Q&A: The Kiwi dominating gruelling Chinese multisports

Running with a basket of stones, biking for dozens of kilometres, kayaking, caving – these gruelling tasks are all typical of intense multisport competitions. Up until Covid put a stop to travel, Kiwis had been dominating in major Chinese multisport competitions, including the intense three-day Weng'an Mountain Outdoor RaceAs a professional multisport athlete and adventure racer, Sam Clark is one of these Kiwis who has raced all over the world as part of these gruelling, multi-day challenges. He’s got titles such as Coast to Coast winner under his belt, but how did the Whakatane-born athlete find racing - and winning - in events like China’s Weng’an Mountain Race and the Baise Adventure Challenge?

You have raced many places around the world, how did racing in Asia come about?  

I first raced in China back in 2011 as part of an Australian team, but after a rocky experience I decided not to return until I felt I was more capable.That first time in China was a very difficult race set in Ordos, Inner Mongolia and it was very tough both physically and technically.  I was definitely the least experienced member of my team.  We finished seventh, but I decided that I didn’t want to return to China until I felt I could be valuable member of a competitive team. But when I finished a very close second in the 2015 Coast to Coast, I felt ready. I was offered a position in a Swedish team and I raced with them for three years before forming a New Zealand Team called Privateer Adventure in 2019. 

International teammates (from left, Martin Flinta, Rickard Norlin (Sweden), Sam Clark (NZ), Helena Erbenova (Czech Republic)

With wins at Coast to Coast and in both the Weng'an Mountain Race and the Baise Adventure Challenge, which one has been your most prized win?  

It is difficult to compare wins, as they are all special in their own way.  Coast to Coast is an individual race, where you rely on yourself and your own preparation to get you to the finish line. Team races are quite different; everyone has their own strengths which they bring to the team and the highs and lows are a shared experience.  Its a wonderful feeling to win an adventure race as a team.

Hitting the gong to win the Weng’an Mountain Outdoor Challenge 2020

I think my favourite win in China was with the Swedish Thule Adventure Team, at the Baise Adventure Challenge in 2016. It was my first win in the country, and we were in a cat-and-mouse battle with a strong French team in what was perhaps the most difficult Chinese adventure race to date.  After four days of close racing, we came away with the overall win by only a couple of minutes.  I think we were all in tears at the finish line, it was a truly magical moment. 

The Chinese racing disciplines look very different to the Coast to Coast - can you tell me about it?  

The Coast to Coast relies on individual strength in order to succeed, but to do well in the Chinese racing series, strong teammates are the most important. Pacing, nutrition, race strategy and organisation are key.  Often it isn’t the fastest team which wins, but the team that controls all the variables and adapts to the unique situations that present themselves.   

Winning the Baise mountain outdoor quest was Clark's first major win in China, racing with Swedish, Thule Adventure Team

How is your race preparation different to racing in New Zealand, physically and mentally?  

Racing in China, I always try and consider how I can best contribute to the team. We have to be very self-sufficient, so it can be as simple as making sure I bring tools and equipment to maintain our team bikes or planning our race nutrition ahead of time.  It is not practical to bring absolutely everything that we need to the race (Two 23kg bags only carries so much) so we have to work out what local foods we will have; before, during and after the race. 

Sam Clark winning Coast to Coast 2020

Tell me about your travels and the gear you need to take to the start line.   

We can sometimes be abroad for a month or more, which means taking equipment for several different races. At a minimum, that can include a mountain bike, kayaking and climbing equipment, several pairs of shoes and any other specialist equipment we might need.  Sometimes if we need a specific piece of kit not available in New Zealand or if the requirements will change while were away, the race support staff from the Mountaineering association have always been really helpful with sourcing what we need. 

In the Weng'an Mountain Race, part of the competition included racing while carrying a basket full of rocks.

What support do you get from the hosting communities? 

Normally the race organization provide us with a hotel to stay and food for the duration of the competition. In terms of support from the wider community, local labour is employed to take care of logistics and there are always local acts at both the opening and closing ceremonies. The public are often out on the course too, and are very encouraging: one moment I remember well was several years ago when some farmers were handing out fresh watermelon to racers – it was an extremely hot day and we were out of water.  Possibly the best piece of watermelon I have ever had. 

What has competing in Asia taught you about yourself?  

That even if I’m far from home I can always rely on human kindness. Even though cultures can be very different, people on a personal level are very kind and helpful.  

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.  

- Asis Media Centre