Himalaya 100 mile Stage Race
Updated: Jan 13, 2021
My family doesn’t really do beach holidays, and when this came up, fitting in with half term, it seemed made for my son and I and we duly signed up and flew off to India. 3 planes later we lined up on a start line with assorted other nervous runners.
There were approximately 150 participants declared at the start of the race and assorted walkers, media people and supporters, including representatives from 18 different countries. The event was a 100-mile race, staged over 5 consecutive days with the Everest Marathon on Day 3.
Only 31 people, including me and my 15-year-old son Brett, the youngest participant (he can’t even legally race more than 10k in the UK), completed all 100 miles. Those who didn’t make certain checkpoints at set times were re-designated as walkers, and others were injured or voluntarily dropped out.
In the days prior to running, we visited the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute to better understand the challenge, did a bit of sightseeing – spice and tea and craft markets, tea plantations and temples and mosques and churches and monasteries; we experienced altitude training with some stiff walks around Darjeeling, went through medical checks and politely assessed the competition. We got the impression a few people wondered what on earth Brett and I thought we were doing there!
Day 1 of the race started with a blessing from Tibetan monks. We didn’t really understand what was going on, but Brett carried his prayer scarf with him for the entire race; I like many others tied mine in a roadside shrine near the end. The first day was a more-or-less straight 24-mile uphill climb on large loose rocks, from 6,000 feet to an altitude of around 13,000 feet. Having agreed we would run together, Brett abandoned me at 6 miles. There were checkpoints every couple of miles where we were force fed salted bananas and glucose powder, could refill water bottles and had to sign and have the officials confirm we had passed through so that they knew we had run the whole route and where we had last been seen if we dropped off the mountain (I’m not joking. Three of us tripped on the rocks on day 1 but luckily all lived to tell the tale. My black eye only just faded before I had to go back to work). My Fitbit calculated that I had climbed 1,338 flights of stairs. The temperature plummeted as we climbed. This stage took me 6 hours and 59 minutes.
Day 2 was a 20 mile up and down and up and down and up stretch along the ridge, zig-zagging across the border between India and Nepal and peaking at 13,600 feet. The day started with the amazing 5am experience of watching the sun rise over Mount Everest and 3 of the next 4 highest mountain peaks in the world (the other one was not forgiven by our Indian friends for being in Pakistan). We watched as the sun touched the top and slowly moved down literally lighting up the mountains. It was incredible. Despite that, this was my tough day. By 7am when we started running, freezing cloud had covered everything. On the route, every army controlled border post wanted selfies with us. I met Brett going the other way where the route crossed back on itself, running with red hands under his armpits as they were too numb to force his gloves back on after signing in at a checkpoint. It took minutes between us to force them back on and there was no more taking gloves off – we resorted to merely scribbling. I struggled to eat (feeling guilty that the support team had been up at 3:30am under tarpaulin to make us porridge that I really didn’t want). A very nice man from Devon shared his crisps stash with me. We had to stab the packets with a pen as they were un-openable; puffed up like solid cushions because of the altitude. My slowest mile took 40 minutes (you may sympathise with the temptation to delete it from my Garmin). I was lucky to finish running/walking before it got dark as it started snowing at about 3pm. The UK team organiser had said to me that it was people like me, used to being near the leaders in a race, who would find it particularly challenging as my usual times would be shot to pieces, that even I would have to resort to walking, and it was more about mental strength than physical ability. He was very right. I do not walk uphill in races. My fastest time this year for a 20-mile race in the UK is 2 hours 28 minutes. I crawled in at 5 hours 42 minutes, shattered, with a feeling I can only describe as despair. Brett had been 5th to cross the finish line, more than an hour ahead of me and was laughing and joking with other runners, despite having had a toe nail removed by the doctor at the finish line. I retreated sulking to my sleeping bag as soon as I finished, shunning the others standing at the finishing line to cheer in finishers, and emerged only for soup and the briefing for the next day. At the briefing, the remaining runners – already less than half of those who started – were told in no uncertain terms that if we couldn’t make a certain point by 2pm the next day we were to reconsider whether we were runners or walkers. Brett looked at me and said “Don’t even think about it”. I thought about it. In the end my pride refused to allow me to give in and walk, I could not face telling anyone back home I had dropped out; and the marathon is my distance, what I came for. We spent the night in unheated Sherpa huts with no running water, heating or electricity and certainly no WiFi.
Day 3 is almost impossible to describe. In one day we ran in snow and what seemed like tropical sunshine; across barren rocks, mud, road, through villages where the entire population turned out to stare, giggle, cheer and take pictures of us. We started in sub zero temperatures with snow on the ground. It was Everest Challenge Marathon Day, when we ran approximately 18 miles along the ridge, through National Park territory and then turned sharply (and I mean sharply) for 10 miles down the mountain and through isolated villages and jungle. I know that’s 28 miles; it was over the 26 miles usually expected in a marathon. The advice was “find your own route” to a town called Rimbick, for the finish. I was lucky to catch up Brett and one of the journalists at the checkpoint at the start of the descent so I didn’t have to get lost on my own. We ran and slipped down the steepest steps imaginable, across shaky bridges, past temples and through people’s back gardens and streams and in deep muddy ruts that I couldn’t see over. The flowers were enormous, brilliantly coloured, dazzlingly bright. We have some of the same ones here in England but they are pale, sad replicas. It wasn’t about time or pace. I’ve run each of my last 8 marathons in between 3 hours 15 and 3 hours 30 minutes. I was 10th overall finisher in the marathon but it took me a staggering 8 hours 13 minutes of solid running, pausing only to top up water (although I did go back for Brett so we could finish together. He slowed down a bit by Day 3). Rimbick is a beautiful market town. I went shopping and bought a teapot and knitting wool and inflated crisps. I loved day 3 and for me, the race just got better after that.
Day 4 was a breeze, half marathon day so just 13 miles. We ran down to 4,000 feet and then back up to 7,000. Most of it was on road and it was fantastic to run in my road shoes instead of trail shoes, although as the road had fallen foul of a number of recent landslides we had to detour through rivers again. On the plus side, there was little or no traffic. All the cars were covered up in blankets and tarpaulin, grounded until the road was rebuilt. The weather was lovely, about 20 degrees. Our convoy of buses took us back to Rimbick for the night, and then back to the same point on the morning of Day 5 to start where we had finished the day before.
Day 5 was the final 17 miles. First 5 were steeply uphill. I walked, I took pictures, I enjoyed it. There were more people along the route, including every local school, whose children waved flags and cheered. We had been pre-warned about this and had colouring pencils and small toys to hand out. There was some traffic on the roads but not much; mainly jeeps and overloaded motorbikes (in Delhi the average number of people on a bike was 4; the most we saw was a family of 7). I almost – just almost – didn’t want the experience to end. It was a relief to cross the finishing line.
The logistics were incredible. There were 300 support staff including doctors, cooks, the checkpoint officials, marshals, route markers (there was a Director of Signage, this was India after all), yak leaders and porters (even the fuel for cooking the wretched porridge had to be carried up the mountain), drivers for the buses, drivers for the jeeps that took our “main” bags, mopped up stragglers and ferried the media crews; guides for the walkers (as runners, we were privileged to be allowed to run by ourselves through the national park; usually you have to have pre-arranged any trek or walk and be accompanied by a qualified registered guide). It took the jeeps and buses longer to drive to finishing points than it took us to run most of the routes. Every morning we had to repack bags. There were bags for the finish line with a change of clothes, bags for wherever we were sleeping, dirty clothes to be added to storage, rucksacks to carry with us. I was constantly losing things. There was one poor Canadian guy with a swollen ankle who almost cried when I admitted I had left my compression tape behind somewhere, as he had been relying on it for miles. And if only I hadn’t left the hand warmers in Delhi!
On average participants lost 6kg over the 5 days. Some of the guys lost 10kg. Day 2 cost me a top 3 female finisher place for the 100-mile race (I was fourth), but I came in third for the marathon itself, behind a 22 year old from Nepal and a lady who lives and trains in the Rockies. The trophy is in pride of place next to my individual and Team GB trophies from the European masters’ marathon championships earlier this year. It was one of the hardest things I ever did – right up there with childbirth and fighting to keep my house after divorce.
My total running time was 26 hours 14 minutes, longer than I had ever expected. Brett came in at just under an hour faster – with no benchmark, no expectations, no pressure on himself even to finish, there was a lot I could learn from his attitude.