Gunnison Valley uber-athletes battle world’s best in China

Duck heads, chicken-feet soup, elevators and grass skiing

“The racing was one thing, but the food was really difficult,” says Jon Brown, member of a local four-person team that competed in the Wu Long Challenge in China last week. “They use every part of the animal.”
The Wu Long Challenge was a four-day stage race pitting some of the top adventure racers in the world against each other in a sprint-style four-day stage race.
“It’s basically like going an hour as hard as you can on the first day and then racing three Grand Traverses in a row,” says team member Eric Sullivan.
Every day racers were treated to local fare, i.e., duck-head and chicken-feet soup, while attempting to compete at their top level in a variety of disciplines including biking, trail running, paddling and even grass skiing.
Brown and Sullivan have both competed in the Wu Long Challenge before. They called in Brian Smith and Rebecca Dussault to take a shot at the massive cash prizes available for the top three teams.
“I thought we had a really good chance at making some money,” says Brown.
The race opened with a prologue race that involved 50  minutes of the fastest pace possible, running, biking and paddling four-person rafts with 2×4 boards on the Wu Long River.
Brown and company moved into second place during the paddle before a rogue wave swamped their boat, leaving them to finish in fourth place.
Following another couple of helpings of rice, duck-head and chicken-feet soup, among other regional treats, the teams lined up on top of Fairy Mountain overlooking the town of Wu Long for the start of day two.
The Gunnison squad suffered two flats on the opening mountain bike ride while negotiating a technical, muddy course, dropping them back into fourth place, at which point the race sent competitors on its first of many strange disciplines.
Teams hopped off their bikes and onto a section of grass skiing—that’s right, grass skiing, a time-honored summertime event I thought was exclusive to East Coast ski “resorts” such as Ski Liberty in Pennsylvania.
But with world-class athletes involved, it was grass skiing with a twist. Two members of the team had to strap on the boots and skis and the other two team members had to drag them uphill before they could ski down.
Brown proceeded to drag Dussault uphill before running back down to help Sullivan get Smith to the top.
Once they were done with their Chinese Al Johnson, teams spent the next 10 kilometers leap-frogging on and off bikes with two riding while two ran, and then switching.
“They incorporated a lot of different stuff,” says Brown.
From there teams ran down a technical trail into a cavern, back up out of it on a flight of stairs and then rappelled back down before they took on another discipline unique to endurance/adventure racing—elevatoring. Simply put, they hopped on elevators.
The Gunnison Valley team had pulled into second place before boarding the elevator and they left nothing to chance, negotiating the throngs of tourists to get a spot on the elevator.
“We’re standing there and there’s Chinese tourists there and every second counts, so we were kind of pushing them out of the way,” explains Brown. “You don’t get to ride an elevator very much in a race.”
They held their spot to take second place on the day, hot on the heels of team Nike.
“We were pretty stoked to finish in second place after those two flats,” says Brown. “We worked really well together.”
Day three was paddle-intensive and posed yet another rare challenge for teams. The day began with a run down a dock to a pile of inner tubes and 1×6 planks from which each team had to build a raft.
Brown admits paddling is the team’s weakest discipline. They lost several minutes in the overall standings over the course of the third day, falling back into fourth place overall, 16 minutes off of the podium with one day left.
It was here that things took a turn for the worse for several athletes on different teams, as the food took its toll.
“Sully woke up just looking awful,” says Brown.
As if nausea weren’t enough, Sullivan managed to roll his ankle on the opening dash down to the river.
“My ankle popped—you could hear it,” says Sullivan.
After paddling tandem kayaks down stream through swirling eddies and random waves, the teams hopped out for a 1,500-vertical-foot uphill run, bad ankle and all.
“It was straight up—you’re almost on your hands and knees,” explains Brown.
“My ankle was super fat and purple,” says Sullivan.
Brown and Co. passed the overall first-place team on the way up, shaving time off the overall gap and continued to push through more biking, caving and elevatoring.
“That was encouraging,” says Brown. “We put our heads down and just charged.”
They proceeded to pick off Team Nike as well, fully aware that team member Mike Kloser was also at the bad end of a lot of Chinese meals.
“They couldn’t hang on our wheel so we knew they were hurting,” says Brown.
“The last day was the day I was feeling the worst,” admits Sullivan. “I was like, well it’s basically who can suffer the most. It was a suffer-fest for me for sure.”
The Gunnison Valley crew ended up second on the day but fell short of the podium and a big payday.
“We were six minutes off of $25,000,” says Brown.
Sullivan now has his sights set on the Ironman in Hawaii on October 10 and then Brown, Sullivan and the Team Salomon/Crested Butte crew regroup for the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge in December.

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