by Mari Chandler of Team Adventure Medical Kits
A new race popped up on the Adventure Race World Series calendar this year, and Team Adventure Medical Kits jumped at the opportunity to compete in China. Rob, Kyle, and I teamed up with Bob Mclachlan who literally joined our team the week prior. Bob is from New Zealand and was already in China for the previous 3 weeks racing in a few shorter staged races. We had never raced with Bob, but he came highly recommended and ended up being a powerful addition to the team. 4 teammates arriving from 4 different flights and all arriving with 4 bikes and 4 gear bags to a tiny village in the middle of Northwest China was an adventure in itself.
The race kicked off in Xinjiang Kanas National Park with 28 teams representing 10 different countries. It was pretty unique that we were the first non-Chinese people to set foot in this particular area. The first leg of the race was a 53km trek that began more like a 5km trail race. The first checkpoint was at the top of a very steep hill where there was an observation tower. Over 100 racers were trying to share the 1000+ steps up towards the tower with over 100 tourists. Most people were aware we were racing and stood out of our way cheering us on and taking lots of pictures, but there were a few poor souls who were not ready for the ‘herd’ of racers overtaking them as they tried to enjoy the views. After Checkpoint 1, the race truly began and we were off into the remote wilderness. The pace however remained at warp speed and our team along with 7 others broke off into the lead and grabbed 2 more checkpoints as we went up and down hill after hill. Since we were a large pack of racers, everyone was basically following the leader but when the dirt tracks we had been running on disappeared, we broke off on our own and chose our own route. Unfortunately, this did not work out so well for us as we over shot the next CP (checkpoint) and then had to back track and sort out the confusion with the map. We arrived at CP4 to find out we had dropped to 15th place and were now over an hour behind the leaders!! Burying our frustration, we pushed on and knew that we still had a lot of race left to catch back up to the front. We finished up the trek in 7.5 hours which was well ahead of the predicted time estimate of 9 hours and arrived at Kanas Lake for a 34km paddle.
Kanas Lake was beautiful. We pushed off while the sun was still shining and it felt great to give our legs and feet a break after the long opening tempo run. The paddle was pretty straight forward. We had managed to catch 3 teams by the end of the trek and as we paddled to the end of the lake for an out and back checkpoint we passed 2 more and were able to see the lead teams ahead of us. As the sun dropped behind the mountains, the temperature dropped dramatically and the icy cold water that was refreshing at the beginning of the paddle was now chilling us to the bone. 4 hours after we had gotten on the water, we were carrying our boats 200 meters up to the TA (Transition Area).
The 3rd leg of the race was an estimated 47km and luckily it started off with a climb away from the lake to warm us back up. It was now just after 10 pm and the temperature would continue to drop throughout the night. This race was amazing in many ways, but 1 that sticks out and sets it apart from most is the fact that an actual person was at every single CP waiting for us (except 1 during the paddle). Not only is it nice to find someone standing in the middle of nowhere but this also gave us the opportunity to check and see how our progress was at closing the gap on the teams in front of us. 1 by 1 we continued to catch and pass teams as we trekked through the night up and over hillsides with lots of rock strewn trails. At the end of the trekking section there was a small Orienteering course that had us running throughout a small village scattered with old wooden barns, houses and yurts. We came to the final checkpoint just 30 seconds behind Estonian Ace Adventure Team and we were now in 5th place and still about an hour behind the lead 3 teams. At this point all teams were required to stop and rest for 2 hours and also learn to cook some authentic noodles from some locals who also opened up their homes for us to rest in.
At 8:30 am we arrived at the next TA and were quite happy to see our bike boxes, despite the layer of frost covering them. We quickly built our bikes and packed up for a 96km ride. Rob flawlessly navigated us through the maze of roads and trails as we climbed and descended hill after hill. We traveled through some very scenic valleys and along amazing ridge lines as the “k’s” clicked away.
This first ride finished at the location of the abseil (rappel) where we temporarily left our bikes for a quick loop that took us to the top of the abseil and back down to our bikes. We were now in 4th place and learned that 3rd place was about 30 minutes ahead of us and 1st and 2nd were now within 50 minutes of us. All that remained now was 60km of more riding and with the true mindset of an adventure racer, we knew it was not over, until it was over. Anything was still possible.
The beginning of this last section seemed pretty straightforward, but about 30km in, Rob found the navigation to get a little trickier and we had to stop a bit more to make sure his maps and the roads were all lining up. After taking a hard left turn, changing roads and crossing a river to the next CP, we learned that we were now in 3rd place. (Later we found out that several teams had missed this turn and spent many hours trying to get back to the right road.) With only 2 CPs to go, darkness and a cold rain began to fall as we found ourselves away from the dirt roads we had been riding for the previous 100+km and pushing our bikes on what felt like an animal track along the edge of a very steep ravine. I don’t usually doubt Rob and his nav choices, but I have to admit, I had some doubts about this route. BUT, after what seemed like forever, the trail started to improve and we saw headlamps just up ahead. When we arrived at the next checkpoint, we found out we were now in 2nd place! Now it was a fast decent down through the canyon along a flooded ‘road’ that crossed the creek/river so many times I wasn’t sure it was even a road. The lights of the town of Altay were teasing us off in the distance and never seemed to get brighter as we kept riding. Finally, we popped out on the edge of town and were quite happy to see the last checkpoint and a small group of people hanging out next to a street light. We quickly dropped our bikes and shuffled our way 300 meters to the finish line, constantly looking over our shoulders hoping another team was not sneaking up behind us. 36 hours and 30 minutes since the race had begun, we crossed the finish line in 2nd place. Team Thule of Sweden had won, only 15 minutes ahead of us, and Team Silva also of Sweden, came in only 4 minutes behind us. Estonian Ace Adventure Team and New Zealand Adventure team finished a couple of hours after us rounding out the top 5.
This race was yet another example of how this team never gives up and pushes hard to the very end no matter what. Great teamwork gets us through the hard moments and carries us from the starting line to the finish line and over everything in between. It is truly never over, until it’s over.
A huge thanks for our sponsors: Adventure Medical Kits, Survive Outdoors Longer, Darn Tough, Leki, Champion System, Julbo, Out There USA, Nordenmark, Feed the Machine,and Zealios