Zhangye 100km International Mountain Trail Challenge

Chris Morrissey gives his run down the Zhangye 100km International Mountain Trail Challenge- a brutally tough 100km race in China.

About 7 or 8 weeks ago I got an email from Daniel Jones. It went something like “Do you want to do a race with me in China?”  Yip! What is it? I thought. The email continued. “It’s a 100km ultra near Zhangye. In teams of two. Last years winning time was 15 hours 20 min.” Ouch! I thought. I did a bit of research on last years race. The winner was a team including Yun Yanqiao who has a pretty impressive resume. That pretty much ruled out finishing in the daylight. After a little more investigation I realized we would finish in daylight. Last years race started at 9pm. It had a total elevation gain of 6000m “Ouch!” An average altitude of 2500m. “Ouch!” And a max altitude of 4200m “Ouch!”
Having raced with Daniel’s Dad and adventure racing legend Neil Jones in my previous life as an adventure racer I figured if Daniel was half as strong we should go well. I’ve raced Daniel quite a number of times given that we both ran for Whakatane Harriers a few years back. Daniel has been in the U.S. on a running scholarship for 4 or 5 years and is currently on a bit of a gap year racing here, there and everywhere. Should be fun. In a strange kind of way. We were both going into it a bit green. It was Daniels first race longer than “about 32 km” and no racing at altitude. It was my second 100km with no altitude racing under my belt since my aforementioned previous life.
Emails flew back and forth as we coordinated flights, accommodation and organised Visas. The race was also evolving a little from last year. It was now an individual race. 5000m elevation with a max of 3800m. Also now it was 102km. Still “Ouch” though.
The weeks also flew by. I few good runs under my belt and feeling healthy I headed to Zhangye. I met up with Daniel on the Wednesday before the race in Lanzhou, with just the final 1 hour flight to race HQ to go. Flying north to Zhangye we were told on the plane that it was 30 degrees Celsius on the ground. As we approached I looked to the east and saw a massive expanse of desert and some rolling hills. I looked across the plane. Then I tapped Daniel on the shoulder and pointed out the windows to the west. “Snow!” He exclaimed which put an instant smile on his dial.
Once we were on the ground we were lucky enough to catch a ride with some of the race crew to the race HQ. The following day we were even luckier to get a guided tour over a large section of the course. Sections of the first 50km were on road and gravel 4×4 tracks. As part of our guided tour deal, Daniel and I along with Chinese women’s favourite Dong Li and race organiser Wei Jun had to do a few (20 to 30) poise run through shots for a promotional video for the race. We walked from about 3000m vertical to 3400m. While we weren’t pushing it at all the affect of the altitude was noticeable. Getting snowed on as we descended made us realise just how quickly the weather can change at that height too. It was a great insight into the course but it had us thinking that times would be a lot quicker than 15 hours especially considering that the race was now going to start at 5am.
On Friday afternoon, Taiwan based Kiwi Ruth Croft joined us. Ruth was there to have a crack at the 50km before heading to Europe for a few key races.
Come race morning we both woke before the 3:30 alarm and crammed down some breakfast. We both had slightly dodgy stomachs for the first time on the trip. Nothing too major but not quite normal. After early morning gear checks before being allowed into the starting box, Daniels curly locks were attracting a bit of media attention having to do a few interviews pre race. He seemed to be taking it in his stride though.
Under the starters orders we hung back a little to keep clear of start chaos. With about 15 km of road to start the predicted chaos never really happened. Everyone obviously respected what was in front of them. About 30min in Daniel jogged up beside me chomping at the bit and said something along the lines of “Is this pretty much it for 12 hours?” “Pretty much.” I said with a smile. However after hitting the first checkpoint at the 13km mark clearly under an hour I thought the second half must be slow.
After CP1 we headed for the hills up a large valley. 10km later at CP 2 the lead group was down to about 12 but it was all about to get interesting. We left the 4×4 track and hit the stream bed. One Chinese athlete went off the front. After a gap had opened up two more went after him. Daniel tagged along looking full of running. Over the next 20min Daniel gradually got away from me and I could no longer see him. I seriously hoped that he wasn’t cooking himself and strangely I also hoped that I wouldn’t see him until the finish, hoping he could carry on that form all the way. Through the stream I was happy in 8th place. Not really pushing it and kind of enjoying the cold stream crossings.
My vague race plan was to run to the 54km mark at CP 4 where the course pitches up steeply. Walk to the top, cruise to the 70km mark back down to about 2700m then try to pull myself together. Seeing as it was only my second 100km race and first time racing at that altitude I was open to suggestion.

“Morrissey the Model”- Chris on a photo shoot a few days pre race.

Back to the race at hand, I hit CP3 40km at a little over 3:40, then the altitude hit back at 53km and 2900m. I began to walk. I did have a small laugh on the inside as I saw the irony. I began to walk about 400 metres before the site of our first run through photo shoot site a few days before. I had unintentionally made my way from 8th to 6th as a few runners began to drop. Then back to 7th as Aussie multisporter Klayton Smith went by just before CP4. I ate as much as I could and filled my bottles at CP4 knowing that there was 16km of slow going without aid stations in front of me. So my bladder and both bottles were full of electrolyte drink. My stomach was feeling a little odd so I figured I would take an aid station water bottle with me for an extra option. I was promptly told via sign language that the bottles could not leave the aid station. I hastily drank as much as I could then headed off up the mountain. I last saw Klayton a few km later. The terrain was getting tough which I would normally love but I was having trouble getting going. I was reduced to adventure racing trek pace on the ascent.
6km into the mountain crossing stage and at 3600m above sea level and 60km through the race I came to the realisation that I might be turning into an ultra runner. My positive spin on my snail pace was that I only have another 200m vertical to the summit and only 42km to the finish which will effectively be down hill.
I dropped back into eighth just before the top which was quite handy over the open paddocks  for the next 10 km, giving me a little focus. We followed fence lines along an exposed ridge for what seemed like forever. The scenery was pretty amazing, having the desert and open plains disappearing behind us and snow capped mountains all around. Running through paddocks of a breed of small yaks I kept thinking to myself “They will shift out of my way. They’re more scared of me than I am of them. That’s a high fence with barbed wire on top to jump. Those are some big horns!” Evidently my mind was wandering.
I was struggling to take on food and just wanted straight water. Whether it was the something a bit dodgy inside or just the altitude I wasn’t totally sure. I wasn’t really pushing to a lung bursting level. My effort was determined by my uncomfortable stomach. 10km later at CP7 I could still see 7th a few minutes in front and was feeling confident that last years record would be smashed even by me in 8th.
Dong Li caught me shortly after I refuelled at CP 7. We ran together for over an hour. Dong Li would lead on the downs and I would take the lead up hill. Ascending the penultimate hill of the day through untracked low scrub filled paddocks in the heat of the afternoon sun I actually stopped for the first time in my trail racing history for no other reason than being a little cooked. Hands on knees for a few seconds a few deep breathes then I was off looking up toward the saddle. Dong Li was a little way behind as I neared the top but on the down hill she skipped away from me like she’d just started the race.
The course undulated a little before we hit the long descent to CP 8 where it would mark only 20km to go. I met the marshal at the top of the climb, said “Hey” then  began heading to my right and down the ridge. Before I had made a nav mistake  the marshal called to me and indicated that the track was off the side of the ridge. There was no track! I ran, walked and climbed down 600 vertical metres of what was a cross between a steep hill and a cliff which then flowed into a dry stream bed. It was almost as if a few kilometres had to be cut from the course so it took the straightest line possible. It was a fun piece of track and would have been a mission to scout out for the organisers.
At CP 8 I made the most of the aid station and simply walked off down the road drinking red bull and eating crackers and bananas. When I was done still with no one for company I plodded off down the road. The rhythms running down a gentle grade for 5 km was a nice change of pace.
The night before the race I’d written the length of each section on my arm plus a rough estimate of ascent and descent per stage. So I knew there was only 15km and one climb to go followed by a 500 metre vertical descent to the finish. At the top of the final climb I was surprised to see another aid station. Even more of a surprise was the Cp sign saying 97.6km. So only 4.4km to go! Only 20 to 25 minutes in my current state. The track got wider and descend down a valley. As the valley opened up the track turned to loose scree. It was such a heavenly way to finish. Loose scree in soft Hoka Huaka shoes was like floating. After 15 minutes of floating and clock watching I came back down to earth as I passed an unmanned CP10. According to my arm “Now” I had 4.4km to go. 20 - 25 minutes from now. A slight mental readjust. Someone had got something wrong but I wasn’t too major.
After quite a few sneaky looks behind as the course left the hills and entered the streets I was finally confident that’s how I would finish. 8th. I crossed the line in 13hours 25minutes relieved, exhausted and pretty happy to stop and lie down. I congratulated Klayton beside me. Having finished some time before he’d decided the recovery tent was a good place to stay.
I hadn’t seen Daniel since about the 25 km mark. I was totally relieved for him for two reasons. Firstly he certainly hadn’t blown up and secondly we didn’t have to race as a pair so he could show how good he is. He finished in second place after 10 hours 50 minutes. A truely classy performance.
We both came away from it with a great experience, a few lessons learnt and some room to improve. At least Daniel left himself one place to improve.
In the 50km largely up hill race Ruth had cleaned up and was still looking as fresh as a daisy the following day while Daniel and I had our old man walks going.
I always find it funny that in the heat of the race when things are going tough I ask myself why am I doing this and tell myself I will never do this again. Yet moments after finishing I think of ways I could have done better and will do better next time.
Thanks to Ron Hill clothing and Hilly socks for my threads. Thanks to Hoka one one for the shoes on my feet and the fast recovery.

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