Manaslu Trail Race, Nepal. November 2015.

12 Apr

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Photo credit Paul Harrison

Manaslu Trail Race November 2015
A 200+ km wild adventure in beautiful Nepal with a group of inspiring, energetic, awesome strangers. A quick beer with my mate Davey G a couple of months earlier was all the encouragement I needed…. and a quick flight change to get me there after running New York City marathon. So I flew into Sydney from NYC on Thursday and out to Kathmandu the next day. (Husband rolls his eyes… But would never tell me not to do something……)
With roughly 15 kms of elevation, it’s not for the faint hearted. Everyone was more than happy to skip across planks of wood above raging torrents, except me.

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Photo credit Bikash Basyal

Dave and I spent our first day exploring Kathmandu, including the Monkey Temple with copious Nepali monkey.

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Then down to Pashupatinath Temple, a famous Hindu temple where bodies are cremated on platforms by the Bagmati river. A very surreal sight. It seemed quite business-like with the sons of the dead sweeping the last ashes into the river. And on it went. Another body, some more discretely covered than others, quickly arranged on the platform and the process repeated. The end of the person’s life as we know it marking the start of something more wonderful. Even with all the deaths I’d been involved with at work, nothing prepared me for this.

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Shopping therapy at Thamel and a beer for Dave’s birthday was a good way to stop and ponder the meaning of life and wash down all the smoke from Pashupatinath Temple.

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Monday was spent in a bus getting to know some of the runners and watching the smog of Kathmandu disappear with lines of parked trucks waiting to refuel and queues of empty gas cylinders lining the streets. The fuel crisis was shutting restaurants, re routing airlines, medical equipment couldn’t get into the country, winter was coming and those badly affected by the earthquakes were still displaced.
The sad state of Nepal and “why” India is making it so much worse by withholding fuel post earthquakes is summed up here….
http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/11/02/in-nepal-the-pols-play-their-game-of-thrones-but-winter-is-coming.html?via=desktop&source=facebook
We lunched in Arughat, the town where the race used to start. The ruins from the earthquake were evident and it looks like it will be a long recovery.

So the bus continued towards Soti Khola, until it was stopped by large boulders on the trail.

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Photo credit Paul Harrison

The porters and the tough Italians used their grunt to lift the massive rocks until the path was clear enough for the bus to pass. A few kilometres later a damaged road/ bridge stopped our bus for good before the river. The decision to abandon our wheels and walk the final few kilometres was a welcome relief for most. I wasn’t convinced. Just looking at the state of the first wooden bridge made me wonder what the hell I was in for. Thinking Superman and Kryptonite…..

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I can’t remember if it was Bikash (our Doctor for the trip) or Dhir (Guru of all things Nepali and organiser extraordinaire) that suggested I get in the vehicle that would take our bags across the river, but the last thing I wanted at this early stage was to be treated as “special”. It was too early for this sort of reputation.

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We were showered with marigold petals on our arrival in Soti Khola and ushered into our rooms once our bags arrived. Prince Dave (we had agreed to share a “twin room”) got a twin room all to himself whilst I was sandwiched between Natalia, a lovely Spaniard living in Switzerland and Tita from Italy. The squishiness was something we would get used to, as was working out what to wear via head torch in a sardine can and sleeping with all my kit on my bed. Not surprising that I lost my maps before we started running. Mustn’t whinge. How the hell are the locals cooking with no gas and no lights?

Stage 1 was a mere 22 kms from Soti Khola to Khorlabeshi.
Huge climbs, or so we thought. It was only going to wet our toes for what was to come….. It was a mere 2 kms of ascent and decent. The mist stayed in the valley as we ventured above the clouds to temperatures in the mid 20s.

I spent the day running with Celesta from Melbourne. Pleasant company at a maintainable conversation pace.  After reaching the top of the climb, we could see across to a huge landslide. I was premature in my relief that we would be going back down to the river. Yes, we were going back down to the river, AFTER running across the massive landslide. Shit. I’m going to die. Yeah, go on. Zoom in…..

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Photo Paul Harrison

That is NOT a trail. Massive panic attack had me panting like a dog in labour…. Not my finest moment, but not my last (panic attack, or moment…)

We ran through Lapisbot, then once on the decent, we couldn’t find any markers. Back up the hill we went looking for the correct trail. After a few hill repeats we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t be lost, there were just no markers. The trail had been well marked till now.
Around 4 kms later, we found a marker and thankfully a checkpoint at earthquake ravaged Machhakhola, as I’d almost exhausted my supply of water. Another few kms and we arrived in Khorlabeshi. So why the lack of markers? Lizzy (as in Hawker….. Needs no introduction to anyone ultra as she has won UTMB 5 times!) broke her finger in a fall. Crazy Italian dude Andrea (Orthopaedic Surgeon) manipulated it back sans anaesthetic…. Brave chicka! Beers followed.

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Photo Paul Harrison

Lost appetite and couldn’t eat dinner knowing there were wooden swing bridges, narrow trail and steep cliffs the next day… All the things I love.
Slept again with the Europeans, Natalia and Tita.

Stage 2: Khorlabeshi to Pewa 33 kms with roughly 3 kms of ascent and almost as much descent….maybe 2.5 kms.
The 2015 event covered around 200kms (including 2 non-racing days; one “rest day” walk to the Tibetan border at 5000m and one walk day over the Larkya La pass at 5135m). The GPS gets a bit confused but its around 15kms of elevation gain and loss over 9 days.

So how many river crossings, bloody wooden bridges and massive panic attacks must I endure today?  I spent the day with Celesta again, so grateful that she understood my kryptonite, a massive relief to have her with me. Stumbling upon a bridge being built by locals nearly did me in. While others skipped across, I was virtually on all fours praying to Allah.

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Photo Celesta Fong

If I had looked down, I would have seen the arse end of a dead mule that had fallen off the track. It could have been me….
Really, it could have….
The wet river crossing soon after the “build a bridge and get over it” moment was a welcome washing of the feet and comforting to know I couldn’t fall more than the height of a dwarf.
We finished a very scenic but scary day in Pewa. Very much a one man town at around 2,000 metres elevation.
Davey G was at the finish, beer in hand to greet me with his bloody permanent grin. First question… “Hey Janie, what about those bridges?” That was enough to bring me to tears and he disappeared out of my sight for a couple of hours…….
I numbed my brain and body with a beer. He may just be regretting talking me into this trip…..

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Photo credit to Trailrunningnepal.

So, my reward for being such a sissy was sharing a room with Lizzy Hawker… May her toughness and talent infuse into my pathetic body.
Poor mules didn’t arrive till 9 pm. I was exhausted (more emotionally than physically) and crashed.
Lizzy was up at 4 am to go mark the course for Day 3.

Stage 3
With my mate Celesta all day. Best day yet with nothing really scary to write home about. Getting used to river crossings and steep cliffs……
Steep narrow trail up to Hinang Gompa (monastery) trying to pass mules making their way down was not a pleasant experience. We had been told to stay mountainside and let the mules take the low side as they don’t like being sandwiched between.
We had just found out that the lead mule didn’t arrive in Pewa last night. Apparently it had fallen off the trail in the dark to certain death below taking two of the Italians bags…. Never to be seen again.
I had great respect for the way the guys, Marco and Andrea, handled the situation. What an adventure, they would have to do without their entire kit except what they had carried in their day pack yesterday. Hats off to them.

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…… Two bags missing……. and a mule.
Fab, fab, fab scenery. Getting seriously cold now. Elevation 3,200 metres with 2,100 metres of ascent today.

We were very fortunate to be staying in the monastery. Tourists are not usually accommodated here, but Richard and the team donate solar lights to the Monks and locals in some of the villages. Such a great cause.

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The sun disappeared around 4 pm and we experienced our first really cold night. Maybe it was good that I was crashing in a room with 10 runners. I was sandwiched between Dave and Columbian Juan, then Hank the token Yank, Mark and James from UK, Celesta, Sarah (UK) and Shona and Paul from the UK but almost Aussies as they live in Perth AUS. We left the other room for the Europeans to prance around naked. (no photo of that 😉)

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Runners have been getting sick since Day 1 in Kathmandu. First day was Shona, then the Germans, Stephan and Barbara. Rob spewing all night and walking today, totally spent.
James went to bed at 4pm and Davey G missed dinner looking pretty pale…..
Hygiene paramount. Hand washing not easy with hardly any running water, drop toilets, people washing their hands in tubs full of crockery and kitchen utensils….. Not ideal.

Stage 4: 25kms from Hinang Gompa to Sama around 2kms of ascent.
Started at Monastery with porridge and chapati and then a tour of the temple and handing over of the solar lights and donation for being allowed to stay.
James crook, Chris not great, David (the Welsh one) also sick.

Started with Celesta but soon moved on and pushed forward trying to nail the hills in the hope of some decent C2K training. (Coast to Kosciuszko 240 kms next month)

Out and back to Pung Gyen Gompa at 4,100 metres and the Checkpoint with a Monk and Lizzy waiting. Monk had been there meditating for 5 months. Beautiful spot where we could just hang out with others and not be penalised time wise.

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The finish was 6kms pretty much downhill to Sama, badly affected by the earthquake. The hotel located at the far end of the village had the most beautiful view of Manaslu (8,163m) the 8th highest mountain in the world and one with some sad history. My old school friend Graeme Fear’s sister, Sue, died on the decent after summitting in 2006.

I was determined to find a memorial to Sue that Graeme had told me about and get some photos for him.

No water to wash my clothes which was a bugger as we were there for 2 nights and would give them time to dry. First world problem, right?
Relaxing night playing Yannif (Cards) and beers with Rob, Mark and Bikash. Awesome guys, all three of them. Rob is Australian with the most infectious laugh. Mark, a wealth of info, fluent in the local language, was a Gurkha in British Army and the most fun guy to be around. He also takes awesome photos and still whips everyones arse in the running stakes. Bikash was the poor Doctor that had to make sure we all got up each day and could continue on…..
Shared a room with Lizzy again. She was up at 5 am to mark the course. Back 5 mins later to get the markers….
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Day 5 to Manaslu Base Camp 4,800 metres
Washed clothes in freezing water at 6:30 am. Hoping they will dry.
Totally breathless climbing from 3550 metres at Samagaon to Manaslu Base camp.
6.2 kms up. Serious climbing.

Slowed down by a bridge made of 3 frozen slippery logs. Yes, another moment. Over it I went, hyperventilating and being a cry baby. How the eff am I going to cross it again on the way down? Had a cry for a minute until I heard two people yelling out “don’t worry, you’re nearly there!” I yelled back that I wasn’t upset about the climbing, it was the effing bridge. Fortunately they were strangers just sitting on a rock watching some pathetic wimp.
Timed in at checkpoint to give us time to absorb the enormity of where we were. Got too comfortable up there but knew the trip down would be easier than going up.
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2.5hours to get up 1:12 to get down. Definitely the toughest climbing I’ve done. 1,100 metres higher than Mt Fuji and the same elevation as Mt Blanc.

Back for lunch of Dahl and bread. Little kid sitting next to me smelling like a massive germ or to be really honest, a bad toilet. Hand sanitisered the table once he left……
Talking about cleanliness, I managed to wash more than any other day, thanks to my Nalgene bottle full of hot water and sharing a room with Lizzy Hawker who was still stuck on the mountain sweeping the course.
Played Yannif again with Mark and Rob.
Haven’t had internet since leaving Kathmandu and not missing it at all, but wish my family could experience what I’m seeing.
Not surprisingly, Bishnu, from Nepal is leading the girls, then Natalia from Spain, Tita from Italy, me, Celeste, Barbara from Germany, Sarah and Shona from UK.
Day 6
10kms
Started the day with the Kids race through the town in Samagoen.
Walked to start of our run to Samdo via the temple. Unfortunately the key to the door was in Tibet, so couldn’t look inside.
Walked on to the start of our race beside the lake. Brilliant spot to take photos and play with rocks.
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It was time to try to find Sue Fear’s memorial. Unfortunately, all I found was one to a few French and a Canadian from 2012. Bit gutted to get so close and not get at least a photo for Graham. Rich, Lizzie, Bikush, Shona and Paul were also looking for me, but no luck.
After giving up on ever finding it, I ran as much as the thin air would let me passing yaks and mules pretty frequently.
Such a short stage and easy considering the elevation we climbed yesterday, just bummed to miss Sue’s Memorial.
Samdo is a small village where only about 3 households stay over winter to guard it, the rest move on to Kathmandu or Tibet where it is warmer. The sun goes behind the mountains by 3 pm and it’s then bloody freezing.
Dhir took us for a walk through the village.
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Little kids asleep on desks outside, looked into a temple and then a typical house owned by town mayor. Smoke coming out of kitchen fire was stifling. Even I had to duck to get in the front entrance.
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Went for walk with Mark to show him what we’d seen. Peaceful out in fields away from Juan and his bongos.
Back to hostel in Samdo, Yaniff. Triple room up a ladder with Sarah, Celeste and myself. Sardine can.. Toilet outside, down ladder. Slept with my bag on my bed. Next morning Dhir told me that there was a spare room on the other side with inside toilet…… Grrrrrrr.
Dinner looking like Groundhog Day. Ate spring roll but left the rest. Can’t believe how much some people are eating!
Celeste and I swapped rooms next day. Bliss. Room for a swinging cat.:)

Day 7
Trek to Tibet. A tough uphill climb of 11 kms and back down. Up to 5,000 metres. Beautiful scenery, tough boggy trail near top. Border open for 10 days, so lots of Yak caravans, mules crossing over to get goods to bring back to sell. Freezing cold and windy up top, we were illegal immigrants for 30 mins while we ate lunch at the top.
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Back for dinner. Ate a piece of potato. Food is looking like a half eaten dog…. Just can’t stomach any more Dahl, rice, soup….. I think I’m getting sick.
Bed early for a 3:30 wake up. 4 am start in freezing conditions to get our bags over the Pass. Porters carrying our bags as we left the mules in Samdo, unable to use them over the pass.
Trail dangerously frozen in sections and difficult to follow. Hands painful, freezing and then numb. Took a wrong turn with Rob and Dave and followed wrong trail up….. and up. Others followed. Dave went back down to ask one guy if he had seen another trail, he wasn’t going to budge until somebody else told him which way to go. I voted him off the island.
Trail traversed for a while, slowly climbing until we found a tea house that had made porridge for us for breakfast. Felt like shit. Took ages for my hands to warm up. Painful and of no use to me. Lost appetite. Had half a cup of tea and got concerned I’d have no energy to get up to 5,200 metres and back down to Bimtang below 4,000 metres.
Slow slog to reach the summit. Severe downhill in ice and snow had me slipping and sliding. Couldn’t be bothered to put my micro spikes on and continued the downhill with one pole. Ita, one of the porters carrying our bags and moving faster than me saw me vomit and then I couldn’t shake him. He offered me his spikes. I just had nothing in the tank. I’d told Dave and Rob to not wait a few kms back thank God. I pulled out a V Fuel gel that I’d been given a few hours after the Boston bombing. If I survived that, a gel a couple of years old wouldn’t kill me.
Ita would not go past me. Another km of slipping, sliding and feeling like shit, Mark “shining light” Brightwell and Manish appeared. I asked Mark to tell Ita that I’d be ok without him. Not long after that, I was heaving and giving my abs a workout like none other. Mark suggested a sleep at the bottom of the steep decent. We found a warm spot in the sun and out of the wind.
Ahhhh, lying horizontal in the sun. Nobody move.
We didn’t, until Rich arrived. We all left together for the final pleasant trail down to Bimtang with a stop at a tent for a drink. mmmmmm… Sprite. Others had noodles and tea. I wasn’t going to push my chances. Felt. Like. Shit.
imagePhoto credit: Mark Brightwell. Definitely my better side.
I had nothing in the tank. Once finished for the day, sleep was all I wanted but Mark was right in ordering pizza of which I had about two bites. Beer was passed on. I must be sick.
Next morning all I needed to do was 22kms to get to the finish in Dharapani. That and numerous stops along the way… Toilet humour is not that amusing when it’s about me…..
Fortunately everyone knew each other pretty well by now, otherwise Marco may have been affected for life, spotting an Australian “bare” in the woods.
The finish was almost a Shangri la moment, or would have been if I didn’t think I was going to die. Beautiful sunny spot to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the company of some pretty awesome people. (I’ll leave the bit out about falling over in the toilet….)
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Photo credit? Mark? Paul?

The transport back to Kathmandu took us on some very steep, winding road with drop offs that looked much better with my eyes closed. Landslides from the earthquake had destroyed some of the trail, and looking back on the trip made me pretty chuffed that we’d all come over to support a country so desperate for tourists.
I was totally out of my comfort zone at times but was humbled by how the locals just take every day in their stride. I appreciate the smell of fresh clean sheets…  flushing toilets, stoves, service stations. I don’t sweat the small stuff and have very little time for first world problems. It was an honour to be surrounded by likeminded people led by Rich and his wicked sense of humour, Lizzy and her awesomeness, (even though she is the most humble human on the planet) the sherpas that carried too much of my gear, Bikash for being the lucky charm, (Lizzy’s broken finger was the only injury that didn’t involve a toilet) Dhir and his knowledge of Nepal’s culture and history, and Mark for his photos, lack of card playing skills, company and patience in answering too many questions about too many subjects.
One final note to Dave. If you ever have the urge to suggest something that gets me out of my comfort zone and towards a bunch of such inspiring, energetic strangers, I’m in.

 

 

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