In the first of what would be a series of early mornings, the alarm went off at just gone 4. We rose in darkness, carefully putting on the kit that we’d prepared the night before. Taking only what we needed for the day, and leaving a bag behind that would remain in Mirik until our return on friday, we walked up the hill to meet for breakfast. None of us really knowing what lay ahead.
Breakfast consisted of a cup of tea and a small box of sandwiches to be eaten on the bus. The sun was just beginning to rise as the buses pulled out at 5.30. Again I found myself in good company, chatting warmly, as we slowly wound our way up, higher and higher into the mountains. After about an hour we started to get our first glimpses of snow covered peaks of Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga, and another hour saw us arrived in Maneybhanjang for the start.
For a typically small mountain village, with only a handful of shops, houses and treking huts, Maneybhanjang had been transformed into a hive of festivity, colourful flowers, flags and banners lined every street, every door way was a wash with smiling faces, and the noise of a band complete with horns, drums and pipers filled the air. It seemed that everybody in the whole village and their dog had come to see us off.
There was just time for a quick last minute bag check and final adjustments to kit, before the short Tibetan blessing ceremony got underway, then a precession of small children came through the crowd presenting each of the runners with a white scarf for luck, and we were off.
Soon we were out of the village on a steeply winding road, going ever upward, toward the peaks towered above us, and as we progressed the road gradually became little more that a cobblestone trail, apparently built in 1948 and marking the boundary between India and Nepal.
Passing a string of prayer flags, Maneybhanjang became a dot in the distance. Already the climb had become so steep, it was not possible for even the fittest athlete to run, and the throng of runners that had left the village together had been stretched out into a ragged line of brightly coloured tops stretching into the distance.
As we climbed higher, the trees became denser and the sound of insects filled the air. They sounded a little like crickets, but at times they were almost deafening, often drowning out my ipod, to the extent i ended up having to turn it off.
There seemed to be no respite from the endless hills, and after what seem like an eternity we entered the national park and the road became little more than a few rocks in the mud. I felt like i’d been running for hours, not least because i had, but we were only at the 12km mark.
Just as i began to wonder if i would actually make it, we reached a small summit and the trail, took a long overdue downward turn. I was once again able to stretch my legs out, and my fell running shoes started to earn their keep, rapidly catching runner after runner as we descended through the lush vegetation of the bamboo forest, chris crossed with small streams.
Lovely as they were, the problem with the descents, was that you knew in the back of your mind, that today was the day of the hill and each time you ran down, you’d have to run up another mountain. I’d ran long fell races in the lakes, but nothing had prepared me for this. This had to be the toughest run i’d ever ran.
One thing that was in good supply was snacks and water, with checkpoints every few kilometers. I grazed on banana’s and jelly babies most of the day, without needing to stop. The one time i did stop to get more water i developed the most incredible cramp, so from then on i was determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other until i reached the top at Sandakphu.
As the day drew on and we got higher and higher, the air became thinner and thinner, i felt fortunate not to have developed any of the symptoms to altitude sickness; no headaches, nausea or feelings of heaviness on my chest. At this altitude running, walking or even moving were simply harder work, each mile felt like five. Yet there were people lived here, doing manual work day in and day out, and not only that there were children going to school here often walking miles each day to get to class.
There were three things that got me through that day between Maneybhanjang and Sandakphu; a small dog that was my only company for around 5 miles in the middle of the day, a boy of about 7 or 8 on his way home from school, complete with backpack and impeccable school uniform, that raced me to the top on a ridge and 2 or 3 miles down the other side, and finally the cheers i heard from the top as i rounded the final couple of bends and saw team Sweeden cheering me on to the finish.
In those final moments, i knew i was nearing the top, but was completely exhausted and knew that if i stopped for even a moment the cramp would return and it would be so much harder to make it. As i turned the second last corner, i could see Di wandering across the track and knew that she was struggling too, each knowing there was nothing we could do to help save give a smile soldier on.
I finally went over the finish line in 6 hours and 42 minutes, having ran 24 miles and climbed over 10,000 in cumulative ascent. Once i’d stopped running, it got very cold, very quickly. One of the other runners pointed me in the direction of my bag and a bowl of soup.
Once i’d got a few layers on and warmed up a bit, i headed back to the finish to cheer on the runners still coming in, it was starting to get dark, and it was very cold. The group at the top cheering on the last of the runners as they came in, slowly grew smaller, until there were only a few of us left. But i could still remember how those last few meters felt and was determined to stay as long as i could. You had to keep moving to stay warm and in the darkness it was getting hard to see the runners coming up, so i started to walk down the last few meters and there coming out of the dark was one of my new friends, cold and tired and in tears, but she’d made it.
I’m happy to say that by the end of the night every runner had made it, some by torch light, some very slowly, but none had given in.
What an awesome account Dave. Almost felt like I was up there with you. Gladly not like ;>)
Looking forward to the next instalment. Keep up the excellent work!