Running Into Thin Air

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

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.

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.

A somber mood engulfed the camp that night. Still, most of us were eager to rise at 5:30 a.m. to see the sunrise strike the impressive peaks staring at us from Nepal. The surreal view looking west from our camp, into Nepal and the mountains in the distance, shook us from our weary states.

Later that day, temperaments at camp changed dramatically. The second stage, a 20-miler along a rolling path on the border between India and Nepal, ended for most runners by noon, under a warming sun (60 degrees) and clear skies. By mid-afternoon we were downright giddy, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, swapping humorous tales of misadventure and inspiration. No matter the challenges, we were going to have fun.

Conditions for the third stage, the Mount Everest Challenge Marathon, were ideal the next morning: crisp temperatures in the 40s, a clear sky and bright sun. I had planned to run the entire marathon, but sanity prevailed; I caught a ride in the media jeep and hopped out eight miles later. A fresh frost covered the ground, creating a magical setting as I began my journey at 12,000 feet.

I ended the adventure 4 1/2 hours later, 5,400 feet lower and seemingly in a different world. Along the way, I enjoyed the most invigorating run of my life.

The quiet vastness of the environment pushed me to a calming rhythm. The tame terrain of the first few miles was a mixture of mild inclines and declines on a trail twisting through short bushes and trees in wide open spaces.

I spotted a lone yak and stopped to take its picture; it stared indifferently ahead, oblivious to me. About a mile later I came across three weathered, native trekkers heading in the opposite direction. They had just hiked the portion of the trail that awaited me, and eagerly told me -- one spoke English quite well -- of the great adventure that was to come.

Four miles later, the path changed dramatically. The rolling terrain became a sharp decline and would remain so for most of the remaining 10 miles. The trail turned treacherous as I navigated rocks and boulders and shimmied through thin ruts.

About a third of the way down, at the hill village of Siri Khola, I passed a school and interrupted my run to pay a visit. The teacher welcomed me inside the wooden three-room building, where 20 or so children greeted me with bewildered expressions and smiles.

The last stretch was the most surreal three miles I have ever run. The mostly dirt trail wound through a forest on ledges that overlooked the Rammam River hundreds of feet below, then passed through several villages. About a mile from the finish, I slowed to a walk to better savor my surroundings, then sat for a few minutes to further soak it all in. It was as spiritual a run as I have ever experienced.

A half-hour later, I basked shirtless in the warm sun in a hotel courtyard near the finish line with a dozen other runners. Our most intense challenges were over.

Later that night, we enjoyed our first evening of drunken revelry at our hotel in the Sherpa village of Rimbik. The camaraderie continued the next night after the 13-mile fourth stage, during an outdoor cultural presentation that featured villagers performing traditional Nepalese and Tibetan folk dances for the racers.

Moods were upbeat moments before the start of the final stage, a hilly 17-miler that ended back in Maneybhanyjang. "There's nothing to prove today," said Andrew Dart, 27, of Great Britain. "We just want to enjoy it and see the finish line, see the smiles on everyone's faces as we come through."

The 15th annual Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race is scheduled for Oct. 21-28 in Maneybhanyjang, India. The cost of $1,650 includes shared accommodations at Mirik Lake Resort, mountain huts at Sandakphu and lodges at Rimbik, plus meals, transportation, aid stations, guides, porters, full race support and Bagdogra Airport transfers. Airfare from the United States to India is not included. Details: Himalayan Run & Trek, www.himalayan.com.

Dave Ungrady, a freelance writer based in Arlington, is the author of "Legends of Maryland Basketball" (Sports Publishing).


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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