On the Trail . . . at the Himalayan 100M Stage Race

By April 28, 2005April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine

…its not easy

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the April 2005 issue of Running Times Magazine

Himalayan 100M Stage Race
Mirik India October 23-27, 2004

There are lots of good reasons not to do the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race. The first three are that it’s really, really, really hard.

If you like your creature comforts, this race is not for you. Staying in unheated huts with no running water and a hole in the ground for a toilet is not for the prissy. Some of the accommodations during this event make the Spartans look positively Sybaritic.

If you prefer to breathe air rich with oxygen, stay away. You can feel the effects of altitude at 6,000 feet. At 12,000, it’s not so easy to run. Forget about sleeping.

Don’t like hills? Count this one out. The first day, on a 24-mile death march that climbs 6,000 feet on cobblestones as big as your head, you ask yourself: “How much farther can this keep going up?” Your tired, miserable self snaps back at you: “Idiot!” These are the highest mountains in the world. They go up for freaking ever.

If you’re uncomfortable seeing young men with semi-automatic weapons, this is not your race. India has the largest volunteer army in the world. When you’re running a road that is the border with Nepal, whose Maoist insurgents are out to cause a mess, you learn to get used to seeing men fondling their rifles.

And if the thought of running until you want to cry, legs cramping, lungs screaming for more oxygen, head aching from the altitude isn’t enough to do you in, realize this: the next day you have to get up and do it again. And again, and again: Four mornings of running on tight and aching legs, four mornings of rising with the sun to slog through miles of trail, road and rocks.

It’s not even easy to get to the start. After flying into Delhi, you have to get on yet another plane and fly to the tiny Bagdogra airport, in the state of West Bengal, in the northeast tip of India, squeezed among Nepal, Tibet, and Bangladesh, to get on a bus for a kidney-jarring hour-and-a-half ride through tea plantations and up mountains, the driver skillfully dodging other cars, wandering cows, goats, dogs, pigs, and people on narrow and rutted roads.

But if you can overcome your wimpy notions of what you need to be comfortable; can prepare yourself to be taxed to the max, physically and emotionally; if you can train your body to be able to handle what is perhaps the most challenging race in the world, you will not be disappointed. When it’s over, you will be bone-weary, more than a little sore, and thankful. You will be thankful because you have done something extraordinary and amazing, in the company of an extraordinary and amazing group of folks.

At the end of October, 40-odd people from 12 countries competed in the 100-mile stage race that offers views of four of the five highest peaks in the world and a variety of terrain, from desolate ridges above the tree line to lush tropical forests. It was the 14th edition of the event, the brainchild and carefully nurtured product of one Mr. C.S. Pandey. If he had a first name, we race participants never knew it. He was always and ever Mr. Pandey.

Mr. Pandey brought fast-packing and competitive mountain climbing to India. He has accomplished a number of solo ascents on his native Himalayan mountains, often in record time. Mr Pandey combines the obsessive attention to detail required of all good race directors with a parent’s patience. Getting us from place to place, in one piece, with all of our belongings was like herding snakes. Mr. Pandey often accused of us being “naughty boys and girls” (okay, sometimes we dawdled, sometimes we didn’t pay attention) and we responded appropriately, by mimicking him and giggling like children.

As is typical of so many races, the personality and values of the race director suffuse the experience. There’s a strong component of conscience here. Mr. Pandey insists that people pay attention to maintaining the ecological purity of the Himalayas. Along with awards for the fastest runners, there’s a special medal for the person who picks up the most trash. And for the runner with the biggest, best smile. This is, after all, supposed to be fun. But it’s serious business, too. Mr. Pandey’s organization, Himalayan Run and Trek (www.himalayan.com) gives out scholarships to children from the rural areas through which the race passes. On the exit questionnaire he asks if we were running the race for charity. If the answer is no, the next question is: “Why not?” There’s not a lot of room for subtlety when you’re doing your part to save the world.

During the five days of the event I found myself paraphrasing the first of the four Passover questions: What makes this race different from all the other races? Well, yeah, it was harder. It was really, really hard. But there are other hard races. Sure it was in an astonishingly beautiful and remote part of the world—how often do you get to wake up with Kanchenjunga, number three of the big boys, after Mt. E and K2, in your backyard? But we adventure-seekers seek out these challenges; we are natural beauty junkies. We gloried to see the icy peaks, basked (with just a little whining) in the thin air, and appreciated the descent down, through a tropical forest, inhaling unfamiliar scents and wondering about the various flora and fauna. What makes this race different? Why did I come home happy and perky, instead of exhausted and beat down—even after the most brutal physical challenge of my life?

It was, of course, the people, and the odd and unusual circumstances in which we came together as a group. Spending a week with a posse of strangers who, in the end, are no longer strangers, makes for a different kind of race. It was a week of puking and pooping and sharing headaches and laughing so long and so hard that we woke up with faces hurting—well, that’s a big part of what made this different, and special. It’s not, I imagine, unlike boot camp: You come out of your own world and into one you cannot control. Your own world—the real world—in fact ceases to exist. With the autonomy you give up, you gain an understanding of the web in which we are all caught, how much we need each other to survive. Small acts of kindness get magnified; moments of quotidian intimacy become significant. We bonded and supported each other and made connections that are real, lasting and important.

There are a lot of reasons not to run the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race. But there are even more reasons to do it.