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You get dumb legs and stunning perspectives at India’s epic Himalayan 100 Stage Race.
Something bad was going to happen. Whether it would be in one minute or one hour, I did not know. But I do know my body, and it was out of control. Sooner or later, it was going to make that one false step that would result in injury, chaos or possibly death.
I was going down because my body literally was going down—way, way down a legendary descent along the biggest mountains on Earth, the Himalayas. It was day three of India’s five-day Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race, a day that features a trail that plummets 5,305 feet in about five miles. That’s a drop of one solid vertical mile—a 20 percent grade, 1,000 feet per mile. From a barren rockscape above the tree line to the bottom of a lush river valley, a path of ancient cobblestones and wooden slats spiral downward with no rises, no flats and no relief except for herds of goats and cows to dodge. “It’s painful and endless,” warned Sean Falconer, a 36-year-old South African who’d done it before, adding that we’d hate it more than anything else in this brutal race—even more than climbing similar grades for hours.
The problem is concentric contractions, in which your muscles simultaneously resist a load while lengthening, such as lowering a weight or making a downhill step. After 1,500 feet of concentrics, my quads were completely fatigued. After 2,500 feet, when my calves, glutes and hamstrings joined them, I had a strange realization. I am two people, and one of them is getting dumber by the minute.
Like a punched–out boxer, my legs and feet were getting dazed and confused, and sloppy and uncoordinated. Unable to follow the instructions from my eyes and the ground, they were losing proprioception, the sense of where your body parts are in relation to Earth and space. All the while, my brain, nourished by the ever-thicker oxygen of the lower elevations, was becoming sharper, more analytical. It was as if the bottom half of me was getting drunk. And when it started making mistakes, the sober top half of me started getting really scared.
By 3,000 feet of descent, with temperatures rising, lovely emerald doves and maroon Orioles flittering in the breeze, and the mountainside exploding in rain-forest green, my ability to make the precise micro-second adjustments needed for perfect balance was gone. Off a millimeter here and three millimeters there on the tight switchbacks, I started skidding, sliding, stumbling and catching myself. It was terrifying—like driving a car with a broken steering wheel. Of course, I tried slowing down and walking, but that actually hurt more than running and oddly made my slipping and tripping worse, in the way that pedaling a bike too slowly makes you wobbly. So, to get this nightmare over with (and to stay ahead of my back-of-the-pack rivals, Walter, a 61-year-old from Hong Kong and Julia, a middle-aged German, who both had no idea I was racing them), I kept running, hoping to reach the hanging bridge over the Sirikhola River before the hammer fell.
Then, after 3,500 feet of descent, as civilization appeared and water runoff, yak dung and humidity slickened the cobblestones and the mountain came alive with sounds of dogs, chickens, insects and music, and the trail became even steeper as it passed by the backyards of hillside farms and Buddhist shrines and Hindu monuments and tiny neighborhoods with groups of men telling jokes and women in bright-colored saris out shopping and school kids in neat, blue uniforms smiling at you and saying ,“Namaste,” I fell off a cliff.
THE SLOW CLIMB TO HEAVEN
“Adventure sports are not for idiots. It takes intelligence to do this race” — C.S. Pandey
It wasn’t just me. It turns out that everyone gets dumb legs on day three. That’s exactly as C.S. Pandey designed it 21 years ago, when he came up with the idea of a 100-mile stage race in the Himalaya.
Mr. Pandey, who does not divulge his first name and answers only to Mister Pandey, is a charismatic and dictatorial man prone to two things—treating his clients like unruly children in need of discipline, even calling them “naughty” when they disobey; and becoming misty-eyed when discussing his love of the mountains. (At a talent show that the runners and staff staged one night, Mr. Pandey sang a love song in Hindi, which replaced every mention of the word “woman” with “mountain.”) A former top runner and scholar from Delhi on the fast-track to an elite career as a scientist, he got hooked on the very un-Indian activities of mountaineering and rock climbing in the 1980s and become the first Indian to lead trekking, running and mountaineering expeditions.
His teachers and parents didn’t get it. “For me, the mountains are essential,” Pandey says. “They thought I was crazy.”
That’s probably because the Himalaya Mountains, arrayed like a wall along the country’s northern borders with China, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan, are unknown territory to most Indians and Taj Mahal tourists—in many ways they are the anti-India. Vast, cool, relatively empty, quiet and home to the mountain people of Asian features and Buddhist persuasion, it is a stark contrast to the “real” India—sweaty, loud, dirty and chaotic, every intersection and byway a honking, confounding morass of cows and monkeys and cars and bicycle rickshaws and motorcycles crammed with families of four and three-wheel motorized “tuk-tuks” and buses overflowing with people hanging off the roof and back like luggage, all of them just millimeters apart, as if a billion Hindus and Muslims decided to come out and jostle for space at that instant. To see it, to smell it, to be in it, is exhausting, wondrous and unforgettable—coincidentally, a description that also fits the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race founded by Pandey in 1991.
The 100-mile loop, which launches from the famed tea-growing highlands around Darjeeling and runs along the Nepal border, consolidates some of the most popular trekking routes of the eastern Himalaya and West Bengal state. It instantly emerged as a “bucket list” race for adventurous runners because of its difficulty (30,000 feet of climbing) and remarkable scenery. It is one of the only places from which you can see four of the five tallest mountain peaks on Earth, including 29,029-foot Mt. Everest.
Last October, three dozen of us from 11 countries gathered at the start on day one in the village of Maneybhanjang. We ranged in age from 26 to 71 and in experience from a 200-time marathoner to a casual 5K runner (me). Not an ultrarunner or even recent marathoner, I was paranoid about the first day’s 24 miles until the Tibetan blessing ceremony ended, the gun sounded, and we ran into the great equalizer—a 20-percent grade road made of giant, random, mismatched rocks.
I had no idea until this day that most ultrarunners don’t run the steeps. It’s too exhausting, especially at elevations like this. We began at 6,600 feet and ended at 12,000 feet for a total climb of 10,000 feet.
Spooked by the numbers and the threat of being scolded again by Pandey for being naughty—I forgot to bring my yellow ID scarf on a Darjeeling sightseeing trip the day before—I heeded his warnings to drink like a camel and eat like a llama to stave off the bonk and altitude sickness, which tends to hit me hard. I forced myself to enjoy eating a banana slathered in salt and pepper, which Pandey practically jammed down my throat at an aid station. “Electrolytes and potassium!” he shouted. Topped off with papaya and potatoes, the only other menu items. “Complex carbs!” Pandey exclaimed. I slogged past Indian border guards and cargo-carrying oxen for eight hours up to our mountain-top finish at Sandakphu, a village of primitive bunkhouses at 11,815 feet, the highest point in West Bengal. It sure wasn’t the Hilton, but it did offer a small kitchen with hot soup, hot chocolate, hot food, and the stories and laughter of a bunch of strangers quickly bonding in a crucible of cramps.
And, of course, Sandakphu also has that National Geographic view. To the west are three of the world’s five tallest peaks, Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu—the tallest, fourth tallest and fifth tallest, respectively. Straight ahead is Kanchenjunga—the third tallest—the closest, least climbed, and most spectacular. Out of sight is K2, the second tallest, which is “in Pakistan for the moment,” said Pandey, eliciting laughter from those aware of India’s territorial disputes with its rival.
Kanchenjunga, dangerous to climb due to avalanches and hurricane-force winds, is the crown jewel of an awesome massif that includes four peaks over 27,720 feet and another 17 over 23,000 feet. A blinding pile of white on the horizon often referred to as “The Sleeping Buddha,” the 28,156-footer glows from every elevated clearing, radiating like an ivory sun through groves of moss-covered rhododendron trees and rocky outcroppings.
Kanchenjunga was our guiding light for the better part of two magnificent days on the Singalila Ridge. James Hallet, another South African, was so moved by the sight that he had an epiphany—something about “man’s insignificance relative to nature”—that several times openly moved him to tears.
I’m a little skeptical of epiphanies, reserving my deepest thoughts for more mundane issues like hygiene. Because day two was a 20-mile out-and-back “recovery” run on the ridge (with a mere 6,000 feet of climbing), we spent two nights at Sandakphu, where the temperatures go to freezing very quickly at sunset. I don’t know who got it worse—those hardy souls who finished after dark, or those (such as me) who worked up the courage to take a shower.
You’re thinking hot, running water? This isn’t Switzerland, man. My room had an Asian-squat toilet hole with a 25-gallon water barrel accessed by a small plastic hand bucket. Maybe I was hallucinating, but I swear there were small clumps of ice floating on the surface. My strategy to not freeze was to wash and towel-off one body part at a time from north to south. So after an ice-water shampoo, I moved on to wash my face, armpits, chest, etc., shivering wildly the whole time. Yes, the “shrinkage” episode of “Seinfeld” did come to mind. All the hot tea and spirited conversation at dinner couldn’t warm me up. Although I wore every layer of clothing I had under a jacket and long pants inside my sleeping bag, my teeth clattered all night long.
At least we’d be spending the night of day three in a normal hotel room in the river valley, 5,000 feet lower. It would be the longest trek of the five days at 26.2 miles; marketed to single-day participants as the Mt. Everest Challenge Marathon. Already wracked with deep aches in my hips, butt and hamstrings, I dreaded the thought of that killer descent. But a hot shower was good motivation to get it over with fast.
THE FALL AND RISE
“This is the race for the loving of the nature, not for the winning.” — C.S. Pandey
A drop off to the left. Watery gunk to the right. Two coordination-challenged legs, dumb and dumber. With 1,500 feet of descent to go, I was running on a dry, solid berm on the trail’s edge when my right foot aimed for a large grassy clump and landed on nothing.
Under the clump wasn’t ground, but air, which I was now falling through. I’d just run off a cliff.
About six feet down, tipping backward, I crashed into a grassy shelf. My head and back slammed to the ground and my right leg crunched butt-to-ankle like an overflexed spring. Pain rocketed through the hyperextended knee like fireworks.
Quickly, I inventoried. I got lucky with the grass—back, arms, left leg, butt, camera were all OK. But the other knee was a mess, screaming and throbbing and swelling. I could barely bend it. How in the hell was I going to make it down another 1,500 feet?
DLS (Dumb Leg syndrome) impacted everyone. Hours earlier, Lars Drageryd, a 22-year-old Swedish marathoner, fell in the same neighborhood and severely twisted his ankle and torqued his Achilles tendon. But slowing down wasn’t an option, as he’d quit his job to take a 30-day train trip across Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet to come to this race and win. An expert descender, he’d made a furious comeback to catch the leader, Chris Solarz, a 32-year-old Wall Street hedge fund analyst who’s done 500 races, 200 marathons and won at every distance from 5K to 66-story stair climbs (in under eight minutes at Rockefeller Center, for example). For 2,500 vertical feet, the two passed and re-passed each other, cutting corners and aiming for the flat, dry spots. “I usually never fall,” Drageryd said. “But this terrain is so steep and my legs were so destroyed.
When Drageryd went down, Solarz went out of sight. But he had dumb legs, too. “They were jelly,” said the New Yorker. “They buckled 20 times. My hamstring was seizing up. I kept tripping. My ankle was busted up. Something had to give.”
The Swede caught him before the river. Running all-out, inches apart with three paved miles to go, the pair crossed the hanging bridge and stumbled into a minefield of wet rocks and mud. “What do you say we call it a truce and nobody gets hurt?” Solarz offered. “I’m glad you asked,” Drageryd said.
They crossed the finish line together with raised, clasped hands, each saying later that their 5:01 finish at the Everest Challenge Marathon was the greatest race of their lives.
I can’t say that day three was the greatest of my life, but it did lead to a lesson I won’t forget. Maybe it was even an epiphany.
Hobbling half-speed down the mountain, I was seemingly passed by everyone—Walter, Julia, two Irishmen and a Scot, a limping Englishman using hiking poles as crutches, and 69-year-old Bob Boeder of Silverton, Colo., a former Peace Corps Africa specialist and author of the underground classic, “Hardrock Fever,” his five-time attempt to finish Colorado’s Hardrock Hundred endurance run, which has a Himalaya-ish 33,000 feet of climbing and average elevation of 11,000-plus feet.
I was thoroughly depressed, but not from being passed. My knee was so painfully swelled up that finishing the last 30 miles on days four and five seemed impossible. I hate not finishing, and launched into a tirade of self-loathing. Why didn’t I walk? Why didn’t I train more? Why did I ever think I could do this in the first place?
But in the midst of my pity party, I saw a construction worker, about 30 years old, on the roadside breaking rocks with a sledgehammer. It was the kind of thing you see in a prison movie.
Suddenly, I was embarrassed. I’d spent so much of this day—this whole race, actually—obsessing over how much my body hurt that I hadn’t appreciated how fortunate I was. I was in India, in the Himalyas, on this fantastic journey into the world’s most epic mountains. The rock-breaker and I were in the same place at the same time, but I was on an once-in-a-lifetime vacation and he was in for a lifetime of hard labor. What did I have to complain about? A hurt knee? Not finishing?
Was the simple message “think positive” my epiphany? A mile later, deep in thought, I realized I hadn’t even thought about my knee. Yes, it was a mess; I had trouble sleeping the next two nights, but focusing on the pain definitely made it worse. In fact, I came to the conclusion I had actually brainwashed myself into getting hurt.
I got through the 13 miles of rainy-day four by practicing my low-impact barefoot-style running technique and singing a three-hour rendition of the Gene Kelly classic, “Singing in The Rain.” I walked all 17 miles of day five with Solarz, his wife Bea and Chuck “Spittin Image” Terry, a 34-year-old ultrarunner/bartender from Alabama who I’d hung with all of day one, where I noticed that he spits every 60 seconds. For the entire six hours of our last-place finish, we told funny stories, shared “Namaste’s with the kids and took pictures of the funny English-language Indian highway signs (such as “Don’t Learn Safety By Accident” and “Know Safety No Pain, No Safety Know Pain”).
All the while, I thought about the deep pain in my knee (and my hips butt, and back) for about two minutes.
About a month after returning home from the Himalayan 100, my body was back to normal, but my mindset definitely had changed. Now I’m certain, as Pandey told everyone decades ago that running, trekking and adventuring in the mountains is “essential.”
This piece first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.
About The Author:
Freelance writer Roy Wallack has authored several books, including “Run for Life: The Anti-Aging, Anti-Injury, Super-Fitness Plan to Keep You Running to 100” (2009, Skyhorse Publishing).