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.


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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:

And see for some pictures and reports in Japanese.