Ultra-distance running: Take the highest road

Climbing mountains is one thing. Running over them quite another. Yet Sam Murphy couldn't resist the ultimate distance challenge - the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race
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I'm not getting out of bed today. I'm going to feast on my favourite foods, down Bloody Marys and not lift a finger. Why? Because 12 months ago, on 5 November 2000, I earned it. This time last year I was embarking on the biggest physical challenge of my life: the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race. For five days I ran across the top of the world, struggling over the toughest of terrains amid the most awe-inspiring vistas.

I'm not getting out of bed today. I'm going to feast on my favourite foods, down Bloody Marys and not lift a finger. Why? Because 12 months ago, on 5 November 2000, I earned it. This time last year I was embarking on the biggest physical challenge of my life: the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race. For five days I ran across the top of the world, struggling over the toughest of terrains amid the most awe-inspiring vistas.

I've been a regular runner for more than a decade – it keeps me healthy, slim and, more importantly, sane. I'm no Paula Radcliffe but I've discovered that I've got staying power. When I completed my first marathon, people around me were staggering across the finish line. Me? I felt like I could have gone on for miles. I had heard about ultra-distance races, but never got round to signing up for one. So when I read about the Himalayan 100, I was sold. Not just an ultra run but a 100-mile race in the magnificent Indian Himalaya, running at 12,000 feet across the roof of the world for five days.

The Himalayan 100, 11 years old this year, is the brainchild of C S Pandey, a Delhi-based eco-adventurer and mountaineer, who organises the event each year, with no advertising, sponsors or prize-money. Most of those who take part hear about the race through word of mouth or articles in the running press. Even among veteran ultra runners and top adventure racers, it is seen as "the big one". Nevertheless, Mr Pandey restricts the field to just 60 participants, ensuring that the event remains sociable and not too competitive. (Which is just as well. Among other idiosyncrasies, the race mile markers aren't to be trusted – you learn this when you pass the "Rimbik 7km" sign and then, an hour later, the "Rimbik 9km" sign.)

And you'll never start a race anywhere like Maneybhanjang, 6,000ft up on the India-Nepal border. The dusty village is now accustomed to the annual appearance of a bunch of Westerners smelling of Deep Heat and dressed in neon running gear. Today, for the start of this year's race, the locals will gather by the Himalaya 100 banner to clap, laugh or stare.

I'd run 10-kilometre races, half-marathons and even a few full marathons before, but I'd never exceeded the magic 26-and-a-quarter miles. Runners in the Himalaya 100 are responsible for their own medical supplies and extreme weather clothing. They're also told to practise running with a backpack, for long periods, on hills and off-road. I trained consistently, four days a week, mixing walking and running and physiotherapist-prescribed exercises. (It was, however, a little tricky to recreate the Himalaya in south-east London.)

The first day of the race was a rude awakening for even the best prepared of the 54 racers. We set off jogging and waving, but soon the road petered out into a boulder-strewn path that snaked relentlessly upwards. A few miles, a few hours later, we were still climbing. We went from 6,000ft to 12,000ft in a single 24-mile leg. The terrain underfoot was rough, ranging from scree to giant cobbles and caked mud. I fell and cut my hand, but fared better than some – by early evening, two of the group were on intravenous drips for dehydration, a few were sick from the altitude, one had sprained an ankle and another had stitches in his elbow. "It's the hardest day," assured Mr Pandey. "Tomorrow is much easier." We were all in bed by 7pm.

The dorms are simple wooden huts occupied by rows of beds and a single bare light bulb. Oil-burning heaters were placed in each room at Sandakphu, where the temperature plunged way below freezing at night. As for the food, it's plentiful and palatable, although a bit monotonous. Breakfast consisted of porridge, omelettes and Tibetan bread. Evening meals, served up canteen-style by Mr Pandey's staff, revolved around rice, dahl, meat or vegetable curry and more omelettes. Boy, did we miss our chocolate, steak, fruit...

Mr Pandey was right, though – the next day was joyous. I found myself running quite alone in the vast landscape, the air thin, the sun high and snow-dipped mountain peaks all around. Just when I'd think I must have gone wrong somewhere, I'd spot another runner, a billowing red-ribbon route marker or, most surreal of all, a tidy desk, manned by one of Mr Pandey's yellow-uniformed staff. (It's pretty hard to get lost but one woman did so, triumphantly finishing in Nepal without a visa.)

The scenery is stupendous. From the bleak, windy plateau at Sandakphu – one of the only places from which you can see four of the five highest mountains in the world – to the lush green valleys of Rimbik, where the race finishes. At the very least, the sights and sounds will take your mind off blisters the size of £2 coins.

Like the sound of it? Even if you've never done anything like this kind of event in your life, don't rule out the Himalayan 100. I flew to India full of panic, dread and Lucozade Sport, expecting to be up against a bunch of wiry-bodied hardened ultra-racers. But, happily, we were a motley crew. Dixie, an American lady in her Sixties, had only taken up running when she was 45, while Will, who finished ninth, had been a chain smoking couch potato only months before and had never run more than 13 miles in one go.

By the end of the second stage, I was feeling pretty optimistic. I finished fourth on day one and second on day two. The next day was more typical. I had a niggling knee as well as sunburn and blisters. The day's 25-mile leg started with a seven-mile descent, down an old waterfall path. I lost count of the number of times I turned on my ankles as runners overtook me. That evening, my knee was so sore and hot you could fry an egg on it. By the last day, I was running on a cocktail of anti-inflammatories, arnica, Pro Plus and Imodium...

After 100 miles of the most dramatic highs and lows of my running life I made my way down the steep descent to the main street of Maneybhanjang. A "finish" banner had been strung up across the road where the start line had been. I ran through it brimming with emotion. Then I removed my worn, caked and stinking trainers and threw them over the mountainside.

This morning, in honour of the 50-odd people who are probably about to undertake the biggest physical challenge of their life, I feel entitled to take the weight off my feet.

The facts
The 2001 Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race begins today and concludes on Thursday. The next Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race takes place in the first week of November 2002 – exact dates have yet to be confirmed.
Leisure Pursuits Group organise package trips to the race. Includes flights (London-Delhi and Delhi to Bagdogra), transfers, full board and race support and costs from £1,995. Call 0800 0186101 or email sales@leisurepursuits.com.
Alternatively, you can book directly with Himalayan Run & Trek in India. You will need to make your own way to Bagdogra. Contact Himalayan Run & Trek Pvt. Ltd in Delhi by email: CSPandey@vsnl.com.

Do's and don'ts
Do apply, book and make your arrangements early. You need a visa, all kinds of medical supplies and specialist kit.
Do take a personal stereo or book – there's little to do once you reach base camp each night.
Do stretch at the end of each stage – otherwise you'll get progressively stiffer.
Do drink loads of water. You're much more susceptible to dehydration at altitude.
Don't leave training to the last minute – you will be spending dozens of hours on your feet, walking and running, during the race.
Don't overtrain, on the other hand. And altitude sickness isn't a serious problem until 13,500ft.

What to take
You need clothing for 5 days, as you can't dry out wet or sweaty things. Take socks of different thicknesses to help address changes in foot size due to altitude.
Take more than one pair of trainers, again, to cope with swelling, and blisters also.
Take gloves and a hat for chilly mornings and evenings. Also take sunscreen, a baseball cap and sunglasses for daytime sun and glare.
A torch – not just for day's end, but also for toilet trips at night.
Take some favourite foods and snacks. The food supplied is based around rice, dahl and bread – great for carbo-loading, but monotonous.
Take Diamox in case you get altitude sickness and arnica for sore muscles.