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Here is a report from Dougal on his last two races.
Well September has flown by with two major races and a trip to China absorbing most of my thoughts and energy for this first month of spring.
It was certainly nice to set the clock forward on the weekend and mark the start of daylight savings. Wanaka is a truly remarkable place to live and train, but the winter can be harsh and it will be nice to do some cycling without 12 layers of clothing! Below is a report on my two big recent races. The Mountain to Mountain held in Wanaka, where snow featured at times, and the Wulong Quest, held in a Chinese summer, where snow merely a distant and desirable fantasy during the hottest and toughest race I have very done!
Mountain to Mountain, September 12th.
On September 12th Wanaka hosted its 9th annual Mountain to Mountain (M2M) multisport race from Treble Cone ski field to the Snow Park. The event requires teams and individuals to ski then mountain bike down from Treble Cone and kayak, run and road cycle to the bottom of the Snow Park access road in the Cardrona Valley, followed by a relentless hill climb on mountain bikes to the Snow Park itself in the tops of the Pisa Range.
Conditions were ideal this year with clear skies, a nice flowing Matukituki River (kayak stage), and even a slight tail wind for the cycle up the Cardrona Valley. My race plan was simple. I wanted to have a consistent race across all stages with my intention being to make a break on my competition in the 9km run to Glendhu Bay. It would then be a matter of trying to hold this lead on the final two cycling stages to the finish. I also promised myself I would not completely kill body during the race as I was flying to China 3 days later for an Adventure Race that I considered a greater priority.
The race started high on ‘The Saddle’ which allowed for a wonderfully long ski run down to our awaiting mountain bikes at the carpark. The ski went well, though it is always hard to limit your speed amongst the race hype and I found myself flying down the hill with risk-taking momentum. We descended into a patch of low cloud which made visibility very poor for a moment. This felt like a war-zone with skiers flipping out of control in my periphery both left and right. Luckily I got through the ski in one piece and was quickly onto my bike for the fast descent down the access road.
The 8km downhill bike section was exhilarating and as I turned to ride the next 8km of flat section up the Matukituki Valley I spotted my friend and main competitor Gav Mason just ahead. I rode hard to catch Gav and the two of us worked together to find ourselves near the front as we entered the kayak transition.
While most people were dropping their bikes and running to their kayaks/kayakers across about 150m of river bed, Gav and I rode our bikes all the way over, making serious gains and over-taking all but one team. Gav had a fast transition and I wasn’t far behind, 3rd overall onto the water. During the paddle I overtook Gav and the team kayaker to take the overall lead and enter the run, my favourite leg, with a gap over everyone.
The run was a real pleasure through Glendhu station and with the exception of losing my Asics running shoe in the mud and having to turn around and fish it out, it went problem-free. As I entered the transition to the Glendhu Bay motor camp I couldn’t see anyone behind me. I was quickly onto my Giant time trial bike and on my way, a 35km dash from Glendhu Bay up the Cardrona Valley to the bottom of the Snow Park access road.
As I cycled along I kept checking over my shoulder anticipating a team cyclist whom I hoped would come past allowing me to work in with them and conserve energy. However the time trialist I could see perhaps 300m behind me wasn’t making much of a gain so I decided just to ride at my own speed and see what happens. As it turned out he didn’t catch me and by the time I reached the final transition to mountain bike, I still held the overall lead. I took this as a sign that I must have been going alright!
Onto the mountain bike and all that was left was a 12km ride straight uphill to the Snow Park. I was finally passed by two team riders during this stage but according to my Polar watch I was still on track for a sub-4 hour race, something I did not think had been done before. So I kept riding my own pace and when my support crew reported that I had at least a 10 minute lead over the next individual I decided to ease off the intensity with my China race in a week in mind.
I stopped the clock in first place (3rd overall across the line) in a time of 3 hours 55 minutes, the first sub-4 hour performance in the race’s 9 year history. I was very happy to win such a wonderful race for the second time and stoked to be in such good form this close to my big race in China! Second individual home 14 minutes later was Gav, 3rd was veteran Ray Hope with multisport legend Tim Pearson not far behind.
Wulong Quest – Adventure Race, Southern China, September 20th-23rd.
The Wulong Mountain Quest is one of the richest and toughest adventure races in the world. Held each year in and near the city of Wulong (4 hours south of Chongqing city in China) it was announced this year’s field was the most competitive to have assembled at any adventure race this year. My team ‘Air New Zealand / R & R Sport’ included former Coast 2 Coast champion Fleur Pawsey, top multisporter and adventure racer Nathan Peterson, and Christchurch-based multisporter and Air New Zealand pilot Bruce Clulow. We knew as a team we could be very competitive, but with just one weekend spent training together prior to China and Fleur being the only one to have been to Wulong before, there was a lot we didn’t know about each other and the race.
The opening ceremony took place on the Saturday (19th) in Wulong, a city of approximately 400,000. It wasn’t until we were marched into an arena with an audience of tens of thousands of locals that I realised just how big a deal this race was here! We all sat and watched performances up on the huge stage not really knowing what was going on as most of what was said and sung was in Chinese. The fireworks were cool though!
On Sunday we were back onto athlete buses at our hotel base 1800m above sea level at Fairy Mountain, and back down the hill for 45 minutes to Wulong city. Today was the Prologue which involved a 3km run, 4km mountain bike and 4km raft on the Wulong River with a final 2km dash back to the finish. The prologue gives athletes a chance to get a feel for the climate and competition, and showcases the race to the public. I was blown away by just how many people were there to watch, as well as all the media that filmed/photographed us from the moment we got off the bus to the moment we left.
The prologue itself was at furious pace, we averaged 3.24 min/km for the first run for example! The noise from the crowds was deafening, but it certainly made things exciting. It felt like we were riding the Tour de France at times as the crowd went 5 or 6 rows deep and closed in around us along the roads. We raced solidly for 8th place, but the difference between the teams was seconds and minutes at the front.
Monday saw Day 1 start high up on the 1800m Fairy Mountain plateau. The day involved a mountain bike, biathlon (2 x bikes per team, i.e. 2 run and 2 bike in any order), a big run, a kayak, another run and finally a spectacular 150m abseil before the finish line. We were just off the pace of the front teams but were still in the mix for most of the day. This, despite Bruce being particularly affected by the heat and me having to deal with a number of diarrhoea episodes! I couldn’t eat or drink for fear of toilet stops so had to contend with the heat and humidity for the last four hours without nutrition. We ended the day after 6 hours 37 minutes which kept us in 8th place overall, having been as high as 4th place during the race.
Day 2 was named the ‘Long Day’ and it did not disappoint. We travelled over an hour and a half by bus to the start line. Tired legs exited the bus and athletes prepared for an interesting first stage. Each team was provided with 2 planks of wood, 3 tires and 3 pieces of rope. We had to build a raft using all the material provided and then hand paddle/swim our way across a lake to the other side. This went pretty well and we got across in about 20 minutes along with most of the other teams. However a couple of teams got away off the front after thinking ahead and bringing hand paddles with them to the race for this specific stage!
Off the water and a 15 minute run took us to our awaiting mountain bikes. We had one hell of a climb ahead of us on sealed road so we got our tow lines organised early and I towed Fleur while Nathan towed Bruce. This seemed to work quite well and we made our way up a relentless hill that seemed to just go on and on. Finally at the top after over an hour and a half we got a bit of single track riding before getting to transition to the run. Again, we were quick once onto the run to set up our tows and try and keep ourselves moving as one unit. We were well high up in the mountains now and the run offered some spectacular views. This time it was Nathans turn to have stomach problems and he needed a toilet stop along the way. Bruce was again starting to melt a bit in the heat so we kept close watch on him and ensured we all ate and drank as much as our stomachs would allow.
The run finished down by a dam and led into a kayak of over 2 and half hours. The whole paddle was on flat non-moving water and was mentally tough. It took a while for Bruce and I to master the rudderless bath tubs and we were struggling to keep pace with Nathan and Fleur. Leg cramps came and went and the end could not have come soon enough. However from the get-out we had to climb a few hundred vertical metres to a cave section before reaching our compulsory (thank goodness!) 15 minute rest. This was a real turning point in the race for our team as Bruce really fell apart. The temperature had finally gained the upper hand and we suspected Bruce was suffering heat stroke. I did my best to verbally and physically encourage him up the stairs as he began losing coordination and slurring his speech. By the time we got into the cave section he was not in good shape. Luckily being out of direct sunlight relieved him just enough to enable him and us to move through the cave (though not at great speed) and make the 15 minute rest area.
We got people to provide ice and try to help Bruce get his core temperature down while we reloaded our food and water supplies. There was still 3 stages left and we were not looking like we were going to get through them, but we were certainly going to try! Our 15 minutes raced by and soon enough we were running 6km in the heat all over again. Bruce had regained some composure and we were happy to get down to the river and our awaiting rafts for a 24km paddle down the Wulong River. The huge volume of water that travels down the river makes for some powerful currents. Whirl pools can pop up from nowhere and suck an entire raft down. So we had to be alert and pick our lines carefully. Nathan and I were at the back and were helping to steer the raft, but I kept getting severe cramps which often left Nathan trying to maintain control of the raft all on his own with Fleur and Bruce paddling trustingly at the front!
When we rounded a corner and spotted the bridge that marked the end of the raft we were stoked. We got out and ran up to the top of the bridge for the last challenge of the day, an abseil down! We coped well with getting our fatigued bodies into harnesses and coordinating the 50m descent before crossing the finish line absolutely spent, in just over 8 hours.
With one day left things were looking bleak. Bruce was not well, Nathan and I were still suffering stomach upsets and tomorrow was going to be just as hot and tough as today. The race on Day 3 started in Wulong with a 10 minute sprint on stiff legs to our kayaks on the Wulong River. We had a solid paddle and were quickly out of the kayaks and making our way into the 6km run with a 1000m elevation gain! Tow lines were attached and progress slowed as the day grew hot early. Bruce was already in a similar state to yesterday and we decided the priority had to be to finish. So we found a shady spot and sat down for a 5 minute rest. Bruce seemed to respond well to this and we continued onwards and upwards to the transition at the top of the mountain. We took a few minutes to rehydrate and try and cool off a bit then were off into the mountain biking stage. We picked up a Chinese team early and put time into them as we made our way along gravel roads and single track that took us across farmland and through small villages.
Transition and our 15 minute rest could not have come soon enough and when it did we again prioritised getting Bruce cooled off and getting some fluids and solids into our depleted bodies. There were two stages left in the race, a 2 ½ hour mountain bike followed by a 45 minute caving section. Tow lines and team work would be integral to getting all four of us to the finish.
The mountain bike started well but we were soon climbing an enormous hill on gravel road. Switchback after switchback as we gained height was taking its toll on Bruce. At times he was on the verge of fainting and had to stop, and I have to say that towing him was finally starting to take a toll on me also. Luckily we made it to the top of this climb and a descent that followed offered three things: 1. Amazing views across the mountain tops, 2. a chance to rest the legs, and 3. a chance to cool off a bit as we free-wheeled the down hills.
With one hill climb to go on sealed road we were looking like we would reach the finish. With the heat rebounding off the road we had to stay focussed. This focus was lost momentarily as I almost led everyone on the tow behind me over a snake as it wriggled across the road in front of us! We managed to miss it just, and made our way to the final transition.
A 45 minute final stage took us underground and through a stunning limestone cave. It was wonderful to fully submerse ourselves in cold water and to know this was the last stage of the entire race. Once through, we made our way up to the finish line and crossed in a total time of just over 24 hours. We were exhausted, dehydrated, starving and totally spent. Bruce had heat stroke. But we had finished. Half of the 26 teams that started the race had not managed to cross the finish line. We had. And we had done so in the 9th fastest time overall. Not a placing we would be ecstatic about normally, but knowing that we could easily have been a DNF in the heat, we had to accept the first achievement was to complete the gruelling course and live to tell the tale.
The race taught me a lot. China was at times a welcoming and hospitable place, and at other times intimidating and completely hostile. The race is the toughest thing I have done to date. But I still crave more. I enjoyed mixing with the best adventure racing athletes in the world and it was good to build a few networks for future races. I am excited when I think about what lies ahead. First I have some resting to do. Then it is back into the New Zealand multisport scene. I have not finalised which races I intend to do yet but I will be building towards the Speight’s Coast to Coast Longest Day in February. Thank you for your support that has helped me get here, and for your support that moves me forward. I look forward to keeping you informed on happenings over summer months and hope to bring more positive news your way.
Until then, best wishes.