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May 18 / 2012

Shangrila – Lijiang Action Asia Ultra Marathon Race Report

Shangri-La – Lijiang Action Asia Ultra 60 (72) km & 100km Marathon & Hike In the weeks leading up to Action Asia’s sixth multi-stage ultra marathon, it seemed that the 2012 Lijiang Ultra would, uncharacteristically for AAE’s international events, be unspoilt by any natural disaster, political instability or inclement weather.

Race Report (Apr 28-30, 2012)

Rachel Jacquelin

In the weeks leading up to Action Asia’s sixth multi-stage ultra marathon, it seemed that the 2012 Lijiang Ultra would, uncharacteristically for AAE’s international events, be unspoilt by any natural disaster, political instability or inclement weather.
But it was not to be. The paving demons of China’s booming economy forced last minute re-planning of trails and scheduling dramas for China Southern Airlines left several competitors stranded in Shenzhen until late Friday night, and one in Kunming until Saturday morning.
Yet, as they say, the show must go on. The dedicated AAE team worked tirelessly to ensure a cement-less-as-possible course right up to the last minute. And, despite some not getting to bed until 1am on Saturday, we all (but one) arose well before the crack of dawn on the first day to be on the buses by 5am and to start our three day, 100 kilometre/6072 kilometre journey into the mountains of Shangrila. The mode of choice? Nothing but our own two feet, of course. Here is my run down of the three days.

Day One
Chateau to Walnut Grove in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri-La County - 37 km
(1900m – 2600m - 1800m - 2000m – 1600m – 2000m) / 23km (1900m - 2600m - 2000m)

Just as the sun began to peek over the mountains, we arrived in Chateau village, full of anticipation for the day ahead. After our first group bonding experience in the form of China’s communal pit toilets, we were on our way at a punctual 7.30am.  

Day one started with a short dash on a flattish road before turning up on a track towards the first of many hills for the days to come. Almost instantly you could feel the altitude making the in-breaths just that much harder. Michael’s cautionary emails leading up the event -“Get training, there are some serious hills!”-  kept repeating itself in my mind. But even though I had been training hard in Hong Kong leading up to the event, nothing can really prepare you for the thin air at altitude. It slowly robs you of oxygen, leading to light dizziness and a general lethargy. But the trade off is the stunning vistas at such heights. With that in mind, and a few happy snaps, I trudged on.
After two kilometres the trails divided: the shorties continued on their way through the mountains and the longies headed up a steep winding road that digressed over a rocky wooden bridge and into the forrest, before turning back on to the same road.
At around 11 kilometres, we finally made it off the loop road and on to the trails through the mountains. At last, Michael’s strict instructions the night before NOT to listen to music en route due to the risk of sporadic rockfalls made sense. The next almost-twenty kilometres were on skinny trails cut into the side of the mountains. The views were absolutely mind-blowing. At one stage we were running on a narrow trail with a sheer cliff face above us, a long waterfall cascading over it, and a steep drop to our right. Even the mountain goats looked a little bewildered with the dizzying heights.
Once off the mountain trails, we descended back into civilisation and the cement. The final part of the run was mostly on the slowly descending road leading into Hetaoyuan, the village where we would be staying for the next two nights. Almost unfairly, just two kilometres short of the finish line, the longies were sent on a four kilometre loop down to Tiger Leaping Gorge – which involved a steep downhill and a seemingly unrelenting uphill towards the finish – while the shorties enjoyed a gentle two kilometre downhill to the end. Even though the diversion was challenging after such a long day, the beautiful views of the famous gorge were, for those who stopped to look, worth it. 
After 37 kilometres, and just in time for lunch, I finally made it to Sean’s guesthouse with a welcoming cheer from my fellow runners.  The afternoon of the first day was spent stretching, eating lots of food and having overdue catch ups with friends, as well as making new ones.

Day Two
Zanba to Benxi to Walnut Grove- 42 km
(2000m – 2400m - 3000m - 1800m - 2000m) / - 28 km (2000m – 2800m - 1800m - 2000m)

Day two I woke feeling surprisingly refreshed after more than nine hours sleep, thanks to a late 7am start (almost UNHEARD of for any AAE multi-day). After a quick feed of banana pancakes and Yunnan coffee (not quite a Starbucks latte, but drinkable!) we all loaded on to the buses for the short ride to the start line. With captivating views of the valley and the friendly bus chatter, if it were not for the pervading smell of deep heat, you could almost think we were simply a bunch of tourists out for a relaxing day of sightseeing - and not a bunch of crazy ultramarathoners.
Although Michael had comforted us at the race briefing that day two would be “easy”, in truth, the long and gradual ascents were a slow killer. For both the longies and the shorties, the first half of the course was almost all up hill. For the first 10 kilometres the ascent was only very gradual, but still noticeable. At the 10 kilometre mark the longies and shorties parted ways again: the shorties to take on a steep but short ascent and the longies to take on a long and gruelling ascent up to 3000 metres, winding its way through the local Haba villages.
But – thankfully – what goes up must come down. For the longies, once we topped out at 3000 metres, all that was left was a beautiful run down hill through pine forests. The views were stunning (all except for the view experienced by one runner during an unexpected run-in with a bare-bottomed fellow runner, caught mid-business). With snow-capped mountains on the horizon and a fast and fun run ahead, the demanding start to the day was quickly forgotten.
…Until the last six kilometres, when it was back to the final road leading back to Hetaoyuan and Sean’s guesthouse. After 30-odd kilometres, the gradual ascent to the finish was defeating. But, just as I thought I was done for, I turned a corner and saw Sean’s guesthouse and sighed with relief!
After sharing two days of trails, the conversation on the second afternoon was even more deafening than the day before. We all shared stories of our triumphs and blowouts, inspected our various wounds and compared injuries. At any given moment, there was a least a dozen of us in some state of contorted agony in a yoga stretch, foam rolling our tired muscles or massaging out various aches and pains. But we all had grins on our faces from ear to ear and were on sensory overload from the sights we’d seen that day.
After numerous bowls of rice and exhausted from the long day, I rolled into bed around 9pm.

Day 3
Haixi to Lau Xe Xai - 22km
(2600m - 3000m - 2500m)

On the final day we all piled into the buses for the two hour bus ride to the starting line. Being the last day, the competitive spirit was rife as the 100kers and the 6072kers would finally be following the same 21km course – and have a chance to really work out the competition!

Despite being sore, exhausted and, for some, only holding it together with some serious taping by Doctor Dave – Cosmo Richard’s sprained ankle appearing more like a cankle, Sherrin Loh’s knee seeming to be held together only by a mass of white tape and Andrea Oschetti managing only a shuffle through injury – we somehow trudged our way through the final day.
Starting in Haixi at 2600 metres, we made our way through open plains and beautiful wood forests up to Upper Nanyou at 3000 metres. On the way there, we had stunning views of the open plains below and a beautiful lake on our right, as well as several cute villages dotted along the way, giving us a rare insight into rural Chinese life. The village children cheered us on, yelling “Jia You!!”(Go for it!)
Once we passed Upper Nanyou, the last of the hills was behind us, the finish line was in sight and the real fun began. A steep downhill section offered afficionados of technical trails a delight – and those with niggling ITB issues, a slow and tender descent.
Once into the valley, the final part of the trail took us zigzagging through rice paddies, where the locals would stop mid-task and look at you quizzically. Despite the language barrier, a questioning look of “what the f**k are you doing?” is universal. I couldn’t help but laugh. At that point, I didn’t really care what I was doing anymore - it was almost done! A final winding run through the Lao Xi Hai village, a quick loop around a lake and the finish line was in sight. 100 kilometres for the longies and 6072 kilometres for the shorties; but for all, an epic acheivement.
Since returning home, people keep asking me, “Wow, 100 kilometres, are you nuts?” The truth is, there is probably a degree of insanity to it. At some tough points during the three days – tired from the exhaustion and the distances - I caught myself thinking: “What on earth am I doing? Surely I’d be better off relaxing on a beach somewhere…”
But the opportunity to travel through some beautiful and remote parts of the world, make lasting friendships and do something with your body that seems impossible is one which I savour -  and one that I would recommend wholeheartedy to others. Spending hours at a time in the outdoors, with only your feet to take you where you are going and your thoughts for company, gives you the time to appreciate the important things in life.
Finally, tough multi-day events like Lijiang give you the unique opportunity to stand at the finish line, look back at the mountains you have conquered and feel like a winner, no matter your place. We get few opportunities in life to celebrate our achievements, let alone share them with others. And there is nothing quite like sharing that knowing smile with a fellow competitor, and knowing you’ll see them on the trails soon.
See you at the next race!

Rachel Jacquelin

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