What I am about to describe is the most beautiful, friendly, entertaining, stunning race I have ever, ever run.
I found out about the 4th Annapurna 71k ultra trail race a week after I arrived in Nepal. Roger, the manager of the Summit Hotel and locally infamous long distance runner, told me about it during a Saturday morning mountain run.
“I’m not sure I’m up for 71 kilometres just right at the moment”, I said, thinking about all the short distance flat road running I’d been doing for the last seven months in Vietnam.
“There’s also a 35k option if you like”, Roger suggested. The shorter course sounded a much more appealing option.
On Friday morning I set off for Pokhara, the race start, on a “micro” minibus. I went with Roger, Bisman and Rajman (The two Nepali guys I ran with that Saturday) and Jo, a Dutch man who had specifically flown in for the event. I was soon to find out that Jo holds the M55 World Record for running the farthest in six hour as well as several national marathon titles.
The road journey took around five hours, including a 10am stop for rice and lentils on the way. At a bargain price of 325 Rupees (3.25 Euros) for the bus ride, we got to Pokhara just after 1pm.
Race registration and briefing were to take place that afternoon at the Hotel Barahi. As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we saw a formidable contingent of very lean and mean Nepali runners.
“They’re mainly from the Nepali army and police”, I was told. “Some of them are training to get one of the twenty places available to become British gurkhas”. With over three thousand applicants each year to become one of this formidable army team, it was no wonder that these men were as fit as they could physically be. Given also the prize-money on offer, a considerable 500 Euros for the winner, it was inevitable that the cream of Nepali runners had turned up to compete in the event.
Roger, Jo and I were not the only foreign faces who had arrived for the race. Rob, a British guy living in Dubai, and Gustavo, a Columbian living in Miami, had flown in as well especially to compete. We were joined too by Roger’s wife Marie-Anne, Richard a British runner living in Nepal, Miki a Japanese journalist who has completed the Everest marathon and has lived in Nepal for over twenty years, and Miki’s Japanese friend from Bangkok.
Even with the Nepali runners and the international delegation, the total number of competitors barely reached fifty. This lent a certain intimacy to the event from the very start, allowing the race briefing to begin with everyone standing up and formally introducing themselves.
The race organizer and ex-Gurka, Ramesh, lead the rest of the race briefing, switching with ease between Nepali and English language so that everyone would understand.
“You will start here at Hotel Barah at 06.30 tomorrow morning”, he said, pointing to a long list of villages written on the chart. His army background infused the room with a somewhat military feel. “You then run up Sarong Khot hill to Birenthati, then up to Poon Hill and back to Birenthati. Any doubt?” Silence from us cadets. “OK, no doubt”, he said, regimental style. (A GPS track of the trail can be seen here.)
“And where does the 35k finish?” I said, throwing up my hand. I took a certain kind of pleasure in knowing that I only had to do half of what he had just described. I found out the finish was just before the 3000 stone steps leading up Ulleri.
I was up bright and early on Saturday morning to make sure I had everything I needed – a few gels, some bars, a bottle of water, a jumper just in case it got cold. The only thing I couldn’t bring was my camera. Somehow it had run out of battery and I had forgotten to bring the charger. But I had no reason to worry. All the other international runners had brought their cameras along.
“Now are you sure you don’t want to do the 71k?” Gustavo asked me on the starting line.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’d prefer to be able to walk for the rest of the week. A leisurely 35k will do me absolutely fine”. Yet despite my determination to do half the route, I was beginning to wonder if I was going to miss out on the best and latter part of the route. So I resolved to start out slow, to keep the old heart rate below 155, and to see how I got on.
The race started right on the dot of 6.30am. The Nepali runners raced off, through the streets of Pokhara and far out of sight before I hit the first bend.
“We’ll leave them to it”, Richard, Gustavo and I agreed as we jogged slowly down the road, past the cafes and hiking shops and enticing signs for massage.
The first obstacle of the day was Sarangkot hill. The climb was steep up stone steps through a sparse set of trees. It took an hour to reach the top, from where I looked down and took in the picturesque lake on which Pokhara rests. The first check-point was there too, with bananas, water and chicken noodle soup. I slurped the soup down, as I would repeatedly do that day, glad of the carbs and salt laden liquid.
From Sarangkot, the route lead along a rough road across a ridge, through small villages and packs of hiking tourists. Then from out of nowhere the true mountains appeared. I was at 2,000 metres height, but far beyond me lay snow-capped mountains towering over six kilometers above. I felt very small. And privileged.
After an hour, the route led us to the second check-point and back down to a tarmac road. There I met Jo from Holland and Richard from Dubai who were taking a leisurely break. My adventure racing days of fast transitions prohibited me from hanging around. A bowl of cold chicken noodle soup, two unripe bananas and a full water bottle later and I was back on the road.
The day began to heat up as I racked up the kilometers. My hands were slowly but surely starting to swell, a sure indicator that I was sweating amply. I stopped at a local kiosk and grabbed some more water, a bag of crisps for the salt, and a bread roll I found hidden under some plastic. Luckily I had stashed lots of rupees in my bag as there were plenty of teahouses where food and water could be bought if needed.
I reached Birenthati, the 30 kilometre mark, in less than five hours. And I felt absolutely fine. The race organizer, Ramesh, was there clapping my arrival as I walked confidently over the suspension bridge that hung precariously over the gushing river, trying hard not to look down (during the race briefing we’d been told not to run over the bridges as it made them swing too much).
“I’m signed up for the 35k”, I told him as he noted down my race number and I shoveled down more chicken noodle soup. “But is it ok if I continue on and do the whole race?”
“Of course, of course”, he replied, his head waggling enthusiastically. He liked to see ‘good effort’.
Out of Birithati I ran on the tourist hiking trail, heading towards Poon Hill.
“Way to go”, an American shouted at me coming from the opposite direction. “First woman!” I looked up and smiled shyily from under my baseball cap.
“Thanks”, I said, even though I knew mighty Miki wouldn’t be too far behind. It was the first in the line of long encouragement that was to extend throughout the day. I passed many hikers out with their boots, back-packs and sticks, stopping to take my photo and to cheer me on to complete what they considered an arduous race.
After around two hours I reached the bottom of a set of steps that never, ever ended up to Ulleri. I took my time and got into a rhythm that lulled me to the top. Another check-point, another bowl of soup, and then the path lead me towards the forest.
By now the first Nepali runners had already reached Poon Hill and were on their way back home to the finish at Birenthati. I looked up to see the lanky long legged runners streaming effortlessly down the hill. Beside them porters were also bounding down the hill, carrying sacks twice their size perfectly balanced on their backs.
We’d been informed that the Women’s Group of Birenthati would meet us at one of the check-points. I encountered them before Poon Hill, clapping and cheering as they placed a garland of flowers around my neck and a welcoming red mark on my forehead.
On my journey towards Poon Hill, I also met Richard and Roger already making their return journey.
“Though you were only doing the 35k”, they said, teasing me for my change in mind.
“Ah sure, seemed like a nice day out, so thought I’d keep going”, I said.
At around 3pm I finally hit the top of Poon Hill. I looked down and saw the most spectacular setting – a valley bursting with pink rhododendron bushes, and in the distance, the white laced mountains that I hope to climb another day.
From Poon Hill top, there was left a 20 kilometre descent back down to the finish at Birenthati. I felt fine but my feet were beginning to break up. The terrain was far removed from the Irish sodden bog I know so well from all my other ultra races. I began to feel the sharp stones break through with every stride. I had taped and vaselined my feet but neither of these could stop the blisters or prevent their bursting.
By now the race was on to get to the finish before darkness fell at 6.30pm. I approached the 3000 stone steps and proceeded to tackle them in reverse. My Garmin watch had already given up at the six hour mark and run out of battery so I had no idea what time it was. When I stopped to ask tourists, they either didn’t have the time or didn’t speak a word of English. All I had to go on was how fast the light was fading.
Eventually I reached the jeep track that I knew lead into Birenthati. I’d refused to stop for water or food for the last two hours, so desperate I was to press on. With darkness setting in, I was confused by the bright light I encountered as I rounded the final corner. It was a TV camera recording my ultimate descent into the finish.
Through the stone cobbled streets I darted, trying to find the line. Eventually I asked a little girl who sprinted in front of me and showed me where to go. I crossed the line in 12 hours 14 minutes, just as the clock struck 6.44pm. Another garland around my neck and I staggered into the nearest shop to buy a cold Coke.
In the end, those behind me had no need of their headlamps despite the late hour and the dark. A full moon graced their return to Birenthati as they wound their way along the river bank and through villages humming with hikers eating dinner and drinking pints and reminiscing about their day’s trek.
The only way back to Pokhara where we were staying the night was in a pick-up truck. I was so stiff from the run that I couldn’t lift my leg high enough to get into the back and had to be hoisted in by some men. Ten of us eventually fitted into the pick-up, leaning against each other like cattle on their way to market. But despite the discomfort from sitting squeezed into a ball in a sea of Nepali runners, I still managed to close my eyes and come close to drifting off. We transferred to a bus that banged its way back to Pokhara in less than an hour. From there it was food, beer, and in bed by 10.30 pm.
Next morning was prize giving and to find out how the others had done. Some looked like they had barely exerted themselves the day before. They were the ones who won the race in just seven and a half hours. But then there were others who had suffered on the course. One guy sat beside me, both big toes and both little toes swathed in big bandages.
The prize giving was an almighty affair with chief guests from the army and police handing out the prizes. There were photographers and journalists and TV cameras. There were medals and certificates for everyone, and bronze trophies and money for the winners.
I hobbled into work back in Kathmandu on Monday morning, the office quietly unaware of the journey I had made two days before. That is until one colleague Nutan found my name in the newspaper and told everyone I had won. They had managed to transcribe my name into Nepali script so I couldn’t make our the words. But it was official. Somehow I was the first woman home in the Annapurna ultra trail race.