China calling local athletes
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Vail Valley adventure racers Gretchen Reeves and Jay Henry are back from China, for now.
They’ll return in less than a month.
The two have competed together often in adventure racing, a sport where various enduro disciplines like running, biking and paddling are combined into various stages, coupled with an orienteering component and timed to determine a winner. At their recent event – the Ordos Adventure Challenge, which wrapped up in early September – Reeves and Henry were on all new terrain with an all new team and an all new sponsor, Ay Up Lights.
Team Ay Up lights, also known as Team CO USA, consisted of Reeves, Henry, Travis Macy of Evergreen and Jon Brown of Gunnison. All four team members have raced with one another in various forms, but this was the first time they had all competed on a team together.
“It was really good because we all know each other pretty well and definitely have the same skill set,” said Reeves. “Everybody just works hard, you never have to worry about someone giving up or not taking it seriously, everybody just destroys themselves out there every day and then comes back the next day for more.”
It was also the first time any of the teammates had ever been to Mongolia or competed in the Ordos Challenge.
“That was a nice change from the other places that we’ve been in China,” said Reeves. “Mongolia is a lot different than the Bejing area and the south parts of China where it’s really crowded with people, and people seem a lot more stressed out – the Mongolians are just laid back, really clean and people were just friendly.”
The four Colorado residents were the only team from the U.S. to take part in the race.
“It is a big trip to get over there, but I’m kind of surprised we were the only U.S. team,” said Henry. “It was nice that we got to represent the U.S. a little bit.”
They took home $14,000 for the fourth-place finish, and another two grand or so for having a stage win along the way.
“It makes it worthwhile, that’s for sure,” Henry said of the prize purse.
If you were to have witnessed the start of the stage they won, Stage 2, you may have predicted to see them finish somewhere opposite of where they were at No. 1. The stage began with a horseback riding section that didn’t go so well for the Americans. Of the four teammates, two were to ride the horses while the other two were to run alongside the horse holding the reins.
“It was really funny because Travis and I were up ahead, and at one point I turned around and said ‘I don’t see our teammates,'” said Reeves.
“We had a horrible stage on the horses,” Henry said with a laugh. “We ended up being the last team out there.”
But their lack of speed on the horses actually worked to their advantage, as the horse section wasn’t actually timed. Each team’s individual clock started once that team got off their horses; following the horse section was a 62-mile biking section.
“(The riders in the biking section) couldn’t break away because it was all on the road and it was flat and windy,” said Reeves. “So by the time we caught up to the group we had already made up a minute or two on the field.”
“It was a bit of a risk,” said Henry. “We would have lost 20 minutes if we wouldn’t have caught up and been able to take advantage of the draft from the group … You never know in these races, there’s all sorts of different events and activities and you never really know what you’re going to find yourself doing.”
Despite the uncertainty it caused at the time, Reeves and Henry both look back fondly on the horseback section of the race.
“It was really cool because we were in Mongolia and it’s a huge part of their culture, the nomadic horse culture,” said Henry. “They had the traditional saddles and so forth, so it was definitely a neat aspect of the challenge.”
Henry said the traditional and cultural component of the Ordos Mountain Challenge is his favorite element to look back upon in retrospect.
“We had a huge opening ceremony, and there was a sports festival being held in conjunction with the adventure race, so there were hundreds of athletes there,” he said. “The opening ceremonies had all these traditional Mongolian horsemen and musicians and dancers, and we were all mingling with those guys prior to the opening ceremonies … It was interesting to see their native dress and everything, and I think they were pretty curious about us as well.”
Returning to China
Reeves and Henry are currently preparing to return to China in early October. They say in the last few years the country has become the Mecca for adventure racing around the world, and that’s due to numbers – the large number of events the country hosts and the large numbers on the prize purses given out at those events.
“There’s always been races in China; Mike Kloser did a lot of them in the ’90s,” said Henry. “And now there’s been kind of a resurgence of those type of races in China.”
Reeves and Henry, who have earned most of their athletic credentials as professional cross country mountain bikers, credit Kloser, a Vail resident and four-time adventure racing world champion, for getting them involved in adventure racing.
Kloser says support from the Chinese government, along with the country’s suitable geography and healthy economic backdrop, have contributed to China’s current status as an adventure racing hub.
“The money’s really the lure,” Kloser said. “But also I think the government’s really pushing for a healthier lifestyle, so they’re really supporting a lot of activities and events of this nature.”
Kloser is currently serving as the honorary race director at the East Coast Adventure Racing Series (ECARS) national qualifying race in Seven Springs, Pa.
Now retired from competition, he has some fond memories of adventure racing in China.
“One in particular was called the Outdoor Quest,” Kloser said from the ECARS course in Seven Springs on Friday, where he stopped to take a call as he was setting control points for the race. “We raced in Lijiang, China, which is by the Tiger Leaping Gorge, saw some pretty dramatic mountains and very, very old cities and towns that we visited throughout. It was pretty special.”
Kloser also introduced with Reeves and Henry to the Wulong Mountain Quest in Wulong, China, where the three Vail Valley athletes competed together on Team Nike/Beaver Creek.
“They keep getting better and better, and stronger and stronger at the sport,” said Kloser. “It’s nice to see these two carrying the torch on, and I’m sure we’re going to see many more successes out of them for as long as they keep racing.”
The Wulong race also happens to be the very event drawing Reeves and Henry right back to China in a few weeks.
They say it’s a pretty great event.
“We get our travel and our entry fee completely covered for that race so we’re pretty low out of pocket, and then the prize pool is awesome,” said Reeves.
Now Wulong Mountain Quest veterans, Reeves and Henry are hoping for a good result there with the new team Ay Up Lights.
“This is the sixth year that I’ve done it,” said Henry. “Everything’s very steep up and down, with big canyons and big mountains … The mountain biking is much more technical with much more climbing, so it plays to our advantages a lot more.”
The Wulong Mountain Quest is scheduled for Oct. 10-13.
The ski racer turned hotelier who was close to President Ford embodied the soul of Vail for nearly 60 years.