The Mountains Can be Unkind
India, Part III
Gary Griffin’s email appeared on my screen in December of 2013. Imbedded in the email was the following:
Namaskar!!! Welcome to World’s Most Unique and Innovative Race Trail. With best regards, C S Pandey Race Director Himalayan Run & Trek Pvt. Ltd.
Gary still professes surprise that I quickly said we should do it. After an exchange of emails, Mr. Pandey was sending us a bank account number to use to wire money to him and offering a special discount if we did so by year end. Mr. Pandey, also known as the “Race Directorate,” was the dominate force and personality of this event. His kindness and his attention to detail were extraordinary; his view of the world mystical and inspiring; and yet, he wished to leave no doubt this was his event. His most important goal was to transfer some special understanding of the mountains he loved so well to each participant. As he said: “There are few places in the world where 5 days of back to back running is genuinely worthwhile – Indian Himalaya is definitely one such place. The views are of no ordinary mountains. While running, you can enjoy the spectacular views of four out of five highest mountains in the world i.e. Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu.”
Sandakphu was cold. Our home at 11,815 feet elevation for two nights was “sparse” with no heat and very little electricity. Our meals were prepared over a fire pit. And yet, it was beautiful conveying a feeling that we had reached the top of the world. I had no trouble crawling into my sleeping bag after Day Two and staying there for more than 10 hours.
The hard part was coming out to face the marathon the next morning. The Mt. Everest Challenge Marathon was open to all, not just those running the 100 mile event. Mary Jean had decided to run the marathon. She would do so with Rukmini Dahanukar, a native of India, who was determined to complete the marathon in celebration of Indian women. Rukmini planned to walk most of the way and so special guides were assigned to make sure she and Mary Jean did not get lost in the dark on the narrow winding trails in the downhill stretch at the end.
The first 10 miles of the marathon would repeat the first 10 miles of the previous day’s run; I took solace in knowing the terrain. Instead of turning around after 10 miles, we would add another 4 miles and turn around at Phulet Hut. Phulet Hut was at 11,380 feet atop Phaloot, the lowest of our three peaks. After returning to Molle, the course would turn and plunge down the mountainside, dropping more than 4,000 feet before the finish in Rimbik (6350’).
I surrendered the warmth of the sleeping bag marathon morning for a bit of breakfast and a chance to watch the sun light the mountains again. I checked all my body parts and they seemed ready to go, tired but still ready. Mary Jean seemed more than ready to get her marathon adventure started. It all seemed manageable in my head.
Once again, Gary and I started together. We retraced Day Two’s ups and downs. It did not take me long to realize I was starting with a depleted energy source. I was walking earlier on the uphills and wincing more on the downhills. The wheels starting coming off as we began our climb to Molle. “Don’t wait,” I told Gary. I struggled up and down to Molle again slowly, but without falling apart. But each step – up or down – now seemed to require more energy than I had to give. As I looked at the map for the day, I remember thinking wistfully, “how bad can the 4 mile extension to Phulet be?” I found out. The first part down from Molle would drop us nearly 1000 feet, only to bring us back up over 11,000. The rocks in the path now controlled my legs with punishing fatigue, refusing to let them stretch out and run downhill. My lungs locked on the uphills, refusing to breathe the thin air while my legs were moving, and then gulping all the air they could find when I finally gave in and stopped to let them catch up.
Things were, however, about to get a lot worse. We began our assault on Phulet. It truly went on forever. I remember at one point staring up at the sky to see a small place high up on the side of the mountain, near the peak. I will never think of Tallahassee as “hilly” again after making this ascent. One step at a time, like most of the other runners, I just wanted to reach the summit and then start down. It was a time and a place for every doubt to find room in my head. Much like the first two days, I could never seemed to find a rhythm that worked. Everything hurt, a lot. But I built my strategy around just making it back to Molle and letting the downhills carry me the last 8 miles.
That is all I have to do, I thought, and eventually, I turned the last corner and I was there. I quickly started my journey back to Molle. I knew the journey from Phulet to Molle would be up and down and I ran a few downhills, but soon found myself unable or afraid to keep challenging the rocks. I shifted to power walk gear. Along the way I saw Mary Jean and Rukmini on their way out to Phulet. Moving steadily, Mary Jean shouted, “don’t worry about us, we will have guides with us the last 8 miles or so.” They still had a long way to go.
The turn to start down to the finish was a beautiful sight and for a while running was ok. I had hope again. Each step brought more oxygen to my lungs. And then, as the trail narrowed, became washed out and sometimes offered very steep tricky footing, that hope became a seemingly endless nightmare. At one point I found myself lost for 20-30 minutes. What made it most difficult was I had no idea how much ground I had covered or how much I had to go. Once I thought I was within 3-4 miles and the aid station person told me it was another 10K. That was crushing. At another point when I thought it had to be a mile or so, a local smiled and said I had “at least an hour to Rimbik.” Eventually, I crossed the river and found the paved road to take me to the finish. Utterly beaten, I found myself walking the last few miles despite the good footing. Negative thoughts controlled my head. Eventually, though, 10 hours after I had started, I found the finish line.
I learned however that Mary Jean and Rukmini were still far way, just starting to work their way down the mountain, but in the good hands of the guides. It was dark by now and I knew parts of the trail would be very difficult to navigate.
I went to find my sleeping bag in Rimbik. Totally worn out, I crawled inside and fell asleep. I woke more than an hour later and went to see what was happening. I heard Mary Jean was still out on the course descending the steep trail a long way from the road, more than 12 hours after the start. I drank and ate a bit before going to the finish line to check again. I was told there would be no jeep waiting at the road at the end of the trail to bring her in if she needed it. I could feel anger starting to well up inside. Unhappy, I headed back toward the dining room. As I approached, I head Mr. Pandey telling staff, “No, do not bring her the jeep. If there is no choice she will finish and will always be glad she did.”
I will never know exactly why, but those words lit an explosion. I am not sure he knew I had heard him, but as I strode toward him, anger in my voice, he understood my message – “if anything happens to her I will hold you personally responsible and ….” I honestly don’t remember what else I said.
Suffice it to say, the jeep was there when Mary Jean reached the road and she was more than ready to use it. She was in bad shape and the doctor spent several hours attending to her, replenishing fluids and carefully monitoring her vitals.
We both took the next day off from running. I was simply not sure I could make the distance the next day. It was a 13 mile run on pavement, the easiest day. Yet, somehow, I felt like a line had been crossed the day before – putting the need for everyone to finish above the health of a runner. I would run 17 miles again on the last day; a delightful run on smooth pavement and mostly downhill. The race finished to the cheers of the children of Maneybhanjang.
The trip and the run remain a wonderful experience and I would not hesitate to recommend the journey to friends as long as they understand what they face. I could not be more proud of Gary who ran the full hundred and Peg who walked 55 miles. And of course, Mary Jean for her gallant attack on the marathon. I certainly understand Mr. Pandey’s love for the Himalayas; it makes this adventure a great one. I came up short in meeting the challenges, but that is ok as I learned a lot. For example, Dr. Okun (my Parkinson’s Doctor) made very clear with that deadpan look, “I would never recommend my patients run that far without a proper dose of their medicine.” I won’t leave mine behind ever again.