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Running Into Thin Air

By Dave Ungrady
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page P01

I sat in the near-freezing night air at about 12,000 feet, wrapped in a sleeping bag, and pondered the misery that had enveloped me. A glorious star-filled sky failed to ease my discomfort. I had walked out of the dark barracks, which slept about two dozen adventure runners, to offer them some relief from my incessant coughing, which had kept us up for most of the night. It was the first evening of the annual five-day Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, and it had started badly.

The tortuous 24-mile course had begun at dawn that October morning at 6,600 feet and ended 5,400 feet higher at the border outpost camp of Sandakphu, in northeastern India near the Nepal border, in uncomfortably thin and chilled air. The conditions only worsened my five-day cold and created nausea that killed my appetite. Now I sat in solitude, hungry, tired and cold, praying for cough relief so my barracks mates could get some sleep. And there were still four days of the race remaining.

Racers arrive at the Indian village of Maneybhanyjang for the start of the grueling 2003 Himalayan ultramarathon. (Petersen/Barder/Walker)

The Himalayan race is one of the most challenging ultramarathons in the world, appealing to endurance runners who seek a prolonged adventure that tests them mentally as well as physically. Part of the adventure is the logistical challenge of moving every other day to a new location. We slept in a barracks-style dormitory with no hot running water and limited electricity; a Sherpa hotel with toilets, running water and several people to a room; and a comparatively luxurious hotel with hot showers and private rooms. A traveling food caravan provided three catered meals per day.

Anyone can compete, but those who are not fit risk serious injury, not to mention having a miserable experience. Most runners entered the race having previously done at least one marathon. I raised my weekly running from 15 to 25 miles the month before the race and felt strong.

The trade-off, of course, is the glorious mountain scenery and mix of Asian cultures. No other adventure running race takes you through the winding, rolling trails of the beautiful eastern Himalayan mountains and, for a portion, within viewing distance of four of the five highest peaks in the world, including Mount Everest.

Race director C.S. Pandey, 43, grew up in the Himalayas and was a young distance runner at a time few of his countrymen understood what that meant. "When I started running in the mountains, people were laughing at me; they said I am crazy," said Pandey, who has completed 22 ultramarathons. "There was no concept in India of running in the mountains and competitions in the adventure sports."

Pandey, who runs Himalayan Run & Trek, the company that organizes the race, has helped change that. Thirty-nine runners from 12 countries took part in the 14th annual run, held Oct. 31 to Nov. 4. We gathered in the tourist town of Mirik, in the northern neck of the northeastern state of West Bengal in the Darjeeling District, for a day and a half of preparation. I spent most of that time in my hotel room, trying to rest my weary, cold-ridden body.

Shortly after dawn the next day, we set off for a 2 1/2-hour bus ride to the village of Maneybhanyjang, India, the site of the race start and finish. A band of musicians greeted us, and villagers looked on quietly from nearby hillsides. We savored the moment, mingling with locals, filming videos and snapping pictures.

A few hours later, the mood was vastly different. The first stage rose 5,500 feet in 24 miles. Most runners walked much of the first stage, navigating cobblestone roads on nasty inclines -- some so steep you could reach out and touch the ground in front of you while walking. Then there was Christian Schiester, 37, of Austria, who said he trained for the race by running more than 3,700 miles in eight months in the Austrian Alps, and who ran the entire stage. Schiester eventually won the race in 14 hours 43 minutes, beating the previous record by 15 minutes.

Not every runner handled the first stage so comfortably. Martin Harrow, 44, of Great Britain quickly retreated to his bunk after finishing the run and wrapped himself in a comforter. "I just need to get warm," he said. "And then I might eat something." A few minutes later he vomited, and again, after trying to eat. He wasn't the only runner suffering from nausea at the high elevation.

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