Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Manaslu Trail Run - Days 7 and 8

                                          (Day 7 and 8 video here)

Day 7,  trekking day, Samdo to Rui La pass (4,998m) to Dharmasala (4460).

Morning at camp
We set off early, but a little later than planned. About 10 of us will tackle the trek to the pass on the border. It’s nice to walk and chat, and the first part of the day is easy going, following a river gradually up a valley. There is no habitation anywhere, just some old ruined settlements.
First glance of Tibet

Tibet in the background
After about 3 hours walking we cross the river and start the climb up to the pass. It’s slow going as the air is getting noticeably thinner the more we rise. It’s worth it at the top however, as we emerge onto a narrow saddle with a view over a range of Tibetean peaks. The border here is marked only by a crumbled down stone wall without a living soul in sight. We cross over and huddle out of the wind in the shelter of boulders, and nibble some snacks. Not waiting too long, we cross back over into Nepal and start descending.

Heading back down into Nepal

We lose a little time at the bottom waiting to regroup, and as it’s well past noon. It’s pretty clear that we have a long day remaining ahead. Pushing on at a faster pace, we descend to the main trail in about 2 hours. It’s already about 3pm however, and we have to climb 500m over a few kilometres to our destination. The sun sets behind a ridge and it gets instantly cold. I make it into Dharamasala at around 5:30 with just enough light left for me to be able to clean the exploded sun-screen bottle from the inside of my main bag.  On a normal day that might be enough to kill your spirits, but on a day when you have lunch in Tibet at 5,000m, you can roll with the punches a bit.

Two of the group, Fiona and Jade are not feeling well with clear signs of altitude sickness, and Ben will be keeping a close eye on them for the night. The lodgings are very basic, and hygiene is suspect. This lodge is only recently, and seasonally, set up and the route overall is much less developed than the Annapurna or Everest routes, so the food and facilities remain a challenge. We get to bed with a plan to get up early to tackle the high pass.

Day 8,  Stage 7, Trek from Dharmasala over Larkye La pass (5,160m) to Bimtang, followed by final stage of race, 20km run to Tilije.

We wake early, just after 4am. This is common when tackling high-passes, to allow a long day to tackle the altitude but also so that ice and snow on the high ground is more solid under foot in the cold early hours. I’ve slept ok. Life with small children makes you re-evaluate many things, including sleep. While many people seem to be suffering, and overnight my camelpack water container has frozen, I’m still finding that I’m getting more undisturbed sleep on this trip than normal.

Unfortunately, Fiona and Jade have not improved much overnight and a helicopter is called to take them back to lower altitude asap. Two others are also suffering, and have opted to get support over the pass in the form of a horse. We huddle in the food hut, waiting for breakfast of porridge. There isn’t much water on offer, so I drink what I can in tea form. I’ve only a litre of water, but I figure this is enough to get me up and over the pass.

No gong this morning as the trek section is not timed, we just set off when ready. I follow the line of headlamps up out of the campsite taking it pretty slowly as we rise. Not long out of camp, Chris is suffering from altitude and is vomiting on the side of the trail. Together with Lisa and Quentin, he’s part of the team that are producing a documentary about the event. Quentin is filming him in his low moment – you’ve got to admire their dedication to their art!

Prayer flags at the top of the pass
The walk is a little longer than I expect, about three hours to the top. The terrain is quite different from the border pass yesterday, being more drawn out – a large rocky scree that is difficult to move over.
At the top I see Ken, from Cayman Islands, and Jarmo from Finland. Ken has me capture the moment for the Cayman press, while Jarmo is still pushing on his quest to be the only obese person to complete a multitude of ultra races (when we get down, we find he has a piece covering him in the New York Times).

I don’t wait too long, and push on into the new valley that opens up. What follows is a long walk to Bimgtang, our lunch spot before the final leg of the race.

After some noodles and chapatti, I nostalgically put on my runners for the last 20k. The clock starts again when leaving Bimgtang for Tilije so I register with the checkpoint. I think I’m about 12th in the running, but between the distance covered and my triple time sick day, I’m not too concerned about the placements. It just feels good to complete the full distance and get home without any injuries.

The last 20k are in wonderful scenery, through forest trails along by a river. Somehow, with the end in reach, and tired legs from the long trek, this section feels more forced than others but enjoyable none the less.

Yaks en route

I reach Tilije to find the finish line with ballons (thanks Robyn!) but no-one in sight. It takes me some time to find the other finishers huddled upstairs in the lodge jollily eating their fill of momos and other delights. Big cheers for people as they arrive in.

There is mobile phone network again, and I get a call from home – bad-reception but enough to tell them that I’m ok, and to get a “Well done Daddy!” from my daughter that warms the cockles.

Trusty bag...  
Trusty trainers...

Back to earth

The next few days are taken up getting back to Kathmandu, and slowly re-engaging with the world. The first ride on a jeep is horrific, after 8 days free of motorized transport, with most of us feeling the urge to get out and run instead. The group starts to disperse, with superwoman Lizzy first to leave, continuing on the Annapurna trail solo. For me, with work immediately on return in Kathmandu, real life re-enters quickly.

It’s been a fantastic trip, the first time when I’ve really felt the ‘flow’ that comes with multi-day running. I feel physically fine after all the mileage – all I need is a good scrub in a hot shower. That’s the great benefit of trail running, with every footfall different the work is spread around your body. No repetitive injuries on the knees or ankles that can come with long distances on flat roads.  

Throughout it all though, I’m aware that it’s both an indulgence and a privilege. My wife has been taking care of our two kids back home, and work will be piling up on my desk – it’s been a very therapeutic abdication of adult responsibilities for almost two weeks. Time to put aside the runners and re-engage.

Results update: 
38 runners started overall. Of the 18 that finished the full course, I came in 15th, with a total time on the clock of 38 hours, 14 minutes. I'm very happy with that overall. Ups and downs, throughout. I'm proudest of my 9th place finish on the 40k of day 2 (slight correct to the 8th mentioned in the video!), while the 9 hours from my sick day glares at me. But on the whole I was fortunate - had that been a different day, I would have skipped side trails and not completed the full course. Had the drugs not worked, I would have been going home.
Feels great to say that I completed it, and just happy to have enjoyed the course, the scenery, the company and come home in one piece ready to run again. 

Hats off to Richard and Dhir for the superb organisation. Yes there were some teething problems, but it’s an inaugural race after all.  Overall I’d highly recommend the Manaslu Trial Run, and I’m glad to see dates going up for 2013. It’s not for the faint-hearted nor the unfit. Accommodation is basic and hygiene in the sites is not top-knotch – but the flip side of that is a very undiscovered and unpopulated trail. If coming, make sure you’re comfortable with long distances and above all get some work in on hills and long-climbs somehow – stairs just won’t cut it!

(Link - back to days 1 - 3)

Manaslu Trail Run - Days 4 to 6


                                     (Day 4 to 6 video here)

Day 4, Stage 4 – Approx 20 km, Serang Gompa to Namrung (2,630m), drop back down 570m.

I’ve had a bad night, waking up with cramps in my stomach and gas building up in my digestive system. This is the X-rated part of the trip, so skip to day 5 if you’re squeamish.

I’ve had Giardia before and its symptoms are pretty unmistakable. While in Darfur I was once awake all night with regular trips to the latrine, while gas builds up quickly and on release has a really offensive sulphurous tinge. That time it was followed by having to organise an evacuation by helicopter due to security problems (another story for another day). Today I’m faced with covering 20k in the mountains, or risk not keeping up with the group.

I manage some breakfast, and Dr Ben gives me some pills. Tinidazole, or as Ben says, “The Nuclear Option”, and I don’t argue – let’s nuke those protozoan parasites…. I hold my stomach as a helicopter lands to evacuate those that were sick overnight and haven’t improved. Fran and Sputnik are heading back to Kathmandu being quite sick. One more competitor, Imram, has also opted to jump ship. It’s a sad moment, with no-one wanting to drop out, but best to be safe when it comes to altitude.

Richard is giving the briefing for the day, laying out the route ahead. I’m planning to walk slowly and close to the doctor, but just as he’s saying something about a large climb, I have to run to the latrine. The starting gong goes, with me still battling protozoans, and when I emerge the group is already almost out of sight.

My running companion for day 4
I pick up my bag and start making my way. Ahead is a 300m descent, followed by about 700m of ascent, followed by a long walk down to the destination. It’s really hard to walk with the cramps and after a few paces I start to feel nauseous. I know that if I vomit too soon, the two little uranium rods I swallowed will not have had time to work their magic, so I ease back to a very very slow pace. The group is well out of sight, and soon the porters skip past, merrily carrying their loads. At this point I’m making about 1km per hour, which is not sustainable for a 20 km day.

As I start the climb, I get worse, finally succumbing and falling on my hands and knees. A Chernobyl type vomiting event ensues featuring my breakfast and soup from yesterday. I poke about with a stick to see any sign of the pills. I don’t see them, so hopefully they have had some effect.

In between another couple of vomits and trips to squat in the forest, I start to feel slightly better. I think that emptying the contents of my entire digestive system has actually helped remove some of the nasty creatures. At this point, Dhir and the back-markers have caught up with me and are keeping a close, and worried, eye on me.

I remember from Sudan that once I took medication, the cramps eventually eased. If they ease, I can walk again and I’m hoping this happens at some point before mid-day. I continue my slow pace, picking up gradually, and we catch up with Michael from Scotland who is keeping a steady pace going up the climb. Mercifully at around 1pm the cramps really start to ease off, and I feel like I can walk at a reasonable pace. We’re up over the climb, and now just face a long walk to the finish. I decide to avoid any food, but try to take liquids, water with oral rehydration salts, to keep me hydrated.

The rest of the afternoon goes ok, apart from a few additional rushes to fertilize the undergrowth. Michael lends me a walking pole (cheers buddy!) and we cover the ground ok, getting in just after nightfall. The town, Namrung, is actually quite well equipped. I manage to buy toilet roll (having gone thru every shred in my supply….) and even some chips for dinner. I skip the briefing and jump into bed to get some rest, hoping the parasites are gone for good.

That was probably the most challenging day of exercise I’ve ever done. I’m reminded of what Nietzsche said. I gazed at the abyss, but managed to empty my stomach into it before it could gaze back.

Day 5, Stage 5 – Approx 30 km, Namrung to Sama (3,520), 1,000m altitude gain. Side trip to Pung Gyen Monastery (4,000m).  

Manaslu views start to impress
I wake up feeling a lot better. There were no ‘incidents’ in the night, and though my stomach still feels a bit tender, there are no cramps. I eat a good breakfast and am still feeling ok.

At the briefing the night before, the organisers split the group into two – those that can tackle the full distance and those that should skip the side trips and stay on the main trail, reducing the overall ground covered. I’ve been put in the shorter group, which is understandable given how sick I was yesterday. Still if today goes ok, and I return to normal, I have in mind to try to jump back up to the main group. As things stand, I plan to take it very easy today, skip the planned side trail to the monastery and see how I feel tomorrow.

I’m rushing as I pack my bags with Richard announcing the start, and I set off behind most, but this is ok - in line with my plan to take it easy. I jog lightly on the flats and downs and generally feel ok. As we start to cover the distance, the ‘bad voice’ in my head starts to ponder taking the side trail. This trail is up to a monastery at 4,000m, and is towards the end of the day. This is good, as I can allow time and distance to dictate if I should tackle it. I make a mental target that if I get there early, noon or 1pm, and feel ok, I can consider it.

In the valley leading to Pungyen Gomba
Pungyen Gomba overshadowed by Manaslu

In the end, I make good progress and together with Richard and Marcelo, we get to the turn off at 11am. I’m feeling fine at this point, so don’t hesitate to jump on the side trail. It’s a steep slog up first, and then we reach a plateau of bog-land where there is about 4km of flat ground through a veritable cathedral of mountain scenery, with a small monastery at the end of the valley overshadowed by the immense Manaslu. It’s truly spectacular, and incredibly peaceful. I’ve walked all the climb, and a lot of the flatter bog parts, and it’s wonderful to take in. I’m getting surprised looks and well-wishes from those that are on the way back down – they weren’t expecting to see me based on yesterday’s illness.

I sign in at the checkpoint, eat a muesli bar, and walk and run back along the valley, stopping to take some pictures. I’m starting to feel really great again, and am feeling very lucky – in the moment, that the illness has subsided, and in the larger sense for the chance to be here taking it all in.

Before the race someone described the modesty and humility that being in the Himalayas can bring - taking stock of your size and time on earth among a gigantic landscape carved out in aeons. Back at my computer I can think of some friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and professional footballers who could perhaps do with some time in the mountains. In the moment no such cynical thoughts intrude and I’m just feeling lucky to be there.

Back down to the trail and it’s just a few kilometres into Sama, our station for the night. The village is very picturesque, with views of Manaslu as the sun goes down. We’re told that this may be the closest village in the world to an 8,000m peak (of which there are only 14 in the world).

Day 6, Stage 6 – 20 km, Sama to Samdo (3,800m). Side trip to Manaslu Base Camp (4,400m). 

Manaslu at dawn

I’m getting used to the sound of Dhir waking us up, and this time he’s encouraging us to come out and see the sunrise hit the peaks. I overcome my inner teenager and climb out of bed, directly into my warm clothes. It’s worth it, and the mountains around the town are stunning in the early morning light. Other runners are emerging from their rooms, looking somewhat less stunning in the early morning light.

Actually, we have a really nice breakfast sitting in the sun and there is no big rush to get started. Richard puts his Manaslu-sized stove-top espresso maker into action (I guess there are 40 of us), and the results are worth waiting for.

We set off with a plan to visit Manaslu base-camp, which sits beside a glacier off the main trail, and then finish in Samdo back on the main route.

As we make the climb up towards the base-camp, a glacial lake comes into view. It’s an amazing turquoise colour. On reading on my return, it seems that the glacier grinds rocks to form ‘rock flour’  that is minute and ends up suspended in the water. As we’re walking we hear a distant but large noise – it’s a serac, or column of ice in the glacier, falling. It’s an impressive and intimidating sound. Jim, our resident mountaineering expert (solo ascent of Aconcagua, respect!), laughs when I ask if that makes walking in glacier fields dangers. “Yeah, kinda!”

Main Manaslu glacier

Overlooking the Glacier

Looking back down on the Glacial Lake

We rise well above the lake and to a point where we overlook the glacier. The checkpoint is here, with a hot flask, and is perhaps a little short of the basecamp. I’m told that basecamps are generally just litter-dumps of old tents and gear, so perhaps it’s better that we don’t go the full way.

It feels good to get up to 4,400m, as this will help familiarize us with thinner air. I descent as quickly and safely as I can, and push out on the last 15k or so of flat (yes, Nepali flat) running. The end of the day is a little tough, with a little rise up to the town of Samdo. I finish around 10th, feeling good. At this point I really feel in a ‘flow’ with the running, and somehow don’t feel too much strain. I feel like I could run 30k every day indefinitely. It’s probably good that there is a trekking day tomorrow, with no racing, to remove such delusions from my head.

Bad news is that Andrew is not well. Having come down with a bug yesterday, he doesn’t seem to have responded to the same treatment that I got. He’s heavily dehydrated after the day and Dr Ben can’t get a drip in. A helicopter has been called, and comes to whisk him back to Kathmandu for treatment. The landing site of the helicopter is chaotic, people are approaching it from all sides, trying to get a trip to the capital. The back rotor is impossible to see in the evening light, and the pilot is going crazy trying to keep people away from it. Thankfully there are no decapitations, and the heli lifts off and drops away down the valley.
I eat a surprisingly good veg-pizza in the brightly sun-lit dining hall of the lodge, and we discuss the remaining days.

With Markus and Lee and end of day 6

Markus the sensible Swiss, who is running very well and hovering around 5th, is cautioning against the optional trek to the Tibetan border that is on the agenda for tomorrow. He has a point. It involves a 1,000m climb up to 5,000m, the same descent back to the main route, and then a 500m climb up to our next destination which is the final stop before tackling the 5,200m pass that takes us over the highest point on the route. Good sense would advise a slow walk direct to the next town, allowing time to rest and acclimatize further.

I waver for some time, but finally the ‘bad voice’ wins again. I feel very well, and opt to go for the trek to the border in the knowledge that should I suffer any symptoms, I can turn back. However, the caution is noted and only those that are feeling well are considering the long trek. 

(Link - Continue to days 7 - 8)

Manaslu Trail Run - Days 1 to 3

Video diary of days 1 - 3                                                   

Why run? Why run around a mountain? Why run around the 8th highest mountain in the world? Lots of people have tried to put into words the lure of running, so I won’t try here. I’ll just give an account of my jaunt around Manaslu in Nepal, in the inaugural trail race around the mountain in November 2012.

I’ve been living in Nepal for over a year, and my extremely patient wife Claire has been encouraging me to get out to the mountains, offering to relieve me of family duty for two weeks. I’ve been running for a few years, after starting properly in my time in New York, and have completed a few trails in Nepal (such as the wonderful Annapurna 50k).  I figured that the standard trekking package may be a little slow paced for me, so when I saw the 7 daystage race around Manaslu, covering 215km over altitude up to 5,200m, I started to get excited. I restarted training, and after eliminating some lingering fears about old injuries, I finally committed to joining.

Pre Race

Day 1 - getting ready to run
Competitors came in from all over the world, approximately 40 runners, making an eclectic mix of people. We met first in Hotel Manaslu in Kathmandu (appropriately enough) for a race briefing. Unlike others, I hadn’t done my homework on Google and wasn’t aware of the standard in the pack. Included were ultrarunner extraordinaire and world record holder Lizzy Hawker (guess how many kilometres she ran in 24 hours?), commonwealth games marathoner Holly Rush, ultra-marathoner Lisa Tamati and three top Nepali runners on home ground. The rest of the field looked pretty competent too.

Richard Bull from the UK is the race director, working with Dhir Priya of Nepal to command a large team to keep things running smoothly.

The next day we jumped on a bus, heading for Manaslu region. Eventually, long after leaving paved roads behind, we land in Arughat Bazaar, north of the main Kathmandu-Pokhara road, sitting at a low elevation of 610 metres.

Day 1, Stage 1 – 25km, Arughat Bazaar (608m) to Machhakhola (869m)

Start line at Arughat
At the last minute, I’ve decided to revert from a new pair of trail running shoes I bought for the race, which aren’t fully broken in, to my old trusty Saucony Kinvara shoes. They’re super lightweight, and I’m not sure they’ll make it all the way around the rough trail. 

Tika blessing before departure

After a welcome from the town’s leaders and a music band to set us off, the starting gong sends us heading north, upstream, along the Bhudi Gandaki river. Everybody is a little bit nervous, unsure of how they will fare over the 8 days ahead, and the more inexperienced among us a little unsure of how to pace ourselves. Push a little to establish yourself in a good position, or take it easy for the full day? Either way, you’ve got to keep something in the tank for the next day.

Home made Ferris Wheel - very impressive
I immediately feel great once moving. The days before were a long mishmash of race briefings, buying last minute gear, and a long bus ride. Getting out and moving feels great, and the river rushing on my right hand side is already having a therapeutic effect, taking me away from the stress and smog of Kathmandu.
We cross a few ropebridges here and there, as streams and rivers from the left join the main flow. Though the altitude climb is not big overall today (our destination is only 260m higher) there is a lot of up and down. “Nepali flat” in running terms, is anything that doesn’t raise or drop you significantly overall, but there is always some up and down in between.  I’m feeling ok with it, as it’s very much like my training, but some of the new arrivals are adjusting to the constant gear changes.

I finish feeling good, coming in around 15th overall, in just over 4 hours. My feet feel good, snug as bugs in my old shoes. Machhakhola is a lovely small town, and we nip down to a nearby stream for a dip. Some feel the water is cold, but for anyone familiar with a dip of the west coast of Ireland, it’s a beautifully refreshing end to the day.
The rest of the group come in gradually, with a few coming in after dark. Jarmo, the Finn, seems to have passed the town and after a big search is found two or three villages on. He gets a head start for the long day tomorrow. Unfortunately we have our first casualty – Robyn from Australia has an old injury flare up (a stress fracture in her foot) and plans to bow out. She’s extremely positive about it (I would be broken hearted) and promises to see us at the finish.

Day 2, Stage 2 – 40km, Machhakhola to Deng (1,860m), 1,000m altitude gain.

Everyone is nervous. This is the longest distance day in the race, close to marathon length, with about 1,000m elevation gain thrown in for good measure.

After a good breakfast (I even try a bit of egg!) we set off early, with everyone except the elite taking it easy. Mercifully, as the sun comes up we switch over to the eastern side of the valley, giving us a few more hours of shadow. I take it pretty slowly for the first half of the day, letting my breakfast settle.

At around the half way mark, after eating a little, I’m starting to feel good and decide to push a little. Slowly I overtake a few people, and based on the numbers registered at the single checkpoint along the way, I’m pushing a little bit higher in the rankings than yesterday. The terrain continues to be up and down. There is 1,000m gain overall, but the accumulated altitude gain (sum of all the climbs) must be much more.

The last 10k are tough, but I keep pushing a little (but not too much) and manage to overtake Chimi Llama Sherpa, one of the Nepali runners (I think is the first time I’ve ever overtaken a Nepali in a race!). At the finish, I come in 8th, in a time of 6:35. That feels great, and I’m quite surprised. Given that the first few runners are essentially superhuman, I’m feeling good to be able to come in in the top 10 for this distance.

The location is nice. The accommodation is getting more basic as we progress - no showers here, just a hose which I use to try to get at least some of the dirt off my legs. We settle in the restaurant eating large amounts of fried rice and welcome the runners as they come in. The camaraderie among the group is great, as the finishers are getting to know each other.

It’s getting colder too, at 1,860m and with cold winds coming from the mountains. My down jacket is taken out and will be used every evening from here on. Some people come in after dark, and I’m starting to feel fortunate as my training (though I didn’t think it was enough at the time) was on similar terrain and I’m that little bit more used to it.

As we rise in altitude it’s a double whammy for late finishers. Those that finish early get to rest in the sun (and the body acclimatizes to altitude while at rest). Those that finish late have to cram in food and get to bed asap. 

Day 3, Stage 3 – 18km, Deng to Serang Gompa (3,200m), 1,300m altitude gain.

We set off a little later today, to give people time to rest from the distance yesterday. We don’t have long distance to cover today, but the altitude gain is high. We cross back to the east of the river and there is some more “Nepali flat” up and down as we pass by Bihi town, and then make our way up a very steep climb.

Start of day 3 with Steve, Ken, Louise, Debbie and Markus

 The sun is shining as we walk up this steep face, and the heat is pretty oppressive.
Just to clarify, for most mountain running, anything moderately or very steep is normally ‘fast walked’. Only a select few can run these climbs. Most of the good runners will run the flats and downs, and walk fast up the ups.

At the top there is a lovely view across the valley to our destination, an 800 year old monastery at the foot of a 7,187m peak. This is off the main trekking route, and doesn’t normally host visitors – we’re not quite sure how it will fare hosting 40 exhausted and hungry runners.

Serang Gompa

There is more down, through a tricky and slippery forest trail, and then a final climb up to the monastery. I meet Lee from the UK, on the climb back up. He’s been running very strong, and the only reason I’m anywhere near him is that he took a wrong turn some time back. I’m feeling ok as I finish, coming in around 12th in just under 4 hours.

My GPS watch, which tracks distance, has finally given up the ghost despite the generous efforts of Andrew to help with his solar USB charger. On the plus side, this means that I’ll be liberated from focusing on distance and time. One step closer to being a real soul-runner…  

The monastery is very beautiful, sitting under the peak which is enormous. We really feel like we’re in the Himalayas now, and it feels very remote and peaceful. The peace is disrupted when I take a shower under an outdoor tap, water is getting colder as we go higher…

There are Himalayan Blue Sheep grazing out the front of the monastery. I’m told by Dhir that they’re called this, as they look blue under certain types of light (“maybe under blue light” is my smartass suggestion).
Some more people come in very late, after dark, and two of the group are quite sick on arrival and need help up the final hill. Doctor Ben is busy checking on them. The strain of the distance covered and altitude gained is starting to show.

In the first few days there have been some logistical challenges. While we’re running with a pack of essentials (food, water, dry warm clothes, first aid) our main bags are being carried by porters. Because of the extra distance covered, the bags are taking very long to get to us. For the monastery, we’ve just sent essentials, sleeping bags and mats, and will be reunited with the rest later. Frustrations are showing however, as dinner is served late and people are eager to get to bed and sleep. I go to bed myself feeling a little rough.

(Link - continue to days 4 - 6)