Saturday 10 November 2007

Running in India - Day 1

If I had to compress my 5-day experience of running in the Himalayan foothills into 15-words, this is what I'd write: exceptional organisation, massive ascents, steep descents, well marked routes, fabulous food, magnificent mountains and new friends.

I found myself on an Emirates flight to Delhi because of an invitation from race director Mr C.S. Pandey to Runner's World SA and the kind hospitality of India Tourism (, who organised my flights and accommodation in Delhi.
The race itself took place in the Darjeeling district (see my previous Blog), which meant a 3hr flight from Delhi to Bagdogra the morning after my arrival in Delhi. The Jet India plane was jam-packed with race participants; easy to identify from their trail shoes, sporty dress and backpacks.

From Bagdogra it was a frightfully scary 2.5hr (I think) bus ride to the mountaintop town of Mirik. I say scary because the roads are narrow, the mountain switchbacks are sharp and Indian drivers wait for no man, beast, bicycle nor oncoming vehicle. Sights of interest from the bus window included: cattle strolling the streets, large rounded river stones in piles on the roadside (they crush them to make cement, thus the river beds have been pillaged), run-down buildings, women in colourful dress and multiple people on bicycles and motorbikes.

I'm never good at bus rides, especially on twisting moutain roads, so I was suitably queasy by the time we reached the Mirik Lodge, a very decent and clean establishment. This bus trip confirmed my decision to skip the group trip to Darjeeling the following day (Saturday). I stayed in Mirik and went to visit the tea factory and buddhist temple instead; I indulged in an afternoon nap too.

Date: Sunday, 28 October 2007
Distance: 38.6km
My run time: 06:27 *
Accumulative ascent: 2,498m
Accumulative descent: 937m
* First man, Duncan Larkin (US) - 04:21; First woman, Elin Wright (Norway) - 04:59

Already high up, this cobbled road leads to the entrance of the Singalilia National ParkThe race start was set from the town of Maneybhanjang (muh-nee-buh-jhan), which is well over an hour drive from Mirik (probably closer to 2hrs). We left Mirik at 06h00 and were running by 08h00. Two remarkable incidents from the start were: a) toilets and b) scarves from the town's children. Regarding the former... I was directed to some toilets near the start line (private, owned by locals)... um... nevermind Asian in design, they were only suitable for Number 1's and there were Number 2's on the floor! (I assume this gets washed down? Which town sucker gets this job?). I retreated hastily, deciding to wait for some bushes on the route. As for b)... sweet little girls from the town draped scarves around our necks in greeting and to wish us well.

My friend Michael Graz ran this race a few years ago and had warned me about the steep, long descent on Day 3, the marathon stage. What he didn't warn me about was the massive ascent on Day 1. Within 200m of the start we began climbing and climbing and climbing. The altitude profile clearly illustrates this. We climbed from 2000m to 3600m over the 38km stage. The cobbled road was challenging underfoot on the descents and the upward zig-zagging sections had my heart thumping in my chest. Yes, I walked the ups and took a few brief rests to get my heart rate under control, especially in the last few kilometers.

Graph of Stage 1 from Maneybhanjang to Sandakphu

It got colder as we ascended and cloud covered the higher sections. What I clearly remember was the sound of "rain" in the forest in the Singalila National Park. The cloud would condense on the tree leaves to rain on the ground; yet I was high and dry on the road.

An awesome day, a tough day and the finish was welcome. Hot soup and tasty food was waiting. It took me 06h27 to reach the high altitude settlement (few buildings only) of Sandakphu (sun-duh-poo).

From Wikipedia:
"Sandakfu or Sandakphu (3636 m) is the highest peak in the state of West Bengal, India. It is situated at the edge of the Singalila National Park and is the highest point of the Singalilia Ridge. Sandakphu has a small village on the peak with a number of hostels. It is accessible by 4x4 vehicles."

The Sandakphu settlement: The view of Kanchenjunga is obscured by clouds.
The temperature up here was cold enough to warrant the use
of my First Ascent Down Jacket.

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