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Rallying: Sheer madness in Himalayas

FIVE DAYS after breaking his nose in a hurtling fall on a steep Himalayan track, Kio Vejdani crossed the finish line at a hill village near Darjeeling this week to complete one of the world's most gruelling ultra marathons.

Vejdani, an Iranian who settled in Surrey, was one of 37 runners from 11 countries taking part in the Himalayan Stage Race - 100 miles of masochism over five days. The third day is a full marathon at 12,000 feet above sea level along the India-Nepal border.

Athletes are left gasping in the thin air and some struggle against the pain of battered knees, blisters and falls on the rocky, switch-back track. For sponsors, the event should tap the manufacturers of the anti-inflammatory drug Ibruprofen or perhaps the palliative for altitude sickness, Diamox.

But there are compensations for the suffering. For anyone who has even half an eye for landscape, the HSR is the finest course in the world. From the crumpled border ridge, four of the world's five highest mountains dominate the skyline. The runners almost rub their noses on Kangchengunga - Darjeeling's house mountain - while to the west stand Everest, Makalu and Lhotse. (The absentee is K2 in Pakistan.)

Much of the route is on the broken cobbles of a road built for the Aga Khan to take in the panorama on a visit to Sandakphu, a collection of huts where the runners spent a couple of restless nights. The road is a feat of hairpin, gravity-defying engineering but the fabulously rich Khan never saw it. His representative made the trip in a jeep in 1947 and no vehicle passed that way again for 10 years. It could soon be impassable. Snow and monsoon rains bring landslides and the cobbles are peeling away - leaving the kind of mantraps which sent Kio Vejdani flying.

"I knew somehow I had to carry on, but I couldn't risk turning over in my sleep," Vejdani said, his face masked in surgical tape. Meanwhile, Simon Thomas, 37, a lecturer at Bournemouth University, had sprained an ankle after only eight miles and Celia Hargrave, 50, had blood pouring from one knee. All finished. Vejdani, at 61 the oldest runner, took a total 27 hours 19 mins.

Britons took the top four women's places - against competition from the USA, Hong Kong and Austria. Zelah Morrall, 30, a physiotherapist, completed the mountain course in 19 hours 38 mins. Morrall and her husband Rupert, a final year medical student at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, had the advantage of a degree of acclimatisation to altitude and Indian food. The pair arrived after eight weeks working in a Bihar hospital and a trek in Nepal. Rupert Morrall, 28, was the first British man home in 16 hours 48 minutes, coming third.

Expatriate Irishmen took the first two places. Michael Collins, 35, one of Bill Gates' Microsoft wizards in Seattle, led the field each day to finish in 15hr 20min - more than an hour ahead of Ciaron Horgan, 44, a financial adviser living near Chester. Probably the most experienced of the runners, Horgan had trained on a treadmill in an oxygen-reducing tent to simulate high-altitude conditions. However he was no match for Collins, a former member of the Irish cross-country squad. While others struggled to find a stride over the broken ground, the son of Limerick ran his first ultra marathon with ease.

Ask the runners why they put themselves through so much punishment and it is difficult to get beyond "challenge" cliches. Eleven had already done the 142 mile Marathon des Sables in the Moroccan desert and several others have pencilled it in. Or perhaps it would be the Death Valley run in California, home of the ultras, or the Commrades event in South Africa.

So far professionalism and sponsorship have not taken hold of ultra marathons and most of those on the HSR thought it would kill the spirit of the events. So it helps to have deep pockets. At least four of the Himalayan runners are millionaires - a San Diego woman real-estate dealer, a Japanese sports- clothing magnate, a Germano-Irish pop star and Collins, who is also a prize-winning author.

The HSR is organised by Chander Shakhar Pandey, a mountaineer and owner of a Delhi-based trekking outfit. He barely sleeps for five days, wrestling with the logistics of aid stations and moving runners' kit when valley- to-valley journeys can take six hours in a Land Rover.

The Singlila National Park, where most of the run takes place, gets relatively few foreign visitors. Bhuddist monks watched with lazy detachment as the aliens sweated past their temples. Lower down on the terraced hillsides the runners scattered chickens and goats and were chased by giggling children calling out "mitha" - sweeties.

Jeremy Nelson, 35, an Edinburgh-born premises manager who runs for Herne Hill Harriers, had probably forgotten the amused looks of villagers when he said it was "nice to be out with a bunch of people who don't think I'm a weirdo". But if Nelson wants reassurance about his sanity he can always consult the broken-nosed Vejdani. A practising psychiatrist surely can't be mad - or can he?

Anyone interested in running next year can contact the HSR Race Director via email: CSpandey@vsnl.com