Team racing in China

China.  Never saw this one coming. August 6th I got a message inviting me to join Hamish Fleming, Ailsa Rollinson and Luke Osbourne to compete as a team in China for two events– The Wulong Mountain Quest, I think it’s the biggest adventure/multisport race in the world financially. About $150,000USD up for grabs.  And The Zunyi International Mountainous Outdoor Sports Challenge, prize money isn’t as high but $1000USD is awarded per person to overseas participants on completion of the race. No reasons not to join in the fun. Except we leave in less than a month’s time and Coromandel Classic is a mere 1 week prior…

Left NZ on the 1st September at midnight – couldn’t help but squeeze in a trail half marathon race that morning, took it easy though, didn’t want weary legs for China nor for 13hours of flying in cattle class.


Just Arrived! Hamish with the bikes
Just Arrived! Hamish with the bikes

Breathing China’s air is different to NZ, tastes, looks and smells nowhere near as good. Only 22°C but very humid on arrival. Lots of misty rain. This would continue all week. We spent our first week up at 1200m in a 4 star hotel on top of a mountain in a place called fairy town. All the racing for Wulong was in the nearby area. We ate at the Hotel restaurant for all meals. They provided buffet fried/deed fried everything: Noodles, rice are obvious but chicken and pig feet, snails, catfish, bok choy, battered gristle were just some main courses that we could feast ourselves with breakfast lunch and dinner. I brought milk powder and oats for back up.

The Hotel for the next week
The Hotel for the next week
Dining in at the restaurant every day
Dining in at the restaurant every day. Ailsa pictured here

Racing didn’t start until Wednesday beginning with the prologue. Nervous about how my body would perform in such foreign conditions, especially with a worn body 1 week out from Coromandel Classic. I was afraid of letting the team down but said nothing, instead I smiled, tried to look confident and tried to appreciate the over-the-top opening ceremony.

Opening ceremony
Opening ceremony

The prologue is very short and in the streets the village. 2km run, 500m rickshaw chair carry, 4km biathlon, 6km mountain bike then 2km run. An intensity I had somewhat forgotten and shocked myself with. Hamish, a lot more experienced in group adventure racing, was quick to share his energy with the team by towing/ pushing anyone that need a boost. It is somewhat a skill that I couldn’t grasp immediately, used to taking care of only myself for so long.

Prologue - Rickshaw chair carry
Prologue – Rickshaw chair carry. Luke at the front, me and Hamish on the back. Ailsa chillin on top!
Pain on the face. Sprint to end the Prologue
Pain on the face. Sprint to end the Prologue

Day 1 – Thursday. The real race began. A 500m sprint down to the Kayaks to paddle down a large volume, fast flowing river with indefinite eddy lines and unpredictable boils.

Kayak Day 1
Kayak Day 1

The kayaks are infamous amongst all teams for being of poor quality, uncomfortable and difficult to steer. Both our team boats zig zaged from shore to shore the length of the stage, frustratingly unable to figure out how to paddle them straight. 4km run next with 400m climb. So many slippery steps! Hamish led with force all the way up and I could only just hang on out the back unable to get a good rhythm.

Run up up up from the kayak

Next TA there was two of our bikes, aim is to get to next TA using only the two bikes while the other two run. They call it the Biathlon and the tactic here is to leap frog and keep sharing the disciplines.  8kms on and heaps more altitude climb we reached the stage end and a 15min compulsory rest area. Not overheating today as it was still wet and cloudy. On to last stage for the day – 36km Mountain Bike. Finally my lungs had caught up with my legs and was able to work hard without feeling like stopping. Did some towing on the steep climbs and we passed multiple teams, some due to mechanical problems or crashes but some just because our team seemed to be strong on the bike.


MTB ended with unridable rock and mud - fun!
MTB ended with unridable rock and mud – fun!

It finished with about 2km of slippery, rocky, unrideable single track followed by a huge abseil 200m down a cliff into a cave to finish.

Luke and hamish showing no fear of heights in the massive abseil to end Day 1
Luke and hamish showing no fear of heights in the massive abseil to end Day 1

Day 2. Up and at ‘em again, another breakfast of uncooked oats soaked in warm reconstituted milk with a banana (if I was lucky). This time starting on a dam which was accessed only by gondola down from the road. The geography around here again was very very steep. First up was a Deep water start in the kayaks and was 20km long. Ailsa and I were partners again and managed to stay with some of the top teams until halfway, we’d figured out the strange art of steering these boats straight. Halfway was where we realised our other half was nowhere near us. A few minutes waiting later they arrived at good speed but still putting most energy into steering the block of plastic. They quickly pulled to shore and switched places in attempt to distribute weight better. At TA1, Luke and Hamish were really frustrated and worn from having to work twice as hard as our boat. Exiting into a 12km run. The only way out of this dammed valley was straight up.

Finally at the top of the hill and pacing it along the cliff side road
Finally at the top of the hill and pacing it along the cliff side road

It was about 5km before any downhill but views at the top while running along cliff side roads looking down 400m+ steep rock faces was really mind blowing. 15min compulsory rest then 35km MTB on mud back country roads through remote villages and farms. Last 4km was downhill on tarseal – nice rest, then a cool abseil off the high bridge into lake. Landing in the water with our mountain bike shoes still on, harnesses with slings and gloves on hands made really good anchors for the swim to shore. Now a raft on the lake to the finish. We were told it was est. 20mins. Ended up about 50mins as distance was A LOT further! Finished the day truly spent again.

Neverending raft to finish Day 2 - a worn out team
Neverending raft to finish Day 2 – a worn out team

That night’s sleep was rough, something wasn’t right. Hot sweats, head blocked up like a cold, and regular visits to the toilet with a really upset gut. I felt like awful. By 4am I’d had thoughts about not continuing. Once up and moving around things cleared up slightly and I was keen to race again, I let the team know that I wasn’t feeling great.

Day 3. Orienteering kicked it off with terrible quality maps on a low visibility course. Recipe for disaster.

Mist -  just in time for orienteering with useless maps
Mist – just in time for orienteering with useless maps

Set off with Luke for distant controls. About 4 toilet stops, 5 controls, and 9kms later we met Ailsa and Hamish at TA1. Now a 7km Run which was mostly all steep downhill and really technical trails. 1 more toilet stop – I didn’t feel well. Now we had a 9km Kayak involving an out and back course X2. No longer shaking my insides around, they settled and got a chance to rest. Luke and Hamish had grasped the kayak steerage better than yesterday but were still paddling harder than Ailsa and I just to keep up. 15min rest area then a 40km MTB with two big climbs. Able to work hard from the start we as a team hammered this stage, passing three teams. Just before the end Ailsa’s chain got sucked into itself backwards and sideways due to all the mud. Four people tearing it out at once and a bit of panic didn’t resolve the situation. Two teams passed us back. Ailsa frustrated and determined  threw the bike on her shoulder and started running up the hill only to regret the decision within 300m. Eventually we got it out and I was keen to hit the red line and claim back our placing. Final hill climb was huge and for the first time that week the sun came out. It was hard but we arrived at final TA ahead of the two teams. Now a 7km run. Except  80% was in a dark cave.

Lots of rock scrambling and swimming in the darkness.
Lots of rock scrambling and swimming in the darkness.

Awesome fun sliding/jumping down rocks and swimming through the deep canyons. Last part was about 1.5km of running down steps and footpath, not great for my tummy again and I hung out at the back. More stream bashing and we reached the finish line. I forced a smile for the cameras then head straight for the toilets.

I consumed a few pills at hotel and at prize giving/closing ceremony we were rewarded for our 6th placing with some prize money. I was convinced by the team to do an interview on the stage infront of everyone, think I made a fool of myself ;). More photos with the fans, one with us holding ‘Gatorade’ Sports drink for the sponsors aaaaand I’d had enough. Bed time – except now to pack the bags for an early bus tomorrow to travel to next race!

Prize giving ceremony for 6th place

Zunyi was 6hours drive away. We stayed in another 4 star hotel with buffet meals; our location looked slightly similar to CBD Auckland and had a population of 7 million. They called it a village in China. Temperature was higher and weather was dryer. We had four days of nothing until Zunyi race began. Time to explore China and hopefully recover fully from what was wrong with my insides. Hamish had heaps of prescription drugs with him and I consumed a good dose of anything that sounded like it might help. Zunyi was a three person only event so Luke opted out due to more racing in China after we flew home.

Our new flash Hotel for the week.
Our new flash Hotel for the week.
Heading downtown Zunyi for a massage
Heading downtown Zunyi for a massage

Hamish and I exploring Zunyi during downtime – Sooo hot..
Day 1 – The Opening ceremony was unbearable –Sooo hot. 20mins later= start gun! One lap of a stadium didn’t divide the field because it ended with a 3 meter climbing wall.


The Wall
The Great Wall of China

A mix between a rugby scrum and the mosh pit at a big concert. Over other side we got out orienteering maps. They were awesome quality – similar to ones at home, one catch was they were cut up into pieces and we had to tape them all together! Off at pace this time we all had a different map and route each. One control meant for a huge abseil off a high building. Would have been awesome if it wasn’t for the never-ending staircase to the top! Covered about 8km in Orienteering. Next up was the river activity where all three had get into the slimy water with a huge pole of bamboo, swim it to the bridge then collect a control hanging from the bridge, you could only reach it however if you balanced on the pole! Ailsa was the balancer and nailed it quickly. High tempo 3km run up the road, I was looking forward to get on the bikes.  Mountain bike was 43km and very much all on road, flat with hill at the end. I suffered on this. Barely able to hang on out the back. I don’t know what was wrong but that stage was hard for me. Hamish stayed on the front 99% of the time and was smashing out a top speed for us to draft behind. 15min rest area and I ate/ drank a bit of everything, even the dodgy chinese redbull. All that was left was a 4km run – 2km at end had 450m vertical climb. Nasty, soo many steps. I lay down very quickly after the finish. Tough day.

The hill climb at Day 1 end for Zunyi – a nasty pinch

We were penalised in the orienteering for mispunch (which I am confident is untrue) and penalty is team receives slowest orienteering time as their own +3mins per control. This set us back about 6places. Protests were pointless, they got us nowhere – damn language barrier.

Day 2 – We were supposed to camp up where we finished day 1 and start day 2’s orienteering stage up there too. Somehow they predecticted a storm with snow coming. So we went back to hotel and had to start day2 with a 4km run back up to the mountain top to start orienteering (no road access – steps only!) Today was really hot – blue sky all day. Today I felt good. Took first run conservatively and Orienteering was great up the top + a fun descent – covering about 13km for first stage and a lot of elevation change. Now a 44km Mountain bike – today was heaps more off road and more hills. Able to help the team more and towed on the hills. Some pointless games along the way involved catch the invisible fish out of a stream, had to catch one each and 5 min penalty for each one not caught.

Deciding catching the fish was a waste of time (although the cool water was nice!)

We knew not to waste time and after a quick scout and no find we left and took the penalty – could have spent hours there. Now getting really hot I’d already drunk all my fluids, sweat poured off us like a half-on shower. 5kms up the road we now had to light some newspaper on fire by rubbing a stick. Really difficult and took a lot of energy. I made a bit of smoke before breaking the tool and we were allowed to leave after 15mins of no success. It just got hotter, maybe I had stayed better hydrated but I didn’t feel as bad as the others so spent  the last 6kms out the front, towing where I could also getting thirsty for the transition. 15min rest area. Drank fluids but mostly poured the water on ourselves to cool off. Chinese thought it was the strangest thing for some reason. Perhaps because bottled water was expensive to them… Final stage 4km run with 800m climb. Think it would be similar to yesterday we didn’t take much. It was 5.6km and took 1hour 25mins to reach the summit.

The staircase to the mountain top ending the race for Zunyi

I was ready to smash it and pulled Ailsa a little too hard on the first steps. I had my bad day yesterday, today Hamish was having his. The final 2kms was painfully slow, we had no idea where the top was but it really was never ending. Pace had come to a crawl, actually. We made it though. Tough day outside. I chewed through about 4 fried chicken burgers while Hamish was pouring just as much water on him as in him. Doctor gave him some magic potion and within 10mins he was sitting up and chewing burgers with me.

Ailsa, Hamish and Luke are all tough humans mentally and physically, I admire them all, perfect people to share these races with. We got on well and worked together really good.

Hamish in recovery mode
Eating ice cream in front of the prizegiving I think we got 9th? So a little bit of cash was nice.

Flights home were next afternoon, we loaded bike boxes onto truck early and hopped onto bus. On arrival to Airport at 1pm we found out our bikes had been delivered to a different airport, 3-4 hours away. Check in was 1 hour away. Way to ruin the trip. Still waiting on whether we’ll ever see them again… recommend this trip to anyone still though. We made our cut to pay for all trip costs plus some spending money.

3 thoughts on “Team racing in China

  1. Relived those memories all over again Sam- loved the way you put pen to paper, or rather finger tips to keyboard, to crank out an honest portrail of ‘The China Story- chapter 1’. I’m certain the following chapters will appear in the years to come……

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