Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Manaslu Trail Race



Manaslu at 8163m is the 8th highest mountain in the world
I’m not very sure how to approach writing this, there is just so much to say about this race so I guess the beginning is as good a place to start as anywhere. The beginning was in crazy, vibrant, dusty Kathmandu where I was collected from the airport and deposited sleepy and bemused at the race HQ, the appropriately named Hotel Manaslu from where we received the race briefing, met our fellow competitors, were allocated a room-mate and generally organised ourselves for the 10 day adventure ahead. Bags were packed and re-packed and weighed to make sure they met the regulation 10kg weight. Then re-packed again.  And any last minute purchases were made. The race briefing was light hearted and every runner had to introduce themselves with a wee statement, who they were and what bought them to this event in Nepal. We were treated to two lovely meals in Kathmandu, one of these at a very traditional restaurant where we were entertained by dancers and, quite randomly, a man in a giant peacock costume and where we all had to sit on the floor cross legged at the table - which is no mean feat for a distance runner to manage.
Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu
Colourful shops and stalls
Eilidh turning the prayer wheels
Ready for the race briefing
The race director
There were 38 runners in the race, all from different backgrounds and the usual mix of very competitive people such as the strong Nepalese contingent who were most certainly the race favourites and justifiably so and then there were those just hoping to get round. Personally I went to Manaslu viewing this as a race, a chance to redeem myself for my DNF at Monte Rosa earlier that Autumn and initially my main concern was to justify my place on the startline - I just couldnt fail again. However what started as a race soon developed into something that was more akin to a journey, at times I felt great, at times I felt terrible, there were laughs and tears, friendships made and there was the joy in discovering this wonderful and amazing country.

From Kathmandu we were all transported by bus to the start at the riverside village of Soti Kola and this was a very long 10 hour bus ride on bumpy tracks, everywhere and everything seemed to be covered in a fine layer of dust and I noticed people in Kathmandu wore face masks to protect themselves from the dust and fumes. As we neared our overnight stop the bus juddered to a halt in the darkness and the driver hopped out, the “road” apparently required inspection to see if it was safe to pass. The conclusion was yes, it was safe and we bounced along the track on our way grateful that it was dark, figuring by this time that ignorance was bliss.
The high mountains in the distance
A bus on the dusty track
Stopping for a break on the long bus journey to the start
Tired we reached our overnight accommodation, perched on the banks of the roaring river and after food and hot drinks myself and my room-mate Bev sorted our bags for the morning and attempted to get an early night. The teahouse was peaceful and so tired out after so much travelling I managed to get a good nights sleep which was a good thing given what lay ahead.

STAGE 1 – Soti Kola to Tatopani (22km approx.)
The following morning we deposited our bags in a pile ready to be loaded on to the Mules, ate breakfast and then followed Richard to the start line. The nervous anticipation was palpable, it was all starting to feel very real and I was eager to get started and, after a quick race briefing, we were off. We had been told that Stage 1 sort of followed the river and it did so by snaking up the mountainside high above the river to a little village perched up on the hillside. I really started to enjoy myself running on those trails through thick vegetation in glorious sunshine and past little houses perched on the mountainside. Working hard on this relentless climb I was rewarded with tantalising views of the river far below, endless jungle around me, villages clinging precariously to the hillside with their cultivated terraces stretching down below and of mighty peaks in the distance. This was the type of running I enjoy and unusually for a runner I relish heat. Apparently bears and monkeys populate these slopes and although I kept a keen look out my wildlife tally for the day amounted to chickens, goats and a spider of rather an alarming size. Finally I reached the little village at the top of the hill and prepared to tackle the descent, it was a steep descent on a loose sandy trail but not too technical and I could glimpse through the trees and see the valley and the route stretching ahead past another village. After the checkpoint it was a case of following the river to the village of Tatopani and our overnight stop. Tatopani means “hot water” and the natural hot thermal springs pouring down from the mountain were a delightful treat at the end of the day. After a wash, endless tea and biscuits we waited until the Mule trains arrived with our kit bags. As we had been warned the temperature decreases rapidly after the sun drops behind the mountains and we were all glad when our kit arrived.
The luggage transport
Competitors bags waiting to be loaded on the mules
On our way to the start
Stage briefing by Richard
Villages and terraces clinging to the hillside
Following the trail with the river far below
Orange tape marked the way
The finish at Tatopani
Relaxing after stage one
Enjoying the hot springs
Kit
Our kit bags had to weigh a max of 10kg each to allow them to be transported by Mule. So what does 10kg of kit look like? Well first off a good sleeping bag fills up much of the space but is a very important item, I don’t recommend skimping on that. I settled for taking 2 pairs of running shoes, one to run in and one for kicking about in post run. A down jacket is also a must as is a windproof jacket and trousers. (5 days in though and I rapidly came to the conclusion that two down jackets were a must.) A Nalgene bottle for hot water and a cup are needed too as well as your “race food” for 9 days which for most people comprised bars and gels and my own personal race favourites of Snickers and Nakd Bakewell bars. The rest of the space was taken up with as many thermal tops, t-shirts and fleeces that I could cram in as well as hats and gloves. I limited myself to 3 pairs of socks for the 9 days of the event so as you can imagine by the end of 3 days I could have pinned the race number to a sock and it could have finished the race itself. Toilet roll is another necessity as it is not supplied. There were some showers available but for me the advantages of having a lukewarm shower was always weighed up against how cold I would be with wet hair after sundown. In some places we stayed showers were not an option and so wet wipes really came into their own. Basically everything other than the clothes you were running in had to go into this bag and weigh less than 10kg so best leave the hairdryer and straightening tongs at home.
The mules arrive with our bags
STAGE 2 –Tatopani to Pewa (29.7km approx.)
Same routine as the previous morning – get the bags packed up and handed over to the mule handlers, breakfast and then ready to go. The day seemed to be marginally cooler, indicative maybe of the height that we had gained. The path followed the river bank through a deep gorge, todays route being described as “Nepali flat” and took in some exciting metal footbridges and a walkway that seemed to be precariously attached to the cliff. I did my best not to look down. At times the gorge widened to expose a wide river bed where people and animals were making their way over the stony silty ground alongside the glacial waters. Again and again the path rose and fell, leaving and joining the river bank where pale blue glacial waters swirled past. Another timber bridge had to be crossed which seemed to have been taken straight out an Indiana Jones movie, rickety, loose planks and holes in the side metal mesh panels, all that was missing were the gun wielding baddies and a few crocodiles below. If the days running had not raised my heart rate then this bridge crossing did as I tiptoed across it gingerly wondering if the mule trains also came this way. If it can support a mule or two then it can support my weight, right? Eventually I reached the overnight stop at Pewa and I was glad that I had packed a jacket with me as this teahouse was deep in a valley from where the sun dropped early to give way to a cold starry night.
This walkway above the river was a wee bit scary
They reapired a hole in the bridge by sticking rocks in the holes!
Stage 2 checkpoint
Yikes!
The sun dropped quicky behind the mountains
 Mules
Mules were used to transport our kit between stages which they did with remarkable efficiency. One of the hazards of the trail though was trying to pass by the mule trains on the narrow mountain paths. For the record mules are large, stubborn, bad tempered and rather aromatic. And they didn’t seem to like me. We had been told to always pass the mule trains by staying to the mountain side of the path as a mule could easily knock you off the path into the ravine. I tried to stick to this instruction until I found myself being crushed up against a rock face by a fully laden mule (stuck between a mule and a hard place?) I ducked under its neck only for it to turn sharply and propel me off the edge of the path. Fortunately the dense undergrowth stopped my fall and I was hauled out of the shrubbery by an alarmed looking porter. I picked the leaves out my hair, dusted myself down and continued on my way but from then on was far less timid around these creatures and had no hesitation in walloping mules on the backside to make them move out my way. Mule 1 – Louise 0.
A traffic jam on the trail
STAGE 3 - Pewa to Hinang Gompa (Approx 29k)
After my mule related incident of the previous day today was all about monkeys and lizards that darted over the path in front of me. Three monkeys shot out of the undergrowth in front of me, chattering and shrieking. One of them stopped on the path in front of me and appeared to be eyeing me up. Yikes – a stand off! Hmmm….I stopped and wondered whether I should throw some item of food in his direction to distract him while I made my get away…I wonder if he’d like a gel…Eventually I decided to take a photo and after one final look at me he followed his friends and disappeared into the undergrowth. Today we had definitely left the warmer climates and the villages we passed through appeared more Tibetan in character with prayer flags adorning structures on the hillside and cairns covered in stones carved with symbols. Today I really felt as though we were really in the mountains and today’s stage felt harder than the previous two, maybe the altitude was beginning to take effect. Again the trail was relentlessly undulating until finally I passed through a field of Yak, the first I had seen and I was quite excited by this (sad, I know), and ran into the ground of the brightly coloured Hinang Gompa monastery where we were staying for the night. We sat around in glorious sunshine until the cold descended at sundown with the Nepalese runners entertaining us with their singing, eating noodle soup that Lizzy had organised for us all on finishing and waiting for the eventual arrival of the mules once darkness had fallen. Our accommodation for the night was in the monastery dorms which was quite entertaining and fortunately there didn’t seem to be any snorers in our group. 
Carvings on the stones
Prayer flags over the path
A Monkey!
Hinang Gompa
Hinang Gompa monastery
Keeping warm as the sun dropped
Race organisation
This event is brilliantly well organised by Richard Bull and his organisation, Trail Running Nepal. Richard is a runner from England who liked Nepal so much he stayed. I can see his point. Any misgivings I may have had from previous race experiences were quickly dispelled, this was going to be a completely different experience from the Himalayan 100 mile stage race (as fellow participants Claire and Jamie will testify) and I would have no hesitation in doing any other events organised by Trail Running Nepal or recommending them to anyone else. Race briefings were to the point and filled with humour, we were never quite sure if Richard was being serious or gently mocking us, as he and his team did the most amazing job of getting 38 competitors successfully around 9 days of the race, which must be a logistical nightmare in anyone’s book. It should be noted though that Richard is a master of understatement, if he says the “path climbs a bit” expect a few thousand meters of mountain to be lying ahead of you. The legendary Lizzy Hawker was part of his team. Fresh back from running the length of the Himalayas in some 42 days Lizzy’s job was that of marking the course which she did by setting off each day in the early hours of the morning long before the runners had started and, waiting in freezing cold conditions to take the runners numbers at the higher checkpoints. That woman is one tough cookie. The course was very well marked…apart from where course markings in villages had been taken by curious children and where a farmer had removed some! It was fantastic to be able to meet Lizzy and chat to her about her experiences of the GHT. Special mention must also go to Yogesh the team Doctor whose splendid array of exotic coloured pills assisted in treating many competitor’s mountain related ailments. 
Richard was ably assisted by Dhir, who acted as our tour guide and who had an in depth knowledge of the area that we were travelling through and every day we were woken by his cheery call of "Good Morning!". I wish i could have recorded that on to my phone as my alarm call for every morning when i was back home.
Up and coming star of the world ultra-running scene Mira Rai was also involved, recovering from injury at the moment her race role was that of sweeper. She has been nominated for National Geographic’s adventurer of the year, the winner of which is due to be announced in December. The voting is still open folks…
Planning race tactics in the evening.
Lizzy at a high checkpoint
Star runner Mira - the book is avaialble to buy on Amazon...
Richard keeps an eye on the competitors on stage 5
Dhir providing our "in flight" snacks on the bus journey
STAGE 4 - Hinang Gompa to Samagaon via Pung gyen Gompa at 3870m (Approx 24k)
This was definitely my favourite day of the event, I really felt as though we were in amongst the mountains now. After a tour of the temple where we each received a silk scarf it was a level (Nepali flat!) run between villages interspersed with a monster climb up to the most stunning plateau at the foot of the world’s 8th highest peak. Once on the plateau it seemed to take quite a while to reach the checkpoint and a struggle to keep running which again I put down to the altitude. I spent some time at the checkpoint taking in the mind blowing views and at unnervingly frequent intervals there was a loud gunshot type sound as a wall of snow fell away and crashed down the slopes of Manaslu. I wandered round the plateau and looked at the houses carved into the rock, and the various small religious structures with their prayer flags fluttering in the wind before sheltering down behind the cairn of stones at the checkpoint to eat something. Then it was back the way I had come, crossing the plateau and re-joining the stony track which followed the river back down the hill almost to the long metal bridge I had crossed earlier that day. Meeting the main track it was now a straight forward run into the village of Samagaon, picking my way along cobbled streets, between little stone houses and avoiding roaming yaks. Throughout the race there was a definite feeling of moving between climatic zones as the altitude increases. In just 4 days we had gone from hot, lush, wooded hills to stark barren snow topped mountains. 
We got a tour of Hinang Gompa
We were each given a silk scarf
An avalanche on Manaslu
The wide plateau at the foot of Manaslu
Structures on the cliff face
Pungyen Gompa
The summit of Manaslu
The village of Samagaon
Hygiene
Quite a few people seemed to get ill with various stomach complaints during the race and hygiene was something that you had to pay particularly close attention to. All drinking water was filtered which definitely helped matters. Hand washing, despite the fact that the water was freezing cold from an outside tap, was something that was carried out obsessively as was using hand sanitiser. I used it for cleaning lots of things, from cutlery to the rim of my tea cup (surreptitiously, under the table, so folk didn’t think I was weird), from the bolt on the WC door to the tops of my water bottles. When I started to use the hand sanitiser to wash the bottle of hand sanitiser Eric, a fellow competitor, suggested that I might have some sort of psychological issues… To be honest though despite my diligent efforts I think whether you got sick or not was really down to luck.
Washing facilities...
Necessities!
STAGE 5  - Samagaon to Manaslu Base Camp to Samagaon (Approx 13k)
This was the stage that nearly broke me, it was possibly the hardest 13k run of my life. A 13k from Samagaon to Manaslu base camp at 4800m and back. Initially I set off quite strongly, maybe ill-advisedly so for the altitude, but I seemed to climb well for a while. And then disaster. I began to struggle for air which slowed my progress and the higher I got, the slower I got and the colder I got in the bitterly cold wind that sweeps around Manaslu. I was almost at the stage of thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to complete the stage and I felt as though I was hardly moving apart from shivering violently despite by this time having pulled on a down jacket but eventually I plodded up and along the ridge to the checkpoint. Knowing Richard and Lizzy were both at the checkpoint made me feel uneasy, what if I wasn’t going to allowed to continue? What if they decided that I couldn’t cope with the altitude? Worse still, what if I couldn’t continue?  Why did I feel so cold?  My oxygen deprived brain could not understand it. Although I had overtaken people on the way up I was unable to keep warm. I tried to get as much shelter as I could behind the heap of boulders as Richard wrapped a couple of jackets and a mountain of prayer flags round me, I was expecting the usual slightly mocking smile but this was replaced with a look of concern.  I curled down into the nest of prayer flags and tried to eat something and take in the surroundings, watching as yet more avalanches broke free and rolled down the side of Manaslu. Manaslu is apparently one of the more dangerous 8000m peaks to climb (all things being relative I suppose) and many have died on its avalanche prone slopes, indeed I wondered if there was anyone attempting to climb it as we watched but apparently it is now out of climbing season. The name Manaslu means “Mountain of the Spirit” and from what I could see whatever spirit was in residence in this mountain was possibly not the friendliest of spirits.
Wobbling and still dressed in so many clothes I resembled the Michelin man I started to slowly pick my way down the mountain passing William and Tone who were on the way up and who looked startled to see someone wrapped in so many clothes. I was relieved to find that the descent route did not include the ridge that the ascent route had and it took a long time until I could feel my fingers again and even longer before I slowly removed the layers. By the time some heat had returned to my body I was desperate to make up for lost time and found the descent and long run back into Samagaon the ideal place in which to up the pace and regain some of the time that I had lost. Such was my panic to make up time I even managed to overtake a couple of folk on the run back to the village.
I still couldn’t quite get warm properly that night and slept fitfully still chilled to the bone. Feeling increasingly queasy I struggled to eat and eventually I admitted defeat and unsure whether this was a symptom of cold, fatigue or altitude I asked for some form of anti-nausea medication from the race doctor.  
The start of stage 5
The view from the trail up to Manaslu Base Camp
The trail to Manaslu Base Camp
Looking back along the ridge
Competitors climbing towards the check point
Enjoying the view
Another photo of Manaslu.... just because.
Food
Everything you eat on this race is carried in or obtained locally and so don’t expect a whole lot of fresh fruit and veg. What there was though was seemingly unlimited quantities of rice, pasta, porridge, chapattis, biscuits…..and lukewarm soggy cabbage. I can digest almost anything but I have major issues with lukewarm soggy cabbage. In fact I have nightmares about it now!. You won’t starve although you might want to throw a peperoni sausage or a bottle of tabasco sauce (as fellow competitor Richard did) into your packing just to give your dinner a bit of “oomph” particularly as your appetite decreases with the altitude and fatigue. But for the most part the food was ideal for the conditions if not for my western palate. By day 6 I was fantasising about a fish supper. With Heinz tomato ketchup. Food was also on offer to buy at the teahouses but again that was mainly carb based. Beer was available to buy too as was my own personal race favourite coca cola although the prices of these items increased the further up the mountain you went as they all have to be carried in. Every day we were each given a packed lunch one of the highlights of which was a large lump of cheese. It also contained a chapatti or Tibetan bread, a chocolate bar and a granola bar and a hardboiled egg. Peeling one of those on the run was entertaining. Every night after serving up the chef came out of the kitchen to receive his well-earned round of applause for the amazing job he and his team managed. They did a fantastic job in catering for us and there was always enough food to go round for folk to have seconds. Apart from the lukewarm soggy cabbage. There can never be an excuse for lukewarm soggy cabbage. One thing to be aware of is that I’ve noticed many runners state they can’t eat within 2 or 3 hours of a race start. Here you’d better get used to it. On the last day the most ginormous fluffy pancake appeared on my breakfast plate at 6.30am. It was the scrummiest thing I had seen all week and I promptly devoured it just in time for the race start at 7am. Suffice to say the ginormous fluffy pancake tasted better first time round.

Pre-race dinner in Kathmandu
Master chef!
Tea and bsicuits
Warming up at the teahouse at Samagoan
Post race dinner in Kathmandu
STAGE 6 - Samagaon to Samdo (approx. 8.1k)
The short stage! I was so looking forward to it! Only 8.1k! So how can that have taken me so long to run? It was a nice easy trail route with a little kick at the end as you climb up to the village. But at these altitudes, coupled with the previous day’s miles, nothing seemed to be easy and running seemed to have been well and truly replaced with something I refer to as “the Himalayan shuffle”. Nonetheless I enjoyed the sunny day, the runnable trail and the non-technical terrain. This time we were in the village of Samdo overnight, our highest overnight point. The highlight of the day this time was not our stage of the race but the races for the village children which were held in the village before we set off. Fellow competitor, Rick, had the genius idea of bringing along a football complete with pump as a prize and a polaroid camera so that the children had a wee momento from their day. Before we started our run we visited another temple and watched the monks paint brightly coloured wooden masks for their forthcoming festival then we walked up to the stunning glacial lake of Birenda Tal shimmering in the sunshine at the base of mighty Manaslu to start the next stage. At the end of the stage we were treated to a tour around a temple in Samdo where the Buddhist scriptures were unwrapped from their silk shrouding for us to see the precious parchments. I got a feeling that we were indeed very privileged and were witnessing something very few other visitors to the village would have been able to see. Next it had been arranged for us to visit some houses in the village, the first one had me coughing and struggling for breath as smoke from the fire in the centre of the house filled the dark interior of the room. The second house was two storey, the animals living on the ground floor along with the farmer’s precious supply of potatoes and salt, to be used as a preservative in the winter. He also opened up a drum of suspect looking liquid and indicated to us that this was drinkable….and alcoholic. The hardness and simplicity of the lives of the villagers was truly humbling, they had so little and yet the farmer’s wife insisted on giving us all some dried yak cheese from her precious and limited supplies.
The prize is awarded to the first runner
The competitors in the childrens race
Monks painting masks
Manaslu and lake Birenda Tal
Stage 6 - it was a nice runnable trail
A wee climb up to the village of Samdo
Samdo
These precious parchments were unwrapped for us to see
Preparing yak meat and drying out yak dung which is burned as fuel
A winter store of salt and potatoes...and moonshine!
Yak
We all got to taste dried yak cheese
Exploring the village of Samdo
Training
This had not really gone to plan. A DNF at Monte Rosa had left me desperately needing to find something to finish my year off with and no sooner had this race caught my attention than the first niggles of plantar fasciitis struck. Having been laid off for months at a time by this previously I immediately stopped training. The weekly mileage was finished off in the gym, spin bike and pool and I limited myself to weekends on the hills plus one or two other hill runs including hill reps if my foot was not too sore. Having to go to sleep wearing a large plastic night splint on your foot is not great at the best of times but 2 weeks before a race like Manaslu really doesn’t do wonders for your confidence. My training was not ideal and probably shouldn’t be imitated by anyone wanting to do this race. 

STAGE 7- Samdo to Rui La Pass (4900m) to Samdo
An optional day. The chance of a rest day. So, so SO tempting… yet the other option was the chance of an acclimatisation trek up to the Rui La Pass and to the Nepal-Tibet border. It was a no brainer. Richard had taken a wee roll call of those wanting to do the trek but by morning the lure of the sleeping bag had seen that number decrease somewhat. Those still keen set off along the valley with Lizzy as our guide setting the pace. I kept up with her for a few of the flatter miles and then as we started climbing for real I realised that was futile and she was gone. The high point of the pass was over 4900m and it not being a “race stage” I took my time plodding up the hill enjoying yet more glorious Himalayan sunshine and views beyond anything I had seen before. The landscape was very barren and the rocky summits stood in stark contrast to the deep, dark blue skies above. A final sharp pull up a fine scree covered slope and I was at the pass, a concrete block with Nepalese writing on one side and Chinese writing on the other and a large cairn covered in prayer flags indicating the border between the two countries. On the Tibetan (Chinese?) side I was amazed to see a wide landrover track complete with a 20mph road sign in contrast to the little single track I had just climbed on the Nepalese side. I ventured over into Tibet and then wondered if the Chinese had snipers on the border so I scurried back to safety of Nepal. While I was doing this Eilidh and Ewen had been fossil hunting and found some impressive examples of ammonites….hang on, they are sea creatures aren’t they? So at some point in the very distant past this pass at nearly 5000m was at sea level? It’s hard to get your head round that one. The return trek to the village was uneventful and I was happy to have made it before sundown as already the cold wind was making itself felt. I had felt remarkably good throughout the day so felt hopeful that tomorrows ascent over the 5106m pass wouldn’t present too many difficulties. What could possibly go wrong?
Setting off towards the Rui La Pass
Yak roaming the hillside
Following the trail up to the pass
Tibet!
Looking back into Nepal
A speed limit sign on the Tibetan side
Heading back to Samdo
The sun disappeared behind the mountainside and the temperature fell
Altitude and sun
We were told about the dangers of altitude by the race doctor who assisted anyone who was struggling with doses of Diamox but happily nobody seemed to be so badly affected that they couldn’t complete the race. Like most people I struggled to breathe at times and I took every chance that I was offered to go to higher altitudes to acclimatise, drank a lot of water to keep hydrated and fortunately I did not suffer from any headaches. The race organisation got the acclimatisation programme pretty well spot on for us with the age old rule of “climb high, sleep low”. A quick glance at some trekking guides and lonely planet guides suggest that the Manaslu circuit should be done between 12-18 days. We were doing it in 8. One night I was very nauseous and couldn’t eat so took a tablet from the doctor and by the morning I was fine again but I have no idea of this was caused by altitude or by the accumulation of factors such as tiredness, cold etc. Another interesting symptom of the altitude was that my hands swelled up like small balloons, I was glad I wasn’t wearing any jewellery but the swelling subsided quickly on descent to lower altitudes. We were lucky and the weather was very settled with no nasty surprises. This is one race I would hate to run in a storm or a blizzard. From the hot humid early stages to the biting cold of the high passes the sun shone brightly. Aware of the dangers of the relentless strength of the sun at altitude I took care to cover any exposed skin with sun cream, even to the extent of taking it with me during the race stages and applying more when I stopped at checkpoints. A buff and a cap were also useful yet that still didn’t stop the skin around my nose and lips cracking painfully. A situation not helped by the cold I developed after day 2 of the race meant my nose was just about rubbed raw and I finished a few stages with blood over my lips and teeth.
 
STAGE 8 Samdo to Bimtang via the Larkya La pass at 5106m
For part of this stage we were to be guided by the brightest moon since 1948, a so-called super moon, as we set out at 4.30am to cross the highest mountain pass of the trail, the Larkya La pass at 5106m altitude. We set off in a large group, the torch lights snaking up the mountainside, and proceeded slowly giving the altitude the respect it deserves. This stage involved some icy river crossings which the Nepalese helpers in the race organisation attempted to assist us with. As far as I could work out though this assistance amounted to giving me a shove into the river to ensure that I had icy wet cold feet so possibly this was assistance I could have done without. The early start gave us the chance to view the magnificent spectacle of the sun rising over Manaslu but this time the sun didn’t seem to contain much warmth and I was glad of the second down jacket that Richard had loaned me. My water bottles in my back pack had frozen so I gave up on the idea of drinking anything until we reached the stopping point on the hillside where tea was available. By then I was starving and drank a lot of hot tea although my water bottles were still frozen. It was a long slow slog up to the pass and having felt great the previous day I was a little surprised and disappointed to be not feeling so great today. Maybe in my enthusiasm to get to see Tibet I had worked too hard the previous day and had left myself fatigued. There was nothing else for it but to keep plodding upwards over the frozen lakes and boulder strewn slopes and to try and distract myself by looking at the views over the neighbouring Annapurna range. Eventually I reached the pass and after taking a photograph I started the descent. Initially the descent was quite steep and amusingly the young Nepalese runners who had christened my roommate Bev “mother” insisted on taking her arm and assisted her down the slope. I trotted down the path whilst trying to fend off the unwanted attention of a rather persistent Nepalese porter. A bit of arm waving and a few cross looks later and he got the message and I was happily left alone to enjoy the moment, some of the Nepalese runners behind me were singing and it really felt as though the race was now nearing completion and I soon caught up with Ewen, Eilidh and Preeti and we continued down the mountainside. It was a long walk down the valley to our next stop at Bimtang and at times I had taken the map out, convinced I had gone wrong, but Peter who I had walked with through the majority of the valley was adamant we had gone the rights way. When William and Satu caught me up I felt a little more confident until the village at the bottom of the valley came into sight. By the time I reached the teahouse my appetite had well and truly returned and I decided to have a pre-dinner dinner at the tea house, a mountain of of fried potatoes, vegetables and eggs was served up – complete with tomato ketchup- and I still had plenty room for dinner later.
Manaslu in the morning sunshine
A frozen lake
The group spread out over the course of the day
Climbing ever higher
Tea break
Crossing frozen ground
The Larkya La Pass at 5106m
Starting the descent from the pass
The Annapurna range
Im not sure which one Annapurna is though!
Finally Bimtang comes into view
Accommodation
The accommodation in Kathmandu was very nice, race HQ was the plush Manaslu hotel and my last night was Tignes Tea house, both of which I would stay at again. The post race hotel in Besi sahar was nice but basic and seemed to be in need of some TLC but it served its purpose along with an excellent curry and beers for the post race celebrations. The sensible folk went to bed early knowing that we had a long bus ride to Kathmandu the next day but a few folk let their hair down, those poor Nepali girls are going to need years of therapy to get over Rick taking his glass eye out! During the race itself the accommodation was tea houses, clean functional rooms of two with shared “bathroom facilities” ie squat toilets and an outside tap. In some teahouses wi fi was advertised....somewhat optimistically and dont be too hopeful about re-charging your garmin batteries every night. In some of the deep valleys the garmin watches couldnt get a satellite signal anyway so whatever distance the garmin said may not be too accurate anyway. One night we stayed at the monastery at Hinang Gompa and this was dorm accommodation with mattresses lying side by side on the floor. Only Tatopani had a WC that you didn’t need to go outside to reach. On the plus side nightly toilet visits allowed you see amazing clear starry skies and the brightest of bright moons, that is if you could be bothered to look up rather than scurrying straight back to the warmth your sleeping bag.  Gigantic (ok, slight exaggeration but they were BIG) spiders at Pewa caused a little upset for some and although I have no fear of spiders whatsoever the way their eyes shone when your head torch light caught them was a tad unnerving. When we got into the mountains the nights at Samagoan, Samdo and particularly at Bimtang were very cold. Bev had left a bottle of water by her bed in the little wooden uninsulated chalet at Bimtang and this had frozen in the night.
Clean functional, if not necessarily warm, rooms
A night time visitor
Washing facilities at Pewa was the tap under the blue building.
Dorm accommodation at Hinang Gompa
The tea house at Samdo
The wooden chalets at Bimtang had no insulation whatsoever
Stage 9 - Bimtang to Dharapani  (Approx 24k)
The final stage and it was all downhill. Initially I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea of this or not as I’m not the greatest downhill runner but as it was bitterly cold in the morning I ended up being glad I could get some faster running in (all things being relative of course). The rocky gnarly path twisted and turned through the forest following the river relentlessly downhill until suddenly I was at the checkpoint, something I hadn’t expected quite so soon. After the checkpoint I expected more of the same but shortly afterwards we were suddenly directed up a very narrow path involving some scrambling. Looking back at the Nepalese man pointing the way I vaguely wondered what Nepalese for “are you sure about this?” was but as I could see a couple of competitors already on the river bank high above I decided to carry on and sure enough there were some trail markings. A little further on I reached the runnable track, having first negotiated my way round the digger that was making this track and from there on in it was the most runnable section of the last 9 days and I felt able to stretch out, run hard, and enjoy it even though at times I wasn’t sure how much further I still had to go. Finally I crossed another metal bridge, the last of the trip, and turned sharply right into the grounds of the Heaven Guest House and crossed the finish line, legs shaking. The name was right, it was Heaven. Competitors who had finished sat out on the lawn bathed in sunshine, eating noodles, drinking beer surrounded by golden yellow marigolds with butterflies flitting between the flowers. It was a complete contrast from the cold and barrenness of Bimtang a matter of just hours ago. But that was it, race over. I lay dozing in the sunshine until it was time for the rather exhilarating 5 hour jeep journey to our hotel and our first hot showers in days.
The rocky trail
Relaxing post race
The aptly names Heaven guest house was the race finish
William and Ian finishing the race
Relaxing in the sunshine
Footnote
 Back in Kathmandu Richard took some of us to a little place he knew with a back room/roof terrace that served up the local brew Tongba, a sort of moonshine concoction made from fermented millet which you keep drinking, adding hot water and drinking, presumably until all the alcohol has gone or you fall over. In the darkness of the city streets the incessant traffic noise, the contrasting colourful stalls and shops, the gaudy neon lights of hotels, the scents and sounds of street vendors stalls, the post race tiredness, and alcohol all started to take effect and it wasn’t long before I felt incredibly sleepy, everything started to feel a little surreal. Did that race really just happen? Did I really get round that course? I was sad that it was all over, sad to leave the friends that I had made, sad to leave the routine that I had gotten strangely happily used to - run, eat, sleep, repeat – it had a beautiful simplicity to it, but mostly sad to leave Nepal, this amazing country. I had come to Nepal in search of redemption for a dismal failure in the Monte Rosa race earlier that autumn but I left Nepal having found so much more.

My thanks to Richard for making this all possible.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous trip and incredible photos Louise, well jell!

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