Enjoy The Beauty Of Hills
The second anniversary of my visit to India to compete in The Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race is fast approaching. In order to honour this virtually unknown gem of an event I thought now would be a good time to remind people that the race is, somewhat surprisingly, still going on and it needs your support. I was asked to write the following article for a fair few publications, some of whom published (Run247, Back Country Runner NZ, and TrailRun Australia) and some of whom flatly refused to have anything to do with the thing (iRunFar, The Fellrunner, Trail Running UK, Trail Runner USA and Athletics Weekly).
From the moment I first saw India up close I knew I’d made a huge mistake. I’d been training and racing under a curse all season. The training had been murderous, the racing plagued by misfortune. The Himalayan 100 was one last futile effort to salvage something memorable from the season. One hundred miles over fives days in Darjeeling. Something was positively guaranteed to happen. And it did, but not what I’d expected. On paper it was a dream vacation. In reality it quickly became a vicious, health-ripping ordeal, a holiday from hell. And now, three months later, as I try to write the story of the race, I still feel hungover. I’m still waiting for India to clear from my lungs. I’ve lost so much weight I could slice bread with my shoulder blades. I’m still waiting for my hollowed-out sense of self to dissipate and my hair to grow back. After seven days in India you feel like you’ve been there for seven years.
Thursday 24th / Friday 25th October 2013.
Delhi is by common consent the world’s most polluted city. The air hangs yellow and heavy with diesel fumes, charcoal smoke, and humidity. The sun resembles a pale white ghost. It’s certainly no place for an English mountain runner. So what was I thinking? What kind of sick and twisted impulse, what rancid karma had caused me to come here? Queen Victoria had never bothered to visit India, so why should I? The poverty, the sweat, the frustration, the religion, the corruption, the toilets. But it was also a place I didn’t want to end up regretting I’d never seen.
As soon as I arrived at The Hotel Ashok I should have stocked up on cakes from the small patisserie in the lobby, called room-service and had my fridge filled with beer, located the movie channel, and retired to my two-hundred-dollar-per-night bed. And I should have stayed there until it was time to leave for the mountains. Instead, I was drawn into a false sense of security by the group of runners limbering up in the lobby. I downed a cappuccino, changed into my vest and shorts, and followed them outside in search of suitable training grounds.
They were in Delhi for the Himalayan 100. There was Jesus, a gloomy, polo-shirted Mexican, who had brought along a full suitcase of bottled water, suffered from shin splints, and would win a special medal for picking up the most litter during the race. There was Jethro, who was fanatical about diet and body hair and had just quit smoking. He had all the gear and no idea or, as he once observed:
– Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken.
Jackie’s old man had raced the previous year and the twisted bastard had insisted she experience the full horror of it first-hand this time around. Hers was one of those fine little love stories that makes you smile at night in your sleep. Captain John, a potbellied fisherman, worked on trawlers and had somehow been convinced that riding the Hundred on a mountain bike was the easy option. And then there was Jim, a wild-looking banker. Jim was twitchy and nervy the whole time he was there, like he knew it could all get much worse at any moment. He spent that long week churning around in a sea of horrors and came to despise The Mahatma almost as much as I did.
Spying some greenery amidst a confusion of blue tarpaulin shacks, we darted across a gridlocked dual-carriageway, scattering on the other side to avoid a tribe of stray goats. A man lay dead by the side of the road. Someone had carefully covered his face with a sheet of newspaper. We leaped across an open sewer, a small stream of water the colour of chai flowed past sluggishly, bubbles sparkling in it. Two children were splashing about in the brown water.
I’d been in prime condition when I arrived, healthy and eager to discover India, but after a few easy warm-up laps of Nehru Park I was reduced to a wheezing, weak-kneed wreck. How could anyone ever live in this place, I wondered as I slunk back to the hotel with the others and completed the run on a treadmill in an air-conditioned gym.
I awoke the next morning with a rattly, chesty cough and looking like the portrait of Dorian Grey. Usually I’d take a week off running until whatever was making its home in my lungs went away. However, circumstances were far from normal and from now on there was no turning back. I was screwed but I’d have to ride it out. I ate a large breakfast of oranges and grapefruit, figuring I’d be needing all the vitamin C I could get my hands on in the days to come, and returned to the gym for another treadmill session.
Sunday 27th October 2013.
Ground zero. The squalid village of Maney Bhanjyang (2150m). We arrived sometime around 7 a.m. after a spine-cracking, stomach-churning bus ride. There was no frenzied pre-race press conference, just a madness of another type. Car and bus horns bellowed and wailed like lost cattle. A band played a random collection of tuneless instruments including bagpipes, bongos, trumpets, accordians, and sitars. The melancholy notes from a pair of snake-charmers flutes competed for attention. Tibetan dancers in spectacularly hideous devil masks jumped around to the music. Bemused villagers and excited children were held back by bored-looking soldiers wearing helmets and carrying long white riot sticks. It was not a good scene to confront feeling as feverish and weak as I did. The previous two days of travel had been a fiendish ordeal as my condition slowly deteriorated. This awful spate of sickness was enough to put the fear of God in a man. And, I noted, this cheerless place wasn’t in anything like close proximity to the Himalayas. It wasn’t even in the foothills. It was more like the foothills of the foothills, the dark heart of an colossal and gloomy jungle, the first step up from the swampy wastelands of West Bengal.
I was queuing for the bathroom when a sad and hopeless beggar limped up to me and held up strange gimcracks for sale, pleading for money. Then a little girl pounced on me and hung a white prayer scarf around my neck. And somewhere in the thick of this theatrical chaos a fat man in a tracksuit waved a green flag and off ran 50 runners, up and up through the trees into an impalpable, fog-soaked sky and a shadowy world that was cold and brown and wasted. Visibility would be something like 50 feet for the next 48 hours.
Twenty one miles and four hours later I completed the stage. It had been rough going thanks to the miserable disgrace of a cobbled road upon which I had to run. The ‘road’ was built by the third Aga Khan in 1948 to give him access to his Himalayan hunting lodges – he had simply dumped a bunch of rocks out of a helicopter and then neglected it for 65 years and it was a curse to all who attempted to traverse it’s crumbling, degraded surface. It would have been cruel to have forced a mountain goat to meander it. I outpaced all other traffic to a staggering degree and was regularly brought to a standstill by the jeeps and trucks that crawled up and down the narrow, boulder-strewn highway. Above 3000m my lack of acclimatisation made things even more unpleasant. The air was heavy and thin and breathing was like trying to suck air through a bent straw. I resorted to the wizard sticks on the steepest hills in a desperate attempt to maintain some kind of headway.
The sepulchral hill station of Sandakphu (3600m) was our home for the next two nights. Even now, the sight of these words on paper sends a shudder up my spine, long after I have escaped and moved on to other ordeals. I finished stage one just as it started to rain. It came in heavy and cold and reduced the others to various states of misery, hypothermia and despair. More dead than alive, many of them went straight to bed without eating or even changing out of their soaked clothing.
Our race director, The Mahatma, had secured the only decent accommodation in town – a fine Sherpa lodge with a well-stocked bar and large restaurant. The runners were treated like lepers and forced to squeeze into a tiny, dirty concrete kitchen and eat their meagre rations standing up. Sleeping arrangements were equally cramped and sparse. That night I braved the fog and lashing rain and made my way up the hill to The Mahatma’s place in search of warmth and alcohol and something good to eat.
West Bengalis are probably the most violent breed on the continent. The Mahatma’s people were far from happy to see me enter their inner sanctum. There were five of them and the muscles in the backs of their necks instantly bunched up when I appeared. The air was flinty with tension. I gave them my best thinking-of-kitties smile and explained that I was thirsty and needed a drink, but their mood was ugly. By intruding on their turf I’d somehow filled their hearts with hate.
– You are in the wrong place, sir! one of them said.
– Fellow! Show me your passport, said another.
– Get out of here you freak! a third chimed in.
And with that I was pushed out of the door by Monkey Man, a huge rat-bastard psychotic with a beer belly, weasel teeth, and a Himalayan 100 baseball cap. I’d liked Monkey Man at first. He’d told a string of increasingly hilarious dirty jokes on one of the deathtrap bus rides that had transported us to the start. But now I wanted to kick him the balls like a mule and gouge out his yellow teeth with a chisel. My temper was hovering dangerously on the far edge of control. This barren mountain-top was suddenly like a prison I felt compelled to escape. Had The Mahatma not confiscated my passport before the race and squirrelled it away in his safe back at Race HQ, it was at this point that I would have packed my bags, fled back to Maney Bhanjyang, hired a taxi to Delhi, and put some serious air-miles between myself and this foul and desperate continent.
The combination of a bad chest and the passage from sea-level to 3600m in two days had left me feeling completely out of kilter. My head was pulsating violently and I ached all over. My fingers and toes were numb, my eyes red and sticky, my hair falling out in clumps. My whole body was vegetating, like a fetus in a jar. I doubted my ability to survive the next day’s stage. I was almost out of options, and those that remained were ugly and hopeless. I had to keep ahead of the game and at any cost. I tracked down the official race doctor.
The Doc sported a bushy moustache and went very quiet whenever you questioned him about medical matters. Since day one he’d been dishing out Diamox like candy without any allusion to the side-effects, so I hoped he’d have something potent to combat my chest infection. Steroids perhaps. Or brandy, antibiotics, and a shot of adrenalin. The Doc gave me some valerian root to chew on, a foot massage, and a lesson in deep-breathing to eliminate toxins and help restore balance to my brain, body and spirit. As a treatment for my chest infection it fell woefully short, but it made me sleepy. I don’t recall going to bed that night, but in the morning, there I was, still in Sandakphu, still feeling like crap.
Monday 28th October 2013.
A thick swirling fog covered everything. It was cold and windy and the wind picked up a fine grit that would turn my face pink and swollen as if with sunburn. I fuelled up on sweet black coffee, it was all I could keep down. My stomach felt like a tree was growing inside it. I felt a tremendous distance between myself and everything real. It was a feeling of inexplicable despair. As I stood shivering on the start line I heard an airplane passing overhead and wished I was on it. Stage one had been a minor disaster, I’d resorted to walking way too often. But this would be the day that my race went to hell in a handbasket, the day my hopes for a respectable time for the hundred – something in the region of twelve hours – were well and truly crushed.
My mood was mean and jangled and I came out of the blocks like a hyena on speed and almost instantly regretted it. Attempting to run up the first hill of the day resulted in delirium and flashing white lights. My heart felt like it had flatlined. Yet my brain was apparently still functioning on some basic motor survival level and I had enough animal strength and detached intelligence to get away with it. In my desperation I evolved a foolproof plan – walk the hills, then run like a doomed rat down the other side and pray that by some miracle my body didn’t register the temporary change in pace. And repeat for twenty miles.
The stage was a miserly ten miles out and ten miles back along the Nepalese border (we would run the same ten miles again to begin stage three). The border was marked by a rusty barbed wire fence and clusters of unamused soldiers. They popped up from behind rocks when least expected, damp roll-ups clenched tightly between blue lips, ill fed, under-clothed, holes in their boots, and armed to the teeth with a weird variety of weapons. The 1947 Kalashnikov was a popular choice. Some carried ancient looking bolt-action carbines. There were shotguns, M16 rifles, submachine guns, and all sorts of side-arms. One fellow carried a sword with a very long, curved blade.
On the whole, stage two was an out-of-body experience and only sporadic memory flashes of it remain. At one point the sun poked it’s head through the cloud. My eyes were swollen almost shut and the sudden appearance of the sun left me stunned and helpless and writhing on the ground in agony like a sick mole. I also remember an army captain riding up to me on horseback on that misty battlefield to ask if I didn’t want to take his ride for a spin. I have to confess I’ve never been on a horses back and I declined his offer. He galloped off waving his pistol in the air, firing off a couple of rounds. After three hours of this torment the job was done. I went straight to bed and chewed on some valerian root.
Tuesday 29th October 2013.
The day dawned fresh and crisp for stage three (28 miles). There were big white clouds in the sky. Everyone appeared to be in a good mood, ready to soak up the Himalaya’s special vibrations. Not long after the start, the cloud sunk into the valleys and Kangchenjunga appeared like a vision. I stopped running and fumbled in my backpack for the camera, then remembered that I’d had it pinched four days ago at the airport.
Those 20 miles – contouring around and traversing the crest of the Nepalese border – were the only miles of the race that I really enjoyed the running and got to appreciate the scenery. With the sun on my back my spirits rose a notch. I felt strangely normal and fully cranked, like a recharged battery. I ran the first ten miles 30 minutes quicker than I had the day before. The role of a dozen triple-caffeine Espresso-flavoured gels may also have played a part in my renewed morale and resurgence in fitness. I had to slow down only once, and that was to tip-toe around a herd of yak. The yak is the meanest son of a bitch in the Himalayas. He owns the trail and is not to be crossed. If spooked he’s likely to take off like something shot out of a missile-launcher and crush anything and anyone in his path. He’ll snap your bones like toothpicks. If the yak ever develops a taste for human flesh we will all be in trouble. Probably the only thing more dangerous than a stampeding yak is an incensed yak-herder.
After a couple of hours on the ridge, the course plummeted a vertical mile into thick, steamy jungle. The descent was steep and treacherous, a one-foot wide muddy trench for much of it’s length, with many big steps and small bluffs. It was the sort of track where you’d expect to come across more skeletons by the side of it than people actually on it. I leaped over levelled tree trunks like a big kangaroo. Every so often the drop was so steep and so fast that I got an eerie sense of free-fall. The difference between surviving and wiping-out on a downhill like this is simply a matter of conditioned reflexes. The trick is to keep accelerating until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of falling. There were several small villages towards the bottom, the track ran right through people’s front yards, but I hardly noticed them. I was feeling very much in tune with the thing at this point, my brain was humming. And then it all evaporated and fell apart. The finish line was rumoured to be at the bottom of the descent, on the other side of a long bridge across a gorge. The rumours were wrong. There were a further six harrowing miles of pot-holed tarmac left to go.
I’m going to digress for a moment. The Mahatma was an untiring, untreatable snob. His race briefings were some of the lamest and silliest swill ever uttered by man or beast – torturously long lectures regarding his awesome array of virtues and his vast wisdom of the known and unknown universe. Crucial information about the race – such as the start time, route profile, location of aid stations, arrangements for drop-bags, description of the terrain – became lost in a confused tirade of frenzied gibberish and smug self-congratulation. Safety briefings were unnervingly sketchy and mostly boiled down to the following:
Walk Don’t Run
Look Where You’re Putting You’re Feet There May Be Snakes
Do Not Flaunt Your Wealth. Do Not Tip The Helpers.
Give Your Donations Directly To Me.
It was for this reason that I was totally in the dark as to where stage three ended. Those final miles were the toughest of the whole race for me. I was all out of gels, ragged from the descent, and cramping badly. The road was busy with jeeps ferrying people around and mules carrying heavy loads. Having to repeatedly adjust my line to avoid the traffic was a struggle. On the last big hill a group of school children walked past me giggling. I felt very foolish. Had there been a stand at the side of the road selling coffee and doughnuts, I’d have abandoned there and then. But there wasn’t, so I got my shit together as best I could and closed the thing out. I’d been brought right to the brink of hysteria, yet by the time the other exhausted runners started staggering across the finish line like stroke victims, I had binged on several bunches of miniature bananas, paid a boy a small fortune to bring me a pineapple daiquiri (he could only find beer, but that was okay), and was over the worst of it.
Wednesday 30th October 2013.
The final two stages were a disappointment. 13 miles and 17 miles and tarmac every step of the way. A quick glance at any trekking map of the region would reveal a vast network of exciting, interlinked single-track. So why was I running a half-marathon on the road through a dark jungle and then catching the bus back to where I started? The Mahatma had nothing to say. All I wanted to do was have a chat with the guy and get to the nitty-gritty of the race, find out what the head honcho thought about things, but despite numerous requests he refused to answer any questions. And I had many questions to lay on him, about any problem or any idea that happened into my mind. What’s your real name? Is The Doc a doctor of medicine or an animal doctor? Where do I go to drink snake venom shots? Where can I hire an elephant? Where do I go to play poker with a gorilla? Why have I been in Darjeeling for eight days without anybody offering me a cup of tea? Have you ever climbed a mountain? What is your response to the suggestion by many runners in this race that you couldn’t lead a monkey to a banana raffle? What happened to the $3000 we gave you for the helpers? But The Mahatma didn’t do small talk. He wanted to seem inscrutable but succeeded only in appearing surly and imbecilic.
So to stage four and another fractured day. The sky was a gray, wrinkled blanket. It was warm and hazy and there was a lot of easy running. My mood was mean and jangled, I was red-eyed and feverish still, but anybody could be a runner on a day like this. I cruised the stage in 80 minutes with the what-the-hell kind of indifference of a man moving in a hard straight line towards a known horizon. I’d had enough. I wanted out. While waiting for the others to come in I dozed on a deck-chair by the side of the road, fending off the flies and waves of strange memories.
The good news, however, was that we were no longer in Sandakphu. We were now residents of the grimy village of Rimbik (2000m), and there was no prohibition in Rimbik. For those last two days I was as contented as a snail. I could go out for a shave and relax and get drunk. At the guest house where we were billeted there were two brands of beer available – 4% and 8%. I sat on the balcony of my room overlooking the town and drank and rested and waited for something to happen. Nothing did. What a goddamned relief.
Thursday 31st October 2013.
During the pre-race briefing, The Mahatma had been very specific on the danger of tigers in the region.
– Forget about tigers, he reassured us all. You will never see the tiger that kills you.
The only wildlife I came across were the ubiquitous crows and dogs, but on stage five I heard animals of all shapes and sizes whisper to me from unseen places in the impenetrable riot of vegetation that bordered each side of the road. Just another feature of the mad black hole into which I had descended and feared I might never climb back out of.
My central memory of that last day of the race seems to hang on one stark and menacing moment. It was early on in the stage and I was tapping out six minute kilometres on a smooth uphill stretch of tarmac. Because of the drop in altitude I didn’t really notice the grade of the hills anymore except with pleasure. A jeep slowed to a crawl right alongside me, the window wound down, and The Mahatma’s beady yellow eyes peered out at me, glassy with terror and batshit crazy. He said nothing and let his gaze bore into me for several minutes, like an animal peering out of a forest on fire, or like he was looking upon a demon escaped from hell. Or perhaps like he were the demon, trying to think up something that would bring me to my knees. I couldn’t decide which. Then he grunted something at his driver and sped off up the road in a cloud of diesel fumes.
I still don’t know what to make of that, I really don’t. And I’ve thought about that moment a lot. I was doing a painstaking thing with style, perhaps even making an art of it, and he loathed me for it, because he knew in some nervous corner of his heart that to do such a thing took an innate strength and a discipline he would never possess or even understand. Maybe that was it. From the very beginning The Mahatma had gone to great lengths to point out that this wasn’t a race and that running up the hills just wasn’t appropriate or sportsmanlike.
– Slow is good. This was The Mahatma’s constant mantra. I had come to think that my only reason for being there at all was to show him that fast is better.
The maddening image of The Mahatma staring me out stayed with me for the rest of the day. The only way to whip it was to hang on until evening and banish the ghosts with beer, let the alcohol seep through my system and turn the bad thoughts into good ones.
Sunday 3rd November 2013.
It had been a cruel oddity of a race. Weird and frenzied in some moments, slow and dirty in others. Looking back, it had all been fake, a money-spinner, a choreographed affair, hollow at the core. My only real feeling for India was one of absolute and visceral aversion. Too much had happened in those eight long and degrading days and I never did get to really enjoy the beauty of hills.
Or was I missing something crucial? It had been 73-year-old Jed’s seventh Himalayan 100. Everything about Jed was old apart from his eyes and they were the same colour as the sky and animated and undefeated.
– If it gets your blood racing then it’s probably worth doing, he explained to me over a beer one evening.
And bearing this in mind I tried to compose a fitting epitaph for the race on the long flight home. He was right, sometimes you have to live like tomorrow isn’t coming and yesterday never happened. Yet there was no escaping the dread that rattled within my chest; and no escaping the echo of Mr. Kurtz’ final cry from The Heart Of Darkness:
– The Horror! The Horror!