My Himalayan 100 race was out of this world , a roller-coaster of emotion from start to finish , its been a long time since I have had so many good things going on in my life , so much so that It was painful to think about leaving them behind even for a single day let alone weeks , yet I had to , I was competing in what has to be the single most awe inspiring race of any Ultra-runners life , a race totally unsurpassed both in its beauty and extreme environment !! … so I forced myself to pack up and headed out to India……. I was already riding on a sea of emotion before arriving in the Himalaya , so when the full force of what was in front of me hit , It was crazy , like a tidal wave smashing over me , tossing and tumbling, throwing me head over heals , I was constantly overwhelmed , one minute in control and rational , next minute tears in my eyes and a chest so tight I couldn’t breath , I was physically shaking my head to clear it and regain control , feelings so strong that they made my body ache were twisting me constantly and at every corner the most inspiring and jaw dropping views of magnificent Himalayan mountains would appear to mess me up even more , everything around me felt like a dream and it all seemed so surreal , yet it moved me to run beyond any ability I had previously , the pain in my legs seemed to be the only way to gain control of my head and my heart .. yet it was amazing … to be in that turmoil with its exaggeration of feeling ….. I saw things in such an amazing way that no matter how hard it felt , its was the only way I want to have experienced the race ……. truly a man is at his best when he is moved so strongly
The Himalayan 100 , running on the roof of the World…..
Getting there was the usual long flight nonsense , nothing like my Mongolia trip though so definitley not a problem!! I travelled down to London and relaxed for a few days before shipping out to Delhi , then I grabbed an internal flight to a tiny airport near Bagdogra , a small town in the Darjeeling district of the lower Himalaya, close to the Nepalese Border. Here I met Joel , an american photographer from Running Times who was making a movie about the race , he was a super cool dude and we chatted about climbing and kayaking as we shared a jeep ride up and over the mountain passes to Mirik , an Indian town built around a lake , I use the term “lake” very loosely as it was a leech and crocodile infested pond with a tiger that occasionally roamed by , yet very alluring in an Indian way …. It was here I registered and spent the next two days acclimatizing and meeting the other runners , it’s not a big race , most years it is between fifty to seventy hard-core competitors , there were very good runners of all nationalities in the race , mostly from the USA, UK, Spain, Argentina, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden,Brazil, Ireland, Czech, South Africa so although a relatively small event it really felt much larger and the chat was amazing, in an extreme race like the Himalaya 100 there is a lot of camaraderie , the motto as always is “look after yourself and everyone else when your out there ” , and more than a little fun was to be had between us all over the week.
On day 2 I was offered a chance to visit Darjeeling so I grabbed it and jumped on the bus , Darjeeling is a Himalayan city in the Indian state of West Bengal. It is internationally renowned as a tourist destination, along with its tea industry and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. I stole that bit from Wiki .. 🙂 .. Getting there involved everyone jumping on 2 buses at 5:30am in the morning then negotiating super steep and precarious mountain roads , when 2 Indian buses meet head to head it is all hell breaking loose ,first a stand-off , then shouting , swearing and spitting before eventually someone moves over and a clearance of only an inch or two between buses scares everyone involved but we got there none the less , I enjoyed my visit and was amazed how a city could spring up on such a steep hillside , we visited Ghoom temple , travelled on the famous railway and saw the old British Colonial housing , it was like a piece of little England sat fenced off in the middle of a town made from rickety old Indian buildings , if there’s one thing India has in abundance it is surrealism . Heading back over that mountain pass in the dark was an experience all in itself to , I am constantly amazed by the abilities of these Indian drivers ..safely back in Mirik we were treated to a fantastic “last supper” before we headed to our beds in preparation for Stage 1.
Stage 1 .. Maneybhanyjang to Sandakphu , 23 miles …. Garmin watch data was whack in the Himalaya , constant searching on the Gps so distances etc are way off from actual , distances and ascents were greater than the data I am about to present but the pics are as my Garmin ……
I was picked up at 5:30am sharp , everyone piled into 2 buses and we were taken up and over the pass again , this time to a town called Maneybhanyjang sitting at 6600 feet in a jungle basin , staggeringly picturesque , mountains of green at every side , an infusion of Himalayan jungle and stepped tea plantation. The race was to start at 7:30am and I would eventually climb to the Sherpa lodge at Sandakphu for a 12000+ feet finish line .. WOW!! … this was to involve two insanely long and steep climbs and one huge descent , so the total ascent for the day was way more than I first thought and eventually went well over 10,000 feet . This was to be the toughest , most gruelling and painful stage I have ever ran , seriously !! Deserts are nothing compared to this day , it was remorseless !!! I loved it at first , hated it at the end and was very depressed in the middle , it was to be breathtaking in its beauty and back-breaking in its constant climbing. It was my first day of running and I was so excited to burst over the start line as the gun went off , I hit the first hills full of excitement and energy , I was very pleased to sit in the top 10 for most of the first 15 miles ,especially as there were some great guys among the pack , two Irish hill runners , Stevie and Mark were going hard , as was Deone from South Africa and a young swede called Lars , all superfast.
I was doing well until we climbed to over 9000 feet then all of a sudden my legs started to burn and my breathing became short , I was sucking air ,it felt nothing like being out of breath , it was more like breathing through a straw , then the headache hit me and I knew it was altitude , I’ve been at altitudes over 10,000 feet many times , indeed I’ve been to 20,000 feet and had no problems but this time I was running , and up steep hills !! , it was obvious I was going to suffer , it was horrible , my muscles were being starved of oxygen and they were hating me for it , runners started to overtake me , suddenly I was out of the top 10 and drifting back , position doesn’t bother me , Im not that good a runner to ever win anything , I race to compete against myself but I kept telling myself … come on Mark your better than this !! move !! make an effort !! but there really was nothing there , I could get no work rate at all before my legs would again grind to a halt requiring me to pause and rest … on the steepest of the switchbacks I could get no more than 3 or 4 steps before a rest was necessary and deep breaths required to stop me feeling faint , I filled myself full of paracetamol for my now very dizzy sore head and slowly moved forward as much as I could …. fuck !! my legs are gone and its only day 1 , that was one of the thoughts going round in my head , I’ve underestimated this race and I’m going to pay , maybe even a DNF , no , no !!! , was another , suddenly a deep depression started to set in , at one point it seemed to take everything I had just to move 5 metres up a hill .. Ive been here before though and I know not to give in now , experience has taught me many lessons this year and one of them is that when you think your ready to drop , you still have lots more to give !!! so I kept moving and slowly I inched my way up through the clouds and over the last monstrous hill to the finish stage 1 , I was so relieved to see that finish line , so bloody relieved !
I lay on the ground for what seemed like forever , waiting for my legs to ready themselves for standing up , and once I did I was moved by the beauty of what I was looking at , the sight of being above the clouds at sunset on this remote mountain top , the Sherpa camp despite its thin air and huge climb to get there was the most awe-inspiring place I have ever been in my life , and I’ve been places !! .. to the left Makalu , Everest and Lhotse , in front of me Kanchenjunga in all its majesty with the clouds inverting below us … its indescribable how I felt standing there , taking in the view , thinking of those I love and thinking of tomorrow !!
Stage 2 .. Sandakphu trail , 20 miles ….
Stage 2 was to start at 6am sharp , I awoke at 5am so I could force some porridge down my throat , I had lay awake all night , my mind whirling , thinking of what lay ahead , wondering what my legs were going to be like when I stood up , thinking of Rhalou and my holiday to Cyprus when I returned , thinking of my family and how proud they are of me, everything was whirling round my head that morning , it was insane , but I need not have worried as I had awoken strong and recuperated , I trained hard and it counted for everything , my ability to run back to back marathon distances had not deserted me and I was fully recovered from the tough first stage and ready to go hard !!!
I walked outside the sherpa hut and witnessed everyone being blown away by the sunrise that was happening in front of us , it was staggering , Everest , Maklau , Lhotse , Kangenchunga all just sitting there on the horizon with the sun blazing up behind them , cameras were out , people were shouting and pointing , 50 hard-core runners jumping around like little kids … I’ve been lucky enough to have seen it many times but it doesn’t matter , every Himalayan sunset and sunrise blows me away , they are truly spectacular !
The race started and we headed up and out the camp , the trail was rocky and very technical , just what I enjoy , it levelled the playing field a little between us hill runners and the speedy iron men , no speed here , agility and technique count for everything , I ran with Aaron an RAF pilot for most of the race and we even stopped to grab a few photos here and there , it was a long winding and seriously undulating trail run out and back from the Sandakphu Sherpa post , we ran most of the day in the shadow of the worlds highest mountains and I found so much power in this , my legs just flew , I jumped from rock to rock , climbed steep hills and motored downhill to finish top 10 … I was amazing even myself ,the miles of training had really came together for this great race … as happy as I had ever been I romped home with plenty in reserve knowing I was in good shape for Stage 3 The Everest Marathon , billed as 26.5 miles but in reality over 30 miles it was meant to be one tough day on the trail …. Bring that bastard on I thought to myself !!!
Everest Marathon stage .. reputed to be any distance between 26 and 33 miles depending who is telling the tale , this stage is part of ultra running folklore with stories of crazy miles , a huge 6000+ feet super-steep leg killing descent from mountain top to dense jungle , a real adventure racers dream , let’s get it on was my cry !!!
A 6am start , a sunset above Kanchenjunga to inspire us and we all lined up at the start , other runners had joined us just for this stage so there were fresh legs and eager faces among us !! you could feel the excitement in everyone , see the faces of nervous anticipation and listen to the silence for once among us all .. then it started !!! …Off we all went at full pace , everyone was going hard on this one , it’s the “special” stage so we were all letting rip !! the pace was furious and a few of us bunched for a while before spitting up as our natural pace separated us … I clung to 6th place and pretty soon I was out on my own , the top 5 had at least a mile on me by the 15 mile point but I was going strong , I was savouring the last day at altitude and the mind-blowing scenery , at mile 20 I was still on my own and I found the descent path , this was a super steep and extremely technical descent worthy of a hard-core Scottish hill run ,but over 7000 feet of it !!! like 2 Ben Nevis races back to back !!! many runners arrived at the finish with cuts and bruises because of the severity of this descent .
I burst into the path and soon I was jumping from rock to rock on what felt like a never-ending rock climbers descent path .. soon the rocks were giving way to jungle and single dirt track , still obscenely steep though !!! , it was also getting hot , really hot !! sweat was pouring off me as I ran through the thick undergrowth , thinking I had a good lead on 7th , I eased off as my legs were aching from the constant downhill , but then I heard the sound of heavy breathing and crashing foot steps , I glanced behind and about 500 metres uphill was a huge muscular figure , it was the giant Spanish Ironman Davide’ and he was hot on my heels , , 6 foot 5 , massive chest muscles popping out his running top and an orange bandanna tied round his head !! every time I looked behind it was like Rambo chasing me , I worked hard and gained another few hundred meters but he clung to me all the way through the slippy paths , then across a big rope bridge I caught a glimpse of him gaining on me !! aaarrgghh !!! my legs were giving up and he was going to have me !! I clung to my lead until the last 2 mile road section and his Iron-man speed gave him the edge , he caught me , but he wanted to run with me to the end , “come on my friend we run together” he said , he was a great guy and deserved to beat me , I told him to run on , he had beaten me square , Ill see you at the finish line I told him , “you are a gentleman” he said , no! , you are!! , I said , .. he laughed and shot off … I tried to keep up but my legs had all but given up .. it was no shame to be beaten by an athlete like him .. I followed the dirt track until I entered a village , the locals were all cheering , then I saw it , finally !!! yes !! yes !! the finish .. I fell over the line … I had run it all and finished top 10 in the Everest Marathon stage .. the epitome of my running career so far .. I was congratulated by everyone and handed a drink , I sat down exhausted and we waited for the other competitors to finish one by one, cheering and congratulating them as they came in !!! I was so emotional at this stage that I could hardly talk without my lip wavering ….. one of the most enjoyable moments in my life !!!
Stage 4 .. only 13 miles but by God they were tough !!
Although short in relative terms this stage was to be one of the most painful , it started fast as it went steeply downhill all the way for the first four miles , painfully steep down hill running to be exact and on road !! everyone went off fast !! even the slowest of the runners fancied their chance on this one , my legs were sore from the Everest marathon the day before , I had went hard and gave it my all , especially on the enormous descent , the Spanish Ironman had forced me to cane it even further and in the first 500m of this stage I knew my legs were feeling the abuse I had given them badly , I dug deep, bit my tongue and ran like a mother fucker to keep up but it was no good , the pain was just too much , my legs to stiff and my will was too weak to allow me to run hard on this the most horrible of sections , it was also my nemesis !! a road !! the runners who had notched their miles up on the roads had the advantage here and all I could do was give it my best , by the time I had hit the bottom of the hill I wasn’t even in the top 10 but I couldn’t have cared less , all I wanted was to stop running down hill !!!
The road runners were blasting off in front so I settled into an easy pace and ground out the flat , running through jungle , over rivers and through the little mining operations that I think the road was built for , it was slippy though and at one point I slid off the path , shooting downhill through the steep jungle slope for about 20 feet , I dug my feet in but it wasn’t working , I shit myself !!
luckily I slid to a halt and then set about climbing back up before setting off again aware that my mind had wandered somewhere else , careful Mark , get it together !!! finally I hit the long hill , time to regain some places from those roadies !! I bit my tongue again and prepared to grind but my legs were having none of it , so I was forced to run/walk the final ascent !! seeing the finish line that day was a relief and I was so glad it was only 13 miles !!!!
Stage 5 .. 17 miles to heaven !!
Finally it was time to run the last stage , a 17 miler with a steep climb of over 2500 feet to start then a long torturous descent to the finish line .. this was the final stage , where you see who has endured , who has it left in them to go hard !!! I woke feeling excellent , Stevie the Irishman and I had massaged each others legs the night before and what a difference , they felt energised and ready to rock , thank god !! We all lined up at the start ready to complete the final stage back to Maneybhanyjang , finally we were here , completing the course , the final stretch … We all went out hard but soon the hill was separating us , I dug deep and cranked the hill , I love a hard hill !! this day was no exception , I had power from somewhere and I was using it … up I went passing some of the weeks front-runners , I hit the top of the hill in 5th place and was determined to stay there , I ran with everything I had , 6.30 – 7 minute miles all the way to the finish line , my legs were aching , I twisted and turned my way up and down a long torturous track thought the jungle , breathtaking scenery and the thought of finishing had me so emotional , I was mustering everything I had to keep going , I turned a corner high on the hill and Maneybhanyjang came into view , I felt it well up inside me , I felt tears in my eyes and I felt my legs speed up and another burst of energy carried me down the hill , closer and closer with every turn , as I approached the town several young Indians started to run down the hill with me , then more , they were chanting .. I felt so emotional at that point that I had legs so weak that I feared I might have tripped and fell on my face …… then the finish line !!! they had the banner out and I ran through it , Yeeeeesssssssssssssssssssssssss !!!! Himalayan 100 , you are mine !!!!! ……..
I shook hands with the four runners who had came through before me , everyone was so happy and emotional , it was the perfect end to a perfect race …. we stayed at the finish line for a while and cheered everyone as they crossed the finish … everyone was ecstatic , tears , kissed , hugs and encouragement .. at that moment in time it was the happiest place in the world , what a place to be , under the Himalayan mountains , surrounded by happy people !!!!
Once we were all finished the race organisers took us back to the hotel in Mirik where we would have a prize giving and party the same night , we ate , drank and got merry …. after this I have tales of packs of wild dogs and Indiana Jones style midnight Jeep rides down mountains to make my flight home but I’ll save that for another day ……
Id like to say that during this race , we were housed and fed like kings , all you could eat buffets of Indian food , veggies , chips , porridge , you name it and it was available to us , even in the Sherpa camp we were well fed , what a difference this was to eating dehydrated food in a desert !! It was a hard race but made easier by a few luxuries along the way , my thanks go to Mr C.S Pandey who organises this race every year , he pays for schools , builds house , teaches young poor Indians with the money … amazing … go run in this race !! you will have the time of your life and you will be helping the world …………………
Thanks also to Joel for the use of some of his images in this blog post … looking forward to your movie mate 🙂
Thanks to Inov8 for the Roclite 285 , this incredible shoe took me over the whole course without a blister or bruised nail !!!! awesome shoe !!!
Well that’s my big year of running over and Id like to thank everyone who supported me , helped me , donated to me and just generally was patient with me …. its been a year of amazing experiences and beautiful people !!! thank you all so much .. 🙂
Mark Lyons …
remember all my blog posts are my own experiences and my interpretation, if you feel I’m wrong say so in the comments and we can also learn from your experience ………”
Id like to thank the Teviotdale Leisure Centre for its continued Support