From 2 to 10 June 2017, the world’s greatest adventure racing teams battled for glory in the 2nd edition of the Altay X-Trail Expedition Race in Northern China, the only Adventure Racing World Series (ARWS) race in Asia.
This year, the race organisers featured a youth team entry fee and travel subsidy to encourage youth teams from all over the world. A youth team has a combined age of under 110 years. In total, 24 teams, of which 10 teams were youth teams, all set out to conquer the Altay Prefecture.
Robyn Owen (Jeep Team/Best4Sports), along with Michael Owen, Andrew Houston and Julian Atkinson, made up the South African youth team, Best4Sports, tackling the gruelling 500km race.
The June 2017 Altay X-Trail Expedition was open to mixed teams of four, 3 men and 1 woman, and was a non-stop, unsupported race with the disciplines of trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, rafting, rope skill and navigation. Winners were expected to take 3 days, and everyone else up to 6 days, to get to the finish line
“I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the 3 days we spent racing X-Trail Expedition Altay, combined with the 3 weeks of preparation beforehand, represent the steepest learning curve any of the four of us have ever experienced.”
It was quite different to sign-up and line-up for a race with a team that had never done more than 12 hours of continuous racing before. Being given that opportunity, doing it, and successfully getting through, was massive for me. I personally learnt a lot and came away with a new type of confidence,” says Owen.
The exact course was kept secret until 24hrs before the start. Each team was given maps and a course booklet containing the location of each of the race checkpoints. Much of the terrain is rugged, and over the race each team needed to pass through a wide range of landforms. To finish the race, teams needed to navigate through all the checkpoints together and arrive at the finish line.
“Once the race started I certainly didn’t drag the team! Mike handled most of the navigation – doing a better job of it than many racers with much more experience; Andrew was the workhorse on the bike when anyone needed a tow and was our weather balloon – sensibly calling the stops to layer-up before we got into a desperate situation; and Julian, despite claiming that he has hardly been in a boat in the past 3 years, provided the power on the paddle legs. The only disadvantage was that they did not know that they could complete the distance, and it was my job to keep convincing us all that we could.”
The X-Trail Expedition Altay started with a 3km run along a tarred road to the shores of Lake Kanas, followed by a 25km kayak and 12.5km of rafting.
“You would never have guessed that it was the start of a 600km race had you seen the almost flat out sprint and the ensuing mad dash for boats, life jackets and spray decks! We faffed more than most in the transition but once we were on the water it was clear we were one of the strongest paddling teams in the race. By the turn-around point we were lying tie 2nd with Team Haglofs Silver from Sweden. We worked together on the way back and finished the leg within 5 minutes of the legendary Team Seagate – apparently that is impressive in the world of AR.”
“It was never our expectation to really be competing with the top teams but we are all competitive people and obviously got sucked into the racing mindset – at least while we had a distinct advantage.”
The approximate 500km race through the remote Altay region of Northern China is not normally accessible to tourists, and consists of expansive grasslands, rivers, mountains and desert plains in this spectacular part in the world.
“In the early hours of the morning we started the monster of the race: a 265km MTB leg. The track we followed all but disappeared on a particularly taxing hike-a-bike climb, but we were rewarded with a smooth single-track descent. We continued on cattle paths and jeep tracks through frosty meadows, with some cold muddy river crossings. Later we encountered major mountain passes where we had the dust and traffic jams of huge flocks of sheep and herds of semi-wild horses to contend with, before we rode out through a river canyon into the Gobi Desert flatlands.”
The team endured may challenges throughout the race, including adverse weather, swarms of insects, and flawed maps.
“We had heavy rain, hail, and close encounters with lightning, followed by the most beautiful rainbows. We were hit by a very strong wind and rain which pelted us so hard it hurt; and attacked by an array of biting insects.”
“The trek through the desert hills was vastly different from the green mountains. It was hot and dry. Navigation in this area was particularly interesting. The mapmakers seemed to have got lazy when filling in the contour information. Where we expected perfectly flat land, we found an endless maze of hills! We had more navigational difficulties partly due to a large mapped lake which didn’t actually exist, or had been empty long enough for the vegetation to have completely grown back.”
Owen lead the team to an impressive finish. The South African youth team finished the race in 80:39:00 (3 days, 8hrs), crossing the finish line as the first youth team, and placing 7th overall.
“We finished 7th overall and 1st in the youth team category. With such a high-quality field, this is a much better result than we could possibly have hoped for and we are all very happy! However, competitive as we all are, our conversation on the long journey home often drifted to the things we could have done to do better and that list is obviously long.”
Owen’s team mates, Michael, Andrew and Julian, reflect on their experience in China.
Michael Owen: “Expedition Altay is something I’ll never ever forget. There were so many amazing moments – seeing a wolf, hiking into an electrical storm, the moment when we found the last checkpoint and knew we had a 12km downhill ride to the finish – that it almost doesn’t seem real. Finally getting to experience an expedition race and everything that goes with it with Robyn was really special. Going through so much with good friends was brilliant and getting to visit the Altay is a once in a lifetime experience.”
Andrew Houston: “Life changing! That would sum up the trip to China. Having never been overseas before, this truly was an adventure to set the bar, and boy was it set high. In terms of the trip to the event, and then the event itself. From making friends from all around the world to tasting foods that we could not recognise. It was a trip that sure has changed my perspective on life and sport. Before AR China, my most strenuous adventure was a toss-up between Triple Challenge and Non-Stop Dusi. This was quite a joke to some of the other adventure racing teams. Not being too put off, we had faith in our boss (Robyn) who kept telling us we’d be just fine.
We truly had some memorable moments. From fighting off mosquitoes, riding down rivers and across deserts, communicating with the locals with hand signals, and sleeping on a dusty concrete floor and being comfortable. Hitting major lows and untouchable highs, learning so much about the body and how it can take more than you’d ever imagine. All this while making some lifelong friends.”
Julian Atkinson: “I started Expedition Altay with almost no knowledge of what it takes to complete an expedition race. In the 80 hours we spent moving through mountains, valleys and paddies, I learnt and experienced more than I thought possible! A few of the highlights for me will be the first time we came over the rise on the first trek and saw the snow-capped mountain range, the rainy night we spent sleeping in the back of a remote Chinese store, and finding the final checkpoint as the sun dipped under the clouds to light up the valley behind us. It was such a pleasure racing with Andrew, Robyn and Mike, they made every low more bearable, and every high more intense!”