In preview of the Mount Gaoligong Ultra, which takes place in China tomorrow (March 9) - Dion Leonard looks back at his participation in the 2017 event.
Say 'China' to most people and you'll get a mixture of blank stares to raised eyebrows. It's a country that's always held mystery and intrigue to the western world, but it's a country full of rich culture, amazing landscapes, delicious food and the running scene is now booming.
In 2017 I was living in China when the opportunity came along to run in the country's first 100-mile race, the Mt Gaoligong Ultra in Yunnan province, Western China.
The race started in the city of Tengchong, which historically was an important stop on silk trade routes and the U.S 'Flying Tigers' offensive of Japanese forces in WW2, but nowadays is more famous for its jade and stunning geothermal springs. As 57 runners from around the world, many previous Badwater 135 finishers brought over by Chris Kostmann, co-organiser of this race, waited anxiously to begin, the fireworks and local DJs got everyone into a frenzy for the sunrise start.
Soon we were climbing part of the 8800 total metres of the race up into the hills where local villagers working on their fields watched with curious looks on their faces as we ran by. The sunshine and beautiful scenery of the Gaoligong Mountains, which contains half of the entire country's total animal and plant species, was simply jaw-dropping and it felt like an adventure into untouched wilderness.
The race along trails, across historic bridges and through small villages included 14 checkpoints with delicious hot and cold local food and an abundance of crew and medical personnel on hand to help runners get to the finish line. The race provided an incredible immersion into traditional culture and the journey brought not only the runners but the volunteers and spectators together as one.
During the evening as I entered a jungle trail section I recalled the race organisers' advice that bear and snakes may be seen. It could have been I was in a daze and missed seeing them while the joint winners of the race, UK's Dan Lawson and Australia's Mick Thwaites, in an incredible time of 21:16:44 were obviously running too fast to see them.
The race ended on the cobblestone streets in the 600-year-old village of Heshun with the crowd cheering on each and every finisher as they entered through an iconic old stone gate as flags of each competitors country were draped on their backs as they crossed the line.
In 2018 the 100-mile Mount Gaoligong Ultra will be partners with UTMB and be known as Mt Gaoligong by UTMB. The next race is on March 9.
A version of this report appeared in a previous edition of Trail Running magazine.