Wulong and Suqian 2014
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I’m writing this on my flight towards home after my latest trip to China. I must almost be eligible for residency over there by now, this latest trip was number 12 to China for me with my first being in 2009 (although I am yet to step foot in Europe). The racing scene over there is growing every year with more races attracting more athletes and teams and creating more opportunities to earn a bit of the prize-money that is a little harder to come by closer to home. In the last couple of weeks I have made two trips to China with Team NZ Adventure to compete in two different events. The first event was the super competitive Wulong Mountain Quest (a bit of an unofficial world championships of stage adventure racing) and the latest one was last weekend’s Suqian Lake Luoma 24hr Race. Here is a bit of a condensed summary of how I saw each race unfold.
After finishing 2nd to Thule Adventure Team in Pengzhou (another China AR) back in May, our team was extremely motivated to claim the top spot in Wulong. We feel that when we are able to execute our own race as a team, we are very hard to beat. The trick was then to do just that. It would be an understatement to say we wanted to win.
Wulong is effectively a four day stage race with the first day being a short prologue. We nailed it first up by winning a 40 minute opening day by 30 seconds, a relatively comfy gap in such a stage. If we didn’t know it before day one, we knew now that we could win if we kept focused on doing our own thing as well as we could.
The following three days involved mountain biking, running, kayaking, abseiling and even a few Chinese innovations such as “dart blowing”. The weather was hot, though not too hot. The racing was competitive with our main competition coming from teams Toread (including former Thule athletes Jacky and Mimi from France and the evergreen Marcel Hagener from NZ) and Red Bull (with NZ stars Rich and Elina Ussher, Trevor Voyce and Stu Lynch). However, with Glen being much more recovered and strong than back in May and Braden and Jess bringing supreme northern hemisphere fitness to Wulong, we were basically able to race alone at the front of the race for most of every day.
We won every stage at Wulong 2014, a feat perhaps never before achieved in the 12 year history of this race. While we were certainly knackered at the finish line, we were also aware of the fact we were very rarely actually pushed into top gear during the race. It was an amazing feeling of satisfaction to put together a race performance we were very proud of – and an outcome we were absolutely delighted with. For me personally it was a case of 5th time lucky in Wulong. After a 9th (2009), two 3rd placing’s (2011, 2012) and a 4th (2013) I was pretty dam happy to claim the top spot with such a good group of mates and against such fierce and respected competition.
I elected to shoot home after Wulong and have 6 days at home with Amy. Together we were able to enjoy some stunning spring weather in Wanaka while I loved breathing the fresh air and eating the good food of home. I felt pretty refreshed.
Meanwhile Glen had arrived home a few days before (wife) Bron gave birth to their 3rd son Nixon. It’s fair to say it was quite an eventful week for Glen and we were all thrilled to hear Bron and Nixon had managed their own feat of endurance together in full health. Congrats Currie’s!
Jess and Braden had gone on an adventure to Vietnam and Stu Lynch (who was replacing the family man Glen) had stayed on in China. So it was with some relief when Team NZ Adventure reunited little more than a week after Wulong in the city of Suqian, after traveling from various corners of the world to arrive in the same place. Wulong felt like a long time ago. Jess, Braden and Stu had all had pretty nasty chest colds in recent days so we were in for a bit of an unknown as to how we would fare in a race expected to take the fastest teams around 16 hours non-stop.
It was a unique race by China standards in that it was a non-stop race (rather than their usual stage-race format), it was dead flat (they usually host races in more mountainous territory) and there was an element of navigation (most China courses are fully marked). Our main threats for the win were likely to come from “Raw Adventure” (formally Thule, then Toread, I think they confuse even themselves sometimes) and Haglofs Silva from Sweden.
In a nutshell the race was hard and hot. It was hard because it was hot, but also because the flat nature of the course offered no respite. For just over 15 ½ hours we swam, mountain biked, kayaked, roller bladed and abseiled our way around on dead flat roads, lakes and trails. It was quite unlike many of the other China races, probably one of the hardest I’ve done.
It started with a swim which we smoked. It was 2.5km in a lake and we tied ourselves together with bungee-cord with Braden at the front sighting and towing, Jess then me then Stu all in a line. It proved a good idea as we were able to just swim hard knowing we would all be together and that Braden could sight the buoys while the three if us in tow just had to keep our head down and try not to swallow too much bacteria-nurturing water. Next came a 20km kayak during which we managed to again put time into the chase teams thanks in large part to Stu’s clever route choice past all the fishing nets (in thick smog too!).
Onto the 20km roller skate and we were actually going ok by our standards, averaging around 23km/hr and holding the lead. Jess led most of this stage with the rest of us in her slipstream. Animal. But at the 19km mark Raw Adventure came flying past us at 30k/h and took the lead. It would prove to be a lead they would not relinquish and left me wondering (yet again) what place roller skating has in adventure racing. Personally I think it’s a shame to introduce a sport that not only deviates significantly from my personal perception of this sport being about accessing remote, wild and challenging terrain, but also to bring a sport in that actually holds such a huge influence on the final outcome of a race (Raw Adventure were over 10 minutes faster than us in this stage alone, meaning without it we would have actually won the race outright).
We were riding closely behind Raw Adventure on the following stage but I managed to puncture and we had to stop a couple of times to try and get the sealant to hold (we managed to do this and avoid putting a tube in). We were off the pace by now.
The following bike, abseil, kayak and second bike stages were all through the heat of the day and very challenging indeed. We weren’t going slow, but we were obviously just not at our best either. We all had our turns at going to the dark place here and there but we also did a great job of looking after each other and moving well as a unit. This is why I love racing in Team NZ Adventure. Whether we are winning or not, we are always sharing and caring, carrying gear for one another, towing each other, communicating and always operating as a team. We have a lot of fun too.
The final stage was a 40km run (turned out to be closer to 33km) and although the sun had gone down it was still stifling! Stu did a great job on the map as we ran our way around the city streets in darkness finding the CPs. Sure we struggled a lot of the time and even had to walk a few spots, but we never stopped believing in our ability to win the race. A few out-and-back CP’s showed us our gap to Raw Adventure was roughly steady at about 800-900m (approx. 5-6mins). However in a final twist of drama and excitement, we arrived at the final CP (about 8km from the finish) only about 80m (about 30sec) behind them! To make things even more interesting, we took a different route from here to the finish. We spent the last 8km running via the various streets and highways en route to the finish with absolutely no idea whether we would finish first or second. Even crossing the finish line we had no idea until we asked a race official who broke the news of our final placing by saying something in mandarin with two of his fingers in the air. Bugger, almost but not quite. Still, it was quite an exciting way to finish a race after 15 hours 37 minutes. Raw Adventure were just too good on this occasion and deserved the win.
So now it is home to Wanaka to prepare with Amy for the birth of our baby boy. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but I’m also incredibly excited about this next big chapter. Amy has been simply amazing the past 8 ½ months and I definitely thought of her a lot in these latest two races when the going got tough and felt pretty inspired. Next on the race calendar is the new Red Bull Defiance right here at home in Wanaka with Braden. To check it out go to the website: www.redbulldefiance.co.nz. Then it is off to Aussie in Nov/Dec (check out my events calendar for more info on the events I plan to do). A final thank you to my sponsors for keeping me in the game, my Team NZ Adventure team mates for the latest memories, my amazing wife for her support (time to swap places for a few weeks!), my legendary coach/mentor Val, and to a close friend “MM” for his energy, belief, advice and support of what I do.