Ultimate rush for adrenalin junkies
There were thrills and spills aplenty for those competitors brave enough to make the trip to Guangxi province for last weekend's Exploration Race down the Zi River. Jonathan Powell reports
I'm clinging to a boulder and a bamboo raft, trapped in a torrent of white water surging against my back. My teammate, thrown overboard when we slammed into rocks, is floating helplessly away down the Zi River.
Two men on a bank high above us stare in wonderment at the two foreigners - wearing number 40 race bibs, cycling helmets, climbing harnesses, and sports shoes - trying to drown themselves. We are just three hours into the North Face Ziyuan Exploration Race, in Guangxi province last weekend, and there are many more thrills and spills waiting in the next 12 hours.
Billed as a 24-hour challenge, the 112km race, in this stunning, sculpted region of southern China, proved an irresistible undertaking for 86 international competitors. Most came from Hong Kong and Macau. Others travelled from Europe, and the mainland.
Although participants knew what the race had in store, no one knew in what order the activities would come. It would include 20km of hilly trail running, 80km of mountain biking, 12km of white water rafting, orienteering around paddy fields, kayaking, swimming, two 80-metre plus abseils, and a rope traverse across a gorge.
One of the most talked-about activities post-race was the first abseil at the Tianmenshan scenic spot. The mere sight of the vertical red sandstone cliff, plunging down from the heavens, made some stomachs turn.
'We could see it from the river, and it was high,' says Julian Lallemand, a mountain bike champion, who was taking part in his first adventure race. 'I'm terrified of heights. I usually step back from a fifth floor balcony because of fear,' said the 30-year-old graphic designer from Hong Kong.
At the top of a steep winding stone staircase, teams were greeted by rope experts, who attempted to calm nerves. Beyond the walled edge, there was a sheer drop and an overhang, which left individuals dangling in the air, or worse, spinning around, revealing the full vulnerability of their circumstances.
'I didn't want to look down,' said Lallemand. 'I wanted it to be as quick as possible. I had the feeling of waiting for my execution. Halfway down I heard a cracking noise from my harness, and I fell a little bit. I thought I was going to die. I had to get over the fear and get to the bottom quickly.'
Other racers questioned their sanity at this stage. 'You are checked and double checked by the safety staff, but in the back of your mind you can't help feeling 'Why am I doing this'?' asked Rob James, a 40-year-old PR consultant from Hong Kong.
Safety is a priority for race director Keith Noyes, who has been organising races in the region for over seven years.
'The rope sections were the least of my worries. The bike sections are where the accidents happen. People move extremely quickly and often overestimate their ability,' said the 40-year-old former banker, whose Hong Kong-based company Seyon Asia has earned a reputation for spectacular races with fresh elements.
An important part of Noyes' preparation is identifying danger spots along the route. In the towns, there were animals (chickens) and people walking in the road and traffic in these areas was potentially lethal. After the first abseil, another gut-wrenching test of courage was waiting, a 23km bike ride away at the Bajiaozhai scenic spot.
A steep 4km path snaked up through narrow rock passageways, underneath giant boulders, and finally opened out at a tyrolean traverse, where a couple of ropes were strung 50m across a huge, gaping chasm.
Racers clipped on to a pulley, and launched themselves off, most making it only halfway across the gap, as the rope levelled out. It was several hundred metres to the ground. To get the rest of the way required pulling hand-over-hand to reach safety.
'I must have twisted round 10 or 15 times,' said Ben Blain, a teacher from Hong Kong. 'Hanging by a piece of rope like that was slightly disturbing, but the view was incredible,' he said.
A 27km bike ride lay ahead. The extensive cycling was an ordeal for some. Saddle soreness was the major complaint the day after. The undulating route was torture on the thighs. Once darkness had descended, fatigue began to set in. Teamwork was crucial.
'Sticking to the plan and communicating throughout is essential,' said James, a former event organiser for IMG. 'I've witnessed amazing bust-ups on various races. Teams fight and end up not talking to each other. Similarly, teams can end up dropping out early from pushing too hard too soon.'
At the penultimate check point (5), teams had to complete a number puzzle, the Japanese craze Sudoku, before proceeding on to a night navigation exercise. The cerebral demand of this activity, at this stage in the race, persuaded many teams to skip it and take a one-hour penalty.
The last section, with sleep deprivation symptoms setting in, was a steep 5km bike climb to Baoding village, where there was a 300m swim and kayak, across a reservoir, in the dark. Physically and mentally exhausted, this was now becoming emotionally testing. There were two final activities before the much-anticipated 9km downhill ride to the finish. It was a 1km hike to the top of a waterfall, then an 80m abseil down alongside it.
'By far the toughest challenge of the race for me was the final hill climb on the bike,' said Tim Bowman, 26. 'It seemed to go on forever. The only thing that kept me going was that I knew we'd get to ride down it. The race location was a double-edged sword really, very beautiful, but very steep.'
With these last tasks completed, bar any accidents on the ride down, the race was over. 'Adrenalin and euphoria began to set in,' said James. 'Some 12 hours into the race and we knew we would finish. We switched into overdrive and overtook a couple of teams. Pride kicked in.'
Organising the race was a logistical marvel. Noyes, an American who speaks fluent Putonghua, began planning and meeting with local government officials nine months ago. 'We had the full support of the Ziyuan County Government. Once they knew national TV stations would be coming down to cover this event, they were falling over themselves to make it a success,' he said.
Support staff for the event included two doctors, two nurses, 18 technical experts, 10 drivers, 20 marshals, 15 people preparing food at the check points, and three emergency medical personnel from Hong Kong. There were more than 200 police along the route, and the roadside support from the public was thrilling for the competitors.
'The biggest lift to our tiring and aching bodies was hitting that small town,' said James. 'The streets were lined and packed with hundreds of cheering locals - it was like the Tour de France and a real boost to the body. What they thought of us I really don't know, but their encouragement and enthusiasm was an energy injection. Tim reckoned he was Lance Armstrong, and I guess I was Jan Ulrich - just for 30 seconds.'
Then reality appeared in the shape of race leader Neil Tait. James said: 'For the only time we see Neil, he is a blur coming back the other way - almost an hour ahead after 51/2 hours - he and his teammate are flying.'
Hong Kong-based Tait and Shanghai-based Piers Touzel of Team Protrek Golite finished first in an impressive nine hours and 49 minutes. Most teams finished between 12 and 16 hours. The last team home crossed the line in 18 hours and 53 minutes, at 6am, on Sunday.
Many who took part in Ziyuan are planning to join Noyes' next challenge, a race in the Indian Himalayas next month.
Top adventure racer Adrian King is one. The 35-year-old, Hong Kong based advertising executive, explained the appeal of the sport:
'For some people, doing activity for 24 hours seems incomprehensible. They prefer to go shopping. I like the adrenalin of racing, being outdoors, and the multi-sport challenge. Some people can't handle it. It depends how you are wired. But if you like to push yourself, you should try it out.'