Four Days In The Himalayas
My pre-race preparation was completely blown; I feared I would not be able to roll myself up any hills. A few weeks before my trip to India, I had gotten the flu - almost 2 weeks of no running, barely able to breath walking up a few stairs. The last few days before leaving I was able to run, a little, and slowly. I had hoped that I would be able to run a bit in India before the race; I was traveling in Assam and Meghalaya for a week before the race. I was wrong about that possibility. We were busy traveling; there was no time for running; it was way too hot; and there were wild animals. Plus, I was eating tons of food (everyone seemed very concerned that I get enough to eat), so I felt like I had gained 10 pounds. This was pretty much the complete opposite of how I would normally prepare for a race.
I just had to trust in my fitness and my experience at running long, hard distances.
The last few days before the race I spent in Darjeeling to get used to the altitude. Darjeeling is not that high, only about 6,700 feet, but it still feels high to this sea-level girl. I was out of breath just walking up the stairs at my hotel.
I got up early each morning to run. I would head out amongst the armies of barking dogs chasing the monkeys back up the hill to their temple territory, past the elderly walkers taking in their views of Kanchenjunga, the joggers, the Tai Chi/Yoga/calisthenic practicers, and the young Sherpas from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute running their laps. Darjeeling is a place where people exercise. Darjeeling is a place that is filled with Western tourists. But Darjeeling is not a place where Western tourists run with the locals. I got many very surprised but happy looks as people realized there was a lone white girl sharing their morning views.
I spent my afternoons wandering the streets of Darjeeling - the steep streets - visiting temples and saying prayers for good weather and strong legs. I also threw in some prayers for world peace; it seemed selfish to just pray for a good race.
Then, a cloud-shrouded drive through towering trees and ferns as big as cows, down to meet my fellow racers. There were eight of us. Also, race directors, volunteers, photographer, doctor, official musician, and Sherpas. Introductions. Dinner. Bravado. Nerves. Night. Not much sleep. Morning. Ready to begin The Windchasers Sandakphu 70-Mile Himalayan Race.
I think we all had the idea that since the first day was just a half marathon, it would be a relatively easy day of racing...not so much...seriously.
We started off in a thick mist. Uphill. What we didn't realize yet was that pretty much the entire day would be that - uphill, steeply. I was excited to finally be running, although I quickly fell to the back. Up ahead of me somewhere, there was a race going on. But I just slowly made my own way. The other runners had assumed the night before when I was saying I was slow and walk most of the hills that I was just joking or trying to psych them out. That's not me, though. I say what I mean. I am honest about my abilities and weaknesses. I can keep going for days, but I am not fast. So I trudged along alone.
It was warm when we started, but we knew we would be cool soon enough since we were climbing up to 10,000 feet. The uphill was unrelenting. The road twisted and turned, and I kept thinking (or hoping) that beyond each curve it would level out just for a bit. After about six miles it did - sort of. We did get some relief from the ups in the form of downs, which only meant there were more ups to follow. Our cumulative elevation gain was around 6,500', plus 3,000' of descent.
Although the temperature was not so high, the humidity made it quite uncomfortable for a sweaty girl like me. My shoes were soaking wet from sweat running down my legs; when I stopped for a rest, sweat ran off of me. Ran - didn't drip - ran! With so much fluid loss, I had to work hard to stay hydrated. I did not succeed. I did all of my usual - had electrolyte tablets dissolved in my water, and made sure to eat when I had the chance. It wasn't enough. I was losing fluid too quickly and was not able to keep up. I started having trouble. Headaches, weakness. And then my muscles started cramping. At first I just thought it was tired muscles. The first muscles affected were my calves and hamstrings, perfectly logical given the course. But then other muscles started in; not just my legs, but my arms and neck. Every step began to feel like my body might just give out, my muscles unable to support my bones.
At the next aid station, the race doctor was there. We talked about what was going on. He had me double up on the amount of electrolyte in my water and made sure I was eating. I wasn't ready to quit, but I realized this was getting serious. I chose to continue with the knowledge that if I wasn't in better shape by the next aid station, Doc and I needed to have a serious talk about whether it was safe for me to continue.
I continued up, pushing electrolytes. It's extremely difficult to get back into balance once you've gone into electrolyte deficit. I knew I had a difficult task in front of me (besides the course). But I kept drinking, eating salt-covered potatoes, taking electrolyte tablets...just kept forcing things down my throat whether I felt like eating/drinking or not. Little by little, the muscle spasms quieted, and a little energy returned. By the next aid station, I knew I would finish. Slowly, but I would get there.
Finally I heard voices in the mist. I had reached the lodge where we would be staying. But that was not the end of the race. We had to cross into Nepal to run a final six-mile loop. The final six-mile loop. Which felt like the endless loop.
But finally, the end of Day 1.
I felt surprisingly good at the start of the second day. It had been really cold overnight, but I stayed fairly comfortable with a pile of blankets and a hot water bottle. In the morning, though, my legs felt good and I had pretty good energy. I was ready to go.
The conditions were pretty much the same as the day before, except that we were starting at 10,000' so it was much cooler. We started off with a little hill, then a steep downhill. The problem with downhills is that we all knew we would just have to regain all that elevation. We knew that we had some very steep ups coming in this 20-mile day, leading us up to the top of Sandakphu at around 12,000'.
After a few kilometers, we had spread out into a long line with several minutes to an hour between us.
We ran through the clouds, past stupas (where I usually said a little prayer - strong legs and world peace), through small villages, and past army outposts. Most of the time completely alone.
At some point on Day 2, I ran over a leg. A cow's leg, ripped off and gnawed on. Right in the middle of the path. That night at dinner, we all admitted having the same thought as we hopped over it - hmm, I guess there is a predator around here. To that, I had my own additional thoughts - of tigers. While traveling in
After our descent, we began to climb. Our course director had told us the layout of the course the night before. We knew we would go downhill, and we knew we would go back uphill. We knew that we had around 4K uphill, followed by another 4K uphill, followed by a final 4K of uphill that would be "steep." We'd heard stories the night before of previous runners who desperately wanted to quit in that section, of a runner refusing to go on and a race director refusing to accept the quitting, giving him time to reconsider - he continued on. These stories echoed in my head as the climb got steeper.
And then a funny thing happened. I started enjoying the hill. I simply forgot about all the other runners, about my pace, about anything but my steps. I fell into a rhythm and took small, steady steps. It was like my body recognized the movement, more like mountain climbing than running. I knew this. I loved this.
Nearing the top and the end for that day, there was a sign painted on the side of the road: "No sweet without sweat."
Marathon day! My first actual marathon. I've run right past a marathon several times, but I had never run an actual marathon. Nor one at 12,000'.
We were running from Sandakphu to Phalut and back. "Flat." "Gentle, rolling hills." Twenty six miles. Twelve thousand feet.
Surprisingly for me, I was not feeling any of my usual altitude problems - headaches and nausea. Yes, I
|photo: Ben Rosser|
That's what's so different about running an endurance race. It's not a race like most people think of. There are no photo finishes. There's little fighting through the pack. It's an oddly collegial and solitary endeavor. We support each other, help when we can. But we know - or we learn - that our biggest fights come from ourselves, during the long lonely hours.
There were plenty of times as I was climbing what felt like pretty steep hills that I thought, "rolling hills, my ass!" This was not a gentle marathon course! Once I got home to New York and uploaded my GPS data, I discovered I was right. The cumulative elevation gain was over 6,500' and the loss was slightly more. Bloody hell!
But still, I felt happy. I was running. Every now and then, the clouds would part for a moment and could see down into the rhododendron-filled valley. I was running.
At some point after the turnaround, I started thinking about my time, trying to calculate how long it would take me to finish. Then I began to wonder how much I could push myself....Could I finish this marathon faster than I had finished the 30K Elbrus race in Russia the summer before? Which was harder? Was it a fair comparison? Elbrus was steeper, but shorter. It only went over one high pass at this elevation, then dropped back down. This was longer. This was higher. What's my pace? How many kilometers has it been since the last stop? No, can't do it - impossible. Yes, I might be able to. Wait, was that miles or K? What's my pace now? That was my altitude and exhaustion-addled brain.
I am not a competitive person. I really don't care where I finish. I care about finishing and about having fun. I am not a competitive person. With others.
With myself is a different matter.
I wanted to run. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to see if I could beat a time that had absolutely nothing to do with this race. But I got the idea in my head. So I pushed. I ran. I walked. I took no breaks.
Then I realized 8:37 (my Elbrus time) was impossible. But perhaps 9 hours....
I cursed. I ran. I shouted. When I wanted to rest, I said, "shut up, Julie, and run!" "F***ing run!!!"
And I did.
I am fascinated by that moment of decision. When everything screams "stop," and yet we continue. When we take one more step when we are sure we can't. When we keep fighting even though we're sure all hope is lost.
I've made decisions that I never thought I would. I have promised myself, in complete exhaustion, that there would be no more surgeries, no more treatments. And then there were. I chose them. When I was sure I could not. Perhaps what I like about running ultras is that in a very small, inconsequential way, I'm proving to myself that I still have the strength. I can still chose to go on....
Suddenly, there were buildings. There was a jeep. An army officer was standing alone. He was yelling at the doc to get out of the jeep. "She's coming....She's running....She's RUNNING!!" Doc was scrambling to get out and get the tape across the finish. I was there. Done. My first marathon. At 12,000'.
|photo: Ben Rosser|
But there I was, skipping into the hut for some tea.
Down. Day 4 was all about down. And sunshine.
The sun finally came out to start us off on our final run. Kanchenjunga shed her cloak of clouds. We also had fleeting glimpses of Everest and Makalu.
And then we ran down.
Running down hill is not easy. Especially on rough trails. It takes some work to feel comfortable running easily over rocks. But this is something I've worked at; I've had to, given the trails I run at home.
I started out in the lead.
I started out in the lead. I had to repeat that because it's such a rare thing. Once we hit a few small uphills, I was overtaken. As I came into the first aid station, I called out my number. The young Sherpa who was manning that station looked up with great surprise. "Why madame, you are running very well today! You are only a minute an a half behind the leader. You are running very well."
That didn't last too much longer. I was passed by more people when I stopped to take pictures and video. And I just didn't care. It was beautiful. I was running.
After coming steeply down through the valley, we finished the last miles on a road winding through villages and towns. Children waved and ran along with us. Old men laughed.
|photo: Ben Rosser|
I was happy.
- BY Julie Goodale | 06.18.2013
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