The Halfhog tries an ultra-marathon

“An ultra-marathon is just an eating and drinking competition with some exercise thrown in.” In case you were wondering what an ultra-marathon is, there you have a definition from famed US sport nutritionist Sunny Blende. I though of this as I, a vegetarian, stared at the noodley chicken soup on offer at the first checkpoint of the 2010 Annapurna 100 ultra-marathon race.

I took the water on offer and slipped over to a small pasal for a packet of Parle-G, the world’s biggest selling (and consequently most littering) glucose biscuits.

My first ultra-marathon was going to be a long, slow chicken-soup-less day out full of eating and drinking with a backdrop of the immense Annapurna range. No racing, just keeping moving, enjoying the scenery and just keeping smiling, however forced that smile might need to be at times. And more or less alone – 71km split between a field of 40 doesn’t suggest a jostling pack.

The race starts in Pokhara and runs all the way to the famed Poon / Pun Hill view point and then a good part of the way back. In between runners are treated to a 2050m climb part of which clambers up 3080 stone steps. All in all there’s of 3584m of up and 3346m of down. This challenging physical aspect along with the Himalayan views and the sultry, blushing-blooming rhododendron forests make the race a truly unique event.

Annapurna-100-ultra-trail-race-january-1st-2012

Click to download our race brochure PDF thing (1 MB)

The race started at the centre of hotel-strewn Pokhara lakeside at 6.30am. The majority of the runners sped off as if free ice-cream was on offer at the end of the street. Within a kilometre or so the tantalising morning view of Machapuchare (Fishtail mountain) had disappeared behind the foothills and the hotels thinned out to reveal real lakeside lake and local residents going about their business. The flat jogging ended abruptly with a turn up to Sarangkot, 700m higher than the lake and the first checkpoint. Already at this point, the leaders were already 30 minutes ahead. A woman wished, ‘best of luck!’. A small boy shouted, ‘you’re last!’

The race was first run in 1995 with a collaboration between, artist Jan Turner and ex-Ghurkha Ramesh Bhattachan and some help from British cricketer-turned-walker Ian Botham and some money from Nike. Only two other races have since happened in 2000 and 2009 due to the political upheaval in the country and subsequent difficulties in finding sponsorship for such an offbeat sport.

This race was the 4th Annapurna 100 race. The 100 refers back to the previous races’ distance of 100km, and the name stuck as it sounds pretty catchy and there was a website domain to consider. A big change this year was that distance was reduced to 71km to ease difficult nocturnal logistics and the burden on the runner’s legs (who apparently actually complained last year). Next year it will be back to 100km.

Additionally, a lot of the route was shifted onto trail from road. This was down to Roger Henke, director of the Summit hotel in Kathmandu who stepped in at the last minute to provide the sponsorship to make the event happen. Henke is himself a keen trail runner and is very familiar with the tourism industry and the potential niche tourism markets that Nepal is able to serve.

“I wanted to develop the race and turn it into a trail race because I believe that trail running has future from an adventure tourism perspective. So I convinced my board to sponsor this year’s event – to make it happen – and use the experience as well as the visuals and contacts for designing a better event next year, with much better international exposure.”

This years event had around 40 competitors, mainly drafted in from police and army sports clubs though running-novice locals from villages along the route entered too. Consequently the race had a wonderfully intimate atmosphere among the runners and the volunteers and villagers at the frequent refreshment stations. There were a number of international runners, including Jo Schoonbrood, the over 55 world record holder for distance covered in six hours.

At the second station at around 15km, there was a little fatigue to be felt in the legs, but just a little. The bananas were hard, but the noodles plain, thus edible. The path undulated and local residents looked on bemused. With most runners probably in one and twos, sweating profusely, it probably looked like a jail break as in Nepal, running is generally for thieves.

The trail markers thinned out here and directions had to be asked from locals. The route, to my dismay, headed downhill along a road. Down now meant up later. At around 25km, the soup lost its noodles an became spinach soup, well known for its high calorie content. Four kilometres further on after a clunking down hill to a river, we’d reached Birethanti, arguably the real start of the race.

Here was race organiser Ramesh Bhatterchan with an enthusiastic pep-talk and a bottle of water while the TV cameras, filming for Transworld sport, rolled.

This was the 31km in the bottom of a river valley and surrounding hills towered above, which implied that our destination of Poon Hill would also be towering above somewhere.

I caught up and ran for a while with a local boy called Santosh entering in his first ever running race (he finished in around 12 hours). Together we started the steps up to Ulleri. This was a meditation. Keeping a manageable rhythm, not stopping other than to drink, and deliberately keeping happy (‘Wow, look at the view!’). Being local, Santosh lagged behind having to talk to all the people he met and knew. I caught up with a man called Nand and we continued together. At Ulleri checkpoint we asked ‘How much more up?’ The reply came, perhaps a fundamental of life in this area, ‘Everything is up!’

This stage of the race enjoyed one of the big attractors of Nepal which is the rhododendron forest in bloom. Through this knotted forest we stumbled, across waterfalls of clean, clear water – things utterly foreign to the Kathmandu resident. The canopy glowed red. A rumour has it that some of the arboreal inspiration for Lord of the Rings came from this area long ago. The Mothers’ group representatives of [name forgotten] gave tikka and a Malla of Rhododendron flowers and the red power immediately mixed with sweat and dripped from the end of noses. In such surroundings, it seemed wasteful to dwell on the condition of the body, which actually, after a hill ridden marathon distance, felt surprisingly good.

There are a growing number of scientists who will tell you that we are born to run. Being able to run for long distances after prey (who became exhausted before us) gave us our competitive advantage over Neanderthals. Our foot is designed as the ultimate shock absorber (and our comfy running shoes do nothing but to make our feet weaker and encourage injury). Our lungs, not connected to our gait like many quadrupeds (front feet down, innards slam forward, lungs squeezed empty) allow for regulated oxygen supply for long distances (man always beats horse over 50 miles). Our success in finding meaty protein however lead to our big, highly-developed brains which told us to conserve energy (be lazy) whenever possible.

Still, marathon and ultra-running have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years. American research has shown that interest in running rises most during times of difficulty such as recession or after a disaster. Since 2001, ultra running has become, at least in the west, more popular than ever.

The Annapurna region attracts over 70,000 visitors per year to its trekking trails, with some creativity and adequate marketing, the Annapurna 100 should be able to attract a sizable field for 2011, which is the Nepal Tourism Board’s fingers-crossed-for-tourism year. But such a race doesn’t only offer something for tourism. A much bigger prize is the realisation of sporting potential.

“I believe that a bigger better race will have much more chance of attracting bigger sponsors, which will make the prize money pot bigger and thus support local athletes training,” says Henke.

Yes, Nepal might one day have an ice-dance champion, but in the meantime, a mountain running champion should surely be a no-brainer. There is world class talent here worth getting excited about.

“To be able to run that fast, at that altitude, up those steps and just keep on going, in that time – and still look good and fresh at the end – I think it’s spectacular,” offered British athletics coach and ultra-distance adventure Rob Cousins.

Rob Cousins originally came from the UK to train athletics coaches with the Nepal Olympic Committee. Unfortunately the offer of free, professional help proved too much for the NOC to accept. Now he has teamed up with Annapurna 100 race organiser Ramesh Bhattachan to train a two promising mountain runners for the prestigious Davos ultra-marathon race in Switzerland, the Nepal of Europe*.

Cousins believes there is potential that has not been properly exploited. “After two or three months I think I can get them faster,” says Cousins. “I was out with some of the army running team before the race. They were doing things I was doing when I was aged nine on the rugby pitch. I think their training is probably making them slower and so I think there really is potential.”

The athletes confirm, “We train mainly on track and road as most races are on road,” says 4th placed Raiwat Dhahal also of TAC, “we train just one day a week on hills on the Trisuli road.”

Ethiopia might not be the dominating force in distance running it is today had a Swedish coach, Omni Niskanen, not been in the right place at right time with his then state-of-the-art training knowledge in 1946.

But Nepal is not the blank slate that Ethiopia was then. Nepal’s trail running future is perhaps just around the corner. Last year’s 100km Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker event was convincingly won by the Nepali, Ghurkha-linked Group 4 Security (G4S) team. The team of four, including Khatri, won in a record time of 11.42 minutes, a full two hours before the second team’s arrival.

With some tailored training, including nutrition, core strength and race strategy, there are more potential victories waiting to be seized. But here Nepal’s international trail running potential remains just potential.

The stick wielding, khaki-clad leader of Tribhuvan Army Club, who was reluctant, as you sometimes should be, to be on record, demonstrated enthusiasm but limited vision. He said that while his men train every day and they win everything – but only in Nepal. He’d be proud if they won a big mountain race abroad, but then “but I don’t think they would get that opportunity.” So what are they training for?

One exception is Dacchiri Sherpa who now lives in Switzerland and also represented Nepal in the Vancouver 2010 winter Olympics. “Yes some Nepalese take part in races sometimes but not regularly, and yes in Nepal the people they have big capacity but there is limited investment for the sport, and there is not much support from our country”

Dacchiri Sherpa showed stunning strength to win the 1000km Himal race from Annapurna basecamp to Everest basecamp in 2002. This was a 23 day stage race through rugged terrain with 38,000m of ascent. Born into this terrain, runners like Dacchiri have a definite advantage, as annual Sherpa record breaking antics on Everest attest.  But the support of a coach, and a club or a nation are necessary to compete internationally these days. Time will tell if Rob’s training programme bears fruit.

At the summit of Poon Hill the mountain view was obscured with cloud and a chilling wind was blowing. Mallas were presented (earlier seen discarded in trees lower down), photographs were taken and biscuits were stuffed into pockets for the decent. The warmth of the (relatively) frozen checkpoint volunteers was admirable. They were truly excited to be part of this small running event in which there were far more volunteers involved than runners.

With the knowledge that the hard work had been done, the 20km run home, which would itself normally be a rather long run, seemed like it would be a piece of cake to be savoured and enjoyed.

I think few understand about ultra-distance running. Few understand running come to think of it – its what we’re designed to do after all. In such a race, it’s really just about keeping moving, enjoying the scenery and keeping smiling. And eating and drinking too.

“Khanus! Khanus!” ordered a very senior member of Ghorepani mothers group offering biscuits,  Chinese apples and hot noodle soup. Ah – of course mothers understand everything, even the necessities of ultra-distance running.

* 15th April 2010: Scant news just in from the Everest Ultra Marathon which finished yesterday in Lukla.  To quote Rob Cousins:

“what a story for the winner!  A local porter who decided to do the run the day before, had to run to the start, then beat the Army team hands down!”

Read a shortened version of this waffle here:

http://nepalitimes.com/issue/2010/04/14/Nation/16976

And see trailrunningnepal.org for some pictures and reports in Japanese.

4TH ANNAPURNA ULTRA TRAIL RACE – 27 MARCH 2010

I am posting this on this blog as this race is upcoming and has no website as of today. Please feel free to forward, and post any questions you have below. For more information about previous races, see here: http://www.annapurna100.com/ – next year promises to have again a 100km race, and on trail as opposed to road as for previous years. Good luck all participants!

A great challenge to all Runners in Nepal: 4TH ANNAPURNA ULTRA TRAIL RACE 27 MARCH 2010

Routes: 35KM and 71KM

Starting – Barahi Hotel
Run along lakeside on road for about 2 km, then uphill on trail to Sarangkot
Sarangkot Checkpoint 1 –
Nau Dada – Check Point 2
From Nau Dada to Kande Old Mule track will be used then road until Lumle
Lumle – Check Point 3
Chandrakot – Guide Point Only
Birenthati – Check Point 4 and Finishing Point (35km and 71km)
Sudme – Check Point 5 and 19
Tikhedhunga – Check Point 6 and 18
Ulleri Mid – Check Point 7 and 17
Ulleri Top – Check Point 8 and 16
Ban Thati – Check Point 9 and 15
Nange Thait – Check Point 10 and 14
Ghorepani – Check Point 11 And 13
Poon Hill – Check Point 12
Downhill and Finishing Point at Birethati.
90-95% of the route is trail

RACE PROGRAMME

24/25 March – All Foreign Participants Report Summit Hotel (Main sponsor)
Participants go Kathmandu-Pokhara by domestic flight or bus according to their personal preference and budget
26 March – 3pm Registration and 4pm – Final Race Briefing at Barahi Hotel Pokhara
27 March – 0630 Race Start
28 March – 1030 Prizes Distribution/Photos and 1130 Lunch Party 1230 – Programme Ends
Participants remain in PKR or return to Kathmandu by domestic flight or micro bus according to their personal preference and budget

ENTRY FEE

Entry Fee (GBP 100 for the 71km and GBP 50 for the 35km) to be paid to Chief Organizer (Ramesh Battachan) on 26 March at Registration Programme 3pm.
This includes:
a.   Race Participation
b.   Official T Shirt
c.   Certificate of Participation
d.   Medal of Participation
e.   Souvenir for Foreign Runners
f.    Cash Prizes 1st-5th position (71km only)
g.   Trophies for 1st-5th position  (71km only)
Entry Fees for Nepalese runners is FREE.  Entry Fees raised from foreign runners are used to sponsor the fooding and lodging of non-Pokhara based Nepalese runners.

Everest marathon 2009 non event report

..

I won! And I came last.

Due to a need to put my signature on a piece of paper in Kathmandu, I missed running the official Everest marathon race on the 29th May. I did run the beautiful course, however, 4 days before, alone, in the snow and rain.

The marathon has been run since 2003 aiming to commemorate the historical ascent of Mount Everest by Late Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953. From the marathon website:

The Marathon Event is to salute these 2 Great Heroes of our Human Civilization, regardless of their Nationality & origin, ventured out into the unknown and carried Human spirit to the TOP of the World or the Summit of Mother Earth, glorifying the success of the entire mankind civilization.

That’s quite a lot to salute.

On the other hand it is reasonably good business taking around 50 or so Westerners on a $2200 trek. Perhaps a bit of the profit can be spent on hiring a copywriter for the website.

Running a marathon on your own is quite different to being part of an event. Firstly, there is no build up to a deadline, a start line or a start time. You can just saunter up to the starting location on any day you please and go. There is no collective excitement or sense of competition or importance and hence people can’t really take your proposed activity too seriously as it is just your own private business. And so it is quite pleasant: no nerves, little competitiveness, just a whiff of adventure and a hint that you’re under the direction of your own free-will.

Still, with tired legs from a week of trekking about and tired everything else from poor nights’ sleep at altitude, I had to rely on strength from the pages of a book I had just read. Mike Stroud’s ‘Survival of the fittest’ recounted his months of dragging a sled across the Antarctic on a starvation diet; his and Ranulf Fienes’ 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents just months after Fiennes’ near-fatal heart attack; and the story of the 72 year old ultra-marathoning grandmother competing in an 8 day Eco-challenge across the wild west of the United States. Then there is the amazing Lizzy Hawker and team who had trodden this trail some years before with Kathmandu as a destination.

The mantra ‘don’t wish it was easier, wish you were tougher’ hung limply in my mind.

So on a glacier at 10:21 on a Monday morning, after several hours of focused procrastination stealing cups of coffee in various expedition mess tents and welcoming climbers back down from up, after slipping on ice and cutting a finger deeply and after chatting with an expedition tired Dawa Stephen Sherpa and about the weather and where the path had gone, I began slowly walking through the thickening snow in the direction of the finish.

The course begins at Everest basecamp, which is a strange and colourful mess of tents planted on the Khumbu glacier. It’s also a sort of psychiatric ward, but that is another story. The stony path winds around the glacial, mini-mountainscape of crumpled ice and meltwater streams. After a kilometre or two, it climbs on to the lateral moraine, the huge pile of debris skirting the glacier. Only after about 5km is solid ground encountered but even then it is far from smooth. This and the following 5km remain over 5000m.

It is this section that the organisers must be referring to when they claim it to be the “World’s ultimate race”. Yes, its difficult but it is just a limitation. There’s less oxygen going to your muscles, including the muscles of your heart and lungs, so it is ever so easy for your oxygen demand to outstrip supply in the heavy blink of an eye leaving you in a crumpled, oxygen-indebted pile needing precious time to recover. To prevent this, I implemented a strict no-running-up-hills policy. I followed it to the letter of the law and it kind of worked: walking is moving and hands-on-knees-panting is not, and it looks silly.

But by jogging here in a careful and controlled manner, it is possible to collect admiring comments from ascending exhausted trekkers, from descending unsummitted mountaineers and even stationary, resting porters who don’t realise what they could also do if they put their baskets down and ran.

Relief, but not much, comes at about 15km where the path heads steeply down hill past Thukla at 4600m and then rolls along looking down on the wide-open Pheriche valley to Dingboche at 4400m. The downhill is wonderful and takes only the minimum of breath to keep you rolling along like a shopping trolley in a sloping car park.

Running your own race you also have to manage your own refreshments. Running on a trekking route makes this easy and you can burst into any lodge and order a cup of hot lemon, black tea or beer of course and hand over your soggy money. This is a slower process that the grab-and-run water station on a marathon course, and out of politeness you’ll sit while the tea is made making it a little tricky to start off again, so before you know it you’ve been stopped for 5 minutes already, longer if the tea is hot.

With the decreased altitude, the ‘ultimate race’ became simply a beautiful, wet and muddy run in the hills. But the altitude was replaced by rough descents and steep uphills. In Pangboche, just over half way, I was joined by a boy of about 16, who, standing in the doorway of his house, threw down his cigarette and started running. He kept this up for the next 8 kilometres and he was a great help to keep me from stopping to admire the view or re-tie my shoelaces.

At over three-quarters of the way came the first major uphill and it felt like the wobbly change from bike to run in the triathlon as different muscles were asked to wake up. The muddy slope up to Tengboche was like climbing up a greasy pole. Reaching the monastery at the top was a relief but then came 600m of crashing decent to another cup of tea and the realisation that the legs were past their best before date. And then 600m back uphill todo.

The remainder of the marathon was a heavy push up to Kumjung and Khunde where the famous Hillary School is located followed by a decent to Namche Bazaar and the cheering crowds that wouldn’t be there for four more days.

Kumjung and Khunde are beautiful in the rain. Neat and tidy they look like a Welsh holiday village. Not at all like a ‘normal’ Nepali village, whatever that might be, but quiet, litter free, maintained and even with streetlights, though there are no motorable roads. It points to the extensive positive affect Edmund Hillary has had on the area over the last five decades.

And to the final disadvantage of solo marathoning: getting lost. With just 7km to go the stopwatch said 5h15. In actuality, the last 7km would take me 1h30. Some how I left a good trail I believed to be nice but wrong and headed into a pigmy-forest full of pretty, pretty flowers and a rather odd number of animal skulls. The small cattle-trodden paths led in spirals, the branches of the tiny fir branches dropped their caught raindrops onto my legs soaking and quickly chilling me. I thought I saw a ginger bread house for a moment. But it was just a seemingly deserted farm building.

Tired and more than ready for this slow slog to be over, I climbed loose walls and over sun-bleached bones to reach it, hoping that the owner’s well worn route to bingo night would also lead to the finish. I was given a helpful shot of adrenaline by a hairy, crazed maniac on a long, but short enough chain who sailed out of his kennel on an upward trajectory. He, or perhaps she, put on a wild show of property-protecting-prowess to earn owner kudos and perhaps a little bit extra food in the bowl after the evidently quiet, trespasser-free recent times.

Within minutes of leaving the dog barking itself hoarse, the coloured rooftops of Namche came into view, sat below in a natural amphitheatre, signalling the near-end of the run. After few hundred steps downhill, a slip and fall that was embarrassing and a few moments of being lost again among winding alleys, I found myself in the heart of an unimpressed Namche Bazaar, wet, cold and wondering what to do next.

From a kind woman at the View Lodge, I borrowed some clothes including a putrid purple tie-dye (tye-die?) ganja t-shirt and a hulk of a down jacket. Dry underpants were not on offer and for that I had to wait for my hired 16-year-old porter to finish the long march he began at 7am that morning with my belongings. He arrived at around 7pm, 12 hours after starting, drenched and smiling claiming that he was just about to turn around and head back to exactly where he came from. I gave him a good tip for his work, happy that he found the lodge given that it had a name different to the one I told him, and sent him off to the cold and bare porter hostel rather than invite him in to share the warmth of the lodge I was in.

And that was the end of it.

I think in the west we hold marathons in pretty high esteem and as ¬¬a benchmark of physical achievement. While there is seemingly mass participation these days, the masses are still in the tiny minority. Most of us spend so much time sitting on our rears for work or leisure and even while moving between the two, that a marathon truly is an achievement of will, coaxing flabby, unconditioned behinds across 42km of paved road for flimsy medals and certificates.

Up in the Khumbu however the marathon seemed more like a quaint fun-run: not particularly necessary nor particularly well understood (where’s the fun). All around you is hard, physical effort on display. Digging fields, planting, grazing cattle, building or repairing houses, hauling firewood. At base camp there are the climbers, the guides, the climbing Sherpas, the ice-fall doctors, the kitchen and cook boys, the load carriers.

The trail itself is not just a pleasant route conjured up by an organising committee but a highway. It’s the main route from village to village and so people are familiar with it as they walk it frequently. Porters, from old to young, male and female, routinely carry baskets along it containing their own bodyweight in goods. Witness young Mr. 90Kg walking through the thin air of basecamp to just above Namche – his walk over two days will be just a few kilometres short of the marathon route. Leisure time sensibly equates to resting time. Apart from the sherpas running the race that is, the winner completing in an amazing 3:40 this year.

So how do I feel after running this ‘ultimate’ marathon? Sub-whatever you might expect, for sure. Neutral, ambivalent, content, could-have-done-better, hungry. It was a beautiful run, and it was for fun, for the experience and really not the extreme event it might have seemed. In contrast to previous marathons, where the next day required negotiating stairs on buttocks and running was out of the question for weeks, this marathon’s surprisingly pain-free morning after brought a 15km jog to Lukla followed by 2 more long days of running to the road head at Jiri 50km further on.

On the first day of my trek into the Everest region I met a girl who turned out to be an ultra-marathoner. She was retreating from a climb after she started hosting a gut soap opera. I asked her how on earth she could manage to run 100 miles in one go. She told me that the legs began to hurt after 15 to 20km but after that the hurt didn’t get much worse. As long as you ate a big burger at 50 miles, was her caveat. Now I see what she meant, and though it would be a veggie burger, keeping going is easier than I ever thought it would be.

It is quite amazing how far what you can do is from what you think you can do. Its about timeI joined the weird extremists and see just how far ‘can do’ can be.

Marathon training.

This morning, inpired by a book I just finished, stolen from Billi Bierling‘s tent, called ‘Survival of the fittest’ by (forgotten his name) I tried to run 10km from Gorak Shep to Lobuche and back.

Going was just about ok. There is a drop in height of just over 200m (from 5100m). It was snowing a little. I stopped and had two cups of hot lemon in a lodge in Lobuche and spent a while gazing at the photos on the poster of the Croatian Women’s 2009 Everest Expedition. Then it was time to return. Going out took 35 minutes and the return took a painful 50 minutes.

It seems the legs are fine, it was just a short run after all. What did I learn then about running at altitude?

– Arms are surprisingly heavy things to carry.
– Running anything remotely uphill ‘crashes’ the heart
– Having conversations with people is hard when breathless but necessary
– snow in eyes makes keeping feet on level ground doubly hard while eyes are wobbling in their sockets
– Running at altitude gives you a big headache
– It feels a bit pathetic to feel so pathetic when a guy walks past, albeit slowly, carrying 4 large, empty gas cylinders on his back.

7 days to go until this Everest Marathon but I fear that boredom will kill me first. There is little entertainment here in artificial Gorak Shep and not much to keep busy with apart from reading and making the hour long trip over to base camp. While it remains misty it is cold and the spectacular views can only be seen on the postcards behind the desk in the lodge.

Tomorrow I will go and visit basecamp as Billi returns from summitting yesterday. Looking forward to see her and hear her story. And then I think I will go and visit the Croatian Everest Women’s team camp and say hello.