Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race and Mt. Everest Challenge Marathon race report
Once again, organizers of the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race and Mt. Everest Challenge Marathon have produced a perfectly orchestrated event, in spite of this ultramarathon taking place in a logistically challenged country.
Registration is restricted at this race, especially in recent years, as one of the huts where racers stay at the race high point at Sandakphu (3636 m/12,000’) has burnt down. For 2016 – the 26th running of this race – there were 36 entrants. Six of those were walkers, who travel parts of the course but rely on jeep transport offered by organizers as required. The remaining 30 were runners attempting the full distance: 100 miles (160 km) over five days. Competitors hailed from all over the world: France, Spain, England, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Sweden, South Africa, Singapore, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, USA – as well as my husband Dave and me from Canada.
The race director, Mr. C.S. Pandey, offers complete support to all racers, including hotel accommodation upon arrival in Delhi, and our flights to the town of Bagdogra, two days before the race start. (He also assists with travel arrangements for racers who want to arrive earlier). The race takes place in the Darjeeling area of northeastern India, very close to the borders with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and China.
From Bagdogra, a two-hour bus journey took us to the village of Mirik: altitude 1675 m, and race headquarters. The next day we were offered tour options: either a walking tour around Mirik, including a stop at a Buddhist monastery, or a longer day-trip north to Darjeeling. Then it was a quick (but delicious) dinner, some quick packing, and an attempt to get to bed early in preparation for tomorrow’s race start.
Day 1: Baptism by fire (aka hike yourself up to altitude)
A 1.5 hour bus ride took us to the race start at the town of Maneybhanjang. This race has been running for over a quarter of a century, and it is a big deal for all of the locals to come watch these crazy foreigners line up for a week of intentional suffering!
After the first few hundred meters of flat runnable pavement, the remaining 39k (distances approximate) are pretty much uphill. (And steep). Oh, except for that big downhill run in the middle, where we lose nearly a kilometre of our hard-earned gain. In all, we rise from our start of 2010 m to finish at 3636 m, for a cumulative gain of around 2900 m. Tough on the legs (quads/glutes/calves), and also tough on the lungs as the air becomes thinner – and colder – as we go.
Our route today was nearly entirely on (and I mean ON) India’s border with Nepal. Armed border guards are stationed every few hundred m the whole way – and for this day they all carry cell phones, so they can quickly summon help if any racers get into trouble. We’ve been instructed not to veer left, for if we go to Nepal, there is nothing Mr. Pandey can do for us.
The so-called “cobblestone” was challenging – rough boulders and cobbles pounded into some semblance of a road (hard on the feet, but I’d sure rather run it than bounce over it in a 70 year-old jeep). Views off the ridgeline were stunning: the pale green slopes of Nepal, sprinkled with small huts and pastures, off to our left, and the dark green forests of Himalayan pine and native rhododendrons on the Indian side to our right. As we ascended, clouds swept up from the Nepal side, and we found ourselves rising through the mist.
The relentless uphill was hard on nearly everyone. David Fontaine (France) was first in, in 4:43. Dave and I arrived together in tenth place in 7:10. Only one racer didn’t make it: Patricia Anconetani (Argentina) hadn’t eaten enough early on, and was taken up by jeep to get an IV. At dinner, though, she was determined to run the next day, and did her best to down some food so the doctor would permit her to go.
Day 2: A rolling 20 mile jaunt along the ridgeline
It was a cold night at Sandakphu, and the morning was cold too. The race organizers and tourism officials had done their best to keep us fed and warm.They cooked tasty and nourishing food in spite of the primitive facilities, and provided us with extra fluffy fleece blankets so we at least could warm up in bed. Today’s route was an out-and-back, so we would be staying here again tonight.
We were back on the cursed cobblestone, continuing along the border-ridgeline with Nepal below to our left. Our first 5 or so km was mainly a steep runnable descent – I resolved to keep this in mind for the return: save some juice for the final long uphill! Water stations for the entire race were placed every 3 or so km (and full aid stations with food every 5 to 10 km), so we didn’t have to carry much. I made sure to drink as much as I could at each one, to counteract the dehydrating effects of altitude.
I was around the middle of the pack as I neared the turnaround. Finally, I encounter the leaders returning. Yesterday’s top three, David Fontaine (France), Jas Sanghera (UK) and Stu Cox (Australia) were cruising the downhill together. I was surprised to see my husband Dave in 6th place. He’s nursing a knee injury – I hoped he was proceeding wisely. He glanced at his watch.“Six minutes to the turnaround!” he called. “Going down!”
It was a much longer slog going up, though. I started to run again as I headed back down, taking the opportunity to assess who was near me both front and behind. Turns out nearly no one! I was alone the whole way back – or at least to the final 2.5k-to-go water station, when Frank Rohde (Germany/USA) caught me.
“It’s all downhill from here!” he smiled. Hmm, that’s not how I remembered it. (We later agreed it must have been uphill both ways. Weird, he says).
Dave was waiting for me at the finish, shivering. He’d been in for 40 minutes, and blood was oozing from his left knee. “I over-ran,” he said. He limped beside me as we headed to the soup hut.
David and Jas finished together today in 3:26. Stu faded after I saw them, and ended up in third place, 12 minutes behind them. Matko Vidosevich (Argentina) was 4th, and Anna Petrakos (Australia) was 5th and first female. I had been hoping to be under five hours, but finished in 5:01. Most runners were in by lunchtime, but a few paced themselves conservatively by walking most of the route, finishing in between seven and eight hours.
Day 3: The Everest Challenge Marathon
The third day of this race is also a self-contained event: The Everest Challenge Marathon. Don’t expect to set a PR here – but prepare yourself for race-stopping views of four of the world’s five highest peaks (if the skies clear).
Fortunately for us, Mr. Pandey had prayed to the mountain goddess the night before and asked her for just two hours of clear sky. She obliged, and we awoke in darkness too see Kanchenjunga (8586 m) gradually revealed by the glowing pink morning light, and then the more distant peaks of Everest, Makalu and Lhotse glimmering white.
A fine day to be running in the Himalaya!
Mr. Pandey had announced to us the evening before that today’s race start would be advanced to 6am, to accommodate some of the slower runner/walkers who were aspiring to complete the full course. That’s a really wonderful aspect to this event: organizers do their best to keep everyone in the game and avoid DNFs.
Our first 10 miles followed the same route as yesterday’s out-and-back. However, when we reached yesterday’s turnaround at the hill called Molle, we veered left along another ridgeline, our final segment following the Nepal border. This section was stunningly scenic as the trail wound down below us, and then back up to a far hill with an army hut and aid station. From here we turned around and headed back to Molle, then set out on an incredibly steep descent for the next 13 km: taking us from the alpine back down to jungle villages surrounded by terraces of corn, amaranth and beans. No roads, accessible only by foot.
I ran this race three years ago, and this stage was, up until now, the best day of my life. It’s like two days crammed into one: hanging out in the clouds with Everest etc., then jogging through the jungle and waving to the smiling children and the friendly waving men and women we encounter along the stone paths. Now I have two best days of my life!
First in was David Fontaine (France) in 5:32, with Stu Cox (Australia) less than 20 minutes behind him. David had consolidated a cumulative lead of over an hour on Stu and Jas – barring anything unexpected, it was unlikely that anyone could make that time back on him on the two remaining shorter days. Dave and I finished with Angela Scott (USA), who we had done the entire second half of the race with, in 8:58 – a time I was quite fine with, considering that (like many runners) the clear skies and incomparable Everest views had turned my priority from racing to photography.
As any ultrarunner knows, there are things that you experience on some races that you just cannot explain to someone who was not there. This marathon day is one of them. Take a look at my pix, so you have an idea of what this day was like for me – then just go and do this race yourself, so you know.
Day 4: Switching it up – some pavement!
Actually, all pavement. We finished yesterday’s marathon route in the charming village of Rimbick. Our view from the hotel was row after row of mountain ranges, the furthest of which was China!
Some runners in our group had been struggling with the rocks and trail. Today was their day: a half-marathon distance, starting with a 425 m/1400’ drop along scenic switchbacks down to the bottom of the river valley, then a few km of flat before we cross the bridge and ascend 500 m/1600’ on the other side to our finish line – all on road.
I could tell within the first kilometre who had used up their quads on the previous three days, and who still had use of them. As a result of an impromptu photo shoot at the start line, in which Mr.Pandey lined up “short friends” at the front of the pack, I found myself in second place for nearly the first minute of the race – behind Stu Cox (Australia) who was clearly on a mission. I didn’t yet know myself how my quads were going to work on the long downhill (not to mention the knee injury I’ve been nursing since August). I didn’t mind at all as racers began to pass me – different ones from those who had been ahead of me on the previous days. I was just happy that I was actually running downhill on pavement at all!
By an hour later, at the bottom of the hill, I was comfortably mid-pack again. However, I knew I would overtake a lot of my companions on the uphill. The scenery here was lovely – brightly painted homes, all well taken care of, every balcony and wall adorned with marigolds and dahlias and roses in full bloom, and the roads lined with dense tropical vegetation including poinsettia trees in full bloom.
And I did march up that hill well – advancing enough to arrive at the finish in 9th place of full-course racers and 2nd female (possibly my best race result ever). Stu Cox maintained his lead to take his first stage win here, finishing in an impressive 1:43, with David and Jas finishing second and third. Busses waited at the finish line to take us back to our hotel in Rimbick for the night; tomorrow we would be transported back to this same spot for our final stage, to complete our 100 mile/160 km loop.
Day 5: Back to where we started: Maneybhanjang
My cumulative time so far was a good hour faster than my race time of three years ago – and my body was definitely feeling a lot better by this stage than it had last time. But I remembered this day as perhaps the toughest (at least mentally): another 27 km/17 miles of pavement, this time continuing up the big hill we’d started up yesterday, to gain a good 600 m/2000’ over 10 km, before the long 17 km downhill to Maneybhanjang.
I knew that the initial uphill was my chance to advance my position in the field. The route was switchbacks winding their way relentlessly upward through the forest. I hiked the steeper curves, and ran the short flats in between as much as I could. Even a short 10 or 20 m run would advance me by a few metres, and by doing that I slowly but surely overtook a number of runners as we climbed.
Carlos Spinelli (Argentina) was gaining behind me. I didn’t have to turn around: the click of his poles alerted me to his distance. I knew he was going to catch me, but I wasn’t going to let him take it easily. (That’s one thing I love about this kind of race – because we ARE all in competition with one another. But it’s such a friendly competition that there’s always a smile and a wave when you see someone doing well, even if they are passing you).
As we neared the top, though, the flats were getting harder and harder for me to run. There was still that big long downhill ahead – and I wasn’t sure that I even had much in the way of running legs left any more. So I stuck to hiking for the final part of the climb. Carlos passed me, as did Richard Barsk (Sweden). I didn’t care any more: I was advancing just fine, and there was still a long way to go.
Carlos’s wife caught me at the top. Patrica is a better downhill runner than me – she tightened her laces at the crest, then shot down ahead of me. I had expected to be passed by many runners on the downhill but, surprisingly, my running legs were still working after all. I was pleasantly surprised to see only three runners over the next two and a half hours, including Zdenka Jost (Germany), who had been at the back of the pack on the trails, but was clearly in her element here on pavement.
The toughest part of this stage is mental. We were mostly winding our way down through trees – no more amazing distant views, the scenery closed in and mostly the same. Local vehicles would pass me from time to time – cars, vans, motorbikes – and usually there was an encouraging shout of “Good luck, lady!” or “Welcome ma’m!”
I heard the shouts and the band playing at the finish well before I arrived there. Schoolchildren were lined up along the chute on both sides waving flags and shouting “Well-COME! Well-COME!” every bit as enthusiastically as if I were the winner. I don’t usually cry at finish lines, but I felt tears well up as I hit the ribbon and Mr. Pandey greeted me. This was a hard race – and here I was, again!
Stu Cox kept the jets turned on to win this stage in 2:32, but his efforts weren’t enough to overtake overall winner David Fontaine. Top finishers are:
David Fontaine (France) 18:08
Stuart Cox (Australia) 19:07
Jaz Sanghera (UK) 19:51
Anna Petrakos (Australia) 22:46, 4th overall
Fiona McIntosh (South Africa) 25:05, 8th overall
Annette Petzold (Germany) 26:35, 12th overall
And I was more than pleased with my result of 27:20, making me 4th female and 14th overall.
Do you want to do this race? (Umm… yes!!)
Well, I came back for a second time… so that pretty much answers that question.
This is not a huge race. And the quality of the field varies a lot from year to year: some years there are a lot of elite runners hungry for a podium spot (and no, there is no prize money), whereas other years the majority of the runners are here just to experience the Himalaya.
And that is the most spectacular aspect of this race: experiencing the culture, the foods, the scenery, and the people you meet along the way. Oh yeah… and the opportunity to pass through Sandakphu, the only place in the world where you can see four of the world’s five highest mountains at once: Everest, Makalu, Lhotse and Kanchenjunga. That’s definitely a highlight.
Important to remember, though, is that India is a developing country. On top of that, we runners are passing through extremely remote regions with little infrastructure. The organizers do a spectacular job of transporting gear with no losses or delays, and of feeding us and keeping us warm in what can be very hostile conditions, and of keeping everything happening at a reasonable schedule.
However, there is some hardship along the way: If you require hot showers and flush toilets everywhere you go, this race is not for you. To me, these hardships are well worth the opportunity to experience the places that the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race takes us (not to mention a good reminder that everyone is not as fortunate – or as coddled – as are we in the western world).
Will I go again? I sure plan to! And you should too. For more information, you can contact the Race Director, Mr. C.S. Pandey, directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Namaste!