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Miles, Mountains and Marigolds

In a race through the Himalayas, views of snow-topped peaks change the way one runner sees her world.

Traveling halfway around the world to run a race sounded like an exciting idea when I signed up for the 2010 Himalayan Run & Trek, a five day, 100-plus-mile stage race held in India. But fresh off the plane and waiting alone for my ride at the Indira Gandhi airport in Delhi, I was engulfed in a swarm of horn honking, acrid air and rushing crowds. I started to question the possible lunacy of my idea. For a Colorado girl used to running on quiet, woodsy trails, this was a whole new world.

My duffel bag of running gear and I were headed to the mountains in the Darjeeling Region of West Bengal. Another flight landed me in Bagdogra, a bustling town surrounded by verdant green tea plantations and rice paddies. In this breathtaking village, I met my fellow HRT runners and filled my lungs with country air. Quick introductions revealed an international mix of adventurers from Europe, the United States, South America, Serbia and beyond. English was the lingua franca as we feverishly compared training notes and travel stories on the ride to Mirik, our lakeside headquarters for race week.

Upon arrival, we quenched our dusty throats with tea before attending the pre-race information meeting. Some details were lost in translation, but the race directors were wonderful, and any confusion only heightened the adventure. We were told that toilets may actually be in someone’s house, and if you end up in Nepal, you obviously weren’t paying attention.

Going the Distance

In the months leading up to the race, I’d had trouble with my illiotibital band. On the way to India, my plan was to run only the longest leg of the stage race and spend the other days exploring and nursing my knee. But the energy of the group was contagious, and after catching my first glimpse of Mount Kanchenjunga’s massive, snow-blanketed top, I knew I had to try for the entire distance.

My hastily formed race plan was to hike the inclines, run the flats and survive the downhills. I hadn’t packed for this sort of distance and my hydration carrier was a bit smaller than advisable, but I was ready to relax into the experience and absorb as much of the culture as possible.

The First Step

As I stood on the gorgeous marigold-adorned starting line in Manebhanjang, the 24 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing in front of me had me shaking in my skort and questioning my decision. But a melodic Hindu chant and local children who presented each racer with prayer scarves calmed my nerves. I cautiously took my first step across the line. There was no turning back now.

Crazy Beautiful

One of the most difficult aspects of the race wasn’t actually the distance, high altitude or rocky terrain. It was paying attention to my footing despite the stunning views. We traveled through mountain meadows where yaks and cows grazed, unfazed by our exertions. The hillsides were dotted with precariously perched temples, seemingly suspended from the heavens by hundreds of prayer flags. At one point, I came around a bend to discover a mountain top village alive with school-uniform clad children waving, singing and cheering us onward with wishes of “namaste.” Always looming at my side was Kanchenjunga, taunting me with the relative ease of my journey compared to the treacherous path of its mammoth flanks.

On day two and three, the horizon was even more awe-inspiring with views of not only Kanchenjunga, but also Lhotse, Mount Everest and Makalu. Apart from K2, these are the four highest mountains in the world, and all absolutely stunning. My breath never failed to hitch every time I climbed a hill, and looked up to gaze upon Everest.

Rest for the Weary

I like pleasant surprises, especially when I’m cold and tired.

And the accommodations, while sparse, were quite comfortable and much nicer than I had expected. During the race, we spent two nights each at Sandakphu and Rimik. Both had mattresses on sturdy wooden frames and piles of extra blankets perfect for the chilly evenings. Bathing was done with a hot water rinse from buckets, and the toilets were the squatting variety, perfect for stretching tired legs after a long run!

Mount Everest Challenge Marathon

On the third day, we were slated to run a full marathon. This was the stage I was most excited about (and the only leg I had initially planned on completing), but it proved to be by far the most challenging. For the first 18 miles we ran along a cobbled, ridgeline street, and then began a steep, 4,000-foot descent to the valley floor. Stone roads gave way to dirt roads, then dirt paths and eventually rough, washed-out steps. When the steps disappeared, we ran on steep downhill trails through dried-up streambeds. My knees make downhill running even more challenging than climbs and it was slow going. I felt all the more defeated once I reached an aid station with a mileage sign that made me realize the rumors I’d heard whispered were true—we were going to run a good five miles longer than a marathon that day.

Living on a Prayer

Thankfully, the extra mileage began as I entered the lush farming village of Siri Khola. Each house was lined with potted plants and had corn drying in the yard or on the roof. As the path zigzagged through the village, I came upon white prayer flags, signaling “peace,” waving in the wind. I felt myself relax as my courage strengthened.

The “marathon” eventually ended in the hill village of Rimik. At eight and a half hours, it took me more than twice as long as my normal marathon time. Along the way, however, I’d let go of my rigid expectations and allowed myself to marvel at the terraced, hillside villages, sky-high bamboo plants and affable dogs sleeping in the sun.

A cold soda paired with local popcorn and hugs from friends made the lonely descent a distant memory. Cheering on other racers bolstered my spirits. Plus, with no knee twinges and only two more days of road running on the horizon, I knew I would finish the race.

Five Days and a Finish

Running into Manebhanjang on the last day, I crossed the finish with a sigh of relief. I was elated to run without injury and to finally be able to rest my legs. But once the celebration was over, and I’d had a good night’s sleep, I found myself longing for another day of racing.

Maybe it was the magical culture or the stunning vistas. Perhaps it was the camaraderie formed with other participants after five tough days of grueling running. But in spite of all of the moments during the run I’d been tired and ready to give up—this beautiful place had enchanted me and I was sad to leave. I had experienced moments I never could have whizzing by in a car: the exotic smells of cooking food, the slight temperature drop and earthy smell as I crossed over bubbling streams and the friendly wave of a sari-bedecked villager taking a break from her daily routine.

The Himalayan Run & Trek ended up being so much more than a race. A trip that began with a crazed sensory-overload had ended with a clear sense of peace. I’d let the mountains wash over me as I ran through ancient trails, and had come out of the race more in touch with my surroundings, ready to carry my wonder with me all the way back to Colorado.

Former editor at Trail Runner magazine, Allison Pattillo, writes about fitness, gear and her adventures around the world.