Thursday, 6 November 2014

Himalayan 100... pre-race and Darjeeling

I first heard about the Himalayan 100 about 10 years ago when friend and fellow journo Sam Murphy took part. I remember thinking at the time 'One day I HAVE to do that!'. Since then I've known lots of other friends and writers go and take part and it sounded utterly amazing. 

But before the event, I was really worried. There have been a handful of real stand out events in my life. The ones that still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Helvellyn Triathlon, the Lakeland 50 and the Jungfrau marathon.. all of which were epically tough, stunningly beautiful and are etched on my memory forever. Would the Himalayan 100 compare? would it be as amazing as everyone said? I'd read a couple of blogs that were less than complimentary, including one by last year's winner Martin Cox, which was decidedly odd. What was I letting myself in for? I couldn't bear going all that way for it to be a disappointment, or worse not to finish the damn thing. Was there something they knew that I didn't?

Well.. let me tell you. There simply are not words to describe this event. Epic, stunning, amazing, brutal, beautiful.. all the usual superlatives.. just don't come close (and not even 'stupendously beautiful!' Adam Rose..) .  The whole event, the culture, the views, the route, the other runners and the whole incredible experience was simply mind blowing and it's something I'm still taking time to process

Mr Pandey - the infamous Race Director - has even described it as 'life changing'... well that's one I'd agree with. Friends and family ask me what it was like and I can just about manage a stammer of 'Oh amazing... yep just amazing'.. because I can't put it into words yet. Hopefully I'll manage it better here.

I'm splitting this blog into sections.. this one is about the pre-race build up and trip to Darjeeling. Following blogs will cover each day of the race separately.. 

Getting there

We flew from Heathrow to Delhi for the first part of the trip. I got to meet and travel with the fascinating and hugely experienced photo-journalist/adventure racer/South African super Dad, Adam Rose, who was covering the race for Sleep Monsters website. He muttered a lot about how he wasn't fit and how he wasn't going to 'race' but 'might take part in a stage or two'.. um.. he looked a lot fitter than me! did he know something I didn't? Adam had completed the Lakeland 100 last year yet still didn't feel fit enough to do this? errrmm
.... what was I thinking!??!  Anyway.. we chatted away on the flight and discussed our previous race experiences - his being far more exciting than mine. He was also carrying a bulb of garlic with him. Apparently if you eat it raw it kills off bacteria and would prevent him from getting sick. I was relying on coke. Which I don't think impressed him. Either way, neither of us did get sick, so maybe a garlic/coke combo is the way forwards?  

After an overnight flight, we arrived in Delhi. If you've never been, it is everything you might imagine, Hot, smelly and utterly chaotic. Beeping horns, entire families (complete with a couple of chickens) perched on mopeds, people walking down the middle of the road oblivious to the traffic. Glimpses of stunning Colonial architecture mixed up with deprivation and poverty of the poor living in metal sheds on the side of the road. Delhi is an assault on the senses, a contradiction of wealth and poverty, yet intriguing and fascinating. But just an overnight stop, less than 24 hours later we were on our way to the airport again and out to Bagdogra in North East India ready to head up into the foot hills of the Himalayas. 


After a 2 hour flight, we arrived in Bagdogra airport. It was like taking a step back in time. Dusty, dirty and swarming with people shouting; horns beeping outside (which would become a feature of the trip!) and more chaos.  A group of nervous looking runners gathered and we were hurded like sheep onto an rather battered old metal bus 'Hurry hurry.. go to the toilet, we have 3 hours on the bus. We're going up into the mountains'. 

The long bumpy bus ride was a great way to get to know some of the other runners. By now I was even more worried.. they all seemed far more experienced and far fitter than me. 'Oh yes I've done a few ultras and stage runs and that thing in the Desert', did nothing to fill me with confidence. Ok I've done my fair share of tough races, but nothing on this scale and not for a long time. Oh and of course not forgetting that was all before having 5 abdominal surgeries and the addition of a ileostomy bag into my life.  

Anyway, I wasn't holding their superior fitness against them.. much. Everyone seemed lovely and it was great getting to know them and share our fears and experiences. I'd gone on this trip on my own and already I was making some fantastic new friends.  

What was so brilliant about this entire trip was the people. I loved the way a group of runners from all over the World were thrown together with one common goal. A race like this breaks you down and bares your soul. It doesn't matter if you're rich, poor, educated or not. It doesn't matter what your background is or where you're from. When you strap on your running shoes and step foot into an event like this; nothing else matters. We're all in it together, with one shared goal and one shared life changing experience. The support, human spirit, camaraderie and friendship from my fellow runners is my outstanding memory from the trip and something I'll never forget.

The event seemed to attract an eclectic mix of people from all corners of the World all with different personal reasons for taking part. There is certainly no one 'Himalayan 100 type'. 

There were 35 runners in total. Normally there are more, but numbers were limited this year due to a accommodation being limited at Sandakphu (one of the sherpa huts had burned down). There were also a few walkers - mostly partners of runners, and some journalists who weren't running.  

I can't mention everyone, but just to give you an example of the diversity, there was Richard - 61 years old and a fellow Geordie and dairy farmer now from Scotland - who I actually ended up running most of the race with. Bryony - another journo from Runners World in South Africa. Gareth and Simon, also South Africans who were slipping the race into their World travelling/mid life crisis. David also from South Africa, who had suffered a devastating back injury only 2 years ago and who ended up coming 2nd.. amazing. Karen - a 60 year old nursery teacher from New Zealand, probably the most determined runner in the event. Zoe - a fellow former rower - from Bristol who became a great running buddy and we ended up finishing together. There were a lot of Americans including David who had once completed Comrades in an amazing 7 hours something.. although he modestly pointed out it was a 'long time ago' and Pat from Colorado - who definitely had the edge when it came to altitude although I'm still not sure how he managed it in a pair of vibrams that looked like they'd seen better days - seriously hardcore. Then there was Sonja from Germany - modest and incredibly strong who ended up winning the ladies race and Toni who was suffering from Bronchitis from day one, but never stopped smiling. Gabriel also from Germany won the men's race, who was like a mountain goat - living and training in the Alps helped!

Whilst the race is very International, it doesn't attract many Indians, but this year there was Saahil who was from Mumbai. It took me a few days to discover he was a Hollywood actor. Look out for his movie next year which is apparently called Basmati Blues (random but true!). Then there was Chris - a lawyer from Japan, originally from Wales  - seemed to be very experienced and had done events like this all over the World. Juan from El Salvador, who turned out to be a bit of a celebrity back in his hometown. Running isn't big in El Salvador yet, but Juan is paving the way and providing inspiration with his exploits around the World. Then there was gorgeous Georgia from Bath who had run a 2:50 marathon. Christ!  And finally not forgetting 'extreme athlete' Stefan Schlett, now on his 5th Himalayan 100. Turned out Stefan was the craziest amongst us. A deca ironman finisher, multiple world record holder and some ridiculous 3000km non-stop run from Lisbon to Moscow, amongst too many other events to even begin to mention. Inspirational and utterly bonkers. 

If I wasn't feeling inadequate before the trip, I certainly was now!

Bus trip over and we arrived in Mirik - a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas. Surrounded by tea plantations and very pretty. We arrived to a welcome banner 'Welcome participants of the Himalayan 100' hung at the hotel (ha what me?!? ) and a personal welcome from Mr Pandey. Feeling like Royalty, we jumped off the bus and checked in.  

At the race briefing that night everyone was very quiet. Suddenly it was a reality. We were here and there was no backing out. After a LONG discussion about bags (remember the bag flow chart in the 57 page race booklet?!), transport and organisation issues, we all signed in and collected our race numbers. 

The race doctor pulled me to one side 'We need to talk' he said. Obviously he'd seen my medical notes. He then proceeded to give me the third degree about my surgery, my stoma, how I manage it, whether I thought I'd need IV and then gave me a lecture on how I wasn't to push myself or race. He said if anything happened they would have to take me by jeep to hospital which could take days.. (!) No air rescue here. Up until now I'd just thought my biggest issue might be getting a bit dehydrated, but now I was getting worried. What else could go wrong?! was he expecting something terrible to happen did he know something I didn't? Did he think there might be a problem with the altitude? Suddenly I wasn't feeling very brave anymore. I felt irresponsible and a bit scared. 

But we still had 2 days before the race started and a sightseeing trip to Darjeeling first. So I put my worries to one side.. plenty of time to fret yet!. Following words from the Dr however, I did up my use of alcohol hand gel (to every 10 seconds!) and started drinking even more copious amounts of electrolytes.. 


An early start and we were back onto our beaten up bus and off to Darjeeling for the day, via a quick stop for photographs of the stunning early morning beauty of Kanchenjunga - the 3rd highest mountain in the World.

I'm not sure why I expected it - lack of research perhaps - but I thought Darjeeling would be fields of pretty tea plantations. I did not expect to find the Indian equivalent of Manchester perched on a hill overlooked by the majestic Kanchenjunga.  I can categorically say that Darjeeling is the craziest, dirtiest and most diverse, utterly bonkers place I've ever been.  It is like something from a movie. Cows and chickens mix with school children walking to school amongst dirty street vendors, selling anything from Indian spices, raw meat and Chelsea baseball caps. It's like Delhi but noisier (more beeping horns), dirtier and more rustic. The Toy Train runs along side the road on a set of tracks where people walk and cows wander all mixed up. There is no health and safety here. It's every man, woman, child and cow for themselves.  

A short trip into the mountaineering museum provided relief and fascinating entertainment. Sadly no photography allowed inside - probably to protect the historical climbing equipment and clothing. Exhibitions showing the various ascents of Mt Everest and other mountains in the area were really interesting. Clothing and equipment used by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary was incredible.. how did they do it with such heavy boots and oxygen masks? their sleeping bags didn't look very warm either and it makes you realise just what an epic achievement it was back then.   

The Darjeeling zoo was pretty grim - although I did get to see my only Red Panda of the trip - and the Toy Train.. well more dust, dirt and noise, but certainly an experience - someone said it's the highest working train in the World?  A spot of shopping, a great lunch, a quick trip to the Gurkha memorial and back to Mirik for more bag packing and serious amounts of fretting.  

Tomorrow the race would start.. definitely no backing out now.

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