder than the tropical conditions I’d been expecting. As is customary for these events there are ‘cultural activities’ and the first run incorporated a 20kg basket carry – the kind the farmers use to carry picked tea and, on occasion, children. With two baskets per team we set off with the guys wearing them like backpacks and the remaining two team members running behind, lifting the basket bottoms trying to take some weight off their shoulders. Three kilometres of this and quads were buckling. The rest of the run was on the road and I was being pushed along by my faster team mates. It is amazing how much this helps as does being towed with a lead around the waist. For females these races are often about being dragged across a country. For some males too, depending on who is feeling strong on the day.
|Basket practice gets the thumbs-up|
This day set the tone for the race – it would be very steep with epic mud and substantial hike-a-bike sections. While I was comfortable with mud-riding, it was the wet concrete which was the surprise danger and I found myself have a lay-down after relying on traction which just wasn’t there. Clearly, the Chinese standard for flooring doesn’t put a huge emphasis on safety and they seem to be fond of the faux marble look which is like ice when wet. While we were out in the remote wilds during stages of the race, there was a fair portion which was on road. Running downhill on concrete while being towed had my shins complaining loudly. After watching some of the better runners pass us, I have finally learned the ‘windmill arms’ technique which is about flailing the upper limbs to keep balance and running as if you’re on the flat. Potential for broken arm – high.
We made up three to four places in the MTB section but then lost some when Dan sprained his ankle on a technical run then hunger-flatted in the last 5 km. In the midst of the run we had a ropes section across a river. It’s only just occurred to me why they call it a flying-fox. The proper technique is to lay back in the harness with your head upside down while pulling yourself across. Not a huge fan of heights this reverse view did make it less intimidating.
Contemplating two more days of flat out racing after 5 hours was difficult. But we stuffed ourselves with sugary Chinese breads at the finish line and vast quantities of rice later at the hotel. Not having the capacity to get many photos of the race, my attentions were focused on capturing the weird and wonderful culinary delights of the region. Pumpkin with cake sprinkles, chickens feet, ducks tongue and, my personal favourite, spiced ass meat. I cannot recommend any of them and will content myself with the bastardised version of Chinese food we have back in Australia. By the end of the week we were all craving non-rice carbs and ‘meat you can trust’ as one competitor put it. Each day I was awoken by the previous night’s food making a quick exit from my body which made it difficult to keep the energy levels up.
|Pumpkin - because sprinkles shouldn't be just for cakes..?!|
DAY 2 – 24K MTB – 18KM BIATHLON – 27KM KAYAK – 11KM RUN
Day two was dominated by a 27km kayak leg. That’s a long way in regular terms but when paddling crap race-provided plastic boats it was going to be a 3 hour plus affair. The guys had been using plastic paddles in previous races which appalled me. I’d fallen into AR with a crowd of very proficient oarsmen who wouldn’t be seen dead with anything other than a carbon blade designed to pull as efficiently as possible. As China is the home of carbon some local contacts were made and two new paddles arrive the afternoon before they were required. The timing just couldn’t have been better.
In retrospect, there wasn’t a paddle in the world which would have saved our team on this leg. When I’m the strongest paddler of the group then things are dire indeed. While Aleksander was obviously a strong guy he had no technique. He also had no English which made giving instructions futile. Dan’s first time in a boat was at the previous week’s race in Taishun where he was paired with a very strong male paddler which covers up a world of deficiencies. I gave him the few tips I’d learned over the past year which is hilarious considering how bad I am relative to the guys I normally compete with. After placing 13th the previous day with some issues, it was disheartening to record the slowest time out of the entire field for the kayak. Even the Chinese teams beat us and they are notoriously bad paddlers.
|These photos are ripped from Google as we couldn't take photos from the race. They may or may not be of the actual region but it's pretty close to what it looked like! Weng'an river...maybe.|
One discipline which afforded some novelty on this day was the biathlon. Although I was desperately hoping there would be some shooting involved, it consisted of taking two bikes between four team members. Two riders would go about 500 metres ahead of the runners, drop the bikes on the ground and start running. The runners would then pick up the bikes and overtake the front runners in an 18 kilometre game of leap-frog. The key was to look out for your bike. A couple of teams ended up with three runners asking each other “where is the bike?” only to discover it was still at the top of the hill.
At eight hours the day had taken about an hour longer than anticipated, due to the time lost on the kayak leg. The guys were also not so quick on the bike descents which was our main opportunity to make up time. There’s no point having one person who is a highly skilled rider if they have to wait at the bottom of each hill. In 18 hours of racing I saw Aleksander early-apex every single corner but to his credit, he didn’t hold back on the descents. A few times I passed him crashed in the bushes but he waved me on with a yell of “Go! Go!”. We had started the day with a ten minute penalty as one of the team forgot his race bib so team morale was not high.
DAY 3 – 10KM RUN – 12KM KAYAK – 180M ABSEIL – 6KM RUN – 27KM MTB – 4KM GPS NAVIGATION
The final day of competition arrived and we were just hoping to get to the finish in one piece. Being so late to finish the previous day meant less time to get back, eat and pack our tubs for the next day’s transitions. It’s vital to get everything you need in the right tub otherwise you risk having to do a run leg in your bike shoes if you get it wrong. This day’s stage required one team member to abseil off Jiangjiehe Bridge, the 33rd highest bridge in the world at 256m. Alexey was a reasonable runner who could get to the top fairly quickly and was the only one with real abseil experience so he volunteered to go. This meant having to pick up his bike helmet earlier than everyone else along with his harness. Two minutes before the stage start we realised he had put his helmet in the wrong transition box and would not be permitted to abseil if he couldn’t find a replacement. Our start time came and we took off running. Alexey disappeared for a few minutes and then caught up after procuring a helmet from a construction worker along the road side. It could only happen in China. I continue to be impressed by how friendly and helpful the locals are. I don’t know why I assumed it would be contrary, but even the humble farmer tending his crop was very keen to yell out when we were going the wrong way and point us back on track. Amazing when there’s little chance he could know what we were doing, other than seeing people dressed in the same bibs also running around his field.
|The view we got approaching the Jiangjiehe Bridge for the abseil|
Most of the day was spent on the road and our less technically competent team performed better. Once we got to the paddle we were back to losing large amounts of time. As we were waiting for the abseil to be completed I gave Dan some paddling lessons under the bridge. There were many boats waiting for the team members and we floated around relaxing and taking in the incredible surrounds of the Wu Long River. When all was going to hell, you could still admire the scenery. We spent some time with the Kiwi Drink Pure team whose female had spent the previous day vomiting her way through the course, and on the bus ride home, after apparently not drinking so pure. She gets the hard-arse award and it was incredible she was completing the event.
Arriving by bike in a pretty tourist town, there was a four kilometre navigation by GPS standing between us and the finish. At the TA we were given the GPS coordinates to put in and then had to find the check points in the town. Unfortunately the GPS Alexey used had no maps for the area so although he could see where the points were, we couldn’t see the quickest roads to take or if they were on top of a hill. Instead of putting all the points into the unit and working out the most logical order to collect them, the team did it one-by-one meaning we scaled a hill twice instead of getting both the points the first time. This all happened in Russian so I had no idea what was going on, just that, again, we were getting passed by teams which we’d killed ourselves to gap on the previous leg. Another last place time for this section due to lack of skill, organisation and proper equipment.
The finish line was a 3.6 metre wall which had to be scaled by climbing on a team mate’s back and then pulling over the last person. It was a novel way to finish and we might have enjoyed it more had we not been disheartened and fractured as a team. The language barrier made things difficult and miscommunication was common. There was also frustration from team mates who were being expected to do things they had no preparation for. Both Dan and Alexey said the Weng’an event was the toughest they had ever done in terms of brutal terrain and technical requirements. The field was essentially the World Championships of AR and every top team, bar Swedish Armed Forces, there. In light of the experience they lacked, I thank the rest of the team for not quitting when things got tough.
I’m trying to be philosophical about it but that’s difficult as the full force of the virus I’d had hit post-race with vomiting and fever. After consuming an apple and a 7-up over the last two days I’m struggling to find the energy to type this. Ultimately, it was an opportunity to experience the legendary CMAAR series and will be a great training camp for the Geoquest 48 hour in a couple of weeks. I met some fantastic people again, as is always the case at AR events. Would I travel to another country with an unknown team again? No. I’m still new to this sport and don’t expect to be getting on podiums in such elite competition. While it was good sharing what I’ve learned, I don’t think throwing people into the deep end and then getting annoyed when they don’t have the skills, is a great way to encourage them into the sport. When people get desperate to put teams together there’s a fair bit of embellishment of their abilities and there’s no way to discern the real state of affairs if you don’t know them. I think it also shows a huge disrespect to the sport of adventure-racing assuming you can get by in these events with some off-road triathlon experience. These events are much more gruelling and require a high degree of skill in all the disciplines if you want to be competitive.
After having this experience, I feel even more appreciation for the introduction I’ve had into AR in Australia with some great events and experienced and prepared team mates. It’s been good to learn about my weaknesses and then get to work on them. As soon as I can eat solids, I’m off to run down some hills.
Sponsors and the products I used:
Ride Mechanic – Downunder chamois cream - on my feet as well. Not a single blister anywhere despite running around soaked all day. Bike Mix chain lube – top end performance in the worst mud conditions.
Infinit Nutrition – Salted Caramel electrolyte mix – when baggage weight is an issue, powder mixes make more sense too. Great not-too-sweet flavour, extra electrolytes, no cramps or hunger flats. MUD coffee recovery mix – great for post stage and also the only thing I could ingest while sick.
Flight Centre – Travel - Hobart to Gaiyung and back. No issues with taking the bike on China Southern. If you paid extra you got ripped off. Great information about the complimentary hotel in Guangzhou.
NS Dynamics – Quality suspension service keeps everything feeling plush. The number of people turning up to international events with neglected forks astounds me.
CEP Socks – Compression socks for racing and recovering. Wore them 24/7 to protect the lower legs and reduce calf soreness. The fact that I’m not hobbling around after the most running I’ve done in 10 years is a miracle.