Back in April 2010 I nervously and excitedly posted my entry form, this race seemed a long way off, however now I find myself waiting for a representative of ‘Himalayan run and trek’ at Delhi airport. Just like when I visited Thailand, the first impressions are the same, tuk tuks and everything in chaos, roads with no markings, no rules and every car was rammed with people, I mean rammed – there was no wasted space, even on the roofs. Ever car was dented and I doubt anyone cared much for chrome and nappa leather trim!
Atithi Devo Bhavah – Guest is god. That was the phrase of the hotel at Delhi, but I saw it everywhere I travelled, more so even as we arrived nearer to Nepal. There were so many staff it was overwhelming and funny since there was no organisation and most were tripping up on each other, Cheap labour I guess, but there were all brilliant.
After just one night in the hotel doing nothing really except letting the weirdness of it all sink in (sat by the pool in the heat, got some cash and had a meal). The following morning at 7am I was down in the lobby for a transfer back to Delhi for a flight to Bagdogra, here I met Richard Ferrah, a Physio from South Africa, we were being rushed but grabbed some hot breakfast anyway. Arriving at Bagdora Richard and I met a small group of Swiss runners all wearing the Swiss national flag on their t-shirts. In separate jeep transports we headed on a frightening road to Mirik Lodge on the border of Nepal and only a few hundred miles from Sikkim country and Bhutan. We were greeted with banners reading ‘Himalayan stage race’ and lots more poster and banners at the hotel, it felt really great to be part of something so exciting. That night most runners had arrived and we all shared some Buthan ‘assured 8% volume’ beers. I was the last one up and struggled to get the staff to sit/ chat with me as their job was apparently to serve only and the sofa’s were apparently mine! One was wearing a t-shirt with “Success is not wearing a suit”, which I thought was funny all the way out there.
We had two full days before the race, Richard and I went for a short 5am jog to get a view of the sunrise, which was not good but gave an indication of the temperature variations to come – it went from hat, gloves and full icebreaker gear to just shorts and t-shirt within one hour. That day we did a gourp tour of Mirik and had our race briefings where it was apparent I didn’t have the right amount of running kit, 3 drop bags were needed. I’d only taken four pairs of socks for the whole trip… travel light and all that (much to my discomfort on day 2). On day two we were taken to the Everest museum (amazing) and spent most of the day in Darjeeling taking a trip on the famous toy train and a hike.
DAY 1 (~24 miles. Finish time 7hrs 2mins, weight before 79Kg, after 74Kg)
Excerpt from the race briefing: “On the first day you run from the tea plantations at 6,000ft to a high alpine plateau at 12,000 ft with frozen lakes, Yak trains and Buddhist monasteries.
The road was built for the Aga Khan. I took 10 years to build, however his grand vizier forbade him to use it. From Sandakphu you can see eight countries and four of the worlds 5 highest points”. I challenge any other race to beat that!
5:30 transit from Mirik we were taken on a hair-raising journey to the start line where before the 8am gun we were blessed by a local school group of kids, they placed a home made silk scarf round each of our necks and the whole (small) town turned out – it was very touching and emotional. 100 miles ahead… The height gain was wrong. This year was just before Garmins were common and one day I’d love to know the real profile of the race. Firstly 6000ft on day one was rubbish it was way more. The trail was flat for a few k’s and then straight up, that was it really, just up. A few sections were actually runnable and we did to make up time, not that it mattered since being so far away from home with no deadlines and nothing to do but be outdoors was exhilarating, I couldn’t live deep in the mountains but for a brief few hours I really understood the attraction. Some sections were very dull and could have easily been in the mountains of Europe on the fells of England but with increasing frequency as the altitude increased the views started to develop.
I had been caught up at half way by Jeff, a personal trainer from America and we ran together for around 7 miles, Richard and I had been in front but I overtook him 10 miles in, he then came past me at about 20miles and gave me one of his walking poles which I was grateful for as I was slowing. In the final few miles I was being overtaken by a few more runners, blind peak after peak kept and then when you could see the top and the final hair pin stretch it was still a good 500 metersup the steepest climb I’ve ever done up a series of cobbled endless switchbacks.
By the final 2-3 miles my heartbeat was almost audible and so every 20 paces I took a rest and leant on the walls built to stop jeeps going off the edge. How the road was constructed and jeeps make it up such inclines with such sharp turns I seriously I don’t know. Having used Melanie as my pacer for most of those last sections I reached the finish and ran through the finish tape, something given to every runner. I was exhausted, but so happy to finish. That evening was all about wrapping up warm! I may not have taken much in the clothing department but the North Face slippers and super warm sleeping bag were awesome purchases, watching some of the other runners come in, sitting on the rocks admiring the view and eating the warm lentil Dahl, naan and endless cups of tea were the highlights. Kelly had also made little sachets of soya protein to help my muscles recover overnight, it was so foul but I was very grateful for the protein.
Day 2 (~18 miles. Finish time 4hrs 9min, weight before 76Kg, after 74Kg)
I woke up so happy and even dared a cold bucket of water to wash (and was very careful to dry out and dress very quickly to avoid hypothermia, no joke). I took some maltodexdrin pre-exercise drink and headed for a light breakfast and to the start, which was yesterdays finish line. Today was an out and back to Mole. ~5 miles down hill, ~2 flat, ~3 up then all the way back. The treats of the day were the sunrise where Jacob and I took a number of photos prior to the race start, the salted potatoes at the aid stations, the downhill sections which I opened up the speed on (the terrain was rough and was so much fun to run down), the little houses in hamlets ran through on route, having my photo taken with an armed guard who monitors the border route.
I ran about 10 miles with a guy who had tattooed on his calf “only those who risk going too far can find out how far they can go” (you had to have big calf muscles for that one). Today the route reminded me of Switzerland, plenty of forest trails enclosed valley bush and rock sections, the path towards mole was wide and looked like a cobbled road, but imagine the cobbles were 4 times the size and rounded on top so that whilst laid out perfectly, the surface was difficult to run on, jeeps came past, a couple with photographers and spectators who were complaining of sore backs that evening and looked worst then most of the runners. Watching the runners coming back from the turning point was great, with only 41 runners, most of us had already made friends and were starting to understand our capabilities in relation to each other. Most runners here had completed ultras, some mental races like Mr Chen Yen PO who had competed 131miles in 21 hours on a running track near his home in Taiwan, others had done the Comrades, Yukon ultra, jungle ultra marathon, the list is long…
My feet were blistering and I had already began strategically placing compeed on my heel and the pads of my feet. I was surprised with this as I rarely suffer from blisters, however my socks were not clean that morning and I should have known better – I do now. That mistake would cause some issues in the next few days and that night I was up late injecting iodine into a blister to seal the wound and was leaving my foot outside the sleeping bag to heal them. Occasional I would wake up as my feet got too cold, only for the sleeping bag to then make the skin too hot and id feel my heatbeat in theblister (a tad uncomfortable), so out they would go into the cold again…
Day 3 (26.2 miles, nearer 30. Finish time 6hr 34min, weight before 75kg, weight after 72kg)
Today was crazy, by the end of today’s race runners had been sick en route, were peeing blood and the pads of my feet were bruised and badly blistered. Many of the ultra runners said that today was more like 30miles than a marathon and that it was one of the toughest races they had done, which gave some justification to how I felt.
The alarm was on for 5am and Jacob and I went to catch the last sunrise we would see from over 4000m up at Sandakphu – it was an amazing place. The course was the same 11 miles of day 2’s easy undulating trail with an additional 8 mile out and back before a long steep downhill decent into the valley from 4020m down to less than a 1000m and it became very hot. The terrain during the descent was some of the steepest I’ve ever seen, some sections were stepped out some were muddy slippy muddy slopes secured with pinned down logs to use as a foot hold, the thick pins sticking out of the logs which focussed the foot placement so as not to trip and fall on one!
The profile had shown the end of this decent to be the end of the days running, however on arriving at an aid station at a point that looked as though it should be very near the end, I was told there was still 10K to go – up a slight hill.
The profile had shown the end of this decent to be the end of the days running, however on arriving at an aid station at a point that looked as though it should be very near the end, I was told there was still 10K to go – up a slight hill. I walked from that point with no real energy left, disillusioned along a grassy, marshy bog laden with annoying boulders to stand on and I think that was the lowest part of the race. Walking through the valleys that followed however were populated and I passed schools with immaculately dressed kids, small houses made of corrugated metal and the owners looked so clean and well kept, one really old guy was wearing a suit. Many houses had gardens where they were drying corn in the sun, families were carrying huge weights in baskets on their heads. Eventually I passed the accommodation we would be staying in which was 500 meters from the finish, many were already there drinking beer and I was pleased to see everyone.
Day 4 (13 miles, finish time 2hr 9min)
Today I woke in Rimbik feeling much better. We had spent the evening eating endless tasty food and beer provided by our hosts (a Nepalese family) who were excellent in every respect. Despite feeling better I was up during the night numerous times due to the sleeping bag heat irritating the bruising and swelling of my blisters which were trying to take over my whole feet. A funny but further low point of the trip was hobbling (oooh it really hurt to stand) over to the communal area away from the bedrooms to inject iodine into my blisters to seal them and take away the rawness of the skin. Just before we set off I was outside reassign my feet, thanks to Jacob for the compeed and doing a great job of taping my feet after my awful effort. Today was a straightforward route down a series of open exposed switchbacks and then up a tree lined and shaded gradual hill climb. At the finish, once everyone arrived, we would be driven back to the same accommodation for a further night. After a tender minute of walking I was sprinting, so excited that we were on a short day and focussing on the finish I went for it and ran a very fast down hill section. The terrain was different, unlike anywhere else I had run, sand in colour but as hard as running on packed soil. I was initially running with the faster group and then as we reached the bottom they tailed off and I was caught up with some of the swiss team whom I’d then spend 7 miles chasing up the finish. A good day overall. Later we would find out that James had developed a chest infection and Tom (was in second place) had severe dehydration and had to be placed on a drip
Day 5 (17 miles)
I didn’t want to get out of bed or run today, 4 days was enough, I felt awful and my feet took on a whole new level of pain from the bruising. Many were starting to suffer some injuries and it was only 1 mile in when I kindly took a Codine from Joe to try and help me leave the ‘shuffle’ and progress to a ‘sort of run’. I thought I was in last place for the first 4 miles until I saw Rex coming (an old chap with great personality) at which point I couldn’t allow myself to walk the whole way and slowly built up a run, hop, limp, walk into a semi jog building some pace. At mile 9 I found Jacob who was re-taping his calf and looking sorry for himself. Jacob and I then ran together the whole way to the end, pushing each other and finding it hard but knowing that the joint effort was getting us
through. I fell away eventually but he kept pulling back to wait for me, which I’ll always be grateful. I honestly don’t remember the route this day… just happy to finish and approach the start point where we were blessed by the local kids only 5 days before. The village was back out in force lining the final stretch to the finish line, the kids were back out to see us with banners and the whole thing was very emotional. On crossing the line I was greated by Mr Pandy, said some gibberish to the cameraman and then sat on the wall where I proceeded to slowly blackout! The doctor came over and gave me salt and energy drinks, Kelly kindly gave up her cinnamon bear jelly sweets and eventually I made it to a hall down short walk away where food and drink was laid on and all my friends were recuperating. Since leaving Manybhanjang and arriving back at Mirik Lake for the second time we have joked and amused over some of the great times had inherent in sharing 7-8 days together and supporting each other through light injuries, photos, food, drink and simly being friends without having to worry about jobs, responsibility, phones, money or careers. It was an amazing trip and even though I’ll look back one day having done greater challenges, I know this will be one of those magic moments which i’ll never forget.