In mountaineering circles they talk about the Death Zone, when climbers go above 8000m and their bodies start to shut down due to a lack of oxygen in their blood. Even with oxygen tanks, the climbers struggle to move and it can take hours to move a few hundred metres. Well, I was nowhere near that high at just 3600m, but I sure looked like I was in the death zone! It was a struggle to put one foot in front of the other – and that was partly because of the altitude, partly due to my legs being exhausted after doing about 35 kays, but mostly because the road was so damned steep!
I was in the last few kays of the first day of the five-day Himalayan 100 Miler stage race, and I was shattered. I stopped, sat down on one of the vicious switchback corners, took an energy bar out of my backpack and contemplated my situation while I chewed. It was getting colder by the minute, as the sun was now hidden by cloud, so once again I looked upwards and mentally psyched myself up to take on those last few switchbacks. One by one, I criss-crossed upwards, and next thing I knew I was crossing the finish line. I had done it: Day one in the bag, 38km out of 160 done, and that hot tomato soup went down singing hymns as I sat staring at Mount Kanchenjunga, thinking how lucky I was to once again be enjoying this glorious sight.
BACK FOR MORE
I made my first visit to the Himalayan 100 Miler in 2004, when I was invited to go to India, all expenses covered by Tourism India, to not only cover the race, but also to see some of the sights of India in Delhi and Agra, including the Taj Mahal. I loved the Qutab Mina tower and Humayan’s Tomb in Delhi, and the Taj simply blew me away, but the Himalayan Mountains made all those man-made structures pale into insignificance. I remember staring at those mountains, absolutely mesmerised by their size and beauty, and when I left, I promised myself I would return someday to see them again.
In the following years I maintained contact with Mr C.S. Pandey, the race organiser of the event, and in 2011 I was invited to return. In 2004 I had opted to just do the Everest Challenge Marathon on day three – the marathon is one of the stages of the 100 miler, but also serves as a ‘race within the race’ – and rode the media jeep the other four days in order to get pics. This time, I was determined to do the whole event, as one of 40 runners from all around the world who entered. It was once again like the United Nations of running, with runners from England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Argentina, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong in the field, as well as three South Africans.
SWITCHBACKS AND COBBLE-BOULDERS
The race starts at a small town called Maneybhanjang at 2 130m above sea level, near Darjeeling in the West Bengal province of India, between Nepal and Bhutan. On day one you run into the Singhalila National Park, along a road that forms the border between India and Nepal, and climb to the mountain trekkers’ huts at Sandakphu, 3 650m above sea level. It isn’t a straight climb, though, because you constantly reverse course on switchbacks that are so steep that you simply can’t run. Added to that, much of the roads are made from rocks, but not those nice little round stones we think of when somebody speaks of cobblestones – here it is more like running on rough cobble-boulders! It’s just another element of a very tough race.
Singhalila National Park is one of 14 protected areas in the Kangchenjunga transboundary area shared by India, Nepal, China (Tibet) and Bhutan. These parks and reserves are home to many globally significant plant species and endangered species such as snow leopard, Asiatic black bear, red panda and Himalayan musk deer. The area is also said to be home to the Kangchenjunga Demon, a type of yeti. Luckily, we didn’t spot any mountain monsters, but Mr Pandey told us he had found a group of people watching a tiger bathing itself in a lake near the route on day one. Apparently, this was the first tiger spotted in this area since the early 1980s, but thankfully the big cat never came near any of us runners. We probably would have run a lot faster if we’d known about it…
I started conservatively, walking near the back of the pack, but I felt stronger the more the kays passed, a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the race, much to my delight. I was power-walking up the climbs, only stopping now and again to take a photo or to sign in at the regularly spaced refreshment stops. But then the steep roads became really steep with about eight kays to go, and I was reduced to a slow shuffle. Finishing day one was probably the sweetest feeling I have ever felt in a race!
DON’T BE SUCH A WUSS!
That first night at Sandakphu the temperature was below freezing, making sleep just about impossible due to the combination of cold and altitude. I woke up panting for breath around 10:30pm and that was the end of my sleep. By the time I dragged myself out of my thermal sleeping bag for breakfast, it felt like I had full-blown flu, and my head hurt every time I moved. I was contemplating not running the day’s stage… but then Helen, one of the Brits, said to me, “Don’t be such a wuss!” That did the trick, and I went to put on my running kit.
The second stage is an out-and-back 32km, running 16km from Sandakphu to the turn point at Molley. Basically, the out leg is mostly downhill, with a bit of climbing near the turn, and the return leg therefore starts with some great downhill, but then climbs remorselessly back to Sandaphu. I felt lousy all the way to the turn, just managing a slow, steady walk, but I was kept going by the incredible views: Around every corner awaited a stunning Himalayan vista, with Kanchenjunga some 50km to the north-east, and the Everest Massif to the north-west, about 150km away.
Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world at 8 586m and sits on the India-Nepal border. Its name means “The Five Treasures of the Snows,” as it has five distinctive peaks, four of them over 8 450m. The Everest group is known as the Mahalangur Himal section of the Himalaya and contains four of the world’s 14 8 000m peaks as well as some 30 peaks over 7 000 and more than 60 others over 6 000m. Looking out from Sandakphu, you see Makalu (8 462m) as the tallest peak, but that is because it is closest. Just to the left of it is Everest (8 848m), with Lhotse (8 516m) next in line to the left, while to the right of Makalu is Chomo Lonzo (7 818m). Further to the left are two more distinctive peaks: Gyachung Kang (7 952m), the world’s tallest non-8 000m peak and 15th tallest overall, with Cho Oyu (8 201m), the world’s sixth tallest, to the left of that. Also amongst all those peaks is Nuptse (7 861m), but it is considered part of the Everest massif and is therefore not listed as a stand-alone peak.
Looking at those lofty peaks, including five of the world’s six highest mountains, is an awe-inspiring sight, and the mountains have a way of lifting your spirits, no matter how tired or sore you are. So by the time we turned at Molley, I felt great and put my foot down. I even managed a few kays of running, then power-walked the rest… but there was a worrying little pain at the bottom of my left shin which seemed to get worse as the kays went by. All I could do was hope it wasn’t serious.
ENFORCED REST DAY
By the next morning my shin was so sore that I could barely move my foot up and down, and walking was really painful, so I had no choice but to skip day three, the marathon stage. Believe me, I really didn’t want to do so, because that meant I had to do a six-hour round trip in the jeep back down to Maneybhanjang and take the long way round to the town of Rimbik, where day three ends, because there is no ‘jeepable road’ from Molley to Rimbik.
Meanwhile, the rest of the field repeated the 16km out to Molley, then did a 7km dog-leg uphill to Phalut and 7km back down to Molley, and then came the plunge down to Sirikhola, where the course plummets from 3 400m to 1 900m in just six kays, followed by a relatively gentle (by Himalayan standards) but seemingly never-ending 6km climb to Rimbik at 2 300m. I remembered how hard this stage was in 2004, so part of me was relieved to have a rest day, but I can’t even begin to describe how lousy it felt being stuck in the jeep. With every bump and jolt of that long, frustrating drive, I cursed my damned shin!
BACK ON THE ROAD
Day four dawned and I gingerly got out of bed. The leg felt better, the foot more mobile, so I decided to give the 21km stage a try. For the first time in my 17-year running career, I took a painkiller before a run, then I put my head down and ran. In pouring rain, we plummeted downhill from Rimbik to the river valley below, losing 600m in elevation in about three kays that included five or six separate sets of switchbacks. Once we had crossed the bridge at Linsebong, it was uphill again to Palmajua, where the buses waited to take us back to Rimbik. Those last few kays were steep, but again, the further I went, the stronger I felt.
After finishing and drying off, my shin felt fine, but I was waiting to see how it would feel the next morning – and after the dancing that I knew was coming that evening at the cultural exchange. For this, runners from each country represented in the field are asked to present something that portrays their country, so the three South African boys stood up and taught everybody our traditional folksong, Shosholoza. We must have made an impression, because there were a few Americans singing it while running the next day! The local Nepali musicians and the race organising team also did a few songs and traditional dances for us, which all the runners were invited to join in with. Tired legs, sore shins and gammy ankles be damned, most of the runners got into the spirit of things and had a good time.
So the fifth and final day of the race dawned, thankfully sunny again, and we were taken back to Palmajua to start the last 27km back to Maneybhanjang. That comprised 11km of climbing to Dhodrey, then 16km of mostly downhill to the finish. Happily for me, I woke with my shin feeling a wee bit better, so I popped another painkiller and lined up, but as soon as we started, both my shins started screaming in protest. I had to slow down and watch most of the field disappear up the road, but again, the longer I went on, the better I felt, and after a few kays I was once again powering up the hill. Once through Dhodrey I even began to run, and from there it was low flying all the way Maneybhanjang. I felt so strong at the finish that I even wished the race was longer! Must have been the altitude getting to me…
At the prize-giving that evening, Mr Pandey gave a number of runners an opportunity to say a few words, and many spoke of the emotional effect the mountains had on them. I told of how I had promised myself in 2004 that I would return someday to see those mountains again, then added that now I have two reasons for going back a third time – not just for the mountains, but also to try to finish the full 100 miles. Watch this space, as they say.