Head over heels
The Himalayan 100 mile stage race, incorporating the Mt. Everest Challenge Marathon
It’s quite usual in a race to find out a bit more about yourself as you push out of the comfort zone – what is unique about the Himalayan 100 mile stage race is that you also get to find out an awful lot about the local culture and its people.
The mere mention of ‘Himalayas’, ‘Mount Everest’ and ‘Challenge’ will get most mountain lovers to prick up their ears and key in the website address to find out more. Yet this event is so much more than just a race – it’s a journey of discovery!
Not only is it 100 miles, leading through some of the most amazing scenery, with expectedly challenging terrain and some thin air, but also a journey through ancient, foreign cultures and an experience that will bring the most eclectic mix of people together to regard each other as a ‘family’.
70 people came together from 16 different nations to participate in the 17th running of this event. Ages ranged from 17 to 67 and the running experience of participants spanned an equally wide spectrum from the 2:32 marathoner to those who never usually run…
As mentioned, this is not just a race. There are no cut off times or entry requirements. While those at the sharp end of the race battle for positions, others will be there to soak up the stunning views or to put themselves through the biggest challenge of their lives. Even walkers are catered for with an option of shorter routes coupled with jeep support.
What is the same for all competitors is the dedicated support from the organiser, Mr C.S. Pandey, and his huge team of helpers. The route of the race travels through some very remote areas on very tricky trails and throws up some huge logistical challenges. Yet there are water stations, alternated with feed stations (providing bananas, boiled potatoes, biscuits, water and glucose powder) as well as portable toilets, dotted along at approximately 3km intervals. Each competitor is logged at every checkpoint, there are military guards at regular intervals along the border regions and luggage is transported efficiently to and from the various overnight bases. Each and every competitor gets to run through the finish tape at the end of their day to enthusiastic cheering from the support staff and those runners who had finished earlier!!
Then there’s the Doctor. A keen runner himself he is busy on route and in the evenings patching up scrapes and blisters, treating injuries or ailments. Everybody’s blood pressure and pulse is checked and recorded at regular intervals throughout the race…
We all meet at Mirik a couple of days before the start for a race briefing. Some have arrived earlier and appear more relaxed than those who are fresh from their long journey from Dehli. The drive from Bagdogra airport is interesting and gives a first taste of this strange country. It is also the first chance for people to get to know each other.
The day before the race offers a day trip to Darjeeling. It’s an early start and a long day, but coming all this way to India it seems a shame to miss the chance of seeing some of it! The views of rolling hills and tea plantations as well as little villages and lush forests gives a little glimpse of what may lie ahead on the next days run! Darjeeling itself is pretty and we visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, explore the market and take a ride on the toy train. Then it’s home to pack the bags for the race.
From the moment we started at Maneybhanyjang (6600ft) for the first stage of the race - a grueling 24 miles leading up to Sandakphu (11815 ft) - we would be welcomed with humbling generosity and curiosity by the local people.
Each competitor was presented with a white scarf from the inhabitants at Maneybhanyjang before the start. The locals were out in force to cheer and observe this merry bunch of excited runners start out on their journey through the Himalayas.
By the time we reached the camp at Sandakphu, hearts thumping fast and lungs burning thanks to the endless climbs and altitude, we’d all passed many smiling, waving children, curious villagers, numerous temples and prayer flags fluttering in the wind and made bonds with fellow runners and friends with the staff along the way.
Accommodation at Sandakphu, base for 2 nights, is basic although palatial considering the conditions at this remote spot. Hot soup and bread, tea, coffee and biscuits are available to all as soon as they come through the finish. The evening meal is plentiful and tasty, offering a good choice of dishes – something that applies to the entire trip!
Due to the cold temperatures and limited electricity supply, coupled with some early starts to make the best of the weather conditions most go to sleep as the sun sets and are up before 5 am to watch it rise again over the surrounding mountains. Four of the world’s five highest mountains are visible from here: Kanchenjunga dominates the scene, while Makalu, Mount Everest and Lhotse huddle together on the other side.
Breakfast is consumed while soaking it all in and taking snaps to record the moment.
6.30am and stage 2 is underway. A mere 20 miles – made easy by the stunning views and downhill start, although it does become a little tougher when we turn at Molle and retrace our steps back to Sandakphu. Most still battle with the thin air at this altitude, but all are back in good time to enjoy a relaxing afternoon, socialising around the camp and lazing in the sun.
A race briefing in the afternoon attempts to prepare us all for what lies ahead on day three – The Mount Everest Challenge Marathon.
Stage 3 - The Mount Everest Challenge Marathon
Logistically the most difficult day, this stage proves challenging not just for the runners but also the staff transporting luggage, supplying the feed stations and chaperoning the last competitor who would arrive in Rimbik long after sunset.
The first 10 miles of the day are to Molle - the same as the previous day. Then follow 4 miles out and back to Phulet – stunning views and pleasant tracks, but some challenging climbs.
Once back to Molle, it’s downhill all the way to Rimbik. (Well, almost…). The terrain is challenging and the decent relentless. There are murmurs about this stage far exceeding the 26.2 miles of a marathon but as Mr. Pandey pointed out, you wouldn’t want to do a 100 mile stage race and find out you’d only completed 98 – better to do a few extra miles just in case. The true distance of the route remains a mystery – even modern GPS’s can’t quite cope with the dense jungle and constant switch backs… Everybody seems to agree it’s the word ‘challenge’ in the title of the days proceeding rather than ‘marathon’ that describe the day best.
Warmer temperatures and an interesting village to explore make Rimbik a pleasant base. We stay here for two nights again, but the long day takes it’s toll and it’s an early night again for most despite the promise of a lie in on day 4. By now most people have to cope with blisters or tight muscles, stomach problems or other aches and pains and the doctor’s working overtime!
A lie in, a mere 13 miles on tarmac and a long downhill start give some chance of recovery, although those with sore knees struggle on this day, as we wind down through the villages to the river in the bottom of the valley before climbing up on the opposite side towards the finish at Palmajua.
We are brought back to Rimbik in busses from the finish at Palmajua. The race is followed by another lazy afternoon, spent relaxing or exploring the village.
An entertaining evening follows as it’s ‘cultural exchange’ night. Each nation showcases a traditional dance or a song from their country. Locals provide music and also perform dances and listen interestedly to what is presented. The staff also entertain us with enthusiastic songs and dances from their home regions and a good night is had by all.
Then final day of the race comes round. 17 miles on tarmac from Palmanjua to Maneybhanyjang. We are taken by bus to start - the place where we had finished on the previous day. There seems to be a certain sense of urgency in the air as we set off. ‘Let’s get this thing finished’ seems to be the general consensus! A gradual climb through the forests for approximately five miles is followed by a long, gradual decent to the finish. Dense forests and some great views but behind every bend in the last few kilometers we long to spy a glimpse of the finish. Eventually it comes – Maneybhanyjang lies a short distance ahead and the finish comes quickly.
Everyone had different experiences along the way, some struggled more than others, but the sense of camaraderie that had developed over the last week shows through as people hug and congratulate each other. We have done it!!!
We bus back to our original base at Mirik and there’s an elaborate prize giving ceremony in the evening – mementoes to all and flashy plax for the winners.
Each competitor is called up to the stage individually to collect their award and greet the celebrity guests – those with more than one prize go up again for each one – and then there’s speeches…
The party we had planned for after the evening meal doesn’t materialize as each and everyone of us seems shattered and flees to bed early for a good, long nights sleep.
Agra & Dehli
A day is spent travelling back from Mirik to Dehli from where some of the competitors head for home. Most stay on in Dehli though for a couple of days’ sight seeing.
The runners take the 2.5 hour train journey to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, but we, the journalists travelled by bus. A journey of six hours with plenty to see along the way. A knowledgeable guide then talks us through the history and answers our questions as we admire this ‘Wonder of the World’ – an amazing building indeed!!!!
It’s been a long day by the time we arrive back in Dehli, but it’s been a memorable experience!!!
The final day is a tour of the sights of Dehli. The lack of traffic on a Sunday comes as a pleasant surprise as do the great expanses of green land which surround many of the sights. Dehli is a city of contrasts – hustle and bustle with masses of people and cars one moment, then quiet palaces or forts with breathtaking architecture and fascinating history. Everything lives side by side here – poverty and amazing riches, horse or camel drawn carriages, three wheelers, bicycles and cars share the roads; Mosques, Hindu temples and other faiths exist peacefully side by side. It’s a place that makes you think and stare in awe. It’s hard to take it all in, but it’s been fun trying! Not everything you see is pleasant, but Mr Pandeys mantra: “Take away and tell of the good things, and leave behind the bad” is not a bad one to adopt here! It’s a place to shake you awake for sure!
The good byes on the final day were tough, but I know I’ve made some friends for life and have fallen head over heels in love with the Himalayas and it’s people!!
The 18th HSR is scheduled during 1st to 8th November 2008 (Seven Nights / Eight Days from Bagdogra airport to Bagdogra Airport) while 14th ECM is scheduled on 5th November 2008.
For more information contact the race organizer:
Himalayan Run &
Trek Pvt. Ltd.