Friday, 7 November 2014

Himalayan 100 Race Day 1

Day 1 - 24 miles 2700m ascent

Maneybhanjang - Sandakphu

Race day dawned. We were up at 4.45am for a 5.30am departure on the bus to the start with a packed breakfast in hand. Although to be fair I was feeling so nauseous, I couldn't really stomach it (and I've never been a fan of cold egg fried rice for breakfast). Excellent nutritional start to the toughest event of my life.

The start of the of the race was in a pretty little town called Maneybhanjang. We were heading 24 miles up to a trekking hut and view point known as Sandakphu - the only place in the World where you can see 4 out of the 5 highest mountains in the World and known as the trekkers paradise. The route up to Sandakphu runs along the border with Nepal and heads into the Singalila National Park. By jeep it takes 5 hours and most trekkers take 3 days. We were running it.. in one day. 

Luckily I hadn't realised the enormity of this before we set off as I think I would have been more petrified than I was. The unknown is always better in my opinion! I'll never forget googling a YouTube video of colectomy surgery the night before I went into theatre.. take a tip from me; never do anything so stupid. The same thing applied here. Better not to know what lay ahead really.

In deep contrast to Darjeeling, Maneybhanjang was a pretty rural town, surrounded by tea plantations. It felt calm and peaceful. We were greeted with another 'Himalayan 100 Welcome Participants' banner strung across the road which marked the start and groups of villagers gathered around to watch us off. The looks on their faces was a mixture of awe and utter confusion - I guess wondering what on earth we were doing and more to the point, why? Still feeling like Royalty we gathered around as Mr Pandey and his staff organised us and got our bags into piles - drop bag for during the race and yet another bag for the finish line. The 'bag logistics' of this trip are mind blowing and yet every single bag turns up at the point it's meant to. Amazing organisation. 

Before the race started we were blessed with a traditional tibetan ceremony where the local children gave us sacred scarves. Very emotional and touching. That scarf would stay with me for the entire trip, tied tightly to my backpack. It felt like it kept me safe and I needed it to keep going. One night I lost it for about 10 seconds and was sent into a panic. I've still got it now back at home and it'll be something I treasure for the rest of my life.

But back to the race. After a bit of chat and a short speech from Mr Pandey we were off. It became very clear immediately that some of the boys (and gorgeous Georgia) intended to race it hard and they shot off into the distance. I on the other hand had a very clear intention to hold back, take things at a very sedate pace and see how I felt. That's my excuse and I'm sticking firmly to it! The initial excitement of being able to run soon came to an abrupt end about 500m down the road, when the track turned and changed into an eye-wateringly steep climb. Everyone resorted to walking, huffing and puffing, with hands on knees. Some people went very quiet, focused on the task in hand, others were chatting and cracking jokes (that would be me). A few calculations and I quickly worked out it would be like this for the next 6-7 hours. Right then. The track was rocky and very uneven and didn't make for easy running at all. It was also fairly foggy, so we didn't have great views either. Mmm it was going to be a long day.

Quite quickly I found that I'd hit the same pace as South African Simon - who was travelling the World with Gareth and just slipped this race into part of his trip - and we hooked up and got chatting. Luckily he was as 'chatty' as I was and we soon took our minds off the pain sharing our life history, discussing the implications of his beard (he'd been growing  beard for 6 months and looked like Tom Hanks in Castaway, but a little more groomed!) and putting the World to rights. Every now and then the fog cleared and we were treated to stunning views of the plantations and the valley below.  I was feeling really strong and just kept pushing on as the track climbed higher and higher.  

It was a strangely emotional day. I thought of my Dad quite a lot - he died back in 2005 - and wondered what he'd think of me doing this. No doubt he'd think it was a great idea and just wished he'd been able to come along too.  

After the hustle and bustle of Delhi and Darjeeling, it was fabulous to be surrounded by simplicity, peace and tranquility. Crickets chirping in the forest as we ran through was pretty much the only noise. The scent of the pine trees was uplifting. It was quite a meditative day and back at base camp in the evening, the others admitted to feeling the same. 

The track crept upwards and onwards and we ran through little villages and past a tiny temple perched on the side of the hill. The people who lived in the tiny shacks on the hillside here so pleased to see us and always with a greeting of 'Namaska' as we ran. They lead such a simple life and have nothing, yet seem at peace with the World. 

There was a lovely section of flat and downhill but then suddenly things started to feel much harder and we realised we were getting up into altitude. The route finished at 3600m and from around 2900m, things started getting more challenging. Not only was the track even more steep and rocky at this point, but the lack of oxygen in the air meant that breathing was harder and I started with a bit of a headache and feeling nauseous (which would be a feature for the next 3 days).  Then suddenly we heard shouting and cheering and realised we'd reached Sandakphu. One of the lovely aspects of the race is that Mr Pandey and his sidekick Mansi, hold out the finish tape for each runner every single day, so you get to 'break the tape' at the end of each stage. Even the very last runner gets the same treatment. A very small, yet important, touch which makes this race so special. Some of the others - Colorado Pat and gorgeous Georgia - who'd been back a while, came out to cheer us in which was lovely, especially since it was so cold and they were exhausted.

I was surprised at how strong I'd felt and although hadn't broken any records, was pretty pleased with my performance. To put it into context. Ben Nevis - the UK's highest mountain - is around 1300m high. We had ascended 2700m over 24 miles, completing a stage that trekkers to the area normally take 2-3 days to do - in just over 6 and a half hours. I should say I'd feel pleased with that! And dare I say it, had found it easier than I'd thought. Although probably not as easy as Gabriel who'd finished first almost 90 minutes ahead of us, followed closely by Georgia (yay one for the girls!) and then Pat and South African David.

Gathering with the other runners afterwards it was clear that everyone had had mixed days. Some had pushed it hard and found it really tough. Others were shocked at the brutality of the climb and trail. Some were on a high - me included! (well I'd survived, it was cause for celebration!) and others were in tears. There was a feeling of 'coming together' and that we were becoming a family. The raw emotion was evident on everyone's faces and it was a night I'll never forget. We were soon treated to hot soup and a delicious meal cooked by Mr Pandeys' team in one of the lodges and we all started to warm up and recover. 

To say the lodges were basic was an understatement, but they were functional and although freezing cold at night, we were safe and under cover. True to their promise our bags were on our beds and we could unpack, get warm clothes on (no showers though.. ick) and get organised. I'm proud to say that I even managed some foam rolling and trigger ball work that night (accompanied by a couple of mice running around on the floor). See, I practise what I preach! I was determined to do everything in my power to keep my body in one piece.

Bed at 8.30pm.. although not many of us slept due to the altitude (think pounding heart rate, nausea and breathlessness) with thoughts of what lay ahead tomorrow. Not to mention the promise of the views of Mt Everest at first light (cue spine tingling). I'd felt strong today, but tomorrow was another day and anything could happen...


Each day I'll pick out 3 items of kit or products that saved the day. Today was:

1. Apres Hot Chocolate Recovery Drink - Amazing post run to help recover, replenish electrolytes, carbs and protein and warm up

2. Bamboo Base Layer from BAM - Soft, warm and gorgeous to sleep or run in. Kept me warm at night.

3. My trusty Brooks Cascadia Trail Shoes - 3 other runners were wearing them too. Perfect for the distance and the trail. Brilliant!

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