It was never really clear to me how I ended up stumbling around alone and in the dark in the Himalayas, but since you’re reading this, you already know that those mountains they do call.
And when your adventure buddies are the same crazy mom and daughter team that you shared a yurt with for the awesome Mongolia Sunrise 2 Sunset race a couple of years before, the call is loud!
Add that the race in question was also hosting the final of the 2019 Salomon Golden Series, that we’d be hobnobbing with the royalty of global trail running, and the call was irresistible. In any event, one doesn’t really need too much of an excuse to visit Nepal – it’s easy to get to, very affordable (even for Saffas), offers an explosion of cultural colour, and is a veritable extreme activity and adventure playground.
Cut to the stunning lakeside town of Pokhara, gateway to the Annapurna Circuit. The clean air and relative quiet were a change from vibrant noisy dirty Kathmandu. It was a real treat to join the aforesaid mother and daughter Tanya and Clare Worner, also from Johannesburg, for an easy leg-loosener run along the beautiful lake shore.
As a trail event organiser myself, I am always interested to see how other events are put together, especially the high profile international ones. To date my experience has been that the South African trail community can generally hold its head up very high with the overall organisation and quality of our bigger events.
Race registration in Pokhara was in the garden of a local restaurant, where we got to meet Nepalese legend Mira Rai, a great privilege as well as a welcome distraction from the nerves that were setting in.
But as pretty as Pokhara was, our setting at the base of the Annapurna massif (highest point 8,091m, and 13 peaks above 7,000m – with 16 above 6,000m) did not allow us to forget what we were there to do!
From Pokhara, logistics got complicated, juggling luggage and race kit between our accommodations in Pokhara and the small trekking village of Dhampus where the race started and finished. The bone-jarring bus ride up into the mountains to Dhampus was a Nepalese adventure in itself, but the nervous chatter from trail runners from across the globe made the time fly.
Our accommodation in the village was a basic teahouse, clean and more than adequate. The owner/manager was brilliantly hospitable and made sure we were properly fed for our long day in the mountains coming up. We couldn’t have asked for more.
The Golden Ones
While we were settling in, we could hear the Golden Series 42km runners being announced over the loudspeakers. Their race was a day earlier than our 55km and the 100km race. I just had to go check it out. Although at only about 1,600m (the same as Johannesburg), we were in the middle of the mountains, so I bundled up against the damp chill and went to see how the pros do things.
The finish area was set up on the village sports field (or yak grazing area – we were never sure), and being so remote, was pretty basic. Crowds were sparse, made up mostly of other runners. There was a band of traditionally dressed Nepalese musicians playing exotic traditional instruments that would strike up every time a runner appeared. Fantastic!
It was great to recognise faces that I recognised from international trail running media. Confession: I could not resist being that groupie/stalker person and accosting Kilian Jornet for the obligatory selfie. I think he got a fright but I got my Kilian pic!
Catching up with the Saffas
A highlight of the whole experience was to bump into compatriots Robbie Rorich and our Golden Girl of trail Megan Mackenzie who clinched an impressive podium finish. In true Mzansi style they were thrilled to talk to fellow Africans so far from home, and it was fun to get their insights of the course they’d just run and that would make up much of our 55km course tomorrow.
The downside was to hear Meg describe the climb as one of the most extreme she had ever encountered, and to admit that as prepared as she was, she was not prepared for that. This did get me thinking, so I sought out the race organiser to ask him whether there were any cut-off times on the 55km, as the website was quite vague on this. I remember his answer clearly: “Uummm, not really, no…”.
This made me feel marginally better, and rationalising that Meg had been racing and I would not be, I figured I’d be OK. I mean, how bad could it be? (Spoiler alert: Bad! There was a point about two thirds through the climb where if a rescue helicopter had appeared and offered lifts home, I’d have jumped at it. Alas, and thankfully, no such chopper appeared.)
After a cold, fitful night’s sleep – but grateful for the hot shower and hearty early breakfast – we lined up on the field for our 4am start, surrounded by headlamp-luminous wide eyes and a dozen different languages. The heady mix of exhilaration and fear, the intense isolation of your own thoughts, and the unspoken camaraderie of being part of this mad band of brothers and sisters, the mental double- and triple-checking of equipment, your race strategy, your nutrition, your stomach… and all around us rose the incomparable Himalayas.
Facing the Himalayan Reality
It is impossible to describe the sense of awe and humility, insignificance and privilege, gratitude and terror, that was experienced.
Feeling completely alone but at the same time part of something greater than yourself, and as we connected and shared with each other over hours and kilometres, strangers but not, discovering that everybody was feeling and experiencing some personal version of the same thing.
And we were off… My race strategy was simple. The course could be split into three parts according to the elevation profile. The first part was about 13km of gradual downhill that looked eminently runnable on paper, the second was The Climb and the third was the descent to the finish.
Everyone has a plan until…
Stage One of my plan was to take it easy for the first part: no matter how strong I may feel, save myself (and my legs) for what came next. The rest of my plan was childishly (or naively, or idiotically) straightforward.
Stage Two: put your head down and take one step at a time for The Climb – however tough it was my head would eventually pop out at the top. The long descent to the finish would then just depend on how Stages One and Two had played out.
Stage One went according to plan. The first 13km was mostly runnable downward leaning jeep track, and while it may not have been the most exciting running during the day, it was phenomenal to run at night. We had no real sense of what we knew were dramatic and exotic surroundings, other than the thrill of passing through still-sleeping Himalayan villages.
As the sun started winking over the top of the mountains, I was literally stopped in my tracks by not just the views but by the breathtakingly humbling scale of everything. It was mountains upon mountains upon mountains. I could not help but use what I knew to try and create some context, and my mind went to our magnificent Drakensberg, the high peaks around 3,000m-3,500m.
Reality Sets In
It made my head spin to realise that the foothills surrounding the valley we were in were around that high, while behind them was another range twice as high, and becoming clearer as the day emerged, the incredible Machhapuchhre at 6,993m, which would fill my vision and dominate my entire existence for the next 14 hours of daylight.
Machhhapuchhre (or Fishtail, its descriptive English name), is not the highest peak of the Annapurna range, but it competes fiercely for the title of Most Spectacular.
It is one of the more prominent peaks in the entire Himalayas and is rated as one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. This is made all the more appealing by the fact that it is one of the very few peaks on the planet that has never been climbed.
Sacred Is Still Sometimes Sacred
Machhapuchhre is said to be the home of the Hindu god Shiva. The Nepalese government has designated it sacred and has never issued a permit to summit.
A climb marked the end of Stage One and the course left the jeep track and started heading up into the mountains. I knew from the profile that this uphill was just a false start and we’d be going down again before the main climb started, so I took it easy, appreciating the surroundings and views.
At this stage we were at 1,400m altitude, so there was still a lot of local activity around us. Through orchards, rice terraces and villages, we encountered loads of locals doing what mountain farmers do. It was thoroughly enjoyable being so close to real life in the Himalayas.
I stopped at the aid station at 20km to fill up with water and chow down a bit. It was fairly basic but well stocked with bananas, jelly babies and chips, and the most delicious white bread peanut butter and honey sandwiches. I smashed two.
From here the unrelenting climb began in earnest. It was magnificent. Lush primeval rainforest that went on forever. It was steep, but only occasionally did I need my hands, and interestingly there were lots of carved stone stairs.
The Nepalese and their forebears had clearly been traversing these mountain trails for millennia. At this stage the field was spread to the point that I was totally alone. Every now and again the green would be interrupted by a flash of colour high up ahead, or the dense jungle silence would be broken by the sound of a few foreign words behind me.
I knew that there were runners ahead and behind, but for all intents and purposes I could have been on another planet. It was surreal and spiritual and humbling. I loved it!
Trouble In Paradise
Up and up and up. The next checkpoint was at 25km and 2,400m altitude. I sat for a few minutes and enjoyed warm tea and a sign language chat with the Nepalese race volunteer before carrying on up. With hindsight and thinking with my race organiser hat, mindful of the challenges and limitations resulting from the dramatic terrain, I considered how some of the problems that arose later could have been avoided.
The race organiser missed a trick here and should have specified very clearly that this was essentially the point of no return. The next stop was the top, only 10km further but 1,500m higher, and the only way down from there, forward or back, was under your own steam.
Up and at ‘em! Right now any direction other than forwards did not even cross my mind. Admittedly the climb was getting to me.
I was tired but it was only about midday at this stage and there were a good eight hours of daylight in the bank.
I continued climbing through the forest for another hour and a half or so, starting to feel good about having so much of The Climb under my belt. Through the foliage I caught glimpses of blue sky and it was comfortably warm but not hot. And then, boom, I was out of the jungle.
I paused to take in the incredible view. I knew from my watch that I was at 3,000m, the same elevation as the summit of Cathedral Peak in the Berg. But there, looming over everything around her and sharp against the clear blue sky, was the magnificent Machhapuchhre, towering 4,000m above me! The perspective was hard to take in.
That Sinking Feeling…
Out of the jungle for the first time in hours, I started looking around for the trail and for the other runners that I knew were ahead of me. Around I looked… and nothing! I started looking up, and up, and my heart sank as the trail continued up into the sky.
Tens of metres, hundreds of metres above me I saw tell-tale splashes of colour, almost but not quite lost on the mountain high above me. It was here that I imagined that fantasy helicopter, and it hurt a bit knowing that I would have jumped in.
Anyway, as you know, there was no helicopter. No dragons to ride, no zipline down, only my exhausted legs and more mountain to climb. I ate some of my food, steeled my loins as they say in the classics, and carried on. Slowly.
I found a guy lying on the ground in a foetal position. I stopped to ask if he was alright. I’ll never forget his reply “I’m OK. I just need to lie here a while…”
I carried on. By now I was moving slowly, very tired, a bit dizzy, and nauseous from the altitude.
My mind was starting – slowly and reluctantly – to come around to the fact that whatever else happened, barring death or serious injury, there was no other way but up and over.
We Are Broken
I caught up with and overtook a few people on this stretch, all looking wretched and broken. Passing people revived me a bit; I was broken but there were others who were more broken, so I couldn’t be in that bad a shape.
The next 4km took me two hours, but at about a kilometre out I started getting a sense of the trekking village that was the aid station and checkpoint at the top. That made a big difference. It did not make it physically easier, of course – at 3,500m and after climbing non-stop for seven hours nothing was going to do that. What it did do was erase all thought of what was behind me and provided a clear and visible goal to focus on ahead. It worked. As brutal as that last kilometre climb was, my head was back in a good space, looking forward to some hot tea, and looking forward to the long descent.
A couple of locals enthusiastically greeted runners coming into the aid station with a loud cowbell as a herd of high-mountain yaks impassively looked on in what was now a cold mist. It is hard to describe how the sound of that bell lifted my spirits. There was a sting in the tail – the aid station was not the high point! The high point was still 250m higher and almost 2km further, and as the actual checkpoint, I still had to get there in order to carry on. I had known this so I was prepared for it. What I was not prepared for was the brutal hour it would take me to cover this last stretch. Judging by how I was passing quite a few people now, on the way up and coming down, I felt relatively strong and was feeling good about the run down.
As I came into the aid station I was offered some tea and food by one of the race volunteers, a British woman. I decided that rather than lose momentum, mentally and physically, I’d do better to keep going to the checkpoint, using the promise of that warm drink as motivation.
On my way down from the checkpoint approaching the aid station, I met her again, going up. She asked how I was doing, and whether I was feeling OK to continue down and to the finish. When I answered positively, she said that I was looking strong and that there was only about 20km to go, and it was pretty much all downhill. She also told me, to my surprise, that she had just received instructions from the race organiser to start cutting people off, and she was cutting off everyone behind me.
As relieved as I was to have made this surprise cut-off, I couldn’t help but feel a lot of sympathy for all those people behind me. They would be tired but comfortable knowing that they had made the top in fair time and now just had to run down. And they were cut off. It was 4pm, there were 20km to go and the sun only went down at about 8pm. It was hard to understand.
Another thought struck me as I started my descent, and it became even harder to understand. As I’d mentioned earlier, the only way down from the top was on your own two feet. My race organiser hat kicked in. Assuming no unexpected change in conditions or weather (there was none), the only reason to implement a surprise cut-off like this would be if the organiser believed that the people he was cutting off were moving too slowly or were too weak, and that they posed a risk to themselves or to the race.
Fair enough. The logic fell apart however, when the very people who have just been told that they are not fast enough or strong enough to continue without being at risk, are also told that although they are cut off and out of the race, they must continue to the finish, on their own, as they would have done anyway if they had not been cut off and were still in the race.
The next couple of hours were glorious, witnessing a spectacular ridge line with endless deep valleys dropping away on either side, technical but runnable, while the sunset turned the west face of mighty Machhapuchhre to gold behind me. This was what I came for.
The Big Surprise
I passed another checkpoint and hooked up with a young French couple for a while, chatting about sport. The Springboks, surpassing all expectations, were playing in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals against a formidable Wales team that had just beaten France in the quarters. A good way to pass the time as it started to get dark. It was slower going than I’d hoped.
Quite technical, and although all in all I found the trail well marked, quite time-consuming to follow the trail in the dark. After a while my headlamp died and I lost the French couple as I changed to my spare. The illumination thrown out by my second headlamp was not as good. This slowed me down further, but I was keeping a fair pace and on track for a satisfactory time. And then it all went pear-shaped…
I got to the next checkpoint at roughly 14 hours and 45km according to my Garmin. As I filled up with water and grabbed some snacks, happily thinking I had 10km and maybe a couple of hours left to go, I overheard a conversation between the French couple, who I had caught up with, and one of the local race volunteers. The volunteer was telling them there were still 20km to go. Thinking this was surely a mistake I joined the conversation, showing the volunteer my watch and pointing to the route profile on the race number. The volunteer did not have a lot of English so it was a futile argument, but by now I’ve lost it.
Dialling the Red Telephone
I will never be rude to a race volunteer, so instead I tried to get hold of the race organiser. I was out of luck. The checkpoint had no communication with him and there was zero cell phone reception. So much for having an emergency contact number on the race number. The French couple agreed with the mileage calculations, but left me to my tantrum. I kept at it. I probably wasted close to an hour trying to work out for myself who was right and who was wrong and trying all the time to still get in touch with somebody I could argue with.
Mentally I was broken. I could have curled up under a tree and slept – but for two things. First, I had an international flight out the next morning to Dhaka in Bangladesh, and the knock-on effects of missing it would have been disastrous. Second, I kept coming back to the cold fact that irrespective of everything, there was no way down the mountain besides on my own two feet. Even if I did try and escape my miserable reality for a while and sleep under a tree, at some point I knew I would have to wake up, stand up, grow up, and carry on down. In hindsight it was a fascinating process to analyse. Breaking down and rebuilding, alone in the dark in a Himalayan jungle.
Slowly I pulled myself towards myself and starting moving again, trying to work out the logistics in my head that would still get me back to Pokhara in time for my flight to Kathmandu and on to Bangladesh, remembering all the time that I still had luggage in my hut in Dhampus as well as at the hotel in Pokhara where we had hoped to be spending that night. There were not a lot of scenarios where it played out well.
But the mountain gods and ultra-fairies were not finished with me yet… My replacement headlamp dimmed and died!
After a moment’s panic, I pulled out my phone, turned on the torch and carried on. Surprisingly it was bright enough to walk comfortably, if slowly and carefully. An even more impressive discovery was that the torch did not chew phone battery life. This was important because I had calls to make! Now that I was lower down there was some signal. I eventually got hold of the organiser. To my organiser self, I’m thinking that it’s a no-brainer. It is unquestionably in the interests of the race to get a torch to somebody whose own as died. Regardless of whose fault it is (yes, even though I ended up spending about three times the amount of time I had expected to in the dark, it was my own fault).
Regardless of whether that person even qualifies as an official finisher or not, it is better for the overall safety of the race to not have people stumbling around the mountains in the dark. Plus, at this stage I only have 10km to go (approximately – my Garmin died at about 45km and from there on out it was guesswork), and it is all an established trekking trail to the finish. It should be easy enough to grab one of the Sherpas who were all around the race village and, even if it had needed $20 or so, which I’d happily have paid, gotten them to head back up the trail (that they knew well) with a spare headlamp to meet me coming down.
The Hot Collar Call
Turns out it wasn’t a no-brainer for everybody. After some initial to-and-fro about the mileage debacle, I asked about the extra headlamp. Now from my own experience on the other side of the phone I do have some sympathy for the organiser taking one of those calls from an irate runner out on the course.
However, also from my own experience, when irate runners do call from out on the course, it’s not the time to argue. The priority is always to do whatever is possible to ensure the safety of the field. After literally half an hour of the organiser trying to establish exactly where I was, and me trying to impress on him the logic that I was on the trail and moving forward, and really not hard to find, I gave up. The phone was now my eyes and I could not afford to run out of the last battery that I had.
There were some choice words exchanged. I also managed to get hold of Tanya, who was by now at the finish. Reception was patchy at best, so communication was mostly via whatsapp voice notes. Tanya told me afterwards that she was sitting next to the organiser in the teahouse (where he was enjoying a nice cold beer with a whole lot of people) when one of my more colourful messages came through. She played my voice note out loud and apparently he did turn a bit green before turning red. Still no torch was dispatched.
The Dash To Finish
Getting in touch with Tanya also relieved me of my biggest stress at that point – the logistics of getting to my flight. Her Teutonic efficiency is legendary, and I knew that if it could get done, she would do it. I was comfortable to let that worry vacate my headspace and to concentrate on moving forward in my half-light, courtesy of Samsung, and getting down in one piece. At this stage I had hooked up two of the race medics, who were also making their way back to the finish.
Unfortunately, between them all they had was one phone torch, which helped me not at all, but it was nice to have some company. They were fluent in English so it was great to chat while we walked.
It also took the pressure off me to run wherever there was a runnable section. I probably would have killed myself. With about 4km to go, the trekking trail turned into jeep track, so I said goodbye (and a huge thank you) to my new friends and risked running in to the finish. I was physically and emotionally shattered, and it was an interesting experience to be pushing myself for this one last stretch while having exactly zero idea of what was waiting for me at the finish.
I turned the final corner onto the sports field where I could see the start/finish arch but nothing else. All was dark and deserted (despite the fact that there were still loads of people behind me, some who had been cut off at the top of the mountain, some still part of the race, and of course the entire 100km field) and then I heard a car hooting. It was a Land Cruiser containing Tanya and Clare, our super-helpful teahouse host, and a driver. We were checked out of the teahouse, our luggage (mine included) was packed in the back, and we were ready to drive through the night to Pokhara.
And After All That…
So I did make my flights, and I even got a hot bath and an hour’s sleep in a great hotel room.
I have been asked if I would do this race again. Absolutely yes. I have also been asked if I would recommend this race to others. Again, a resounding yes, with some helpful tips. It is not the races where everything goes according to script that are the greatest experiences and most enduring memories. This was honestly one of the most spectacular, toughest, funnest courses I have ever run, all in the most magnificently exotic environment.
It was a privilege to have been able to participate, for which I am grateful. And wiser.