After 58 hours of non-stop racing on foot, mountainbike, kayaking and rafting, Team Haglöfs Silva finished 2nd at the Xtrail Expedition Race in northernmost China. The race was won by team Seagate (NZ), world champions year 2014-2016.
Xtrail Expedition started in the Kanasi natural reserve, close to the Mongolian border. An extremely beautiful area with snow on the high mountain ridges and crystal clear water in the Kanasi lake. Many features in the terrain reminded us of the Swedish mountains, though the nomads in Kanasi travelled on horses and looked after their cows on the hills, instead of reindeers.
The race started with a 25 km kayaking on the lake, followed by a 11 km rafting down the Kanasi river. We got a great start of the race and reached the transition a few minutes behind Seagate, together with a strong South African paddling team. After a quick transition we headed out on the rafting.
Travelling to the start line we had seen parts of the river from the buss, which made us spend some extra time packing our gear in drybags and tie them to the boat. That was not something we regretted afterwords…
The rafts supplied by the race organisation was small and light, but probably not really made for paddling class 3 rapids. After a few km, we almost lost the inflatable bottom from the boat, though we managed to hold on to it, it was no longer helping the boat to float, but rather stopping us from paddling as we had to make sure not to lose it. Thanks to great steering from Rob and probably a bit of luck, we got through the section without swimming, though we sometimes were sitting deep down in the water.
Dropping the rafts at transition we quickly changed to running shorts, picked up food and headlamps and headed out on the 49 km mountain trek as 2nd team, 8 minutes behind Seagate. A beautiful stretch that brought us over high mountains, passing yurts on the slopes and in close contacts with wildlife. Halfway into the section we got a quick reminder of the unpredictable weather situation in the mountains as a thunder storm quickly came in with heavy rain and hail. We kept a consistent pace through this section though paying some extra attention on the navigation that we expected to be challenging. Maps did not have exactly the same accuracy as back home, being scale 1:100 000, having contours differing from 20-40 meters and some of them not updated since World War II.
Unfortunately we lost some 30-40 minutes trying to find the last checkpoint of the trek, which was not really where it should have been, and at transition for the long bike (around midnight) we were an hour behind Seagate still with no other teams in sight. We got through the transition rather quickly, though spending a few extra minutes refuelling with foods and preparing some hot coffee in a drinking bottle, knowing we had a 210 km+ section coming up. The leg started with a climb up a sealed road, but quickly changed to a 300 m vertical climb with bikes up a steep track. The weather had once again changed, thunderstorms were gone and as we biked through the night, on small cattle tracks on the mountains sides, the full moon was lighting up the mountains.
Temperature was perfect for racing, we crossed several streams where we could fill up water and navigation was fluent. At 5.30 am sun was rising and we were descending towards the rocky desert. A few hours later it was gruelling hot, especially for the two swedes coming from winter. We kept on riding, refilling water bottles and adding electrolytes, knowing that bit by bit we were getting closer to transition. At the 2nd to last checkpoint of this section, we got the information that the route had been changed, due to a flooded area (new dam), adding some extra 45 km of riding (!). Rather ironic, having been dreaming about cold drinks for some 10 hours and getting a route change due to flooding. This new route though took us through a town and we actually found a small shop with drinks, which was well needed.
After more than 250 km of riding and pushing our bikes over mountains and through the desert, including a gruelling last part where we were having the worst midge-invasion experience in our life team, we finally reached a transition again. After a quick transition (partly thanks to the crazy amounts of midges) we went out for 15 km of kayaking along the calm lake which ended in a beautiful sunset. Once again, the midges pushed us through transition as we headed out on the 40 km rocky desert trek. Knowing it was a desert we brought some extra water on this section, though the map had some rivers shown. Our original plan was to catch some sleep out on this trek, as we were in the 2nd night of the race, but we realized that would be difficult to sleep with all the midges without putting up the tent, so we carried on. Navigation on this section was even more difficult than the previous one, as the desert had very few features, being very flat and tracks kind of randomly shown on map. It felt like we were moving really slow through this section, but afterwards we found out that no one did it faster and that most teams had similar experience. At the end of the trekking, the sun rose and we were in the 3rd day of the race.
Back to the kayaks and still around an hour behind Seagate we started paddling back towards the bikes. The water was perfectly calm and we did our best not to fall asleep in the boats, not having slept for more than 48 hours. Suddenly we all woke up as the wind picked up and within a few minutes we had storm winds coming from behind. We were crossing a bay, heading for the only checkpoint of this leg, only 5km from transition when things became a bit too exciting. As the waves were heading away from land and the boats and the spraydecks supplied not really being made for that kind of sea-kayaking we decided that it was not safe to continue kayaking.
We managed to get to the shore and used our Satellite-tracker to contact the race organisation to clarify if we could carry on by foot. The kayaking was cancelled for all other teams and we were told to continue on foot to transition. As Robert and Corrinne had left their shoes in the last transition, they were walking in theirs socks, with the insoles from Björn and Rob as the only protection from the sharp rocks on the road. When we made it to transition, the gap to Seagate was more than 2 hours as they managed to finalise the kayaking before the storm.
At this point there were only one section left of the race, but not just any section… 140 km of riding, over mountains, through the desert and crossing numerous of fields and villages which were not there when maps where drawn some 60 years ago. In the beginning we had a strong tail wind which made us move at 35 km /hour without much effort, but suddenly our route turned and we got the storm in our faces… We kept on chatting and singing to stay awake, all of us having some tough times but luckily not all of us at the same time. After some 8 hours on our bikes we reached the last mountain of the race, carried our bikes on a 400 m ascent up through a canyon before we had a nice 30 minutes of downhill biking towards finish. We crossed the finish line in 2nd place with big smiles on our faces.
For sure, we all wanted to win this race, but considering the strong competition and all challenges we went through along the race course we were still happy finishing 2n2. We had a great team spirit through the race and though going through some tough times at parts of the race, we are leaving China with many great memories.
/Team Haglöfs Silva