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The Lay of the Land: Altay Expedition Race Intro

The light is very bright in the Altay region of northern China. It makes adventure racers squint at the sky and reach for their sponsored sunglasses. The green of the grass on the rolling hills on front of white-capped mountain peaks is so bright it gives you a headache. Chinese tourists pour into the region to experience the colours of nature, even on only a brief exit from tour buses. It’s famous for actually turning gold in the fall – the dark green of the evergreen trees on the mountains turn to an vivid yellow, as does the grass.

The natural beauty and ruggedness of the region made it an obvious choice for the Beijing-based adventure sport company X-Trail Adventure to host their first ever expedition race as an Adventure Racing World Series Race, but from a western perspective, its cultural interest is even more compelling. Altay sits tucked in the north-west corner of China, jutting up into three borders with Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. It is barely 50 km away from all three countries and in places on the race course, much less. At one point in the race racers will be under 20 km from Kazakhstan.

The thrill of racing in China is amplified by the area’s population of nomadic Kazakhs (as well as Uyghurs, Tuvans, and a variety of other ethnic groups who share similar nomadic characteristics) who pack up their yurts in the summer (now) onto the backs of horses and camels and move from the more southern areas close to the desert up to the northern mountain slopes for new grazing pastures. Word has it there is a specific time period for the northern migration, which coincided last year with a pilot two-day race. Racers met nomads in a narrow mountain pass, to confusing and marvelous results. For many of the international teams that make up the majority of the teams competing here this week, this is and possibly will be the most exotic place they have ever visited.

Camels loaded for nomadic migration
Kazakh woman possibly wondering why anyone would race through the night.

Despite the intrigue of the race and promotional photos including eagle hunters and camels, it still failed to attract enough teams to satisfy X-Trail. Adventure racing in China is a very new sport. Camping is not a past-time here and, while the enthusiasm for adventure sport is expanding, the idea of staying out overnight gives the Chinese the willies. For the pilot race, each checkpoint (CP) was manned with volunteers who lit lamps and made food for participants. Apparently they had a ball on their first time overnighting outdoors, but it’s still a novelty. (This race will not feature such CP luxuries.) For the western participants, China is an expensive and daunting destination, and there are other races to choose from.

The shrinking pool of adventure racing participants is a concern for Louise Foulkes, co-owner of the Adventure Racing World Series (ARWS)

Jun Wei, race director for X-Trail Altay Expedition Race.

with her husband, Craig. The global adventure racing community of participants, resources and sponsorships has never been large – and it’s getting smaller, as racers age along with the sport and younger teams seem in short supply. That’s why Louise is so excited to partner with the Chinese X-Trail Adventure, a trail running and stage-racing organization that wants to branch out into adventure racing. “Honestly, it feels like China is the only economy where there’s dynamism – and money! They want to learn so badly, and they have so many connections and resources. It’s amazing!”

As the race approached, X-Trail and the ARWS came up with a plan to boost entries – a “youth team” promotion consisting of free entry and $1200 USD towards airfare for teams of 4 with a combined age of under 110. (So a team of four 27 year olds would make it.) Even though the offer was only posted with three weeks to go until race start, it attracted 10 teams from an unusually diverse range of countries and experience levels – some teams as young as a combined age of 82. (team age: 18 – 23).

While some of the youth teams are dedicated adventure racers, like the “Sneaky Weasels” from New Zealand, who just needed the extra cash to incite them to visit China, many of the youth racers do not have experience with expedition-length races (races over 36 hours). Sivanesan Ganabathy, a Tamil from Singapore with team “Follow the Red Dot,” explained, “doing an expedition race is a huge risk for us. In Singapore we don’t have a lot of wilderness to train in. And the trails close from 7 pm to 7 am. But you know, if someone is paying for it, then we can take the risk!” The “Aussie Battlers” have never done an adventure race. Not one. Of any length. Nonetheless, when alerted to the opportunity

The Aussie Battlers home-made team shirts feature a picture of Australian speed skater Steve Bradley, who famously surprised the world by winning gold at the 2002 olympics when the rest of the pack crashed.

by their people in the orienteering community (their primary sport), they deferred their exams at university, borrowed bikes, and gamely prepared for the adventure of a life-time. A battler is Australian slang for, as team member Max Messenger explained to the media, “someone struggling, or having a hard time, you know? But still going. We thought it’d be funny.” When asked why they would start their AR career with an expedition race, Max responded “well, we found out about the money three weeks before, so that didn’t really give us time to do a smaller race to prepare.”

Some of the big guns are here too, lured by the massive prize purse of $50,000. For comparison, a typical prize purse is more like $10,000 for an adventure race.  That is, if there is any money at all and not just gear for prizes.  Teams like the unstoppable New Zealand team Seagate (one racer noted, “you know, it’s a bit BORING how they keep winning), Swedish Hagloffs Silva, Spanish Columbia Vida Raid make up the teams that most betting people would put in the top three. The Estonian Ace Aventura might surprise the more established teams.  They’ve been performing well, but are beset by time penalties – for forgetting gear, and once, in Australia, for littering. If they can race with no mistakes, they might crack the top three.

Estonian Ace Adventure sporting jackets left for Chinese vacationers in the race hotel.

Nipping around the edges of 4th place and higher are solid front-mid-pack teams like Team Bones, an experienced team with consistent performance from the United States and Canada. Bones is captained by Roy Malone, who, at 57, would need three 17 year old companions to make the youth category. (His teammates are not 17). They can be counted on to move steadily upwards, capitalizing on other team’s mistakes or over-enthusiasm. Other teams vying for 4th include Nossa Vida from Brazil (beloved by the Chinese, who have embraced Brazil’s global reputation as fun-loving), Bivouac Inov8 from New Zealand – known in 2013 as the Bivouac Colts, an up and coming youth team who retired the “Colts” moniker with experience and sponsors – and Terra Aventura Finalin, a rugged Urugayan bunch. There is one Chinese team, team Expedition Experience, experienced stage racing athletes, but nervous about the overnight component.

As with all magnificent adventures, the maps aren’t perfect. As Louse notes “There are accurate maps and there are adventure maps. These maps are definitely on the adventure side.” They’re Russian maps from World War II, bought by the United States and then by X-Trail, as up to date maps of the region don’t exist. The race will start fast, as there is no serious altitude (although the mountains are gruelling) and a number of extremely fit teams. Seagate is famous for trying to break other teams off the start, forcing a blazingly fast pace that could be a race-destroyer for some teams that try to follow. The projection is that teams will go like stink for about 48 hrs. Then, as they move from mountain to desert, encountering migrating nomads, herds of cattle and sheep, windy paddling sections, white-water, miscommunication due to the language barrier and the usual sleep deprivation, not to mention the unusually low experience level of some of the youth teams, as Louise notes, “things could really go sideways.”

Stay tuned – race start in one day. Next post will be from the winter village of Hemu, a collection of log cabins where the Tuvan people stay in the winter.  Yes, I know you’re mad you didn’t come too.

Tuvan log cabin village of Hemu.

For live tracking of the teams, please visit live.arworldseries.com. For more amazing photos by James Pitman, please visit https://www.facebook.com/arworldseries/. If you’re commenting on the race, as I know you are, please use #arworldseries, #xtrails, #arwschina.

 

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