Running in the Clouds

Copy of 100-mile-race-4

Alastair Metcalf describes his experiences running the incredible Himalaya 100 mile stage race.

It all started with a walk over Waterloo Bridge in early January. Having left our one-year-old twins with their grandparents for the afternoon, the novelty of having some freedom and fresh air may have distorted our sense of decision-making.

“Do you fancy going to the Himalayas this year?” I asked Kate

“Sure.”

“And running the 100 mile stage race there?”

“Ok. When is it?”

“October.”

“I’ll go, but I will do the walking course if you’re running it.”

As context, I have been a Serpie runner for a few years, averaging about 60–70 miles a week and aiming for one or two sub 3 hour marathons a year. Kate on the other hand is a long-distance swimmer. Neither of us had ever done anything close to being classed as an ultra event.

We paid a deposit, booked flights and sweet-talked my parents.

The nine months that followed involved a mixture of injury (tendonitis), training (daily), injury (tendonitis), training and convincing my parents that my children really want to see them for a prolonged period of time.

I missed my marathon start-lines in London and Berlin due to tendonitis, but in a strange sense, I was most fixated on getting on the plane to India at the end of October. I was willing to miss out on doing what I love each year to do something different and unknown.

The race

The Himalaya 100 mile stage race takes place over five days, and was first held in 1991. It’s ran mainly over trails at over 12,000 feet, with backdrops of four of the five highest peaks in the world. In short, it’s high up, fresh and beautiful.

The type of runners it attracts ranges from seasoned ultra marathoners to those who are more comfortable managing a 10k. It requires training and is undoubtedly tough, but it’s a collaborative challenge with the emphasis on a common goal rather than individualism.

We were briefed not to expect luxury, but that everything we really needed to make it through the course would be there for us.

After a few days amidst the sweat, bustle, thick air, flavours and organised disorder in Delhi following our arrival, we made our way over several hours, via plane and bus, to the start: the rural India of tea plantations, sharp air and sweeping mountainscapes.

Day 1: 24 miles – Mirik–Sandakphu

A good one to start with, reminding us all why we were here. This is one of the toughest but most rewarding runs I have ever done. Not because of injury, not because of conditions under foot, the 25 per cent gradients, nor the competition. It was the cocktail of running too fast and hitting an altitude wall – something I found fascinating. Whilst this was only with 3 miles to go, it was at this point I realised that my attempts to acclimatise to altitude in central London were not well-thought-out.

Cramping up and needing to sit in the middle of the trail, several bizarre things happened during a ten-minute period. Firstly, a yak reared its head over the side of a hill at me; secondly, a fellow runner, instead of doing the expected fly-past, decided to stop and give me the remaining supplies of sodium tablets he had in his bag. This summed up the tone for the whole five days, with people wanting others to get over the line. Within a few minutes I felt like a new runner and, with my head quite literally above the clouds, I pushed on to complete stage 1 to an incredible welcome at the finish line.

Three bowls of soup, a protein shake and two plates of rice later, and with Kate over the finish line with her trekking group, it was time for bed at a respectable 7 pm. Army huts and the thickest sleeping bags we could buy in the UK kept the minus eight degrees temperatures at bay.

Day 2: 20 miles – Sandakpu–Molle

For those with children, waking up at 3.30 am is normal. What is not normal is over eight hours of uninterrupted sleep beforehand. So, despite the miles the day before, we both woke up fresh and alert to have the chore of watching the sun rise over Mount Everest.

After some porridge, the next stage began in cold conditions where we ended yesterday. This was an ‘out and back’ 20-mile run, with a lot less climbing than the day before. If Day 1 was a great race to start with, Day 2 was the perfect follow-up. Rugged trails, edge-of-the-mountain hairpins and again a great group of runners pacing each other made it a joy to run. Instead of feeling the effects of the altitude, I was by now powered by the fresh air. Being a staunch road runner, today was the day that I learnt to love trail running. Instead of the zoning out I am used to on the road, and in the parks of London, the rocky trails demanded that you were ‘on it’ for every step – one misplaced step could have ruined everything.

At the 10-mile turn to head back, I was by now on my own. A breakaway group of four had gained around 10 minutes on me, but I was solely focussed on finishing. With a tailwind in tow, I had never felt as much clarity in my mind whilst running before. Each step was fun to take, and without wanting to sound new-worldly, I think I realised what it means to be in tune with what surrounded me.

I crossed the line with one of many beaming smiles that would wrap my face that week.

Day 3: 26.2 miles – Mount Everest Marathon (Sandakpu–Mirik)

I am not sure if it’s normal, but my attitude to marathons is that I will most likely be disappointed whatever happens. If I make it through, it’s unlikely I’ll break my PB as I get older; if I blow up, I won’t have a marathon complete for the year.

I approached Day 3 dreading it for those reasons, but also really looking forward to starting. If these days had taught me anything, it was the capacity we all have to put your all in one day and come back fresh the next day.

We started early (again) with a group of us setting a decent pace as we retraced the first 10 miles of Day 2. Rocks, boulders, multiple ditches to avoid and thin, crisp air.

Kate followed in a smaller trekking party which left Sandakpu to cross-cut the jungle trail the runners would come to later.

Just where we had turned back yesterday, we pressed on around a secluded corner. This was the real running highlight of the week – the corner swung us onto the side of a mountain with trails as far as I could see.

About 15 miles in, we reached the highest point on the race. A simple army hut on the Indian-Nepalese border with an aid station handing out salty bananas and potatoes. Basic, blissful and a chance for me and one of my fellow runners to just stop and look at the sun climbing high over four of the five highest mountains in the world. At this point, we knew that the tough part was done, and we had earned the five minutes rest at the top.

The next 8 miles was also unique. Turning back down the climb I had just made, we approached a sharp dogleg which threw us initially into a cutting which then soon became a dense downhill jungle track. Again, this was new territory for me, and I loved every step of it.

Over the course of nearly an hour, I hurtled down the trail with a mixture of both sprinting and parkour, my only guide being a spray-painted red arrow that would appear every 200 metres. The descent was almost 6,000 feet and with every step I could feel my lungs filling up with oxygen – I was on my third day of long running and I had never felt fresher.

Ever the pessimist, the expected blip followed. On my very last step as I left the trail and joined a road to the outskirts of Rimbik village, I misplaced my left foot on a loose rock. It was like treading on an upturned plug in bare feet. Realising that I’d hurt myself, but not wanting to admit it, I did the stupid thing and ran the last leg on the undulating road to the finish.

Despite the injury, this was my favourite run for years. Being met by a crowd of local, beaming faces made it even better and sitting down for a big plate of French fries and a coke meant it was unlike the usual end-of-marathon feelings of exhaustion and relief. After all, I still had two more days to run…

With Kate arriving back around two hours after, we made our way up to our comparatively luxurious bedroom to lie down. The lactic acid was beating up my legs.

Day 4: 13.1 miles – Rimbki–Palmajua

We woke up at the civilised time of 6 am in a great little hotel run by a local family. I woke planning to just ‘take it easy’ and try to make it to the end, hoping that creamy porridge and an unhealthy amount of ibuprofen to fix my foot injury would see me through.

Kate, no doubt inspired by others in the group, had also decided that it would be the day she’d do her first half marathon. It was one of those moments where if you didn’t feel inspired to run then you’d never feel like putting on running shoes.

At the start line, we were all relaxed knowing the heavy lifting was behind us. The starting cheers and the gully of clapping hands triggered an adrenalin rush in me; I just went for it knowing that the painkillers had a clock ticking against them. A 2 mile steep descent down pot-holed windy roads set the tone for this leg and by the bottom it was just me and the overall race leader, Phil Martin from the UK, about a minute ahead.

Losing touch with first place after 4 miles, I ran the rest of the stage solo, passing through tiny villages with children clapping. This was my type of course as we levelled out for a few miles and crossed the river before I had to learn how to climb again (it had been almost a day without going uphill!). I didn’t expect to finish in one piece, never mind to place second on a stage.

More potatoes and starting to feel it in my legs, the next hour was spent counting everyone back in – all with great smiles on their faces as they realised, as I did, that the finish line comes around a blind corner. Kate was one of those and in a strange way I was jealous – she was realising what you can do in a pair of running shoes. We took jeeps back to where we started the day, retracing the rugged roads in an even longer time than it took to run them.

Evening came. All of us had beer and sat around a campfire as part of an event to celebrate the race, the many nationalities and cultures taking part. Food and bed followed.

Day 5: 17 miles – Palmajua–Maneybhanjang

Almost done.

First thought on waking: “Ouch. My foot is not being friendly today.”

Second thought: “And what are you going to do about it? Exactly.”

I limped out of bed, put strapping all around my foot and took a dose of Ibuporridge.

Coaches took us back down the hill to where we finished the day before, for the start of the final stage – another mainly road and gravel trail race which would see us return to the very place we started at on Sunday morning. Again, Kate didn’t want to miss out and we all set out.

Yet again, but for a very different reason, the stage was something special. A steep ascent through tree-arched roads set things off, with the support crew urging everybody on. Levelling off after about 8 miles, it was then a great downhill, mainly on roads through villages. If it wasn’t for the foot pain, I could have pushed even harder. Rather than being frustrated, I lapped it up.

As I crossed the line to a group of schoolchildren waving flags singing “Well done. Well done”, I felt something different than after any other race I’d completed.  It wasn’t the usual relief I’d get after making it through giving it everything; it was pride and a sense of being, for just one minute in a hectic year, content with the world. I’m not the kind of person to suddenly want to change direction in the spur of the moment, but this was an event which helped me to understand how people could feel that way. It was clear that many of the other finishers, some of whom had done this race time and again, felt the same way.

Of course, it was incredibly tough, a stark reminder being one of the frontrunners with me needing to be put on a drip at the end. But as many who will read this know, you need the bar to be high for it to be worthwhile. The 21 hours in total it took me will shape my running experience for years to come.

Speaking for both Kate and I, but I suspect for everyone who took part: there was no disappointment, no regrets and nobody who would contemplate falling out of love with running after this.

Five things I learnt doing the 100m Himalayan stage race

  • If you’ve done the training, pushing your body is a mind-trick.
  • Running is not about being fast and getting PBs. The ups are only worthwhile if you have the downs too. Every injury or setback is a chance to challenge yourself.
  • We were incredibly lucky with the weather. I barely mention how perfect the conditions were.
  • Running at altitude is a challenge. One of the benefits though is that when you are back lapping Hyde Park the next month, you are easily 10 seconds quicker.
  • Young children can survive without their parents for a bit.

Alastair Metcalf lives in central London and with the aforementioned Kate, is involved in a social experiment called ‘parenting’. He started running several years ago, but wishes he took it up long before that.