Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Clash of Worlds at China’s Wulong Mountain Quest

Big action at the opening ceremony; it felt like the Olympics!

Not a bad view from the hotel.

How does one begin to sum up a whirlwind journey of eight days that included 34 hours of travel twice, four days of racing with three teammates in nine sports, thousands of feet of elevation gained and lost, cultural exchange with members of all three "worlds," and a snapshot glimpse of a booming country that proudly hosts one fifth of the human population?

Doing China justice with a single blog post proves beyond my capability, so I'll start with what was, for me, one of the most symbolic moments of the journey. As I shopped for souvenirs after Day 2 of the Wulong Mountain Quest in the city of Wulong, which, like every other place I saw in china, is absolutely exploding with construction and quick growth, I was approached by a woman who said, "Hi, are you Travis?"

Yes, I was. Cindy, who is fluent in English, introduced herself and we got to talking. She reads my blog.



Thanks for reading, Cindy!  

The spread at the pre-race dinner was quite impressive!
She had come out to the race to see the athletes, and we enjoyed a quick moment of chat about our shared profession, teaching English. That a Chinese person reads my blog and knew I was coming to the race astounded me, and that I was able to connect with her out of a potential one billion plus Chinese citizens truly blew me away. Amidst the endless construction projects (imagine never-ending scenes of scaffolding--some metallic and some of old bamboo sticks and cranes) that tower over traditional huts and many people who still hike the countryside all day in search of wood, plastics, and other trade-ables to fill their back-strapped wicker baskets, my interaction with Cindy reminded me of china's powerful push towards large-scale first- and second-world living styles.

One element of this effort has been state sponsorship of the Wulong Mountain Quest, a four-day, stage-formatted adventure race that uses significant prize money and keen competition to attract some of the best international teams on the circuit. This was my first trip to the race, and I am thankful for the support of Evergreen High School (and the timing of Labor Day weekend) for making participation possible.

Our four-person, coed team, OutThere USA, would be the only one to represent the US, and, as an all-Colorado team, we hoped to use training at altitude in the hills to our advantage. Mountain biking aficionado Gretchen Reeves, fresh off an awesome second place finish at the Leadville 100 MTB, headed up our contingency. Gretchen is a great person and strong competitor, and I have always enjoyed racing with her. Jay Henry, who's also a world-class mountain biker of local fame, would be our team engine.  Watching him on the bike during this race was truly inspiring--and instructional. Jay is incredibly down-to-earth and approachable, and we have quickly become natural buds. Mike Kloser of Vail added an intangible level of experience, racing savvy, and positive momentum. Yes, he still maintains that his racing status is "retired," but we figured he'd make a darn good fill-in for the final spot. I hoped merely to keep up and stay out of the way!
A whirlwind of travel followed by quick catch-ups with friends from around the world on the bus and at the hotel brought us to the opening ceremony and Prologue in Fairy Town, a growing resort town that, according to Jay, "Wasn't even here five years ago!" The crowd, performances, kids, and festivities made us feel like we were in the Olympics. The first clip shows the opening ceremony.  The second shows the closing ceremony.  The third shows a quick market tour.

The Prologue itself was a quick effort consisting of a two-kilometer, uphill run, 400 meters of carrying one teammate in a traditional bamboo chair (imagine a princess being carried in a Disney movie), four kilometers of "biathlon" that allows two bikes on course for the whole team, 12 kilometers of mountain biking, and a final dash to the finish. Lucky to survive a pile-up at the starting gun--one reason I stick to endurance sports is that it generally keeps me AWAY from scenes like the ones at Macy's on the day after Thanksgiving--we got off to a good start on the run. Gretchen is a small woman, but Mike, Jay, and I are MUCH smaller than most of the big fellas in the race, and we lost a few places on the chariot carry. As it turned out, special "adventure challenges" like this would be our weakest segments of the race!  Taking turns of two people running about 500 meters while the others bike ahead, leave the bikes on the ground, and take off running themselves, we maintained a good position on the biathlon before hopping right onto our bikes with running shoes in pursuit of Champion Systems-APA, the top Kiwi team of legends Richard and Elina Ussher, Nathan Fa'avae, and Trevor Voyce.  Placing remained consistent for the remainder of the 43-minute sprint, and we finished second on the day.  Prize money for stages and the overall ranking keeps the heat on at all times in Wulong, and you've always got to be ready to go hard!

Day 1, the first full day of racing, brought severe suffering in hot, humid conditions. Attrition was paramount, and we did well simply by being consistent. After another ten kilometers of biathlon at the start, we ran down a slippery, steep slope to a barely-filled reservoir. About 500 meters of swimming--well, struggling through the water while the Australian teams fly past--brought us to the opposing shore, where we loaded the two bikes that had not been used for the biathlon on a small raft and returned to the previous shore. The raft had just enough room for three people, two bikes, and two small sticks used for "paddling." As the designated "swimmer" on our team (I did two triathlons in college, apparently more than my teammates), I hooked on behind the raft with a tow line and flopped for dear life as Jay and Mike powered our rig forward.  I'm glad the thin bungee line held strong because I'm pretty sure they forgot I was there!

Glad to get on our bikes with real cycling shoes, we finally felt in our element on a solid cycling leg of nearly three hours. Long, steep climbs led to fast descents on little dirt roads, and I gained my first experience of the truly mountainous terrain featured in this event. We never pushed the pace, but were able to use our experience on the bike to pass all teams except the Kiwis before an explosive BANG marked the snapping of two of Gretchen's spokes. Mike brings a number of intangibles to any team, and one is unparalleled bike knowledge coupled with an equally unbelievable fervor for fixing things. On a side note, I was later able to discern that Mike was truly ill (probably from some sort of foreign bacteria) when he had about 20 minutes in the morning before the bus that could have been used to tinker with something but was instead spent resting.

A repair that would have taken me all day took Mike about ten minutes. Three teams passed us, but we took in some much-needed electrolytes during the stop and moved back into second after some more climbing.  As usual, the Chiru Pulse 29er, used at this race by a number of athletes on the top teams, was an outstanding bike!

Post-cycling, a huge rappel (1000 feet?) off a bridge brought us to the mouth of a canyon that we would descend with running, rock-hopping, shimmy-ing, jumping, and swimming. Although I lost my prescription sunglasses (oops!) on the first jump, the canyon was a ton of fun!  Technical terrain tested skill, wit, and endurance. Nearing the end of the canyon, we found ourselves waist-deep in mud for a few hundred meters that seemed to take an eternity!  Fearing that we would be stuck for good, we were caught by the army-trained Swedes of AXA Sports Club, who calmly remarked that they always do this in the army and proceeded to literally crawl past us a “flying” pace!  With increased surface area on hands and knees, we, too, made it out to the final significant segment, a 25 kilometer paddle on a reservoir.

Under the beating sun, attrition truly bared its teeth on the paddling section, and we pulled away from teams simply by continuing forward. Truth be known, we were probably motivated simply to be finished and out of the heat as much as anything else! The suffering of the sport of adventure racing had finally set in.

Transitioning to a steep run up stairs and then through an immense cave (it was SWEET), the MKIF (Mike Kloser Intensity Factor) kicked in. With the "old man" cracking the whip, we flew through the cave, which was outfitted with walkways for tourists, who we nearly ran over as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, en route to a satisfying second place on the day.

On Day 2, racing began early in the morning with a 20 kilometer paddle down the Wulong River.  Steering bulky kayaks through small wave trains and a variety of river currents proved challenging for many racers, and the teams from New Zealand and Australia quickly sped to the front to gain almost ten minutes on the section. A transition in Wulong City brought us back to the bikes, and we rode consistently enough over two hours of ups and downs to gain the lead by the transition to running and caving. The Kiwis had missed a turn on the bike section, enabling us to pass them as they lost a few minutes.

Hiking up a steep hill to the entrance of the cave, we passed by locals who watched from their traditional houses as we trekked just past corn, peppers, beans, seeds, and other vegetables set out to dry. This close brush with traditional culture was illuminating and seemingly ages away from the economic boom that's readily apparent in urban centers.

The caving section began gradually with a run through a riverbed that slowly filled with water as it moved underground. We eventually found ourselves in total darkness, using headlamps to guide the way while sliding over slippery rocks and swimming through intermittent pools, some accessed via rappel, jump, or hand-line. Richard's chipper voice signaled that the Kiwis were close behind, but we were able to hold them off long enough to reach a breathtaking scene off scattered light refracting off waterfall drops at the huge mouth of the cave. Another monster rappel took us to the cave floor, from which we ran down slippery walkways to the parking lot where bikes lie waiting.

With the Kiwis and now the Swedes in transition with us, the race was on!  Remaining terrain consisted of 12 kilometers of cycling and three of running.

Jay and I felt relatively fresh due to conservative racing and cooler temperatures, and we were able to work hard on a paved ascent that cracked the Swedes but did nothing to the Kiwis. Decisive racing occurred on the fast descent, and Gretchen showed admirable poise in riding along a two-foot wide concrete track flanked by drops into an aqueduct or off a ledge. Although riding such a width on a nice singletrack would be fun and thoughtless, doing so for almost a kilometer with a guaranteed wreck on either side was a bit gut-wrenching. Needless to say, Mike and Jay made it look easy!

Back on rocky, loose roads for a descent, we were able to put another minute on the Kiwis before leaving the bikes for running shoes and heading down a riverbed to run to the finish in Wulong City.   Winning the stage was fulfilling, and we entered the final day 16 minutes behind the Kiwis and 30 minutes ahead of the Swedes.

On Day 3, Mike's persistent stomach bug gave us a conservative strategy from the start, and we decided to focus on the war without getting caught up in the battle in a way that would burn us out early on.

Traditional wicker baskets with shoulder straps greeted us at the starting line, and Gretchen ran 50 meters to load up a watermelon before returning to pass the basket to Mike, who picked up a cabbage. Mike handed to me for the squash and I to Jay (he almost missed me due to a last-minute trip to the pit toilet) for the lettuce. After stashing our full basket, we left the adventure challenge in last place to set out on a 14 kilometer run. Some of the teams must have trained for the veggie challenge because we got smoked!

Thankfully, the technical descent of a couple thousand vertical feet through a jungle suited us fairly well, and we arrived at the transition to paddling just off the heels of two Kiwi teams in the lead.

The final paddle was short and sweet, and we hit the bikes ready to ride steady but not too hard. Even when Mike is not feeling good, he still descends like a superstar (I sometimes forget he was Mountain Biking World Champion when I was seven years old), and we held on to third going into the final transition area.

After a final, monstrous rappel, we began the penultimate segment of 2011 Wulong Mountain Quest, a 22 kilometer run with nearly 3000 feet of climbing. As the hours wore on, we all ran at the edge of limitation. When a team passed us, we decided racing them for third on the day and risking full blowup would not be wise, especially since they were really motoring!

Ascending a steep, rocky footpath, surely ancient in origin, I was reminded of the timelessness of the jungle that surrounds the booming urban centers of China--and of the incredible fact that I would be teaching again in a classroom in Colorado in a mere 48 hours.

A few miles of fast running on the flats brought us to a jumble of vines that ripped a decent gash on my cheek.

The final stage, the "field shoot," had arrived! Each athlete had five shots with a military-style pellet gun to hit a target. If he or she did not hit the target, a three minute penalty lap was to be run.

Unsure of whether or not one of the teams ahead had moved close to us in the overall standings, we shot with all we had. Mike and I got a good gun and hit the target, while Jay and Gretch each had to do a quick penalty lap.

Crossing the line moments later, we were pleased to finish fourth on the day and second overall.

Wei Jun, Peter, and the other organizers of the Wulong Mountain Quest have created a well-run, high quality racing experience. American teams interested in adventure, excellent travel, prize money, and a chance to race against the world's best for a good price (entry plus airfare equal less than entry alone for many races, and there's a prize pool for first year teams), would do well to put the 2012 event on the schedule.  I know I'd love to return!

And by the way, Cindy, please be sure to drop a line (I mean it) if you ever come to Colorado.

Jay doing his best Lord of the Flies scene (yes, that's a dried  pig head, although it's not "on a stick," Simon).
Gotta like traveling with bikes and gear!
The Chiru Pulse gets ready for action.

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