Friday, 29 May 2009

Land of the Yeti Duathlon, Nepalese Himalayas, October 2008

Land of the Yeti Duathlon, Nepalese Himalayas

50km running (2 stages), 100km mountain biking (3 stages) – 20/10/08-3/11/08

To anyone who knows me, I’m very firmly in the runner category and I’ve never really used a bike for anything other than transport. Basically I’m not a bike racer of any sort. Yet when I was looking for an excuse (read ‘race’) to go to the Himalayas, I picked a duathlon – the Land of the Yeti Duathlon in its first year. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

In preparation I bought myself a mountain bike and had excellent intentions to train with it and learn the art of mountain biking on some of the world’s harshest terrain. Unfortunately all I managed to do was the Edinburgh Rat Race with a day of basic and mainly flat mountain biking.

So when I flew out to Kathmandu I knew I was in store for a tough race. It started relatively easily with a flight out to Lukla at 2,850m and nine days of acclimatising by gradually trekking the well-worn route to Gorak Shep and Everest base camp and staying at guest houses along the way. The full list of competitors totalled seven with three locals and four westerners, one of whom was the race director. The locals couldn’t afford to spend money and time taking so long to get to the race start, so our party consisted of just the westerners and three guides, including the illustrious Snow Monkey (mentioned in Lonely Planet, no less) to sort out accommodation and generally take care of things.

Each day we trekked for a few hours and it became noticeably harder to ascend as the air got thinner, just as the mountains gave increasingly stunning views. Never has the word ‘majestic’ been more appropriate than when describing the snowy peaks of the Himalayas against a clear blue sky. I’ve raced in the Swiss Alps at up to 2,600m and found that there was no effect on my breathing, but once we started trekking above 3,000m the thin air came into play. We were covering the course for the running stages of the duathlon so were keen to not see too many downhills, which would be uphills in reverse. As we climbed higher the scenery became ever more breathtaking so it was lucky that we could take our photos at leisure and not worry that we would miss anything when running back that way.

After what seemed like much more than nine days we were ready to go from Gorak Shep at 5,140m. We’d been to Everest base camp, seen many mountains of over 8,000m (including Everest) and climbed Kala Patthar at 5,565m. I’ve never had such an interesting build up to a race, but we all wanted to get going, if only so we could sleep properly again and be able to walk without wheezing. This wouldn’t be the fastest race I’d ever been in, for certain. We had certain compulsory items in our backpacks for safety and additional warm clothing which we had to carry ourselves, but the Nepali racers had ignored most of this compulsory aspect to the race and had much lighter backpacks. This was an omen of the race organisation and attitude to follow.

The first stage was 30km long from Gorak Shep to Namche Bazar which has a net 1,700m drop in altitude, but still with around 700m of climbs. Only those genetically disposed to altitude, like the locals, or who have had months or years in the mountains can move quickly at these heights. This made the three Nepalis firm favourites to beat the westerners and we weren’t disappointed. One of them, Dipak Raj Rai, won the previous three Everest marathons and holds the course record.

Unfortunately one competitor succumbed to acute mountain sickness just before the start and had to go down lower to the mountain rescue doctors. He was fine to join us from stage two. But the rest of us were up and ready to get going with a great 50m climb to start us off. The race director started us at 9am and took video of us jogging uphill and past him. I made a point to look good for the camera and went past in first place, but a mere 20m into the race (and past the camera) I had to start walking uphill due to the sudden heart attack which was almost brought on by my jog. This definitely would be a tough one…

The Nepalis had shot off into the distance and I’ve never seen such a marked contrast as between the locals and the westerners since they were covering the initial ground around three times faster. It was the hardest fell race I’ve ever been in, with uneven rocky steps or tough, dirt paths the whole way. The hardest factor was the extreme altitude for the entire stage which made my heart pound non-stop. Until I dropped 1,000m my maximum speed was around 5mph, but my heart and lungs were working at an unsustainable rate and it felt more like 5k pace.

The familiar villages of Lobuche then Pheriche went by gradually and I managed to overtake one of the Nepalis after 30 minutes. The other two had such a big lead I had no chance of getting near them, but it was enough effort to concentrate on not tripping over the rough ground. It was impossible to even jog on any uphills but I kept up as much pace as possible on the flat or downhill sections.

I passed through Teng Boche with its Buddhist monastery and the 200m climb before then 400m climb afterwards strained my heart. It was good to be only a few km from the end and with not much more than an undulating and easier trail to Namche. I managed 3rd but was over an hour behind the winner, Dipak, with my time of 4h14m. The others came in over the following few hours and we spent the rest of the day getting our breath back, literally.

Day two looked like the easiest of the five with only 20km to cover and relatively little undulation – 600m of uphills and a net fall of 600m to Lukla where we’d flown into. I fancied this as my best stage since the air was thicker, but it was still thin enough to be felt. The stage started with a sharp drop of 600m out of Namche, which I remembered as a tough climb from the other direction. The fastest two Nepalis shot off at unbelievable speed down the large rock steps but must have got lost somewhere since I found myself in the lead until almost the bottom. I heard the patter of footsteps behind me and it was lightning Dipak chasing me down the zigzagging path. He caught me just before the rope bridge and looked a lot fresher than me since I was huffing and puffing like a fat man sprinting.

On the other side of the bridge I had to revert to my previous tactic of walking every uphill because they were just so steep. The top two Nepalis disappeared into the distance again, but I kept up as good a pace as possible. There were more trekkers along this lower part of the Everest trail and they usually clapped or cheered in their native tongue. But some seemed quite put out and even refused to make any room to get past.

I managed to get back into second before the end of the stage and ended it 20 minutes behind with a time of 2h11m. The last man in took over five hours, but he had several excuses – a one-hour nap en route, a dodgy knee, a general insanity and a hangover which led to the nap (cunning tactics from his Nepali compatriots the evening before, perhaps?).

After such a short stage we had some time to play around with the bikes which we had left in Lukla in preparation. I generally copied the seasoned bikers, checking the brakes, suspension etc, but I was getting quite worried that my inadequate training could lead to problems. Even though I’ve not really mountain biked before, I planned to use the same kind of intuition as required for fell running to pick the best route and I’m generally competent mucking around on a bike. However, you won’t really find a harder training ground than high altitude trekking paths for a baptism of fire into the art of mountain biking.

So after a decent night’s rest, we were up and ready for the three biking stages. The other westerners were hoping this would be their chance to shine after finishing way back in the running stages. The three stages were from Lukla to Nunthala (described as 30km, 40% ridable and 7-10 hours expected time), Nunthala to Kinja (described as 26km, 50% ridable and 9-12 hours expected time) then Kinja to Jiri Bazar (described as 47km, 80% ridable and 6-9 hours expected time). These each included significant amounts of ascent, with Nunthala to Kinja being so difficult due to over 2,000m of climbs and even more of downhills. Yet things were not as we expected…

We started off on the first downhill out of Lukla as a group and managed to ride for a couple of minutes before the boulders and other obstacles made it impossible to ride. We had to push or carry the bikes over the obstacles and were well spread out after the 600m descent and up the similar ascent on the other side. It was completely impossible to ride and it dawned on me that since we were on the trekking route, which is rarely a good track and not sloping, there may be a very small amount of biking. At this point I still trusted the course description so wasn’t too fazed, but after carrying or dragging the 10kg bike over 700m vertically of terrain on which it couldn’t even be pushed, I wasn’t having fun. The Nepalis had overtaken me on with their bikes resting naturally on their heads or shoulders as they trekked upwards quickly. But then the race director overtook as I had no will to try to race a stage of carrying a bike. I commented that I thought a duathlon was meant to involve riding a bike and he said this should be the case.

Sadly we found out at the end of that stage, after 1,300m of vertical ascent and under 1km of actual riding, that the race director hadn’t checked out the course personally. Although the scenery over the three biking days was undoubtedly great, it was difficult to appreciate when having to carry the bike the whole way. Rather than the sparser terrain at higher levels, we went through areas which were more jungle-like and equally beautiful. I finished day three in 8h43m and in 4th, behind all of the locals, but hadn’t wanted to push it too much since it no longer felt like a race. The two other westerners who’d paid for their entry were similarly disappointed with the lack of a course and actually arrived in the dark. We decided that since the forth day was meant to be the hardest and it looked very likely that it would be similar terrain to day three, we’d give up on the idea of the event being a race. Instead we allowed the three guides to carry our bikes then started with everyone else at 5:30am to get the maximum hours of light. We toyed with the idea of making it a three-way running race but there was no appetite from any of us – day three had been physically and also mentally tiring due to the disappointment.

It was lucky we left the bikes to be carried for us since the 26km turned out to be a massive underestimate. The GPS device with the race director showed 55km, but it seemed to skip about 15km at one point so we don’t quite believe it was this far, but certainly a lot more than expected. I had a gentle stroll and still took over nine hours, but the other two without bikes came in last, well after dark had fallen. The two high passes were particularly tough but we only missed out on a couple of km of ridable sections. This added justification to not continuing in the official race, as did the fact that the legendary Dipak won it again but had a puncture and had carried the bike every step of the way.

The last day supposedly was an easier one with the majority being ridable. However, after the surprises of the previous two days I stayed with the other paying westerners so we could finish together. The initial, ‘easy’, climb turned out to be around 1,000 vertical metres of steps, so we took much longer than anticipated. We also found that there were multiple routes and we had no map, just the name of the finishing town, Jiri. So after five hot hours at lower altitudes we got a chance to do some mountain biking. This was spoiled by the fact we had little idea which way we were meant to go and we were exhausted from our efforts. Yet we did over two hours of tough downhill riding where I was very happy to manage not to fall off at all.

As darkness approached we found ourselves asking every local which way to Jiri and getting answers in Nepali which even we could tell meant that it was a long way away. Helpfully, different people pointed different directions and the same old man even pointed both directions down a road depending on which one of us asked him. We were demoralised, knackered and all a bit ill from the cold temperatures at altitude and the strains on the body. So we decided to stay in the next village overnight and try to contact the race director.

Luckily two of the guides popped up just as we stopped at a shop (they have a habit of appearing and disappearing very suddenly). We were very glad to see them but less glad to learn that it was over a two-hour cycle to Jiri and there was only an hour of light left. Given that all timings we’d been given for distances were more appropriate for the leaders than the scope of the entire field, we also took the timing with a pinch of salt and decided that leaving early the next morning would be the best option. 7am seemed reasonable, but at 5:45am we had a knock on the door from the guides to say it was time to go. We were not amused, especially after sleeping on the hardest beds of the entire trip with no mattresses.

Day six of the five-day race was also a chore. I opted to go on the walking route over the mountains with one guide while the other guide could bike with the other two. My legs were fine since it had mainly been my lungs and heart which had been tested by the stages. So I knew that the claimed two-hour trek would actually take that long – I’d be fine keeping up with the Nepali march of a Sherpa for such a short time. I had my doubts about how long the bikers would take, but by having guides with everyone, we’d guarantee that nobody could get lost.

I arrived into Jiri after exactly two hours and ate a big breakfast while waiting on the others. Again, the distance to Jiri had been underestimated by the race director, but everyone seemed to have taken a different route so who knows which was shortest? Even when the bikers arrived there was a wait for a ceremony, which seemed slightly farcical given the fact that the race had been very different to how it had been sold to us. We were all in one piece and the first aid kit had remained almost unused, which was lucky since nobody was medically trained (the official thinking seemed to be that you either deal with it yourself or use your insurance to get air-lifted out!). So by 11am we were ready to go along the first mountain road we’d seen for the entire trip. The bikes were loaded and the westerners too, then we had a mere eight-hour drive to Kathmandu to cover the scenic 195kms.

We’d all had an amazing time and seen some spectacular sights. The Himalayas are certainly an incredible venue for a race and I don’t regret doing the event. Yet it was so badly organised that it was downright dangerous. Some of the hardest fell running in the world but no medical support. Small amounts of very tough mountain biking along cliff edges but mainly exhausting bike carrying and with no contingency plans – once the first bike stage was started, there was no way back except a helicopter and we had no option but to continue no matter how ill, tired or injured we were. We were lucky there were no medical emergencies but the toughness of the competitor’s fitness and will-power was a larger factor in getting us back to Kathmandu.

The Land of the Yeti Duathlon is dead. The race director admitted that it had been executed very badly and that there wasn’t really a mountain biking circuit there. The approximate 150km course would make for a very hardcore running stage race, and that was effectively what we did (less the competitive element for most days). But if anyone reading this likes the idea of running near Everest, there are already several excellent one-day and multi-stage events to choose from, such as the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in India at slightly lower altitudes or the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon from base camp to Namche Bazar (very similar to day one of LotY and this is what Dipak has won the last three years). There are also multiple biking races and tours, but I’d recommend picking one which has been held previously to ensure they know what they’re doing and that there is an actual course.

One word of warning about this sort of race. I found that even two weeks after my return my legs were more damaged than I’d expected, when I’m usually fine within a couple of days of an ultra. I tried an 100km race and had to drop out purely because my thighs were knackered. The massive, high altitude descents from the Himalayas had left me more crippled than any other race. I hadn’t expected this, especially since I had two weeks off running and the 100k was completely flat. Yet there seems to be something about the altitude that hinders muscle recovery.

So will the tiny bit of mountain biking I saw tear me away from my running? No chance. I can see the appeal of it but would rather stick to what I know and love. Besides, the mountain running I did was an eye opener and I’d consider different types of running races as virtually different sports – high altitude/sea-level, multi-day/single day, off-road/road, mountains/deserts/ice etc all require different muscles and mentalities. My appetite for mountains has only been whetted and I’ll be back for much more. See you in Davos next year (again) for the 2009 Swiss Alpine Marathon.

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