Talking Trail Running with He Lang, race director of UT Wenchuan

Last weekend Ultra Tu Wenchuan was organised in China's Southwest province of Sichuan. Runners loved the astonishingly beautiful scenery along the 50 km course, but also reported on how tough it was. In any case, the race made an impressive debut also thanks to its fine organisation by Mr He Lang and his team. We spoke with him a few days before the race. 

Race organiser Lang He was firstly a climber rather than a trail runner. He used to devote himself to technical mountain climbing. But once he discovered the beauty of trail running, he realized this is a sport that he will never stop exploring. "Trail running has similar elements as climbing, and I aim to develop trail running with the ideas which are often used in technical climbing," says Lang He. "I want push the boundary of trail running, I want to see people run in places in which people have never run before. I want see there's no boundary between trail running and climbing. Exploring new possibilities shall always be a part of the trail running world."

As a trail runner, Lang He accumulated most of his race experience back when he was working in Norway. He has finished TGC in 2013 and UTMB in 2014. This year, his main project is Xreid race in Norway and the Mt. Siguniang Shan race. "They're also ideal races for me: remote, harsh environment, new boundaries for trail running, " says Lang He with a smile. 

Asia Trail Master: What brought you the idea to establish a trail race in Wenchuan, the place of the disasterous earthquake in 2008? 

Lang He: Wenchuan is the closest place to Chengdu where we have big mountains. My idea is to run in big mountains, and Wenchuan is a perfect place. It's relatively dry and trail condition is less affected by precipitation compared to the nearby Sichuan Basin. The mountains around Wenchuan city are populated by local villages, and this gives us a lot of trails for running.

I have no intention to connect our race with the earthquake, neither Wenchuan government has. We want to show everybody this is a new Wenchuan and it has already moved on from its sad history. 

Do you think the name Wenchuan will deter some runners from joining the event given what happened?

Yes,  I think people now may still have a few doubts about coming to Wenchuan, but via events like ours we hope to erase those doubts. We do have a runner who used to serve in the PLA rescue force after the quake. He said he is excited about coming back to the place where he fought so hard for at the time. That is the kind of story we are happy to hear, but we don't want to promote such stories. We want people to come here for our race, not because of a link with the earthquake. 

UT Wenchuan is an upgraded version of last year's initial event. What has been changed exactly and what extras can runners expect?

The length of the course has been extended from 42K to 50K. And an extra 1000 hm has been added to the total elevation gain. Given the fact of the rather rough condition of some trails, we do expect the difficulty of our race to have been significantly increased. 

Both in TT Plus and Korea 50, experienced runners were complaining that race organisers nowadays all want to have the toughest event without adding anything meaningful or beautiful to the race course. What is your view on this as race organiser? 

I think as a race organiser you have to think about the nature of your race course. You need to understand why you design a course like you do it. It's not a wise idea to make lots of turnarounds on hills just to achieve a certain longer distance or higher elevation gain. I believe each trail course should have a purpose, like UTMB, it's purpose is to run around Mont Blanc. UT Wenchuan's purpose is to run around Wenchuan City and to see the beauty of this place from different aspects.

The race takes place at high altitude, but remains below 3000 hm, which from a medical point of view seems wise for an event open to the general public. Was it a conscious decision not to aim for the highest peaks?

We have the possible option to aim for a 4000 m highest point, which is also close to our current race course. But it would be too difficult to design a reasonable course. I don't like to have any turnarounds on my course. I want the shape of my race course to be simple and beautiful. Also, aiming for the highest peaks also brings challenges regarding logistics.

What should runners from other countries do and see when they come to Wenchuan?

They should go to Woolong Natural Reserve, which is the first national natural reserve established in China. Its biodiversity will astonish everybody who goes there. Also people can visit some of the old Qiang villages [and see a panda as well, kvdv]

Would you say there is a big difference in the trail running scene in East China compared to Southwest China? 

Southwest China has a deeply carved landscape. Mountains here are so huge that probably one of those climbs is enough per race. 

Which finishing time do you expect for the race winner? On the basis of the current start list, who would be your favourite to win the men's and women's races?

I expect the male winner to finish a little bit under 8 hours. On the current start list, we have several really strong runners who have won Dalian 100 (Kuo Li), Asics Mountain Marathon (Duanyang Bi) etc. But in my view they may actually not win UT Wenchuan. Given the steep terrain and big climb, local Chengdu runners who are used to run here before probably have a better chance to win. My friend Ruqiao Ren is not a famous runner. He grew up in the mountains and his agility and endurance really impress me. Last year he scored the 2nd place in the Mt. Siguniang Shan race, only behind a Tibetan mountain guide in the highest race in China. If I can bet, I would put my stake on him.

Read our race report of Ultra Tu Wenchuan here