Monday, 19 November 2012

The Himalayan 100 mile stage race and Everest Challenge Marathon

Running in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world
Photo (c) Anne Marie Dunhill

In 1996 I tore an article out of Runner’s World Magazine. It showed a photograph of runners on the start line of this race with a magnificent snow capped mountain in the background and so taken was I with the idea of ever doing this event I kept the article and added it to my list of “must do races”.

So it only took me 16 years to get round to it.

I met up with some of my fellow runners at Bagdogra airport and from there we were transported by rickety bus up into the mountains passing firstly through the busy streets of the town with the shacks and stalls and roads filled with buses, tuk tuks, rickshaws and cars and then past the extensive tea plantations with women carrying the loaded baskets on their backs and over thickly forested slopes leading up to the hill station of Mirik which was where the race HQ was based. It was noticeably cooler when we reached Mirik in the evening after the heat and the dust of the day.

Rickety bus
Tea plantations
 Having been allocated our rooms and our roommates for the week it was time for the first race briefing. It was painful, to put it mildly. The race is organised by Himalayan Run & Trek, director Mr C S Pandey, legend in his own lunchtime. After various race formalities and hearing a lengthy description of Pandey’s achievements interspersed with some sort of zen “ you are not here to compete, it will be a life changing experience” nonsense. We were finally allowed out to get food. This, I decided, was a man who liked the sound of his own voice.

Mirik with the Monastery on the hill

Colourful shops

Lake side stalls

The next day a large number of the group went on a trip to Darjeeling and so I decided I would explore the town of Mirik instead. Mirik is a holiday town buzzing with activity, based around a large lake where all the action seemed to take place such as boat hire and pony rides. Colourful stalls selling fabrics and food line the lake and it’s even possible to buy bread to feed the fish in the lake. I took a walk right round the perimeter of the lake enjoying the glorious sunshine and then decided to go and look at the monastery which involved climbing up through the narrow ramshackle streets to reach the lavishly coloured building perched on the hillside above the town. A friendly monk let me walk round (shoes off first) and take pictures. Walking back into the town I took more notice of the monks who despite all being dressed in their traditional red robes all seemed to have either ipods, mobile phones or tablets much to my surprise and appeared to be going shopping. I was later assured that there are different orders of monks, some who follow much more severe regimes than others such as the vow of silence.

The brightly coloured Monastery
Inside the Monastery
Prayer flags
A Monk on his mobile phone

 Dinner was served once the main group had arrived back from Darjeeling and after yet another interminable “race briefing” from Pandey it was time to get to know some of my fellow competitors. There were people who had done various stage races in the desert such as my roommate Reitha, Bert from the USA who had been running up at Everest base camp in preparation for this race, an American husband and wife who were there to do the race had already been out on 2 training runs that day (they eventually won the race) and there was Pat who had climbed to the top of Mount Everest a few years previously although you would never know anything of his achievements if you didn’t ask as you couldn’t meet someone more modest and unassuming. I began to feel as though I was the most ill prepared competitor in the room, other than those poor individuals who had already contracted some illness which is to be expected on any trip to India.

We all went to bed early due to the 5am alarm call the following day which I think for many of us was futile as sleep was not forthcoming that night due to rock hard beds, tooting horns, yapping dogs and the anticipation of what was to come. As advised we had firmly shut our doors and windows to guard against marauding monkeys getting in which apparently is a problem and one that I felt I really didn’t need although there may have been a certain amount of entertainment to be had from this…

Our accommodation and race HQ on the hill above the lake

 Day 1  According to race description - from Manebhanjang (2134m/6600ft) to Sandakphu (3636m/11815ft) – 24 miles

5am came soon enough and it was time to board the buses to take us to the start of the race. The race starts at the village of Manebhanjang (at 2134m/6600ft) which was approximately an hour and a half drive from Mirik in the rickety buses through more forest and tea plantations. It was a chilly morning but it was still early yet. We each got a “breakfast in a box” consisting of a hard boiled egg, banana, cheese sandwiches and cake so first challenge of the day was trying to peel a hard boiled egg while being bounced around in a bus with no suspension on rough unmade up roads.

Eventually we reached Manebhanjang and it seemed as though the whole village had turned out to greet us, there were people lining the streets and out on balconies and a small band was playing including a Nepalese bagpiper. It was here that chaos ensued. Instead of getting on to each bus and saying “toilet to the right, put your bags over there” or something similar Pandey waited until all the runners had got off the bus and merged into the mele of musicans, village folk and children before resorting to running around waving his arms and blowing a whistle. In the confusion and hurry of it all I never managed to apply my sun cream which would have painful consequences later.
Order was somehow restored and we all lined up under the start line banner each runner having received a silk scarf from a local child. One of the runners from the USA, Kim, tied a knot in hers after each stage of the race as a sort of good luck charm. I wrapped mine into my waterproof jacket hoping not to tear the fragile material and hoping too that maybe it would prove to be a good luck charm.
Nepalese Bagpipes

The start
 And then to my relief we were off and we were climbing from the very start. My recollections of the actual run are surprisingly few but I certainly noticed how quickly the temperature had changed when the early morning chill had burned off. For the most part the trail took us through thick dense forest and it was a day of climbing which suited me perfectly and I enjoyed the challenge and felt glad of my wee visit to the top of Ben Nevis the previous weekend. Firstly I ran alon side Bert from the USA who had gone to Everest base camp to acclimatise but unfortunately had come back with some respiratory lurgy. Fortunately he seemed to recover during the week and get stronger. 

Laterly I hooked up with Kim and Gerald from Keith running club near Aberdeen and we ran a good portion of the race together although “run” may have been a bit of an exaggeration for what we were actually doing. As we approached the summit the temperature fell, mist swirled at the edges of the ridge until finally we turned a corner and abruptly reached the finish line at Sandakphu. The three of us ran through the finish line holding hands in a time of 6hrs and 18 minutes. 

Climbing up through the forest away from Manebhanjang

On the ascent

Still climbing


Kanchenjunga comes into view

Mid run snack

The foothills of the Himalayas

Another jeep roars past

A map at the side of the path

Kali Pokhari

Kali Pokhari

The finish line of Day 1

Afternoon clouds on the high mountains

At the finish with Gerald and Kim

Home for the next 2 nights

My hut!
Dorm accommodation - with the hardest beds on the planet

With limited heating...

The dining tent

Everest at sunset

It was noticeably colder here on the ridge and the big mountains of the Himalaya were shrouded in cloud as tends to be the case in the afternoons. The priority was to get warm, cleaned up and fed.

We were staying in trekkers huts for that night and the following night and this was very basic dormitory accommodation with 2 squat toilets for us. Not fancying the “bucket shower” I opted for wet wipes and then went in search of food which turned out to be unlimited quantities of soup and tea and coffee and waited for the other runners to arrive. People came in dribs and drabs until quite late in the evening with some obviously having a harder time of it than others. After dinner and slightly less of a race briefing due to us being in the same place the following night it was off for an early night.
Or as early as it could be with the single light bulb being on when the generator was on and only going off when the generator was turned off until somebody made an attempt to remove the bulb.

*I had measured the total accumulated climb as being just over 9000ft but the total distance as being slightly less than 24 miles.
Day 2  According to race description - from Sandakphu (3636m/11815ft) to Molle (3636m/11655ft) and return to Sandakphu (3636m/11815ft) – 20 miles

The light bulb flashed on when the generator came on and we all got up at sunrise to watch the magnificent sight of the sun coming up over four of the highest mountains of the world and the colours of light changing on the snow as daylight approached.

I found a book in a bookshop in Darjeeling which describes a trek on the Singalila ridge and the sun rise witnessed from Sandakphu

“From Sandakphu, the wild elemental grandeur of the snows begins to assert itself, till the climax is reached at sunrise, when it soaks the snow-laden peaks in crimson and mauve, orange and gold, Kangchenjunga and Everest are seen in all their glory against the backdrop of an azure sky speckled with lazily floating, fleecy clouds. The whole snowy range of Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal, about 320km in length, a wonderful square mass of mountains looking like a wall of snow, is visible, but the gigantic height and breadth of Kanchenjunga, with its attendant peaks, Kabru, Jannu and Pandim dominates the scene; Everest (8848m) now looking rather graceful and majestic, 160km away soars above, peeping shyly from the northern horizon with Lhotse on the left”

From Across Peaks and Passes in Darjeeling & Sikkim by Harish Kapadia – Published by Indus

 After a quick breakfast of some pretty good porridge we were off on the second stage of the race out from Sandakphu and along the Singalila Ridge. Todays’ trail was supposed to be all flattish and level according to the race directorate but of course in the Himalayas this is a relative concept and again at the finish I made the distance as being slightly shorter than the 20 miles but having a total climb of 3,494ft.

A lot of the trails that we ran on were made up of large cobbles which were fine on the climb but were a bit more of a nuisance on the descent as they tended to be at just the right height for catching your toe on and tripping but for the most part I found the terrain was good runnable trail with the stunning backdrop of the mountains that you were running towards for the first half of todays’ stage. The ridge was undulating but there were no real big climbs and it was only towards the end I could feel myself starting to struggle and I slowed but I finished comfortably enough.

 The race takes place in Singalila National park on the border of India and Nepal. The Singalila range starts near Darjeeling and extends all the way to the massive peak of Kanchenjunga to the north, the trail runs along the border itself in and out of both India and Nepal and passes through several army checkpoints all in the foothills of the Himalaya. I read somewhere that this road apparently was built for the use of the Aga Khan but when it was completed he decided not to use it, apparently deeming it too dangerous. His workforce must have been delighted. Anyway it left a good track for runners and the jeep support to use. Today I became very aware of the number of support jeeps that were rumbling up and down the road puffing diesel fumes at the runners and in some cases causing the runners to have to step aside off the track and, although it was nice to have the support sometimes,  I didn’t think it was in the spirit of the peace and quiet of the solitude of the mountains. Despite this I really enjoyed the running and the stunning scenery and just being in the mountains. Some folk had even managed to spot a red panda which I was quite jealous about.

 For the first half of the run we headed towards the mountains. All of the colours seemed remarkably vivid, the white snow caps, the green of the fields the black silhouettes of the burned forest against the backdrop of the blue Himalayan sky.  Here and there I saw other trekkers, soldiers manning the out posts looking at the runners as if the race was the most interesting thing to happen here all year and farmers tending their animals, not quite yaks but large hairy cows all the same.

 The previous day I had a good run as the huge amount of climb suited me and I had enjoyed it so I was sitting in joint third place at the start of the second stage. This section was far more runnable and although I didn’t lose much time I slid down into 4th place with Suzanne from the USA having a storming run right from the start.

Post race relaxing
 With this stage of the run having such an early start there was plenty of time afterwards for hanging around with the other runners and chatting while drinking endless cups of tea and yet more soup and it was very pleasant. However, needless to say any such enjoyment was bought swiftly to an end by the order to attend another Pandey monologue. Picture this, you have run 20 miles today, 24 miles the previous day, you have a marathon to do tomorrow, you have either a wash with wet wipes or, if you are really brave, a bucket shower, you have to spend the night in a dormitory room full of other people, on rock hard beds with bedding that was last washed when Tenzing summited Everest and with ice forming on the inside of the windows because it’s so cold but, instead of being able to go have your dinner, chat with your mates, chill out and get your kit ready for the morning and go to bed you are treated to an hours long oratory about the 900 different types of rhododendrons growing in the area and something about litter bins. This time there were definitely rumblings of discontent amongst the other runners and I’m sure I could hear someone snoring. By the time we got to dinner it was lukewarm and I was rapidly running out of patience with Pandey. This race might be very well organised in terms of logistics but not in terms of being in tune with what the runners were thinking.

That night I got ill. Personally I blame the lukewarm food we were served but no matter what the cause it was vicious. All night I was up and down to the toilet which unfortunately meant not only traipsing through the girls dorm but also the lads dorm too and I didn’t sleep at all. I had kept a bottle of coke by my bed so I tried to rehydrate through the night with that and to nibble on some chocolate but I was bringing up everything I had eaten.  By the time the light bulb flickered into life running a marathon wasn’t the first thing on my mind. 

Day 3 According to race description – The Everest Challenge Marathon – Sandakphu (3636m/11815ft) to Rimbick (2286m/6350ft) 26.2 miles 

The photos taken at the start line of this race show a large snow capped mountain in the background. This is in fact Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, but I suspect the race organisers were worried that if they called it the Kanchenjunga marathon nobody would turn up. 

It was another early start and I was glad of this, anything to distract me from the misery of the previous night. I knew it was crucial to eat as much as possible and despite not feeling like it I managed to stuff down 2 or 3 bowls of porridge. After the usual start line palaver and extensive photo shoots we were finally set off on our way back along the Singalila ridge towards the mighty mountains of the Himalaya.

After reaching Phalut at 3566m/11380ft we about turned back along the ridge to Molle and then started the descent down to the finish line at Rimbick and some descent it was too. Firstly plunging through dense woodlands and then through little villages on the hillside before crossing the river at Siri Khola. My guts were doing cart wheels in the early part of the race and I can proudly boast that I had to take a dump in both India and in Nepal in the space of half an hour. Not many people can claim that! 

However by now I wasn’t feeling sick and was able to eat enough to fuel me for the race and with the aid of my new found sports drink Diarolyte I trotted along comfortably enough for the most part although I had definitely slowed and I was aware that my nearest competitors were getting further and further away from me however there wasn’t much I could do about it other than follow the path on its relentless descent down to the river. As I descended I was aware of the increase in temperature and of all the noises coming from the trees. At one point I found myself speculating on how cool it would be too see a Tiger in the wild but then it dawned on me that I should possibly be more careful about what I wished for… 

I found the descent very difficult, not being a good descender so it was a case of just trying to stay as focused as possible and not get disheartened when people came past me although only two or three actually did. The route passed through little settlements and past houses where chickens and geese ran about, crops such as potatoes growing on little farmed patches of land, corn and other crops were left to dry in the sun and past little lodges and tea houses and for the first time I wished that I wasn’t in a race as a nice cup of tea in that setting would have done me very nicely.

The people of this mountainous area are more Nepalese in appearance than Indian and it was fascinating to see their patches of farmed land on these step slopes and to see them carrying heavy loads along the paths that we were running on. At one point a few of us even saw a man carrying a chair on his back but on that chair there was a person and he was climbing up the steep path that we were descending. The local residents smiled and waved and often had an encouraging word to these western runners, although I suspect for the most part they thought we were barking mad. 

Following the trail downwards

Corn drying in the sun

River crossing at Siri Khola

 The roar of the rushing waters could be heard from quite high up on the hillside and on reaching the river crossing i felt the coolness of the air rising from the river and this was very refreshing as i was expecting the valley to be lot more hot and airless. As i crossed the river at Siri Khola and turned into the last few miles on the wide track towards Rimbick i found that my legs would barely work, that i could hardly run.

Drained from being ill and from the several thousand foot of  descent I had to opt for a strange cross between jogging and power walking to get me to the finish line which I eventually reached in 7 and ½ hours having lost 1 more place.
The approach to Rimbick took us past a house which had been swept several meters down the hillside in a landslide which had also washed the path away. This was why I hadn’t seen a jeep in ages! I picked my way carefully through the remains of the path and finally along the street into Rimbick.

On finishing I was delighted to find that Reitha and I were sharing a room again and that this room was warm and clean and had access to proper toilets and lots of hot water. The little chalet room felt like the height of luxury and needless to say after 70 miles of racing and so far no showers there was a bit of a hard fought race to get to the shower first. The lodge where we were staying had a nice lawn to sit out on and served good food and so I started to feel considerably more refreshed. As night fell competitors were still coming in and most people agreed that the descent was not something that they would have wanted to tackle in the dark but happily everyone seemed to finish without any mishaps.
Fortunately tonight Maansi was giving the briefing which was short and concise and to the point before leaving us to get on with our meals and our socialising with our competitors. You could even get beer and pop corn here which I made the most of. The men’s race at this point seemed very competitive with a couple of people possibly out to win but in the women’s race there was no doubt that Elizabeth had established a very good lead over Rachel and all being well she was very likely to win it.
Tonight most people were very tired and looking forward to getting some sleep as the beds were more comfortable and the next stage wasn’t going to start until 9am the next morning. A lie in! Unfortunately no one had told the locals as they commenced singing their morning prayers at 4.30am…

*My garmin stats for this showed the distance to be very slightly more than a marathon with 3,707ft of climb and 9,245ft of descent accumulated. No wonder my quads hurt.

Day 4 race description – Rimbick (2286m/6350ft) – Palmajua (2000m/6560ft) 

The start line palaver was as bad as ever but once the all important publicity was taken care of it was time to start. This 13 mile route featured 6.5 miles approx. of downhill running which according to the race info took us down to about 4975ft and then 6.5miles of uphill to a point on the road at Palmajua at 6560ft. By this time my Garmin battery had given up the ghost so I have no accurate stats for this stage or the following days’ stage. This was all run on tarmac on switchback roads through dense forest and this was the warmest day so far but at no point was the temperature so high that it was uncomfortable. I didn’t go hell for leather on the downhill tempting though it was as there was still another 17 miles to do the following day and I didn’t want my quads to be trashed. In fact I was surprised how good I felt on this stage and how well I had recovered from the previous days efforts and I really enjoyed this stage of the race. I didn’t lose any more places and stayed in fifth place until the finish. 

At the finish there were yet more publicity photos (was there really such a big interest in this race in the Himalayan region?) and no runner was allowed to get back on to the bus back to Rimbick until they had taken part in a filmed interview basically saying how great the race was. I think I said something inane about really enjoying the running but any potential entrants to the race should “expect anything”…

On return to Rimbick our bus got a flat tyre so we had a bit of hanging around in the sunshine while this was fixed before we were transported back. We were in the middle of nowhere yet the bus driver managed to find somewhere to inflate a bus tyre and im still not sure how or where!
The bus journeys on these switchback roads on steep slopes were interesting if a little hair raising at times. Drivers use their horns constantly in India and on these roads it was to alert other vehicles coming in the opposite direction. Each bus driver seemed to have an assistant whose job it appeared to be to look as far up the bends in the road as possible and whistle to give the all clear for the driver to proceed. 
Spare wheel required

waiting in the sunshine

Fortunately there was a shop selling coke
 With the run finishing so early in the day there was then plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the beer and popcorn on offer and to explore the little town of Rimbick. It turned out to be basically just one street but we bought biscuits and little prayer flags from the little shops and some folk even managed to source bottles of whisky from a hotel – result! It would be fair to say it wasn’t top quality stuff though.
Chilling out

and re-fueling

A spot of shopping

Just what was needed

The finish of the marathon was in the main street in Rimbick

Our accommodation

 Sooner or later the fun had to end. This time it was the nightmare of the “cultural exchange” evening which started, as these things always do, with a bunch of locals dressed up in costumes dancing and playing instruments for our entertainment. This would have been fine if that’s where it had ended but no, runners from each country were told they had to come up and perform and this wasn’t optional, they actually physically dragged people up if they refused. I hooked up with the others on “team GB” and we did some sort of chariots of fire/Jerusalem themed act which was fine and it was quite entertaining to be a part of that. One New Zealand competitor did a Haka and others did various songs and I have to say the South Africans were very good.
Practice for the dreaded "cultural exchange"

Despite my name being clearly on the list as from the UK and not Scotland and I willingly had joined the “team GB” in their act the other Scot was obviously feeling left out and when Maansi Pandey had the cheek to grab me and forcible try to pull me up I slapped her away.  When the compulsory dancing with the locals started I made my escape through the shrubbery and hid until it was dinner time. By now I was deeply concerned that my refusal would have consequences for me in the race as I didn’t trust Pandey one inch but when I scanned the list of competitors my name was, as I knew, actually listed under UK and not Scotland so it was unlikely I would have been so easily identified in the darkness and i felt reassured by this

Day 5 race description - Palmahjura (2000m/6560ft) to Mahnejebhang (2134m/6600ft) 17 miles

I was still spitting with anger the next morning. Good job it was 17 miles that we had to run as it was going to take a good hard run for me to feel less murderous. We were bussed back over the switchback roads to the previous days finishing point where todays' stage would start from. Todays' run was in exact reversal of yesterdays in that all the climb to the high point of 8555ft was in the first half of the run and from there it was pretty much a constant descent to the finish.By the time i reached the summit I was feeling good and a lot calmer and during the run you could still see glimpses of Kanchenjunga in the distance.  A passage from Rudyard Kipling’s 1900 novel Kim sprang to mind. The story was set in India and talks of the longing of a Tibetan Lama (priest, not camel like animal) for his home in the mountains. 

“When we reach the lower hills I shall be yet stronger. The hakim spoke truly to me this morn when he said a breath from the snows blows away twenty years from the life of a man”

Emptying my mind of all of the irritations of the race I gave it everything I had on the descent. The terrain and landscape were exactly the same as the previous day although today it was noticeably cooler and rain was forecast. 

I ran the last few miles hard, now impatient for the race to be over and the finish line came into view at the edge of the village. The approach to the finish was lined with children cheering and waving flags and all of the competitors were given another silk scarf. Needless to say there were scenes of relief, of joy and of course tears from people on the finish line as competitors hugged and congratulated each other. I have to say I didn’t feel any real emotion towards the race, I was glad I had finished but almost instantly my thought was “well that was that, what next?”.  A life changing experience it wasn’t.
Approaching the finish

Cheers and congratulations

....and relief

 First things first though, so it was off for a beer and some more soup before boarding the bus back to Mirik, after all we had the joy of the prize giving to attend that evening. To cut a long story short (shame Pandey didn’t) I sat near the door so I could lift my trophy and escape to the balcony with a beer while the prize giving went on…and on. I was joined by a fellow runner who was as equally unimpressed with Pandey as I was. A large number of officials in uniform had been invited to attend and I was reliably informed that Pandey even presented himself with a prize. For an after race party it was actually a pretty early night that was had by most people.

So did I enjoy the race? Yes I did. The running was superb, the trails were excellent, the scenery was fantastic. Can you really beat running in the shadow of the great Himalayas? And to top it all off I met some really great people in my fellow competitors.
To name a few who were worthy of special mention include Kelly, who on one morning was sobbing as she was so ill yet she carried on to finish. Vittorio who at 73 was the oldest competitor and who after a horrendous first day soldiered on to complete the race. Shane who has overcome a crippling illness to not only not avoid being wheelchair bound but to be able to take on a challenge like this. Ritchie who has overcome injuries a doctor would describe as life changing sustained in a motor bike crash to compete and I wish him luck with his ambitions to get to the Olympics in Rio in 2016 having narrowly missed selection this year. Catherine who competed only having surgery to re attach a ruptured achilles a few months previously and Mike who had a triple heart bypass operation the previous year.
And there was the rest, who like myself have no tale to tell of overcoming adversity but who got through the race and supported each other best we could. Best quote of the week came at the finish line at Sandkphu from Adam “I would shake your hand mate, but I’m holding a potato”. There’s really nothing you can really say to that!

Would I do it again? No. Not with Pandey as the race director. The intended eastern spirituality, peace and joy of being in the mountains appears to have been lost in a mire of publicity seeking hypocrisy.  Can you really tell someone that they are going to have a life changing experience by doing your race?

Would I recommend anyone else do it?. Yes, I think I would. Just be aware of what you are getting into and I don’t mean the running. That being said there are other Himalayan races that are put on by runners for runners and so these may be more palatable options including one that does sections of this 100 mile stage race so it is worth doing some internet surfing and chatting to other runners who have done similar events. Running in the Himalayas is certainly to be recommended and I would also consider a solo adventure - to quote Peter Buchanan “maybe not as part of an organised bunfight"

Some tips for anyone still considering this race

Filming - Be used to getting filmed. It was constant and you couldn’t move without getting a camera shoved in your face whether running, eating your dinner or lining up at the toilet queue. The wheels of the Pandey self promotion publicity machine are ceaseless.

Shoes- it was all run on good stony dry track and road so I found my North face double track shoes perfect for the race and to be honest you could get away with trainers for most of it. If I had worn a less supportive mountain running type shoe I think my feet would have been a bit mashed by the rocks on the path although one runner did the whole thing in Vibram Five Finger shoes, probably taking bare foot running to its limit! Some runners had packed road shoes for the road sections but I stuck with my North face shoes throughout and I can’t fault them. Pandey gave various lectures about how tightly you should lace your shoes for the race but quite frankly if you haven’t figured that out in your training runs then you are asking for trouble.

Medical kit – Make sure you bring hand sanitiser and use it. Obsessively. 

Bring toilet paper – its not supplied 

Most people got ill at some point and the general levels of hygiene in this country are appalling. I got Ciproflaxin from the Doctor before I went and ended up taking that when it looked as though my stomach problems had no intention of settling down after 24hours. At the first race briefing Pandey proudly boasted that nobody would get ill from eating the food that the race directorate provided and the pre departure information booklet made statements about disinfecting plates but it’s safe to say disinfectant is not a known substance in Sandkaphu and don’t be surprised if you see the same bloke taking the bins out then shovelling croutons into your soup with his bare hands five minutes later.

Bring toilet paper

Bring a supply of your basic meds such as nurofen, anti histamines, paracetamol, after sun but most importantly your foot care items such as compeed, plasters and tape. I started to develop a blister on day one but stopped mid run to treat it and kept it covered for the rest of the race and it gave me no more trouble. There also seemed to develop a bit of a black market in meds with items being swapped. 
The race Doctors were also dishing out Diamox like sweeties for runners to take preventatively which surprised me and although I made sure I got my share should the need arise I didn’t find the altitude affected me much at all. There was a lot of pre race chat about the altitude so don’t let that psyche you out or let you confuse the symptoms of just general tiredness and jet lag with those of genuine altitude sickness. It isn’t actually that high in terms of altitude.

Remember that although its cold in the mountains the sun is fierce, very fierce, so apply lots of sun cream and bring a hat and sun shades. On the first day I didn’t apply enough sun cream and the consequences were very painful but unexpectedly I also burned the very top of my head and that was through the mop of hair that I have.

Did I mention to bring toilet paper…?

Food – For the most part the food at the race was passable, basic but passable (apart from the porridge which was excellent). A lot of rice and veg based dishes, pasta dishes, soup and dishes such as french fries and potatoes. And a lot of hard boiled eggs. Fortunately tea and coffee and biscuits were on constant supply. Aid stations had ready supplies of bananas, biscuits and boiled potatoes as well as water so you had to carry very little with you. As usual I opted for the age old favourite jelly babies as well as biscuits I had bought from home. I didn’t bother with drop bags after the first day when mine didn’t make it to the aid station. I also discovered my new favourite electrolyte replacement drink – Diarolyte. Necessity is, of course, the mother of invention.

Weather – It was dry for the whole week and temperatures in the mountains ranged from around about freezing in the morning to really quite warm and pleasant during the day. I wore shorts and either a long sleeve top or a t shirt and carried a water proof and a thermal. Bring a duvet jacket and warm leggings for after the run and a decent sleeping bag with liner. If I had known in advance how hard the beds were I would have bought a therma rest to lie on. Also your bags etc are pretty secure, its not like travelling in other parts of India apart from the odd rat attack where people got their bags chewed by rodents during the night.

Training – lots of long runs and back to back long runs to get you used to doing consecutive days for example go out for 4 or 5 hours on a Saturday and then the same on the Sunday. Make sure you have plenty of climbing practice. The first day is apparently where the greatest number of DNFs occur so go run up Ben Nevis a couple of times and you will be ok. 

Acclimatisation/travelling – This one is a double edged sword. Time at altitude or arriving early to get over jet lag may on the face of it seem like a good idea but when you are in a country like India the longer you are there the more chance you have of picking up some illness prior to the race.

Self guided trip - The Singalila ridge is a well known trekking area and it would be possible to do a self guided trip here although it can be very tricky to get hold of decent maps and from what I can tell India is a mire of bureaucracy and so a bit of research beforehand would be useful regarding border crossings and trekking fees and permits.

From Across Peaks and Passes in Darjeeling & Sikkim by Harish Kapadia – Published by Indus

Footnote - A quick trawl of the results reveals that i finished 16th out of the 51 finishers in the race and 5th out of the 22 female finishers


  1. Louise, what an epic adventure! I'm sure all the stunning scenery and surroundings will stay a treasured memory for ever.

  2. Thank you for all of this info, Louise - especially for the advice on what to bring. Very helpful - am leaving on Tuesday to run the 2013 edition, will post to my running blog when I get back!