What does it take to do the Himalayan Run and Trek, a 160.9km (100 mile) stage race along the India Nepal border? Pat Kinsella discovers the stunning scenery doesn't make it any easier.
The Everest Challenge Marathon is day three of the five day Himalayan Run and Trek (HRT) stage race, one of the world’s oldest continuously running trail events. I’m taking part in the 27th rendition of the race, which sees runners, hikers and sometimes even mountain bikers (although no one is cycling this year) negotiate a 160km (100 mile) route along sections of the Singalila Ridge on the India-Nepal border.
The first day was brutal. From the town of Maneybhanjang – after being serenaded by Indian bagpipe players and receiving ceremonial scarves from local children – we began running uphill. And that’s how it continued, for the next 38.6km. Up, up, up. Little bit of down. More up. Mostly along a cruel cobblestone track built for yaks and strong-stomached Jeep drivers.
But I enjoyed it – especially gabbing between gasps to fellow runners. The 60 strong field features a couple of Aussies amid an eclectic mix of adventurers from Germany, Sweden, Spain, Hong Kong, Austria, Canada, Argentina, the US, and a big posse of Poms. The age range is astonishing, from 15 year-old Brett, a Brit running with his mum, to Max, a man in his 70s, back for his ninth HRT. Ninth? “Wait till you get onto the ridge,” he sagely responds to anyone who asks.
Bands of cheering children lined the sides of the serpentine track as it slithered upwards through villages, and for a long while I was accompanied by three happy looking hounds. At each aid station we guzzled water and ate salted bananas – an acquired taste, but fodder that fended off hunger flats and cramps.
In the last hour, the effects of altitude kicked in. Stumbling more than running, taking greedy gulps of air but still feeling breathless and dizzy, I was thankful to reach Sandakphu in daylight. Several runners and walkers arrived well after dark – all utterly exhausted, some in tears.
On day two my enjoyment evaporated and I descended into a nightmare, mostly of my own making. Lured into a false sense of optimism by a sensational sunrise, I lugged a large camera for the full 32.1km out-and-back course along the spine of Singalila National Park, only for the bashful landscape to hide behind a sari made of mist for the entire day. And to make my mood muddier, one of my trekking poles jammed.
There was swearing. And lots of lost ground. But then, just when I hit a low, three locals loomed out of the clouds: a young woman carrying a baby, followed by two companions both shouldering epic loads. This quickly beat my bellyaching back to where it belonged. Here people scratch a precarious living by performing daily feats of endurance and strength that are thrice as hard as a race we enter for enjoyment. And they do it while effortlessly rocking golden welly boots. Respect.
The marathon route repeats the first 10 miles of the trail we’d run the previous day, but minus the mist it’s totally transformed. Some of the climbs and descents feel familiar underfoot, but now I’m looking well beyond the rugged rock-strewn track to the astonishing apparition beyond, where the planet’s highest peaks punctuate a bluebird sky.
I’ve jettisoned my traitorous trekking pole too, and while the elevation still steals my breath on the stiffest switchbacks – especially during the savage ascent to Phalut – I feel like I’m flying compared to yesterday.
While I’ve never raced a competitive marathon before, I’ve done the distance and more during various wild-running adventures in the past, but this is panning out to be the maddest day I’ve ever spent on trails.
From Phalut we loop back to Molle, where the route forks east and dramatically drops off the Singalila Ridge, flowing through forests along tight and technical singletrack for several kilometres, before meeting the mountain village of Shirikola, where things get properly gnarly.
Marker arrows send us tearing down sets of suicidal steep stairs, with every step irregular and slightly off-camber, passing through the front yards of beautiful flower-covered cottages clinging to the precipitous hillside. It’s lunchtime, and immaculately dressed school kids stream out of class and onto the paths. Some giggle shyly at the sight of sweaty westerners wobbling through their midst, while others confidently return my breathless “namaste!” with wide-eyed enthusiasm.
Two local lads flash past at lightening speed, showing me exactly how it should be done, but I can’t convince my brain to let go, and I keep my centre of gravity low. A forward fall here would be fatal – at the very least to my hopes of finishing the race.
At the bottom of the long village a marshal directs us over a wall. It’s an unlikely looking turn, until I realise the road behind him has disappeared into a massive landslide. So over I go, to scramble down a near-vertical muddy bank to a bridge spanning the rushing River Ramman, which we follow to Rimbik, where the marathon ends.
It’s four kilometres to the finish, and my watch says I’ve been running for just over six and a half hours. Having started with no greater ambition than completion and survival, suddenly I’m consumed with desire to set a sub-seven hour time. Fortunately, the final stretch is along a relatively smooth road, which undulates rather than rears, and I sprint across the line with 6 hours 59 minutes on the clock.
OK, so it’s not something Kipchoge would probably put on his CV, and I’m not expecting Nike to come knocking, but as a virgin mountain marathoner, I’m happy enough – especially considering we’ve climbed over 1100m and descended 2800m during the day.
And the next day brings my first ever competitive half marathon. An easy day – followed by a 27.3km stage to complete the century and close the loop at Maneybhanyjang, bringing home a hundred miles of Himalayan memories.
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