Into Thin Air
Words Fiona McIntosh, Pics Shaen Adey, Eric Schranz and supplied
I can hear my laboured breaths as I wander up to the start line. Up here, at 3600m, the air is thin, and cold. Today, on the third day of the Himalayan 100 mile stage race, we’ll run a full marathon. The previous two days have allowed some acclimatisation but I am still struggling with the altitude. It’s going to be a long, tough day.
Thirty-six enthusiasts from 14 countries have gathered for the event. We’re a diverse bunch. Several are veteran ultrarunners who have completed epics like the Marathon des Sables, Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon and Comrades. Others have only half-marathons on their CVs.
Much of the route of Days 2 and 3 followed the border between India and Nepal. Indian soldiers patrolled it and provided much needed encouragement.
Argentina is particularly well-represented with eight participants. Madko Vidosevich, an ophthalmologist from Rosario, is the affable joker in the bunch, always apologising for his late arrival at briefings and insisting that all present share Facetime conversations with his beautiful wife back home. Patricia Anconetani and her husband ran last year and have returned with their three children, who are part of the walking group that completes a shorter course each day.
The large North American contingent includes another returnee, Jacqueline Windh, a geologist and writer from Canada who’s been honing her fitness and nutrition in order to be able to outrun the tsunami that she is predicting will sweep across her home, Vancouver Island. So impressed was she by her first visit that she’s back in India for a month with her husband.
The start in Maney Bhanjang.
For Sara Davies, who lives on a smallholding in Leicestershire farming pigs, sheep and chickens, the Himalayan Run is a 50th birthday present to herself. She valiantly runs up every hill, ignoring that fact that most of pass her at walking pace. In poll positions, along with a leggy Frenchman, are a super-fit young Australian couple who are touring the world, competing in ultra-runs and triathlons as they go.
The commonality is that everyone’s here for the adventure, the chance to run wild in the foothills of the Himalaya. As I start down the first hill I recognise the distinct summit pyramid of Mt Everest off to my left, with Llotse and Makalu close by. The great snowy massive of Kanchenjunga is straight ahead. With such a compelling view of four of the five highest mountains in the world it’s impossible to race. I click away with my camera – and take a couple of spectacular falls when I take my eye off the road.
Mirik, where we acclimatised before the race.
Concerned about running at an altitude of 3,600m, I, along with fellow Capetonians, Shaen Adey and Theresa Horn, arrived at ‘base camp’, the remote hill town of Mirik, a few days before the start of the race. We were not alone. Noema Williams, a Maori from Auckland, had been there almost a week. “The highest point I’ve been to in the last few years is 249m” explained the sprightly 70-year-old. “So I thought I’d spend some time exploring and building up a store of red blood cells.”
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway also known as the Toy Train.
At 1,767m, the town offered the chance to acclimatise both to the altitude and busy, culturally very different, India. It was a good call, not only did we have time to visit Mirik’s monastery, church, orchid nurseries, markets and a local tea estate – and to ride the famous coal-fired mountain railway, the ‘Toy Train’ that puffs through the hill station of Darjeeling - but we were in reasonable shape for the punishing climb of 2,565m that faced us on the first day.
The historic cobbled road that we ran was commissioned by the Aga Khan. Running it was tough, but preferable to bumping along in the support landies.
The start, 38km of uphill largely on a rough cobbled road that was built in the 1940s, was brutal, but worse was the descent of nearly 1000m.
Down and down we went, our knees jarring we entered a zone of ancient trees draped in lichens. “Baard boom” quipped Theresa as the snaking road returned to its upward trajectory. As we regained our lost height the mist rolled in and the temperatures fell. Along with our spirits. It was with some relief that we finally struggled into Sandakphu and collapsed.
Fiona McIntosh completing Day 1.
Although there are no cut-offs, some of the back markers were tempted to throw in the towel as the evening drew in. Angela Scott could see the lodge high in the mist above her when the back-up jeep came past. Spent, she begged to be picked up but the driver would have none of it. “You’re nearly there,” insisted one of the organising staff jumping out of the vehicle. “I’ll walk with you.” Radioing his colleagues he sent for tea to be brought down. Revived, Angela survived to fight another day.
Pounding along the ridgeline I feel the privilege of running in this majestic environment, surrounded by lofty peaks. “The world’s most scenic race,” is living up to its billing.
Angela Scott at one of the food stations.
Now in its 26th year, the Himalayan 100-mile stage race has been showered with accolades not just for it’s views but for its superb organisation and social and environmental footprint. Despite the logistical challenges we want for nothing either at the lodges or on the route. Our health and well-being are attended to by specialised doctor and cooks instructed in the peculiarities of Western tastes and delicate stomachs, while frequent water and food stations means that there’s no need to even carry a running pack.
A portion of our entry fees goes to local charities and conservation efforts in the areas that we run through – the walkers are tasked with handing out notebooks and pens to primary school children that line the approaches to many of the food stations.
Race director Mr Pandey briefing us at the start.
The success is due to the tireless efforts of the founder and race director Mr CS Pandey, an accomplished and intrepid mountaineer, trail runner and mountain biker who has spearheaded the development of adventure tourism in India.
Although very well-travelled, with his heavily accented English and distinctive Indian body language - the “doddle” of the head and flamboyant hand movements – he comes across initially as something straight out of Marigold Hotel.
The organisation was fabulous. We were well-fed and watered by the smiling support staff.
But Mr Pandey’s fierce pride and passion for the area, for India’s towering mountains, jungles and friendly communities is apparent from the start, as is that of his assistant race director, the unflappable Mansi Pandey and their cheery staff.
Little touches, the fairy lights and garlands of marigolds that decorate the lodges, the numerous scarves that are draped around our necks, the varied menu options and the snippets of local history and customs that are woven into Mr Pandey’s briefings give insight into the mix of cultures in the region. It’s charming.
Eric Schranz beginning the descent into the jungle on Day 3
I catch Eric Schranz on the steep technical downhill through the jungle. An experienced ultrarunner he’s taking it easy, snapping selfies with the soldiers that line the upper section of the route, enjoying the views of deep valleys and green hills and the interaction with the yak herders and villagers that we meet on the way. Despite owning a wardrobe of state of the art running gear he’s sporting a pair of brightly coloured, crocheted shorts, which elicit shy giggles from everyone we meet on the way.
The run took us past various holy places.
As we lose height the landscape changes and I’m distracted by stupas, temples and little homesteads surrounded by bright flowers and vegetable gardens. Trekkers utilise these paths so there’s also a sprinkling of lodges and teahouses.
“This is my slowest ever marathon time,” Eric concedes as we cross the finish line in just over seven hours. But he’s smiling. It’s been a great day out. A mad Irishman, Michael Burke, is hot on our heels. Thanks to his bizarre strategy of flying down the hills at break neck speed then almost collapsing with exhaustion at the bottom of the descents we’ve yo-yoed past each other for the last three days. “I love the rush of the downhills,” he says by way of explanation when I suggest that a more steady, controlled pace might be more efficient.
Fiona McIntosh and Eric Schranz finishing the big day.
The lodge in the tidy village of Rimbik has everything that a weary runner could hope for; lovely hosts, hot showers, flush toilets, a constant supply of tea and beer and tasty, filling food. As well as a view to die for, particularly at dawn when the velvety layers of mountain ranges stretching to the Tibetan border glow in the oblique light.
After the rigours of the marathon we’re rewarded with an easy penultimate day of only 13 miles. The roadrunners take off down the steep road to the river, happy to be on tar. As I struggle up the equally steep road on the other side I rue the fact there are no modern bridges spanning these valleys. The only way to cross from one ridge to another is to descend to the lowest point then regain all the lost height.
Much of the second half of the route was on tarred roads through colourful mountain villages.
The final day starts where the previous one ended, the endorphins kicking in as our bus driver negotiates trucks, cars and motorbikes - often on the edge of precipitous drops. We jog through along a narrow winding road flanked by dense vegetation, catching frustratingly brief glimpses of Kanchenjunga before cresting the ridge beginning the long final descent to finish.
We manage a little celebratory jig as we cross the tape, happy that it’s over and that we are still in one piece, but sad that the race is at an end. We’ve enjoyed an incredible window on a little visited region of northern India, a place virtually untouched by foreign tourists.
On the final two days we ran through lush forests with tumbling waterfalls.
Before the race Mr Pandey had announced: “This race is not for average minded people, this is for great, great people. Not idiots, intellectual people like yourselves. Enjoy the beauty and culture, expand your horizons rather than bust your system.”
Wise words that helped me survive. If you’re up for a challenge add the Himalayan Run to your bucket list.
Fiona McIntosh, Shaen Adey and Theresa Horn about to cross the finish line.