The wind battered our huts up at Sandakphu, at elevation 3600 m / 12,000′, for another night… but this time we had no questions of whether the race would go on or not. It would. In fact, the night before, Mr. Pandey told us of how, one year, it snowed up here – but the race went on anyway. It is true, that the toughness you need to run ultramarathons is every bit as much mental as physical.
Sandakphu is the only place in the world where you can see four of the world’s five highest mountains, including Everest. However, I think everyone had given up on having mountain views. We were just trying to survive the cold. So when Assistant RD Mansi Pandey came pounding at our hut door at 6:25 am, 5 minutes before race start, it was a complete shock. “Come quickly!’ she cried. “The sky has cleared, you can see Kanchenjunga!”
Kanchenjunga, at 8586 m (28,169′) is the highest mountain in India, and the third highest mountain in the world. In fact, up until 1852, it was thought to be the highest mountain in the world. It is also the closest of the four high (>8000 m) peaks that you can see from Sandakphu (Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu).
We all raced out and snapped photos – race start temporarily delayed! – because who knows how long the skies would stay open for. It was a surprise to us all – we’d been up here for two days by now – to suddenly become aware of this massive mountain hulking over us.
The organizers gave us a few minutes to snap our pix, then hustled us together for the race start. Sure enough, the clouds did close over soon after… but they opened up again an hour or two later. And what followed was truly one of the most amazing running days of my life… starting with views of Mt. Everest, then views of the whole skyline of the Himalaya, from Everest to Kanchenjunga, to an astonishing descent down to the jungle villages of Siri Khola and Rimbik, and lovely interactions with the local people (who walk everywhere) there.
So much happened that day that it felt like two days, so I divided my SleepMonsters into two parts, the Himalaya mountain run and then the descent and jungle run. You can read those of you want more info about everything I did and saw, or you can just peruse the photo highlights here:
The first 16 km / 10 miles of the route today were the same as what we had run, both out and back, the day before. Starting out in the fog, it seemed repetitive (although it was strangely comforting not to be heading into the unknown for a while). But then the sky cleared again – this time for good! – and we were treated to amazing views, the whole skyline that we had not been able to see the day before. The first curve that we rounded into sunshine, our very first skyline view, was Everest itself!
So I did put the camera away after I took this shot. I was just stopping too much! We turned around at Phulet, to repeat about 6 km / 4 miles of the route (sounds short, but it was a really long out-and-back, with all of the up-and-down), to start the big 2000 m / 6000′ descent. I don’t have any pictures of that section – it had fogged in again by then, so you couldn’t see much, and the terrain was very difficult, so I mostly just had to keep my eyes on the ground anyway. The route was a cobblestone trail, a bit like the road we had been on so far but much narrower, so only for foot travel (human or horse), no jeeps. In many places it was so washed out it was just a network of steep and narrow ruts in the dirt. I hadn’t descended much at all before the vegetation started to become thicker, first
forested and then jungly, with the loud buzz of insects overhead, and scattered birds squawking around. Supposedly we could see wild animals including Bengal tigers, Himalayan black bears and red pandas here – I did better than most people, I did see a reddish mongoosey sort of thing.
I didn’t take any pictures again until I approached the village of Upper Siri Khola, where I started to see people again (locals walking around on the rocky trail). The men were dressed mainly in western clothes, but most of the women wore beautiful traditional dress. If I didn’t greet people, they mostly stared at me – but if I smiled them or called out “Namaste!” they would break into big smiles and call back to me, very friendly. I only took pictures of the people with permission – and no one refused me when I asked.
So, as far as marathon times go, I nearly doubled my marathon PW this day (in case you’re wondering, a PW is the opposite of a Personal Best). I finished in 9:20… and sure, I could have gone a fair bit faster if I hadn’t stopped to take so many pictures. But it was a tough route (and probably a
lot more than 42 km – organizers admit it is very challenging to accurately measure distances out here). But more importantly, I wasn’t racing. That day – which was so full of experience that it really does still feel like two amazing days – was one of the best days of my life! I went at a pace at which I could appreciate everything, stop and enjoy those stunning mountains, and also, I finished feeling absolutely great. Which is good, because we still had two more days of racing ahead of us…