I’m at just below 12,000ft on day three, less than 10 miles into the Mount Everest Challenge Marathon. I’m concentrating hard as I put one foot in front of the other, and I’m giving myself a good talking to. Faced with another ramshackle path on a hill with no end in sight, I stare down at the remains of the ancient trail winding through the remote Sandakphu National Park, and the sharp grey flint stares back, mocking me. I try to master the route and I try to be nimble on my feet, but I stumble. I may be on top of the world, but I’m hunched over, forlorn, with tears in my eyes, and I say out loud, “I can’t do this!”
Since giving up smoking at the end of 2001, I’d taken part in 16 marathons, as well as countless races and events. I’d been through two divorces, bereavement, moved house 10 times and renovated Grand Designs-style old buildings, I’d started and closed a business. I will not quit. But like Richard Gere’s wannabe aviation officer, Mayo, in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentlemen, I need my very own Sargeant Foley to get me to shape up. So, as I sit at the roadside next to blackened trees, sobbing and spluttering, Chris, my partner, taps into basic human psychology — the type you use for kids having a tantrum, or competitive, stubborn 45-year-old women. “OK, then, I’ll drop you off at the next checkpoint, and I’ll carry on,” he says. And that’s the switch I need. “No sir… I ain’t quitting,” I respond, Richard Gere-style (well, words to that effect), and on we go.
With hindsight, having Chris here may well have allowed me to have this mountain meltdown — but, then again, a meltdown of some kind was inevitable on this trip. And I was up for a bit of Zen and a splash of self-discovery — after all, what’s the point in travelling all that way and not digging deep. Nevertheless, I’m from an Irish-Catholic family, so fasting, climbing mountains and going on pilgrimages are all familiar concepts. I get it. Pushing yourself to the limit — particularly in a new environment — can be the basis for a voyage of spiritual enlightenment.
And it begins
Arriving at Delhi at 1am is an eye-opening start to the voyage. Emerging into the claustrophobic terminal, faced with fluorescent lights and brightly-coloured crowds, I feel as if I’d been flung into an unfamiliar world from a Dr Who-style time machine. Plus I’m struggling to breathe the thick, yellow, putrid and polluted air filling my windpipe — a strange premonition, as it turns out, of what’s to come in the oxygen-deprived mountains.
The trip to the mountains begins the next day with a further assault on the senses — which should have been followed by sedation, not a 100-mile run. As we drive to the airport — through the Wacky Races rush hour on Delhi’s jam-packed roads — monkeys, cows, and goats mingle with men dressed in turbans and Nike trainers or barefoot in ancient cloth, while children chase each other over heaps of scrap metal piled up on the roadside. Driving through Bagdogra, my mind struggles to process the sights before me: street-side barbers, buffalo, welders, families on the backs of bikes…
Approaching the smaller villages in the Himalayas, the bemused looking faces staring up at this coach full of Westerners clad in sports compression wear change from Indian to Nepalese. Soon there are fewer people, and more green spaces, and we arrive at the Mirik Lake Resort, our base in the Darjeeling region, famous for its lake and tea.
After some sleepless nights in our hard single beds, a 90-minute drive takes us to the start of the race in the village of Maneybhanjang, at 6,600ft. Despite this being the 23rd time the event has been staged, the villagers stare at us, and we stare back. But it’s not long before I’m all alone. On a trail in Sussex my imagination might wander, about who might be behind a bush — and other what ifs — but here it feels like my survival relies on me shutting out everything around me. The higher I climb on the impossible, truculent, cobblestone road, the worse I feel. My head thickens, I vomit, then dry wretch, before sitting by the roadside and cry frustrated tears.
Clouds and coldness descend, choking the already thin air, and the closer I get to our 11,815ft destination, Sandakphu, the harder it gets. I whimper like a lost child and manage a celebratory raise of arms as I finish day one in seven hours seven minutes. That evening, at the hut where we’re staying, I burst into tears, then submerge myself in layers of clothing to avoid what feels like the onset of hypothermia. I shiver and struggle to eat real food after all the energy bars and drinks I’ve consumed while running.
After a good night’s sleep, day two’s 20-mile round trip on the top of the world feels relatively easy. After a slow start, I have a strong second half, overtaking six runners and finishing in four hours 33 minutes (the fastest, Martin, ran it in three hours 15 minutes and the slower group were hitting six hours). At 12,000ft, I ran alongside Kenneth, 56, a veteran runner from Sweden. “I’ve just got no power,” he pants.
Altitude is the power zapper that bloats our hands and faces. The sandwich bags carrying my chocolate powder recovery drink have ballooned . “That’s just like our stomachs,” someone remarks when I display this phenomenon to the group at dinner — which probably explains my eating difficulties. Altitude is the hot topic in the freezing cold hut, our base after stage one and two, where we gather at night, to stand, shiver, and try to eat from steaming bowls of soup and curry.
That night, a storm we were told had already hit West Bengal, as a cyclone, rages outside our wooden hut. I lie awake all night, listening to the orchestra of wind, rain and what sounds like consumption-derived coughing from the two lead runners, who’ve pushed themselves hard, and I ponder another force of nature outside my window: the world’s four tallest peaks: Everest, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu. We’d been told the locals didn’t worship a god, they worshipped nature — these mountains in particular.
The conclusion to my Himalayan adventure begins on day three with a run along a summit ridge, before we turn off the path and head towards Molle, a tiny village further down the mountain. The gruelling 4,000ft descent takes us through the dense forests and deep crevices, and as we enter the village of Siri Khola we traverse an impossibly tricky zigzag path. We’ve been told there were tigers, snakes and red pandas in the trees, but I find I spend more time watching my footing than looking for wild animals. As the oxygen content in the air increases, the relief I feel to finally be able to breathe properly again, and therefore run at my usual pace, makes the descent stress-free.
We arrive in Rimbik, at 6,350ft, to beer, dancing and a night of ‘cultural exchange’. The Brits fling together a very disjointed version of Bohemian Rhapsody, the three Germans sing a dour song, the Spanish dance, the Scandinavians don Viking skulls and sing Abba songs, the Indian fraternity play music, sing folk songs and philosophise. And finally, the locals play the ransingh, a bagpipes-like instrument only taken out for “weddings, winning, marriage, war, and any big function,” the race director, Mr Pandey, tells me.
Another two days of fairly uneventful running follow. Day four is 13 miles and day five, 17 miles, both on the road. I find my running form again and love this part, but I know there’s nothing particularly special and this might be disappointing for true trail runners. It turns out I’m the second-placed woman both days, but I take no glory in this. I have huge admiration for the three girls who’d raced ahead of me on the preceding hardest days — something I wasn’t able to do.
As for self-discovery — I’ve been reminded you can take the girl out of the Catholic Church, but you can’t take the Catholic out of the girl. I will always resort to prayer. I find out I’m quite a happy soul and I’m rewarded for this with the ‘Most Beautiful Smiled Participant’ trophy. I realise I can deal with average, but I much prefer being competitive; nothing earth shattering, nor deeply profound. So, there’s only one thing for it, my voyage continues — and so does my running.
First Man: Martin Cox, 15.07, Marit Holm, 17.56
Average time: 24 hours (Fiona ran 24.24 and came 15th overall, fourth-placed woman)
Average age: 44
Number of entrants: 43
Number who ran 100 miles: 31
Day one: 24 miles, climbing 5,500ft
Day two: 20 miles
Day three: Marathon (26-28 miles)
Day four: 13 miles
Day five: 17 miles
Fiona and Chris trained at London’s Altitude Centre. altitudecentre.com
Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)