Annapurna 100 Race Report

This is an old-fashioned race report, on a not so old-fashioned race.  Indeed, it was the most unique race I have ever done.  This was and is a bucket list event for any endurance athlete, and it deserves to be treated as such.

The race options were 50km and 100km.  The 100k race uses all of the 50 km race, plus some extra running on the streets/flat of Pokhara and some additional running after reaching the 50k finish.  I registered for the 50k.  I will break it up into thirds, as that is how my mind perceives it, in retrospect.

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Starting in the dark outside of Pokhara, Nepal
To begin, the race director operated this race on Nepali time, meaning we didn’t start the event until 5:22 am, even though it was scheduled to start at 5:00.  The first part of the race (15k or so), traversed a relatively flat section of the country before turning North and heading uphill into the foothills of the Himalaya.  I would compare the “scene” to be similar to many other Ultra-marathons, in that there was variable scenery and terrain, lots of conversation and anticipation regarding the next check point/aid station (CP).  As the sun rose over the south Asian valleys, we were treated to some crazy sights and sounds not to be found in the USA.  Water Buffalo were making early morning cud chewing sounds, and random cows walked unobstructed on the trails and roads that we ran on.  As we ran though villages on the sides of the valleys, children would step out from their houses and see what all the fuss was about, and sometimes, I would talk to them, and they would occasionally run with us.  They were very much NOT ready to hear a white guy speaking to them in their native tongue, and I loved watching their faces as they go from mild shock to a big smile as they felt that they were participating in the race with us.   There were several watering holes on the trail, and we watched women draw water from them, wearing their saris with tika on their foreheads.  It was surreal.

There were two limiting factors that I unsuccessfully addressed in my choice as to how to run this first third.  First of all, the roads were dirt based and intermittently covered in stones and not gravel.  My feet alternated between landing on just dirt, just stone or a blend.  The stones were of all sizes and shapes, and within an hour, the bottom of my feet were beginning to fatigue, as I had foolishly chosen to run without looking as to where my foot landed, thinking we would be off this terrain soon.  Second, the course routed us through small tribal villages, but none of these villages had the Western equivalent of street lights.  The paths were unlit, and there is no moon shining down the light the way this time of year, as layers of fog descend after sunset, and they don’t burn off until sometime after 9 am.  By the end of this first section, my legs and lungs were strong, but by feet weren’t.

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Me, in the distance, starting yet another steep descent.

I had arranged with the race director to have three drop bags on the race, as I knew that I would need to change clothing a lot as a result of my prolific sweating-this was perhaps the only time that knowing how to speak the language made a difference, as no other competitor on the 50k had three drop bags.  When we did arrive at CP4, I changed out of my soaked shorts and shirt, put on some new ones and downed a PBJ made with bread and PB that I had brought from home.  It tasted so flipping good!  As a treat, I also took my iPod from my drop bag, put it on, and started running with a woman from Slovakia.

That started the second section of the course.  Within a minute or two, we were  introduced to the steepness of the Himalayan foothills.  During the first section, my pace had been between 8 and 9 1/2 minute miles; however, once we started on the first climb and I had to resort to run/walk, I could tell that my final pace would be a lot higher.  Once we reached to top of the first climb, we were met with a 20%+ downhill walk to the valley floor where we crossed the river on a footbridge.  We ended up using footbridges like the ones you see in pictures at least half a dozen times.  This first descent made me acknowledge that I hadn’t adequately trained for descending.  My knees began to ache before we hit the bottom and I was relegated to walking thoughtfully down slick rocks as we gave back a 1000+ feet of vertical over the course of a quarter of a km.  When I hit the bottom, the effects of the fatigue were obvious in a way that concerned me, as I couldn’t run faster than a 9 minute mile on the flats.

bridge crossingOnce we crossed a footbridge over a major tributary of the Ganges River, the climb was on!  We climbed steadily for 7 km, and my pace never was faster than 20 minute miles.  The surreal side of the race continued to impact me, as we would go through tribal villages occupied by Gurungs.  Everyone in the village would have a cell phone with a data plan.  I stopped at a woman’s house with another Nepali runner, and we struck up a conversation about meat as she filled my water bottles and offered me some buffalo yogurt to relieve my boredom and fill my stomach with some variety.  Alas there were no bathroom to be found.  Development in the third world takes so many forms…both good and bad.

There were a few moments that I was sure a old man in a walker could have passed me.  Himalayan trails were not built with switchbacks in mind.  When the trails require elevation change, they just go straight up or straight down.  There is no way to train for this in the states, unless you live in the basement of the Empire State Building.  That said, the Nepali nationals had an advantage over the Westerners in this section, and those guys whom I passed during the first third passed me and never looked back.  The uphills were very manageable, but the straight downhill sections wore me out.  The stairs that the villagers had put in were often slippery that time of day, and I watched many people fall down both during the climbs and the descents.

When we hit the final third, flat sections were not to be seen.  Ben Looney and I were in the front of the American contingent from our group.  I changed clothes one last time, and I felt great.  However, with two climbs and one descent remaining, the weather took a change for the worse.  The temperature dropped and rain started coming down. I was not equipped for being cold and wet.  Ben had a raincoat with him, but I did not.  I felt dumb and considered turning in my Eagle Scout badge, as I was anything but prepared.  Instead, I improvised by going off the trail and entered a Gurung house, where Ben and I rested and waited for the rain to pass. Fortunately for us, no one was home, I didn’t have to explain what we were doing and drink a cup of tea. Within 15 minutes, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out.  The temperatures quickly warmed and our spirits were again high.  The climb to the final aid station was tough, but I knew that Ben and I were going to finish strong.  I said a prayer of gratitude before having a bowl of soup at the last CP and starting the final descent.

We stopped to get some photos, as we could see the town of Sikles in the distance, and knowing that it was the finish line gave us lots of inspiration for the final push.

We “knew” that the final climb was labeled as the 7000 steps.  I didn’t count, but it seemed like it was 70,000 steps.  With about 3 km to the finish line, we concluded that we had already gone 50k, as we had gone off course a few times.  It took us over an hour and half to cover the final distance to the finish line, and we were ‘escorted” into the town by young boys running ahead of us wearing only flip flops.  We were were within 5 minutes on the finish line, I consulted with Ben, and we agreed to run to the finish line, whatever the trail was like.  Crossing the line to a crowd of cheers and clapping made our day.

At the finish line, we were aware that the temperature had dropped.  We gladly accepted our medals and certificates before changing our clothes and sitting down for a couple of bowls of hot soup before heading to bed.

My final ranking was 44th out of 106 competitors.  I came in 20 in my category.  My time of 12 hours 22 minutes translates to an average of more than 14 minutes per mile.  Prior to this race, the longest that I had ever run was 9 hours, and my longest bike ride was 7 hours.  The following day, I celebrated my 52nd birthday, and I couldn’t be prouder of this accomplishment.  Slow but steady won the day.  Only Ben and I out of a group of 6 runners were able to complete our races.

There are stories of people and places that will come later (maybe next?), for now, though, I can’t recommend this race for those who want to see what they are worth.  It tests more than your strength and endurance.  It tests your ability to focus as well as your capacity to overcome difficult moments that are an inevitable part of an Ultra.

Will I do this race again?  Probably not-it is a lot like the Badwater.  Then again, now that I had done something more difficult than Badwater Cape Fear, maybe I will do it again.

Stay tuned.

 

The impact of Sunday School on air travel

As I prepared to leave for Nepal to run the Annapurna100 Ultra-marathon, I was excited to have negotiated an entire row of 4 seats, all to myself, for the flight.  I knew that hang 4 adjacent seats would make it easy to sleep as we crossed both the Atlantic and Europe, en route to the Middle East.  There is no amount of training or nutrition that can substitute for rest, and there is no chance that I will do well on an Ultra-marathon, at altitude, in a land known for the Earth’s largest mountain range, without good rest leading up the event.

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4 seats, all to myself…so I thought.

Three hours after lift off, I found that the combination of movie watching and eating had made me sleepy.  I stood up and headed to the bathroom before settling into my row of seats to get what I thought would be 8 hours of sleep.  I was grateful that Etihad Airlines had agreed to allocate an entire row of seats for me with no one else sitting in them, and I was quick to share on Facebook using the hashtag #iloveetihad.  It felt like I was flying first class.

The map showed that we were about to leave Canadian airspace and would be over Greenland within a hour.  I visualized that I would wake up somewhere over Russia.  I was so excited to be travelling to the land of world tallest mountains to run an epic race.

Unexpectedly, I woman in Middle Eastern garb approached me and started a conversation that mandated I come to terms with some malformed opinions from my past.  This woman was a Syrian Refugee who was flying to the Middle East for back surgery.  She was having difficulty walking, let alone sleeping, and she asked if she could have my 4 seats so she could rest and offered me her one seat up at the front of the cabin.

It would have been culturally easy to tell her, “no.”  After all, had just negotiated for all those seats and had paid the price of the ticket.  In that moment, I felt righteous in claiming that those seats were mine, and I had the full-support of Etihad, company that owned the transportation service.  Instead, I found myself agreeing with the contents of a recent blog that all but connected the dots that to be a Christian is to be pro-Refugee.

“Yes, Ma’am, you can have my row of seats.”  I picked up my headphones and water bottle and headed to my new single seat up front.  I was feeling upset and self-righteous that my faith was mandating that I suffer, without any joy, when I did nothing wrong.  For sure, this outcome wasn’t anywhere close to my expectations when i negotiated that row of seats just a few hours earlier.

“Thank you, kind sir!”  I only sleep few hours, then I come find you and you sleep some hours.  Is that item OK?”  I knew she was translating from her native tongue into English, and she was expressing a plan that she thought was equitable.

“It must be OK,” I said with a giggle, knowing darn well that God uses moments like these to change people’s hearts.

I have had multiple bad experiences working with the local refugee community in Charlotte. I have found them to be more demanding than newborns  In addition, they are unequaled in their inability to share gratitude with those who are trying to help.  Lastly, they have demonstrated insensitivity to adjust to meet the demands of Charlotte’s culture.  They have shown to me that they are OK not fitting in nor taking steps to improve their lot, no matter how much it hurts them to resist the change.  To be succinct, I found it a waste of time to help them.

In Sunday school, we are discussing pro-life.  Sure, it is nearly always associated with abortion rights, but leaving it only in that context is like saying food shopping is about buying desserts.  The Pro-life position includes a stance with regard to special needs children, the incarcerated, the handicapped and even includes conversations on racism. God loves all life and has never shown any one group greater or lesser favor based on who they are.

In that moment, I didn’t want to give up my seats to a refugee.  I didn’t know her circumstance or anything about the choices that she made that got her to the place where she needed back surgery.  I made me question how the Good Samaritan felt when he, too, stopped and spent both time and money helping someone who had no ability to return the favor.  I wonder if the Samaritan “wanted” to stop and help the guy who lay dying  in the ditch that day.

She kept her word and came to trade back with me a few hours later.  I slept for a few hours before we traded again.  When we arrived in Abu Dhabi, neither of us were rested, but we were both better off than if we had regular seats on the flight.  I knew that the only want to overcome any sense of resentment for the moment was to talk to her and get to know her a bit.  I learned that she had one family member on the plane (sister, maybe), but she had “no more husband,” and based on her body language, it meant he was no longer living.

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Syrian Refugee and me, flying to the MIddle East
As we left the plane to go our separate ways, I lifted her up and prayer and thanked God for using that moment to change my heart, even if only a little.  It wasn’t an accident that I read that NY Times article and had a real world refugee experience in the same month.

As I prepared to board the plane for my final leg of the trip from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu (another 5 hour flight), I was met by a representative from the airlines who took my boarding pass from me and replaced it with a first class service, saying, “Thank you for your advertising.”

It is very tempting and certainly easy to think that this was coincidence based on worldly events.  I know better.  I walked down the Jetway crying like a boy saying, “good bye” to his mother as he left for military boot camp.  I was just used by God…and I got to see it in near real-time.  I got a moment in time when I made the world a better place, and it altered my heart, in the process.

I slept like a baby in a big seat that I didn’t have to share with anyone else on the final flight, and I arrived in Kathmandu, refreshed.  My boys greeted me at the airport with flowers and hugs as we headed into town.  We talked and joked until it was time for bed.

I am nowhere close to pro-refugee, but God is.  And I see that now.

I am running the race of my life in three days.  It is the high point and my “A” race of my athletic year. Yet, I am already sure that the greatest growth moment of this trip has already passed.