Monthly Archives: February 2016

Running on the roof of the world

A tribute to the Himalayan. Patrick Leclezio reports on one of ultra-running’s unique races.

First published in Runner’s World magazine (March 2016 edition – South Africa).

Running brings out the best in people. It may be because we are born to it and that it is our essential state of being, if you accept (as I do) the theory proposed by Christopher McDougall; it may be because it challenges us to strive for many of the finer human qualities – discipline, persistence, and courage; or it may be, perhaps, because it inspires us to respond to adversity from a deep and pure place within ourselves. There’s just something about running that motivates us to reach for our better selves, or at least parts thereof. Now I don’t claim that this observation will stand up to any kind of scientific scrutiny, but it’s how I felt recently after watching a party of some thirty odd participants attempt the epic Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race. I bore witness to a group of runners doing some amazing things.

The Himalayan takes place over five gruelling days covering some of the most spectacular, but arduous, terrain imaginable. Run in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal in Northern India, it is as idiomatically far removed from a cup of the local produce as you could possibly fear to expect (and fear you should, at least somewhat). The race straddles the Nepalese border for much of its course, covering some ridiculous elevations, and reaches an oxygen-scarce altitude of almost 3700 metres. I may not be ultra-running fit, but I am fit – yet at this height above sea level even a light uphill stroll gave me pause for thought. Throw in the elements – we experienced rain, hail and bitter cold – and it became clear why this type of running is considered an adventure sport, and why this race is touted to be India’s premier adventure event. As I found the Race Director (and founder), the inimitable and voluble C. S. Pandey, to be fond of saying: an adventure is a “calculated risk”, and indeed the Himalayan delivered its fair share of uncertainty, on this its 25th anniversary as I’m guessing it did in previous years, for many if not most of the competitors.

The first stage sets out from Mane Bhanjang at some 1900m and climbs to the race apex at Sandhakphu, delivering gradients of hair-raising steepness during its course, uphill naturally, but also downhill – prompting I’m sure the disheartening sense of gains being given up in the progress towards this formidable summit. As a runner finishing in the cold and wet, on the verge of hypothermia, or ailing from altitude sickness, or just tired, sore and depleted, that first night, with sleep at such an unaccustomed altitude difficult, the thought of getting up to do it all over again the next day would have been a serious test of will. Yet get up they did, to a man (and woman, as the case had been).

The most, but by no means the only, remarkable example, was one my media companions, Helmut Linchbichler of Austria, a 74 year old, third-time Himalayan veteran. He’d been one of those badly affected by the weather, prey to a logistical miscalculation in the deployment of his rain gear. His predicament had been further aggravated when he’d taken a tumble during a trail run in the week preceding the race, leaving his upper leg badly bruised. On arrival at the finish he was chilled to the bone and looked in bad shape. 25 miles of torture. Wet, glacial conditions. No jacket and little insulation. 74! This guy was done…or so I had thought. But when I got up the next day, warmly ensconced in my down jacket, there he improbably was, in his running gear, smiling and joking, looking ready for come what may. I had clearly underestimated the fortitude of the man, of the running mindset, and of the Himalayan spirit.

The first two nights, with the second stage doubling back on itself along the ridge line, were spent at the summit at Sandakphu, where we were afforded the opportunity to sight four of the world’s five highest peaks – a breathtaking, affirming experience, when the participants would have needed it most. Kangchenjunga in particular, the third highest, and the most impressive in terms of breadth, more a massif than a single mountain, is so close that you can almost reach out and touch it. The place is both magically beautiful, its position dramatic, its views unparalleled (virtually), and vividly stark, the accommodation spartan, the comforts few. It is the perfect backdrop to test yourself in and against the majesty of nature.

The third stage also happened to be a marathon, the 263rd (!) for one of the runners – RAF retiree David Green, although there was some debate over whether it was standard or not, never resolved because of the patchy GPS connections in the region. Regardless, it featured a tremendous, quadriceps-crippling descent to the town of Rimbik, a return to approximately 1900m, where if I was delighted then the runners, despite their stoic forbearance, must have been maniacally overjoyed, to become reacquainted with running water and hot showers. Our little lodge (Hotel Tenzing Sherpa), made excellent by the earlier deprivations, but a warm and friendly place of its own accord, also offered another, entirely unexpected treat, which would have been a major boon for the calorie-craving runners: a tagliatelle napoletana of Neapolitan standard (poetic licence, apologies), with what tasted like genuine parmesan cheese. To suggest that this was surprising in these rural backwaters – where I couldn’t even get my hands on Indian tonic water – would be entirely insufficient.

As the race wore on into the fourth and fifth stages, with any significant flat stretch of track still to be taken into evidence (did I say gruelling?), it gradually started to become clear that stage racing is a beast all of its own. Experience and holistic preparation (as opposed to just training) would be crucial. The Himalayan is more about participation than competition – something that would have been apparent to any bystander from the camaraderie that prevailed throughout. To underscore the point the 2015 participants were each amateurs. All the same it is a race and it had attracted some prodigious runners. Over the first three days the contest was hard-fought by three of these – a hugely talented, 18 year-old Canadian, the leader at that point, running his first race of the kind, and two highly practiced Australians. The Aussies, Tegyn Angel and Kellie Emmerson, eventual winners, were noticeably well equipped, and were set apart by a professional approach to their race nutrition, which started to tell in the latter stages. The aid stations provided small oases of respite and nourishment, but their fare of bananas, potatoes, biscuits and water wasn’t enough for peak performance. Taking nothing away from their own talent, and the immense discipline and determination that would have been needed to train for and run this event so effectively, I’m sure nevertheless that this supplementation played an important role in staying stronger, and, critically, healthier, when many started to wane.

Others too fought and won their own battles. An Englishman struck down by an adverse reaction to the altitude and by the lingering effects of a cold gutsed it out over the full five days and finished strongly, in an impressive display of stiff-upper-lipped resolve. An American woman struggled with diarrhoea – woe betide the person whose immune system lets down its guard in India! – but also persisted bravely, to the end. It was rousing stuff. Insanely admirable. At times I had to ask myself why. What was it for? All runners have their own reasons, their own motivations, but I think everyone is driven by the elation that comes with finishing, and, for a race of this scale and stature, that unbridled joy – at overcoming the obstacles, at surmounting the challenge, at completing the mission, at giving the best of yourself and not being found wanting – seemed enough reward in and of itself. It was an occasion that enhanced the lore of running. And, say what you will, scrutiny or no scrutiny, it was truly an experience that brought out the best.

RW RUN THE WORLD MAR16

As it appeared.

India from the top

From Delhi to the Himalayas and back again. Patrick Leclezio recounts the highlights of a journey through northern India.

First published in Sawubona magazine (February 2016 edition).

No view can compare to the view from the roof of the world. I’m completely certain then that for as long as I live I’ll see few sights to rival a sunrise over Sandakphu. It’s difficult to describe the extent of its impact. The unfolding of it was so spectacular, its searing magnificence so pronounced, that the experience, spiritual if ever there was one – and if you’ll humour such an overused and underappreciated expression, will remain with me forever. If you’re lucky a trip will be defined by a staggering moment, that on its own justifies (and amplifies) the time, the expense and the effort. Standing there on that mountain, amidst a jumble of emotions, that was my sense of things. I felt completely fulfilled. Sated. I had the powerful realisation that – wow! – I didn’t need anything more.

The journey to Sandakphu, located on the Singalila Ridge in the Darjeeling district on the Indian border with Nepal, is long and progressively arduous: starting with a long haul flight to Delhi, then onto the lottery of Indian air travel with a domestic leg to Bagdogra, followed by an initially chaotic, later winding and precipitous road transfer to Mirik (in my case) and then Mane Bhanjang, and ending with a bone-jarring, at times hair-raising, ride to the 3700m summit in ancient, bald-tyred Land Rovers. The final stage is hiked over a few days by many visitors to the area, or, as was the case with the party I was accompanying, an audacious few, the participants of the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, it can be run. The result is the same, give or take a few doses of exhaustion. You find yourself off the grid – no running water, no plumbing, no mobile phone signal, and if that’s off-putting then it’s your loss – in a rustic place that it would be trite to describe as beautiful. It was overcast when I arrived: grey velvet draped over a dramatic landscape, primed for a grand reveal. We were up at 04h30 the next day, ready for the show, anticipation now properly heightened. And then there it was. When the sun rose shortly thereafter, it gradually illuminated four of the world’s five highest peaks. Everest of course, iconic, clustered with Lhotse and Makalu, but at a distance. The most impressive – huge, dwarfing the others from our point-blank perspective – was the broad Kangchenjunga massif, culminating in the world’s third highest peak. Its presence was so imposing that I felt it more than I saw it. I had no doubt that I had experienced something profound.

The experience of the Himalayas proved central to my enjoyment of India. The prime objective of travel is to experience new places and new cultures, but the real reward comes from stepping outside of yourself and of your fixed views and habits, and of experiencing their reality through the eyes of the locals, or even of your fellow travellers. I was prompted with this “insight” whilst visiting the fascinating Himalayan Mountain Institute in Darjeeling early in the trip. Everest was first summited by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. When I was growing up, learning history, Hillary was the central figure in the accomplishment, whilst Norgay was a footnote. In India, as I remarked at the Institute, those roles are reversed.  A matter of perspective. It reminded me to review my own preconceptions – which made the trip, especially the parts of it in the Himalayan region, literally translated as “house of snow”, considerably more enriching.

One of the features of the Darjeeling district  is of course its tea – the mountainsides are dotted with plantations – so in a when-in-Rome spirit I drank tea until it was coming out of my ears. We were afforded the opportunity to sample a variety of the Darjeeling styles but the one I found most interesting was a brew that we were served in the town of Rimbik – a smoky variety, the leaves clearly dried over a fire, reminiscent of lapsang souchong. My one regret, being pressed for time to make the departure of the Toy Train (officially the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), was missing the chance to visit the Glenary Bakery, a highly reputed old colonial establishment which I’m told is the perfect place to enjoy these famous teas accompanied with some quality cakes and pastries.

With the race finished – five days of what seemed like torturous running and trekking for the participants, five days spent drinking deep of the stupendous scenery for me – we returned to Delhi, and to India proper. We would swap the teetering but relatively vacant roads, posted with signs imploring you to “enjoy the beauty of hills”, for an urban tumult of epic proportions. A Delhi traffic jam is bewildering. Every spare inch of road, the shoulders, the pavements and whatever other space is available, is utilised to bursting point, with the only rules seemingly being the same ones that govern the game of chicken. The city’s highlights for sightseeing include the Minaret, a structure that marks the onset of Muslim rule in the area, India Gate, the massive Arc de Triomphe style monument to the unknown soldier, surrounded by festive (during the weekend) parks, its many bazaars, which are overwhelmingly crowded, and the Gandhi Monument – at which I found it particularly interesting to tour the perimeter, where trees have been planted by representatives from countries around the world in tribute to this great leader, whilst everyone else was focused on the eternal flame at the centre.

A trip to India would not be complete without visiting its most celebrated structure – the Taj Mahal. I can’t say that I’m a connoisseur of architecture , but I’ve travelled Europe extensively and I’ve visited some of its most impressive historical structures, from the Colosseum and the Tower of London to Notre Dame and St. Peter’s Cathedral, and whilst I wouldn’t say that I’m blasé about it all I thought I’d be inured to more of the same. The impression that the Taj made on me though took me by surprise. It stands apart because of its simple, stunning beauty – both in conception and execution. The former is particularly meaningful. The significant buildings of human history are dedicated almost exclusively to the display of military, political or religious power, whereas the Taj is a memorial to love – the tribute of a king to his dead wife. Located some two hours (they say – in reality longer) south of Delhi, in Agra, a typically messy Indian town of haphazard construction, wandering livestock, and dense population, its pristine, shimmering white form in contrast eventually appears through the haze like a mirage in a desert. I was particularly taken with the impermeable white marble with which it was built, its feel and texture being as impressive as its appearance. It’s with no small reason that the Taj has become one of the most recognisable structures in the world.

India is a jewel of incomparable value and beauty, sometimes rough and unpolished, sometimes cast aside unknowingly. It’s worth taking the time to pick it up, clean it off and look at it with unencumbered appreciation. You get the feeling here that your experiences are often earned rather than just accessed or bought. And once earned it’s the type of place that rewards you tenfold. Bon voyage!

Travel tips

Cuisine: Their curries are legendary, vegetarians in particular will rejoice, but less well widely celebrated are the Indian desserts. I highly recommend the yoghurt based Shree Khand, a two thousand year old dish that has stood the test of time.

Airports: You’ll be required to show some proof of your ticket before being granted access to an Indian airport, which can take you unawares in this electronic age. Have a printout ready.

Yes or no?: Indians will shake their heads to signal an affirmative response, the opposite meaning to the rest of the world.

Lunch in Delhi: Escape the frantic bustle of the city with lunch at Lutyen’s Cocktail bar, one of Delhi’s hottest new eateries. Its colonial décor is a quaint throwback to the British Raj period, but more importantly – for me at least – is its wide range of imported beers, which provides a welcome respite from the diabolical (!) Indian fare.

Himalayas Sawubona 1

As it appeared – p1.

Himalayas Sawubona 2

As it appeared – p2.

Himalayas Sawubona 3

As it appeared – p3.