Adventures in China

November 21, 2000 (

Once in a great while if you're very lucky (like me) you'll get an invitation you just can't refuse. I actually get my fair share of them so its usually my wife that refuses them for me. This particular one came from two nutty adventure-racing strangers from Ft. Collins, Colorado, and they also extended the invitation to my very unadventurous wife. Try to imagine sitting at home checking the e-mail and getting something out of the blue one day that goes something like this...

"Hey! We don't know you and you certainly don't know us but how would you like to come to China with us and be on our team to do a 4-day adventure race that involves lots of sports you have no idea how to do and will be perhaps just a bit life threatening?"

I got such an e-mail that went on to say just a few words about how it involved in-line skating and some rope stuff which Erin and I have never done, tons of kayaking which Erin had never done and hundreds of miles of mountain biking and running in some pretty high mountains. My wonderful wife was not even remotely fit for this sort of stuff, and never liked any of it in the first place (even when she was fit).

So I sat on it for a day or two trying to find a way to make it sound inviting. All I could come up with was that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, a chance to see a part of China that would be incredible; a chance to get excited about getting fit again; learn some new outdoor skills; work together as a team -- which would be great for our marriage -- and a chance to lose some weight. I knew the weight thing would be pretty appealing to her, and after my elaborate sales pitch (the one I learned from all of those multi-level marketing types who always call me and go on and on about a terrific new opportunity and try not to sound like they are multi-level marketing types) her curt response was basically, "How much?"

I said, "Do you mean how much am I going to have to suffer, and how many weekends am I going to have to give up over the coming years to make it up to you? Or how much money do I think we can get from them? She said, "All that."

I suppose it was a big thing I was asking her to consider. She had a lot of work to do to get herself ready, and to put up with me being away getting myself ready. Also, there was no guarantee that our teammates were really up to it anyway. But we decided we'd take a gamble and say yes. After all there was plenty of time to get ready and our teammates assured us that they were just going to have a great time with no competitive aspirations whatsoever. They were 45-year-olds and kinda slow.

So the weeks went by over our winter and I kept in touch a bit with our teammates and started to think about training. Then it was nearly the end of August and "Shit! We don't have any skates and couldn't use them if we did and I can't kayak and I hate bloody trails (this is Erin talking if you haven't guessed), and who's gonna look after the kids and I hate your guts and why in the hell did you think I would want to do this in the first place!" (Etc., and so forth).

That evening after she couldn't sleep again for the third night in a row she woke me up and made me put together a schedule for us and our family, and made me promise to take on a lot of extra chores. The next day she called up an in-line skate coach and we finally began to prepare in earnest.

Then our teammates emailed to say that they had just gotten out of the hospital with leptospirosis (which they had contracted in the Eco-Challenge in Borneo) and hadn't been able to do much at all for a few weeks! So now they were as weak as hell in addition to being old and slow. And did we "...know about the towing system?"

So I sat on that email for a few days awaiting another one with a bit more cheerful news, and began a substantial drinking binge. I also began to rewrite my will and plan my funeral.

Luckily things turned around for the better and we began to look forward to the trip. We even did a small multisport race here at home in Christchurch and did very well. The next day we hopped on the plane.

The MSOQ (Mild Seven Outdoor Quest) was fabulous, and it seemed like the event I was destined to do from the day I found endurance sports. It attracts an amazing range and calibre of athletes.

Among the entrants are the stars of the adventure racing field. These included Keith Murray, John Jacoby, Robert Nagle and Danelle Ballangee (with a cast on her wrist) on a team that could just manage 4th.

From the Xterra world there was a team of Michael Tobin, Mike Vine, Pat Brown, Kirsten Wuele, Mike Kloser, and others.

From the triathlon world were, among others, Mike Pigg, Paula Newby-Faser and Chris Legh.

There were also many of the stars of the Asian endurance community including world class kayakers and triathletes. Even among such a stellar field of twenty-four teams of four the eventual winners Team Nokia from Finland were a cut above. They never seemed in distress and didn't appear to have a bad stage. The Pigg and Kloser team was able to put some pressure on them, but their advantage in the mountain bike sections wasn't enough to overcome their deficit to Team Nokia in the in-line skating sections.

If you've never ski-skated next to a world class x-country skier then you can't imagine the difference in speed between them and the rest of the skiers in the world. Such was the gap on skates between Team Nokia and the rest of us. Skating on the same road with them felt a little like I was trying to swim in the same lane with Ian Thorpe. I really just wanted to blend into the side of the road with the spectators and watch. It was just magical how they were able to hover a millimeter above the road, as if they were on a magic carpet.

I don't want to go into detail about the results. What I want to do here is give those of you who are considering attempting one of the millions of adventure races that are popping up like dandelions in spring a small taste of what its like to prepare for and compete in one. They're hard and a bit frustrating at first. Teamwork plays a very big part. For instance, my lovely wife and I found out during the first paddle in a native boat (a 400 year-old version of a canoe) that I couldn't steer a boat without a rudder. After a few magnificent figure eights we proceeded to zigzag the first paddle of 4-kilometers in just over an hour.

Later on that day down the great Yangtse river my lack of skill in a boat very nearly cost me more than my marriage, as my partner in the front of the boat tried to spin around and cut my head off with her paddle blade. After three more frustrating hours in that boat we cried when we made it to shore. It was one of the hardest days I've ever had in sport. Luckily there were a couple of unfortunate paddlers behind us and that saved us in the end.

The next day the event organisers mercifully cut the paddle from what surely would have been four to five hours for us tail-enders to 2 hours. Michael Tobin might still be out there if they hadn't.

All adventure races cover mighty terrain. Very steep, high mountains usually feature prominently. If you come from the flat neck of the woods you can pretty much rule yourself out of these things. Rocky trails or bush with no trail also feature every day so if you have soft skin or weak ankles these things are going to tear you to bits. Towing systems were very evident in China and my new friend Liz and I were bound together by surgical tubing for four days. These things work! To my surprise they work even better going downhill.

One of the features of this event that I loved was going back to the hotel after each stage for a fabulous buffet dinner, a shower, and a nice bed to sleep on. After a hard 12-hour day a little pampering goes a long way. We also had a chance to catch up with the others in the race and hear the stories of their day which made us feel a bit better about ours.

In the end we finished 16th out of the 24 teams that started, which was a very impressive accomplishment. It was perseverance and a positive attitude that enabled us to finish at all. Afterwards we had a bit of time to do some shopping, and get to know a few of the other competitors, and the pain of the race slowly faded as it always does. By the time I got home I was already planning my return, trying to figure out how I could get together a masters team that could be competitive.

Multisport has already surpassed triathlon as far as popularity here in New Zealand. Just like the USA it's growing like a wild fire. Now there are a number of good one-day adventure races to gain an introduction to what its all about. If you think this is something you might like to try then my advice would be to try one of these shorter races first to get a little taste of what its like. Bon appetit.