Jan 1st, 2012. It was a grand day. A day for revering the grand Himalayas, a day for feeling totally, utterly humble in comparison to the mighty mountains, a day when the mountains had the last laugh. It was also a beautiful day that lent itself well to the deepest introspection of life and its myriad meanderings, a day of camaraderie interspersed with the simple human touches that make life memorable.
I came across this ultra run way back in July or Aug and it seemed like a crazy idea. Very temptingly advertised as "An Unforgettable Himalayan Start to 2012", I was completely taken in by the grand views of the mountains, the lovely mountain trails, and I was taken in. I decided I will do the 50 KM run here.
As I had been training alone this year, the challenge seemed larger, and it took a few rounds of discussions and planning with my friend and coach Vinod to make sure that this was indeed doable. Around Sept or so, I asked Santhosh if he wanted to do this run. Given his crazy runs, I thought there might be a good chance he will agree. He did, and said he will try to ask other Runners High folks. Finally Kanishka signed up as well, and we had a team! However due to my crazy travel and work schedule, I could not do a single training run with them. I did follow my training diligently - to give an idea of my schedule, in the period from July to Dec 2011, I ran over 900km in training, including:
- Mt. Diablo Half marathon - a very hilly half marathon in the San Francisco east bay area. I did this in Sept, about mid-way through my training schedule
- Chamundi Hills, in Mysore. This has an elevation gain of about 3500 ft. It was a good experience doing this, but hardly a match to what was to come later!
- Bangalore Ultra 50K - I did a 50K here, it was a hard day, very hot and sunny, dirt trail, unforgiving heat without any tree shade or breeze. But I was happy to finish the 50 km in a little over 9 hours without any major injury except that my ITB flared up here, and continued to bother me through the next month or so of training.
- Coyote Ridge Trail Run - I did a 20+ miler here. This was on Dec 10, when I happened to be traveling on work to the US. With beautiful views of the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate bridge, Bonita Cove, Pirates Cove, and Muir Beach, this trail had about 5000-6000 ft of elevation gain, it seemed like a perfect ramp up towards the Annapurna run. I loved this run, thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I was terribly slow, and did the 35KM in about 7.5 hours and with some ITB worries. I was truly alone through this run, which was an exhilarating experience in itself.
- There were several (7-8) runs that were more than half marathon distances, going upto about 35-38 km on Saturdays, training back-to-back which meant both sat and sun were long runs, usually the Saturday run longer than the Sunday run).
Planning for the Annapurna Run
I will not bore the casual reader, and keep this part brief. The 3 of us met up a week before in Jayanagar and sorted out some of the details - route for the 50K and 100K (Santhosh was planning to do the 100K), start and end points, logistics regarding drop bags (we would all start at Pokhara and finish in a place called Bhirethanti, so we had to pack everything else and give that off to the race organizers, keeping only what we needed for the run with us). After umpteen amount of back-and-forth discussing every little thing, we were all set, or so we thought.
Santhosh came home the evening before, we crashed early, and left home at 4AM to catch our flight to Delhi, and from there to Khatmandu. We reached around 3:30 PM, went out to see Pashupatinath temple before it closed, got back to the hotel, had an early dinner and slept. Kanishka reached around 11 PM, and Santhosh was happy to let the two of us in a room so both of us could compete for who can snore the loudest.
|Views of "The Great Wall" of the Himalayas from the window of the plane |
We got to Pokhara the next morning, met up with Kanishka's parents, and relaxed the next 2 days eating a LOT and enjoying the sights of Pokhara's street festival, with grand views of the Annapurna range in the backdrop.
|Chilling around on the streets of Pokhara|
|Hotel Sacred Valley Inn, where we stayed in Pokhara|
Race registration and pre-race instructions were on Saturday, 31st Dec. The weather had been great on 30th and 31st, and we were all hoping for a grand 1st Jan.
|Sights from Pokhara Street Festival|
At the registration, we got maps so we could draw out the route, mark out aid stations, and kind of get an idea of the terrain. There were no trail markers, so we had to be careful not to lose our way. If ever we felt lost, we were told to ask for the next village on the map, and make our way there - a far cry from the runs that had spoilt me, with trail markers, and aid stations every few miles. Something more challenging:)
|At the registration...|
We headed back to the hotel, packed everything up into the drop bag, put our running gear together, and discussed last minute plans. For the 50K, we had no real cut off times, except making it back to Bhirethanti by midnight (18.5 hours from the start). The 70K and 100K runners had to think about the cut off times - 8.5 hours to get to Ghandruk for the 70K, and 6.5 hours for the 100K to the same point. 8.5 hours for 40K didn’t seem really bad, and I started nurturing dreams of trying to make it to the 40K point, and then trying to shoot for the 70K. Little did we realize that the mountains would have the last laugh!
|Running gear and all accessories...|
We had an early dinner and slept by 8:30 PM. I woke up at 3:30 AM (didn’t sleep too well, maybe the loud new year music blaring from the streets of Pokhara – seems like a happening place!), had a quick breakfast of cereal and cold milk and had a hot shower (that felt good!). We took a couple of pictures, bade good bye to Kanishka's parents (very sweet of them, they came out to wish us luck, and would come later to Bhirethanti to see us finish) and headed out to the starting point at 4:45 AM.
|All set for the next morning!|
|Just before we left the hotel|
The route, briefly, was as follows (for the 50K run)
Pokhara to Nyangja - 12.5 KM. Easy asphalt roads
Dhampus @ 24.5 KM. Hills, and valleys
Landruk @ 37.5 KM. More hills
Ghandruk @ 40K. Although just 2.5 km from the prev aid station, these 2 villages are on top of 2 hills, and the only way is ~400 m steep descent to the river, and a 900m incredibly steep ascent to Ghandruk
After this, there was a steady jeep track for the last 10K leading down to Bhirethanti with 2 aid stations in between.
I think we just didn’t realize how hilly "hilly" meant :)
Pokhara - Nyangja (0 - 12.5KM) - 2:05 hours
We started off exactly at 5:30 AM wishing each other good luck. I prayed silently and shuffled out of the starting line behind the other faster runners. It was quite a sight to see the Nepali runners rapidly vanish into the darkness. With about 150 or so runners spread across the route, there was hardly any traffic to speak of! Within a few minutes, I was alone, at the back of the pack. There was a slight drizzle, that didn’t bode too well for the day. It was quite dark, and I could barely follow the headlamps of the last runner ahead of me. We quickly left town, and headed out towards Nyangja. This was fairly easy, asphalted roads, and I kept a steady pace. I estimated the first 12.5 KM to take about 2 hours, give or take a few minutes. Very soon we were at a fork, and I saw a couple of runners standing with their headlights, undecided which way to go. They said they saw two of the Nepali runners take what seemed like a shortcut while the others had headed in a different direction. Thankfully, a shop was open, I enquired in Hindi, found out the right direction and we headed off. The two runners were actually planning to walk the entire 50K, both were from Abu Dhabhi, one was a lady from Canada and another from UK. I soon left them behind and went on. Coincidentally I would finish the run with one of them later.
By now it was just getting brighter, but still the early morning mist was hanging over the Mardi Khola river valley, and, looming on the right side, was the magnificent Annapurna range towering above the clouds, their summits far beyond where the eyes could see. It was also very cloudy, and there was a steady drizzle. I was already dressed in 2 layers (a thicker full sleeve wicking jersey on the inside and a half sleeve dry fit on top), and did not feel the need to take out my waterproof jacket just yet. I took some pictures along the way of the peaceful morning country side. It was serene and picturesque. Most homes that I passed by had a fire outside, and the family members were warming themselves up near the fire, having tea (or so I thought). Some kids were strumming on their guitars singing a country tune, it was beautiful to listen to. Unfortunately I could not capture the video of that. It was a picturesque countryside, enhanced by the panoramic setting of the majestic Annapurna range.
Soon I reached the small village of Nyangja. I saw that already one of the runners was pulling out, poor guy was limping into a car and was heading back. I wondered how hard it would get as we went along. A kid on the road clearly didn’t like my running, and he kept saying that I am the last person, and I was slow and lost. Of course he was wrong, since I knew exactly where the aid station was just ahead. I just amused myself with his inexplicable jeers, and moved on. I got to the aid station, which was really nothing much, just a table, with hardly any food there. I was expecting, and hoping for salted potatoes to supplement the dry fruits I was carrying. Looks like since I was one of the last, all the potatoes and bread had gotten over. This was to repeat at all the aid stations further on. I just moved on. It was 2:05 hours since we started. I was quite happy with the pace, and there was no sign of my ITB issue as well. I continued to nurture the dreams of the 8:30 hour cutoff to try to make it for the 70K.
Nyangja - Dhampus (12.5 - 23.5 KM): 2:45 hours
|Hyangja - first aid station at 12.5 KM mark|As soon as I left Nyangja, the terrain changed drastically. Immediately I was climbing, the trail was now a dirt track up into a forest, and very soon the views of the valley down below were downright glorious. The river and valley were constantly on the right side, and beyond them further to the right were the mountains. Counting from the left most side as the eyes could see, it was first Annapurna South Ridge, followed by Annapurna 1. Then was Machupuchchare (fish tail), a very striking snow covered mountain towering 6993m. Further ahead to the right were Annapurna 2 and Annapurna 3. Behind these, almost hiding shyly, is Dhaulagiri, which is actually taller than the other peaks. As far as the eyes could see, it was only the river, valleys adorned by terrace farms, and mountains shrouded by the clouds.
|If the weather had been good, this would have been the view as we climbed up!|
I continued climbing, keeping a slow but steady pace, not stopping at all, except to enquire a Japanese walker who seemed tired. He confirmed he was doing fine, so I moved on. I met another Japanese guy, who seemed to be in terrible pain in his knees but was keenly marching on, attempting to walk the entire 50K, and also trying to meet the 8:30 hour cutoff so he could walk the 70K! I was highly impressed! Here I met a couple of young Nepali girls, quite likely school girls, who were giving the Jap guy company till I met him. We took some pictures, and the girls rapidly zoomed away. I never saw them again, they were so fast!
|This is what we actually saw...beautiful nonetheless|
|The friendly Japanese guy who was planning to walk all the way..and the Nepali kids who zoomed away.|
Most of the terrain was steady uphill, followed by a bit of downhill; I did a fast walk on the uphill, and ran the flats and downhill parts. I also ate constantly, and kept a rhythm of water every 2-3 mins, eating something solid (the menu consisting of one sandwich that I had packed from the hotel, dry fruits, wheat/jaggery/peanut/sesame balls, and organic dates), and salt tablets every hour since it was not very sunny. Unfortunately, the plastic ziplock holding my salt caps tore, and I think I lost a couple of capsules. I had packed exactly 20 salt capsules, thinking I will be out on the road for a max of 10 hours. I didn’t have any reason to panic just yet, I decided to eat more salt at the aid stations, and carry it as well so that I can conserve the salt caps.
I reached Dhampus, and Roger the race director greeted me at the aid station. There was a welcome bowl of noodle soup, I poured some extra salt into it and gulped the soup. A quick restroom break, a couple of pictures with Roger and other supporters, and I was ready to move on. I filled up my Camelbak to its entire capacity of 3 liters since I expected the next stretch to be longer. It was just around 10:15 AM now. I had taken 2 hours and 45 mins for this stretch. Roger also confirmed that the first Nepali runners had finished the 50K by now (around 4.5 hours). Such insane timing!
|With Roger, the race director|
Dhampus – Landruk (23.5 – 37.5 KM): 4:45 hours
As soon as I was heading out of the aid station, one of the two ladies I had met earlier reached as well. It turns out her Canadian friend Gaby had dropped out, but Lucy wanted to still push ahead and finish. She asked if I didn’t mind if she came along with me. We realized we were pretty much the last two on the 50K trail now. That suited me just fine, since I was going very slow anyway, and quite likely might slow down further since the terrain would get harder. So I waited for her, and we started off at around 10:30 AM.
The description given for this part of the trail was:
“You’re in for a fair bit of climbing through wonderful forest, passing a couple of clearings, follow the signs pointing towards Pitam Deurali, and when there is no sign and you’re in doubt, take the trail staying on the right side of the ridge. You’ll climb to Pothana first, a small village on a pass, then on to Pitam Deurali, from where the trail descends steeply to Bhichok where it emerges from the forest and hits village area. The views are now all the time onto different valleys and Annapurna South dominates the horizon, very much close up. From here it is gradually down to the larger villages of first Tolka and then Landruk.”
Turns out they had missed out some adjectives to describe the hills.
I realized what “hilly” meant now! Without any sign of warning after leaving Dhampus, the trail started climbing incessantly. Try and imagine steps cut out of rock faces, jagged, uneven, and most steps over a foot or 1.5 feet in height. Add to that, slippery wet surfaces due to the rain. Most of the terrain was now very steep, easily 45 degrees or more, some going upto 75-80% I am sure. And then imagine this whole thing repeat endlessly for about 15 km! I think words cannot do justice to how it felt out there. It was plain hard. We kept moving on, the pace dropping considerably now, averaging about 3.5 km an hour. We chatted on and off, and to a large extent, kept focusing on each step ahead, taking micro breaks of maybe a minute every 15 minutes or so, just to recover our breath from the climbing.
|Brief views of the Annapurna mountains|
|Terrace farms adorning most of the hills|
|I dont know what this was, perhaps mustard, looked so pretty|
|Had to cross a lot of suspension bridges like this one..|
|View of Annapurna South from Landruk (if the weather had been clear - this picture was from last year)|
We finally got to Landruk, the 37.5 km mark. It was a little past 3pm. Just like the aid station before, there was literally nothing here, just some bread crumbs, not even water! That would not do at all, since we had an at least 3 more hours to go. The aid station volunteers had also apparently just left. There was no going ahead without some food. There was a small shop there, and I asked the incredibly lovely Nepali woman if she could make some noodle soup and chai for us. While we waited, we got 2-3 liters of water, filled up our camelbaks, took much needed restroom breaks. I also called up the aid station volunteers and realized they were just down the valley at the river. I requested them if they could wait for us, since Lucy was feeling very tired and wasn’t sure if she could finish the entire 50K. They obliged, thankfully.
|A very calming, comforting sight - prayer flags. This was very common all through the route|
The veg noodles were amazingly delicious, and felt comforting in the cold weather and the chai was excellent too. The bill too was excellent, surprisingly - 500 Nepali Rupee for 2 bowls of noodles, 2 chai and 3 liters of water. Should have been half the price. But neither Lucy nor I was in the mood for any haggling, we just paid and left. It was about 4pm now, I think. It was fairly clear we would be doing a couple of hours in the dark, since it would get dark in an hour or so.
Landruk - Bhirethanti (37.5 – 50 KM): < 3 hours
We silently headed down the valley towards the Mardi Khola river. It was getting decidedly colder by now, and the rain had increased in intensity as well. It was a very steep descent, followed by a suspension bridge overlooking the gushing river, and then an incredibly steep ascent, as promised. The aid station guys met us here, and we slowly climbed up the valley. Each step was agonizingly slow, the incline was easily close to vertical, and the high steps made it really hard. But there was only one way up. There were some patches where there had been a recent landslide, so we had to be extra careful clambering over the rocks in the now rapidly diminishing light. We turned on our headlamps, and slowly made it to the top, and the jeep tracks. The aid station guys asked us to go ahead, as they had to wait for someone else coming from the 70K route.
Not wanting to really stop at any aid station anymore, we just headed on. It was I think 6pm by now, and quite dark. We kept a steady pace, and we guessed we might finish by 7pm. Soon after we crossed Sayuli Bazar, we met one of the 100km runners, he was doing his last 4-5km loop. We cheered him on, and continued. There were a lot of water crossings now, perhaps the water from the hills and maybe the rain, so we had to be extra careful in the dark.
The eyes and mind plays interesting tricks in the dark. Running in the night is an interesting experience. Ultra running, in the trails especially, is an intense experience, physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually. Think of running through a trail in fog or rain all alone, deep inside a forest, hoping that you haven’t lost the way. Think of taking step after painful step on a steep slope, feeling utterly low on energy, just wondering how long can one pull on. Add to that running in the night, and it adds a new dimension to the experience :). Firstly, there are the pinpoints of light bobbing up and down from the headlamp. Even if there is moonlight, under the slightest of tree cover, things can become really dark. After a long 10-12 hours or running, it is easy to feel even more disoriented. Then there is the cold, which attacks just when the body’s energy is running already low to keep warm enough. The temperature was dropping rapidly now after the last light had gone out. And most interestingly, the night can get spooky, the eyes easily playing tricks on the mind :). I realized that a headlight alone casts too little shadow, thereby reducing depth perception. I made a silent note to myself that next time, having a small flashlight held at waist height is a must…that would correct this problem. I am fairly certain I saw a large body of water right ahead in the path, and it turned to be nothing. I heard footsteps many times behind, and clearly there was no one ahead or behind. And many times, I had to make sure there were no turns we were missing, the lights seemed to show some pathways and throw shadows of objects that didn’t really exist. We kept marching now, the enthusiasm building steadily as we headed towards the finish. The sound of the river crashing against the gorges and rocks got louder telling us that we were descending rapidly now towards the valley bottom, where the end point was.
Suddenly, almost without warning, we saw a large building up ahead beyond a bend in the track, and we heard a lot of voices. We realized we had made it! We finally made it to the finish line at almost 7pm, a good 13.5 hours on the trail!
|At the finish line...|
|Santhosh at the finish line, waiting for us|
I realized a few things – I was not injured one bit, even the ITB pain was not really bad. Most importantly, I was in such a state of heightened energy and positivity all through the day, I was amazed. I don’t think I felt down, or tired, or felt like giving up, even once.
|Kanishka had finished earlier, around 6 pm or so|
Santhosh, Kanishka and a bunch of others came down running to greet me, and take pictures. I got some hot tea first, and then went up to change. There was not going to be any hot shower or such luxury here. There was no power in this small village, all cell phone connections were down, due to the rains. I couldn’t care less – I quickly just washed up, changed into really warm clothing, and went back down. We then went to the room that we were allocated, got some really nice simple dinner of daal, rice, and vegetables. We chatted for a while, sharing our experiences, and had a good laugh at our own foolish dreams of pushing towards 70K in this terrainJ. Very quickly Kanishka was snoring, Santhosh was sleeping and I was in a dreamy state of euphoria. My leg muscles were constantly twitching, which made it hard to relax and sleep. This is normal, since the leg muscles continue to be in a state of heightened activity much after the running has ceased. I could not fall asleep till maybe 2AM or so. Eventually I fell asleep, we woke up at 5AM and quickly headed down to the bridge where our cab was waiting to take us to Pokhara. We got there, ate a HUGE breakfast, got to the airport, took in the last views of the grand Annapurna range, and left.
|At the airport, with Kanishka's dad|
Overall a wonderful trip, a great run, and an amazing start to 2012!
|With Kanishka's mom|