2016 Candidate Race: Successful edition zero of the Grand Wutai Pilgrimage in northern China

The inaugural edition of Grand Wutai Pilgrimage started at  04:30 a.m. of the 25th of July in Wutaishan (Mount Wutai), a scenic zone in Shanxi Province northwest of Beijing, China. Actually, it was a trial race to prepare for the 2016 version, which will be a  formal member of the Asia Trail Master series.

Race report by Xiaozhao Zhao
Photos courtesy of race organiser and Xiaozhao Zhao

The course is 72km long with total ascent of approximately 3900m, and the time for cut-off is 14.5 hours. To maximize the experience of the inaugural runners, the organizer, Huipao Sports restricted the entries to merely 50 100km+ finishers. The race is so popular that the registration ended within 3 days, and the competition was set up as a duo race. 

The race is famous and hotly debated among the Chinese trail running community because of its spot: Wutaishan (Mount Wutai) scenery zone. It is the most famous place for Buddhism Pilgrimage in North China with great natural views and historical folktales  from nearly 2000 years ago. Wutai Shan is considered as one of the 5 classic spots of Buddhism in the world.

From the aspect of natural landscapes, Wutai Shan is the highest part of North China, with altitude ranging from 1540m to 3060m above the sea level. In summer, almost all the area is covered by meadows with many kinds of colorful flowers and pine tree forests. If the weather is good, you can see the ridgeline and peaks tens of kilometers away under the pure blue sky, just like the desktop of Windows XP. As for the course itself, there are 5 peaks along it named “East Peak”, “West Peak”, “North Peak”, “South Peak” and “Central Peak” and this is the origination of the “Wutaishan”, which literally means “Mountain Range with Five Peaks”. The meadow takes up 60% of the course, while the rugged trail and forest path take up 30%, leaving pavement road and stairs for only less than 10%. In summer, if it downpours, some part of the low country may turn out to be creeks and streams with cold water—ideal for soak your worn legs and feet for a rest. However, most of the course is comfortably soft and runnable.

The main risk also lies behind the amazing natural beauty. Due to its altitude and mountainous terrain, in summer, the weather may change drastically and quickly without any warning signs. The sunshine with breeze will switch to shower with thunderbolts and blowing wind with a big drop of temperature of more than 10 degrees. For reasons of safety, and also for offering a optimal experience of friendship and cooperation, the 50 runners were requested to race in pairs (2 persons in a team) and ready to help each other all the time according to the regulation.

On the other hand, Wutai Shan is well-known for its diversity in culture, especially the long history and wide distribution of Buddhism. There are many temples and pagodas in this area swarming with Buddhist monks and nuns. Every year, it attracted tens of thousands of tourist in the summer alone. Several elaborately decorated temples sits along the course and some runners stopped to pay their respects to the Buddha during the race in and out of the temples.

The race is well organized. The logistics are sufficiently supplied. The course is well marked and measured. The Supplying point offers a wide array of food and drink such as bread, banana, fruit sauce, nuts, plain water, flat coke and sports drinks (see photos below). Volunteers are patient and motivated, and were highly applauded by all runners. The organizer also appointed 2 experienced elites to work as “bodyguards” for the runners at the last checkpoint, until they finish the race or quit. Rescue teams was standing by during the race at designate checkpoints and supplying points. Meanwhile, there is a long list of compulsory gears to ensure the safety of the runners and volunteers, and the runners’ gears were checked before, during and after the race.

To protect the vulnerable ecology there the organizer do not offer any one-time used items such as paper or plastic cups, and did not allow runners to take bottles of drink or food with package away from supplying points, and any violation led to elimination of the whole team directly. Good news, is, all the runners abided by this “leaving no trace” rule. After the race, some volunteers were appointed to check nevertheless and collect the course signs and any garbage along the course.

14 teams finished the race in 15hrs and 38mins (the organizer postponed the cut-off time at the finish during the race), while 10 teams were eliminated because of failing to meet the cut-off time or volunteer dropping of at least one runner of the team.

The last 4 finished teams was stroke by the heavy rain and thunderbolt at the sunset after the whole sunny day with cozy breeze.

Along with his teammate, Mr. Guangya ZHANG, a 2014 UTMB finisher hit the finish line the 10th, and recalled his fear of the thunder: ” Around 19:20, when I was 500 meters to finish on a ridge, I saw a terrible thunderbolt kilometers away but within my sight. I was very scared! ”

Allan TAN, a runner from USA but has lived and worked in Beijing for years also ran the race with his French Friend Cedric. They said that the race is well organized along an amazing beautiful course and would like to continue their pilgrimage in 2016.

The podium ceremony is also unique and with its own socializing characters of friendship and mutual support. All the finisher would be given a full metal head sculpture of the Buddha weighs about 3 pounds (1,5 kg)! A senior monk was invited by the organizer to give the prize to the winning team. The other prize was given to the runners by the volunteers and even the DNFs received a racing T-shirts (but without the Buddha trophy), while the runners gave the volunteers their certification sheets of devoted service as appreciation.

Duanyang Bi and Fengyun Zhu were the fastest duo in this successful start of the Grand Wutai Pilgrimage. To note is also the first place in the mixed team category of Xiaoyan Lin and Zichen Wang, the winner of the Dalian 100 earlier this year and currently 15th in the Asia Trail Master ranking.

The Grand Wutai Pilgrimage will next year also feature a solo race, and looks set to become a big hit on the Chinese trail running calendar, and Asia Trail Master calendar as well. The precise date of the 2016 edition will be announced in due course, but late July is the estimate. 

Top results

1. Duanyang BI & Fengyun ZHU  10:45:28

2. Qiuyu MENG & Jun WANG  11:27:16

3. Chengliang GU & Haichun GU  11:51:25

4.  Zichen WANG(M) & Xiaoyan LIN(F)   13:08:00 ((1st of mixed team-male and female)