By Nite Ize Field Team Member Sunny Stroeer
Tears of gratitude are welling in my eyes. I slow down my steps, switch off my Radiant 300 Headlamp, and take a deep breath as I look up into the sea of brilliant stars. Even without a moon the night sky is on fire; the starlight is strong enough to faintly illuminate the boardwalk path that snakes out in front of me, leading farther into a beautiful Chinese mountain scape.
It is 3:15am and I am by myself, deep in the Qilian mountains of remote Western China. A shooting star traces a bright arch in the sky above me. I shake my head in wonder, take another deep breath, and switch my light back on. “Onwards - let’s do this!” I mumble to myself as I break into a light jog on the boardwalk.
“This” is a speed record: I am in China to try and break the fastest known time (abbreviated as ‘FKT’ among trail runners) on a 65 mile loop course high up in the Qilian mountain range.
As an adventure athlete and ultra runner, long distance trails are my speciality. I am actually not a particularly fast runner, but thanks to years of training I can keep going for hours or even days without stopping. The higher up and harder the terrain, the better I tend to do. That’s why this course, the TransQilian, is a compelling objective for me: it starts at 9,600ft above sea level and climbs as high as 14,600ft where it crosses a remote and technical mountain pass, nestled below towering glaciated peaks.
Right now I am only about a mile into the record attempt – I started running barely fifteen minutes ago, at 3am, after waking up in the middle of the night. I know that the boardwalk that I am following right now will give way to high alpine tundra and talus in just a few short miles, and I will no longer be alone: there are a handful of strong local Chinese ultra runners waiting to accompany me for sections of the course as pacers, to help with navigation and ensure my safety.
This is what drives my deep sense of gratitude as I move through this starry mountain night: not only do I get to run here and experience a side of China that I didn’t know existed; I get to do it with the support of the budding local adventure community, feeling welcomed and embraced by a group of mountain athletes who are on the verge of changing the landscape of the global running world.
In a matter of minutes I reach the end of the boardwalk and my first two Chinese pacers. Together we continue through the night, now on rough mountain trails that lead higher and higher up. It is dark and cold and the altitude makes breathing more difficult with each step we take. We are near 13,000ft when dawn finally breaks; a warm glowing red and orange line on the horizon announces the arrival of the morning.
The difficulty of the terrain increases the higher we go. We approach the course high point in a steep, talus filled bowl. The line that I have chosen is different - steeper and more direct - than that of my companions; I can hear the worry in their voices as they shout at me in Chinese, presumably beckoning me to abandon my route choice and come join them in lower angle terrain. I shout back in English, knowing they won’t be able to understand: “It’s fine! I’ll see you at the top…”
From here on out, the course blends into a flurry of trails and climbs and rocks and miles. Beautiful single track trail alternates with dirt roads through deep and narrow gorges; creek crossings lead to steep alpine tundra with wide open views. The first aid station goes by in a blur, together with a change of pacers; then another, and another - before I know it I am at the last aid station before the finish, fifty miles and almost eighteen hours into my record run. One last fuel break surrounded by a dozen pacers, crew and fans (I’m very glad for my SlapLit drink wrap here to keep tabs on which beverage is mine!) and I am on my way again.
At this point my feet are tired and my legs are sore from a full night and day of racing - but my feeling of gratitude is as fresh as it was back on that boardwalk at the beginning of my run. I now know that I am about to break the TransQilian speed record by a good four hours… but that is not the point; because records are never the point: they are just a reason for others to care about the feat. At the end of the day, it’s the experience that counts - and what an adventure this one has been, start to finish!
Nite Ize Field Team member Sunny Stroeer completed the TransQilian course in 20 hours and 59 minutes, breaking the previous (men’s!) course record by over four hours. You can read more about the speed record and its genesis over on Sunny’s blog here and here, or follow Sunny’s adventures on Instagram.
Sunny used the following Nite Ize Gear in China:
- Radiant 300 Rechargeable Headlamp as her primary lighting system
- TagLit Magnetic LED Marker for added night-time visibility
- SlapLit LED Drink Wrap for aid station drinks
- S-Biner to help secure her hydration pack hose in the optimal position
- GearTie as an improvised spoon to eat her pre-race granola breakfast