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Enjoy The Beauty Of Hills- Himalayan 100 Revisited.

Brit Martin Cox’s revisits his 2013 Himalayan 100 experience-

“My way of joking is to tell the truth. That’s the funniest joke in the world.”

                                                                                                            (Mohammed Ali).

From the moment I first saw India up close I knew I had made a mistake. I’d been training and racing under a curse all season. The training had been murderous, the racing plagued by misfortune. The Himalayan 100 was one last crazed and futile effort to salvage something memorable from the season. One hundred miles over fives days in Darjeeling. Something was positively guaranteed to happen.

And it did, though not what I’d expected. On paper it was a dream vacation. In reality it quickly became a vicious, health-ripping ordeal, a holiday in hell. And now, two months later, as I write the story of the race, I still feel hungover, I’m still reeling on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I’m still waiting for India to clear from my lungs. I’m still waiting for my hollowed-out sense of self to dissipate and my hair to grow back. I’ve lost so much weight I could slice bread with my shoulder-blades. After seven days in India you feel like you’ve been there for seven years.

The deal was that the Government paid my expenses and in return I write something complementary about India. Now, not only am I an unambitious writer, I’m not really a writer at all. Hemingway was a writer. So was Mark Twain. I just have a vivid imagination and can type 90 words per minute in an order that somehow makes sense. But being paid to cover a race seemed like a perfectly justifiable reason to go run some exciting, steep, and exotic trails.

I decided right away that I wasn’t going to India as a quote tourist unquote. No way was I carting around 25kg of luggage, plus a heap of photography paraphernalia and a full suitcase of bottled water. Nor was I going to pack the colossal amount of kit and medical supplies that the race organisation suggested. I was travelling light, the bare minimum I’d need to survive. A pair of running shoes, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and toilet roll. I also figured that people had seen enough shots of sunsets over temples, of smoking ghats, tea plantations and snow-capped mountains to wall-paper the Taj Mahal. I needed another angle. I had to get right to the nitty gritty of the race, expose it’s soft, sweaty underbelly. The lives of those involved. Who they are, what they eat for breakfast, where they shit and how they shave. To do this I’d need to keep a clear head and a keen eye and at the same time try to focus on winning the race. I intended to keep a notebook handy at all times, to write everything down down as it happened. Inspiration could strike at any moment, even while I was running. Later I convinced myself not to bother with this. Partly to save time, and I also realised that my subconscious would remember everything interesting that happened, while my inbuilt crap-detector would filter out the dregs. And anything I left out would only strengthen the story.

So a brief word on the fifty competitors before I have to rely too much on my imagination. Their backgrounds were overwhelmingly ordinary. As runners, they were like millions of other runners. Fanatics about diet and body hair, experts on all the latest jogging fashions and gizmos, subscribers to Runners World, hooked on Strava. But in their collective identity as participants in the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race they had a strange and unusual fascination. They had all paid an unnaturally large amount of money to be in Darjeeling and I came to view them with something very close to awe. Most had never done anything remotely like this race before. They were living proof that the tyranny of the rat-race need not be final. They were acting out the wet dreams of tens of thousands of other runners who were afraid to leave the cities and the roads, get the shits, lose weight, lose themselves, reinvent themselves.

Jethro was a head taller than everyone else and had just quit smoking. He had all the gear and no idea or, as he observed on one occasion, Sticking feathers up your arse does not make you a chicken. Jackie’s old man had run the event the previous year and the twisted bastard had insisted she experience the full horror of it all first-hand this time around. Hers was one of those fine little love stories that makes you smile at night in your sleep. Vaya con dios, Jose told us each morning before the start, En la cima de la montaña todos somos leopardos de nieve. Captain John, a pot-bellied fisherman, worked on trawlers and had somehow been conned into to riding the whole hundred fucking miles on a mountain bike. Jesus, a gloomy, polo-shirted Mexican, suffered from shin splints and won a special medal for picking up the most litter during the race. And Jim, a wild-looking banker, was twitchy and nervy the whole time, like he knew it could all get much worse at any moment. He spent the whole week churning around in a sea of horrors and came to despise The Mahatma almost as much as I did.

 A few of the competitiors.

PHOTO: A FEW OF THE COMPETITORS.

Thursday 24th to Friday 25th October 2013.

Delhi is by common consent the world’s most polluted city. The air hangs thick, yellow and heavy with diesel, industrial sewage, charcoal smoke, and humidity. The sun resembles a pale white ghost. Delhi’s sprawling, snarling wastes are a foolish and unhealthy place for an English mountain runner. What was I thinking? What kind of sick and twisted impulse, what rancid karma, had caused me to come here? The swirling winds of my instincts had always told me, Avoid the place like the plague! Queen Victoria had never bothered to visit India, so why should I? The poverty, the sweat, the grime, the frustration, the religion, the corruption, the toilets. But it was also a place I didn’t want to end up regretting I’d never seen.

As soon as I arrived at The Grand Hotel Ashok I should have stocked up on cakes from the small patisserie in the lobby. I should have called room-service and had my fridge filled with champagne and beer, located the movie channel, and retired directly to my two-hundred-dollar-a-night bed. And I should have stayed there until it was time to leave for the mountains. Instead, I downed a couple of instant coffees, changed into my vest and shorts, and went outside in search of suitable training grounds.

Spying some greenery amidst a confusion of corrugated iron and blue tarpaulin shacks, I darted across a gridlocked dual-carriageway, swerving on the other side to avoid a tribe of stray goats. Exhaust fumes formed a thick and glossy horizontal fog at knee height. Gaudy posters of smiling, besuited candidates in the upcoming elections covered every tree, wall and telegraph pole in sight. There was a man lying dead by the side of the road. Someone had carefully covered his face with a newspaper. I hopped across an open sewer, a small stream of water the colour of chai flowed past sluggishly, bubbles sparkling in it. Two children were splashing about in the brown water.

I had been in prime condition when I arrived, healthy and eager to discover India, but after a few steady warm-up laps of Nehru Park I was reduced to a spluttering, wheezing, weak-kneed wreck. How could anyone ever live in this place?”I wondered. The only way to live in India is to be from somewhere else. Probably the best way is to be from Mars. I slunk back to the hotel and completed the run on a treadmill in an air-conditioned underground gym.

I awoke the next morning unable to breathe and with a rattly, chesty cough and resembling in all it’s main features the portrait of Dorian Grey. Usually I’d take a few days off running until whatever was making its home in my lungs went away. However, circumstances were far from normal and from this point onward there was no turning back. I was fucked, but I’d have to ride it out.  I ate a large breakfast of oranges and grapefruit, figuring I’d be needing all the vitamin C I could get my hands on in the days to come, and returned to the gym for a session of hill repeats on the treadmill.

Enjoy the beauty of hills.PHOTO: ENJOY THE BEAUTY OF HILLS

Sunday 27th October 2013.

Ground zero. The squalid village of Maney Bhanjyang (2150m). We arrived sometime around seven in the morning after a seemingly endless spine-cracking, stomach-churning bus ride. There was no frenzied pre-race press conference, but a madness of another kind. The place was a scene of theatrical chaos. Car and bus horns bellowed and wailed like lost cattle. A local band played a random collection of tuneless instruments including bagpipes, bongos, trumpets, accordions, spoons and sitars. The melancholy notes from a pair of snake-charmers flutes competed for attention. Tibetan dancers in spectacularly hideous devil masks jumped around to the ‘music’ looking fearsome. A long line of grubby, excited children in black and white school-uniforms waved a mystifying array of Indian, Nepali and British flags. Bemused villagers were held back by bored-looking soldiers wearing helmets and carrying long white riot sticks.

It was not a good scene to confront feeling as feverish and weak as I did. The previous two days of travel had been a fiendish ordeal as my condition slowly deteriorated. This awful spate of sickness was enough to put the fear of God in a man. And, I noted, this cheerless place wasn’t in anything like close proximity to the Himalayas. It wasn’t even in the foothills. It was more like the foothills of the foothills, the first step up from the swampy wastelands of West Bengal. I was essentially in a jungle. The air was fetid and damp. The sky was a gray, wrinkled blanket. It was a chilly ten degrees centigrade and humidity was 100%.

I was queuing for the ‘bathroom’ when a sad and hopeless beggar limped up to me and held up strange gimcracks for sale, pleading for money. Then a little girl pounced on me and wrapped a white prayer scarf around my neck. Then somewhere in the midst of this zoo of human weirdness a fat man in a tracksuit waved a green flag and off ran fifty runners on stage one, up and up through the trees into an impalpable, fog-soaked sky and a shadowy world that was cold and brown and wasted. Visibility would be something like 50 feet for the next 48 hours.

Twenty one miles and four hours later I completed the stage. The going had been tough and attention-sapping thanks to the miserable disgrace of a cobbled highway upon which I had to run. The ‘road’ had ‘built’ by the third Aga Khan in 1948 to give him access to his Himalayan hunting lodges – he had simply dumped a bunch of rocks out of a helicopter and then neglected the road for 65 years and it was a curse to all who attempted to traverse it’s crumbling, degraded surface. It would have been cruel to have forced a mountain goat to meander it. I outpaced all other road traffic to a staggering degree and was regularly brought to a stuttering halt by the jeeps and trucks that crawled up and down the narrow, boulder-strewn track. Above 3000m my lack of acclimatisation made things even trickier. The air was sticky and heavy and thin and breathing was like trying to suck air through a bent straw. I resorted to the wizard sticks on the steepest pitches  in a desperate attempt to maintain some kind of headway and conserve energy for the days to come.

The ramshackle hill station of Sandakphu (3600m) was our home for the next two nights. Even now, the sight of these words on paper sends a shudder up my spine, long after I have escaped and moved on to other ordeals. I finished stage one just as it started to rain. It came in heavy and cold and reduced the slower runners to various states of misery, hypothermia and despair. More dead than alive, many of them went straight to bed without eating or even changing out of their soaked clothing.

Our race director, The Mahatma, had secured the only decent accommodation in town – a fine Sherpa inn with a well-stocked bar and swanky, ethnic restaurant. The runners, on the other hand, were treated like lepers and forced to squeeze into a tiny, dirty concrete kitchen and eat their meagre rations standing up. Sleeping arrangements were equally cramped and sparse. That night I braved the thick fog and lashing rain and made my way up the hill to The Mahatma’s lodge in search of warmth, alcoholic spirits, and something good to eat.

West Bengalis are probably the most violent people on the continent. The Mahatma’s people were far from happy to see me enter their inner sanctum. There were five of them and the muscles in the backs of their necks instantly bunched up as I entered. The air was flinty with tension. I gave them my best thinking-of-kitties smile and explained that I was thirsty and on the verge of starvation, that I’d be happy to pay for a booze and a meal, but their mood was ugly. By intruding on their turf I’d somehow filled their hearts with hate. Sir, you are in the wrong place, said one. Show me your passport, another demanded. Get out of here you freak, a third chimed in.

And with that I was pushed out of the door by Monkey Man, a huge rat-bastard psychotic with a beer belly, weasel teeth, and a Himalayan 100 baseball cap. I’d liked Monkey Man at first, he’d told a string of increasingly hilarious dirty jokes on one of the death-trap bus rides that had transported us to the start. But now I wanted to kick him the balls like a mule and gouge out his yellow teeth with a chisel. My temper was hovering dangerously on the far edge of control. This barren mountain-top was suddenly like a prison I felt compelled to escape, run like hell and never look back. Fuck these people, I was losing my sense of humour. Had The Mahatma not confiscated my passport before the race and locked it up in his safe back at Race HQ, it was at this point that I would have fled back to Maney Bhanjyang, hired a taxi to Delhi, and put some serious air-miles between myself and this doomed continent.

The combination of a bad chest and the passage from sea-level to 3600m in two days had left me feeling completely out of kilter. My head was pulsating violently and I ached all over. My fingers and toes were numb, my eyes red and sticky, my hair falling out in clumps. My whole body was vegetating, like a fetus in a jar. I doubted my ability to survive the next day’s stage. I was almost out of options, and those that remained were ugly and hopeless. I had to keep ahead of the game and at any cost. I tracked down the official race doctor.

The Doc sported a bushy moustache, had a dull, fixed stare in his eyes, and went very quiet whenever you questioned him about anything relating to the field of medicine. Since day one he’d been dishing out Diamox like candy without any allusion to the side-effects, so I hoped he’d have something potent to combat my chest infection. Steroids perhaps. Or brandy, antibiotics and ketamine. The Doc gave me some valerian root to chew on, a foot massage, and a lesson in deep-breathing to eliminate toxins and help restore balance to my brain, body and spirit. As a treatment for my chest it fell woefully short, but it made me sleepy. I don’t recall going to bed that night, but in the morning, there I was, still in my gloomy, inhospitable cell in Sandakphu, still feeling like shit.

PHOTO: RESORTING TO THE WIZARD STICKS.

PHOTO: RESORTING TO THE WIZARD STICKS.

Monday 28th October 2013.

A thick swirling fog covered everything. It was cold and windy and the wind picked up a fine grit that would turn my face pink and swollen as if with sunburn. I fuelled up on thick, sweet black coffee, it was all I could keep down. I was in unholy shape, my stomach felt like a tree was growing inside it. I felt a tremendous distance between myself and everything real. It was a feeling of inexplicable despair. As I stood shivering on the start line I heard an airplane passing overhead and wished I was on it. Stage one hadn’t been great, I’d walked way too much for my liking. But this was the day my race went to hell in a handbasket, the day my hopes for a respectable time for the hundred – something in the region of twelve hours – were well and truly crushed.

My mood was mean and jangled and I came out of the blocks like a hyena on speed. I instantly regretted it. Attempting to run up the first hill of the day resulted in delirium and flashing white lights. My heart felt like it had flatlined. The cloud-veiled hills clubbed me into dank, clumping submission in the first few miles. Yet my brain was apparently still functioning on some basic motor survival level and I had enough animal strength and detached intelligence to get away with it. In a fit of despair I came up with a foolproof plan: carefully walk the hills in the manner of a turtle, then run like a doomed rat down the other side and pray that by some miracle my body didn’t register the temporary change in pace. And repeat for twenty miles.

The stage was a miserly ten miles out and ten miles back along the Nepalese border – we would run the same route again to begin stage three. The border was marked by a rusty barbed wire fence and pairs of unamused soldiers. They appeared from behind rocks when least expected, damp cigarettes clenched tightly between blue lips, ill fed, underclothed, holes in their boots, and armed to the teeth with a  variety of weapons. The 1947 Kalashnikov was a popular choice. Some carried ancient looking bolt-action carbines. There were shotguns, M16 rifles, submachine guns, and all sorts of side-arms. One fellow carried a sword with a very long, curved blade.

On the whole, stage two was an out-of-body experience and only sporadic memory flashes of it remain. At one point the sun poked it’s head through the cloud. My eyes were swollen almost shut and the sudden appearance of the sun left me stunned and helpless and writhing on the ground in agony like a sick mole. I also remember an army captain riding up to me on horseback on that misty battlefield to ask if I didn’t want to take his ride for a spin. I have never been on a horses back and I declined his offer and he galloped off waving his pistol in the air, letting off a couple of rounds. After three hours of torment I staggered across the line like a stroke victim and went straight to bed and chewed on some valerian root.

10 miles out and 10 miles back.PHOTO: 10 MILES OUT & 10 MILES BACK.

Tuesday 29th October 2013.

The day dawned fresh and crisp for stage three (28 miles). There were big white clouds in the sky. Everyone appeared to be in a good mood, ready to soak up the Himalaya’s special vibrations. Not long after the start Kangchenjunga appeared from behind the clouds like a vision, leaving me momentarily aghast. I stopped running and fumbled in my backpack for the camera, then remembered that I’d had the thing stolen four days earlier at the airport. The first 20 miles or so – contouring around and traversing the crest of the Nepalese border – were perhaps the only miles of the race that I enjoyed the running and appreciated the scenery. There was very little to obscure the view as most of the trees were dead, their branches bare against the wind and the cold.

My spirits rose a notch. The sunshine was brilliant and with the sun on my back I felt strangely normal and fully cranked, like a recharged battery. I managed to run the first ten miles 30 minutes quicker than I had the day before. The role of a dozen double-caffeine Espresso-flavoured gels may also have played a part in my renewed morale and resurgence in fitness. I had to stop only once, and that was to tip-toe very carefully around a herd of yak. The yak is the meanest son of a bitch in the Himalayas. It owns the trail and is not to be crossed. If spooked it’s likely to take off like something shot out of a missile-launcher and crush anything and anyone in it’s path. It’ll snap your bones like toothpicks. If the yak ever develops a taste for human flesh we will all be in trouble. Probably the only thing more dangerous than a stampeding yak is a pissed-off yak-herder.

After a couple of hours on the ridge, the race route plummeted a vertical mile into thick, steamy jungle. The descent was steep and treacherous, a one-foot wide muddy trench for much of it’s length, with many big steps and small bluffs. It was the sort of track where you’d expect to come across more skeletons by the side of it than people actually on it. I leaped over levelled tree trunks like a big kangaroo. Every so often the drop was so steep and so fast that I got an eerie sense of free-fall. The difference between surviving and wiping-out on a downhill like this is simply a matter of conditioned reflexes. The trick is to go faster and faster until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of falling. All the outside noise fades away and your eyes feel big in your head and your focus gets very, very sharp.

There were several small villages towards the bottom, the track ran right through people’s front yards, but I hardly noticed them. I was feeling very much in tune with the thing at this point, my brain was humming. And then it all evaporated and fell apart. The finish line had been rumoured to be at the bottom of the descent, on the far side of a long bridge over a gorge. The rumours were wrong. There were another six mountainous miles of pot-holed tarmac left to cover. You lied to me you bastards, I screamed at no one in particular as I started to go completely to pieces.

I’m going to digress for a moment. The Mahatma was an untiring, untreatable snob. His mouth ran like jelly and he embroidered everything he said with special emphasis. His race briefings were some of the lamest and silliest swill ever uttered by man or beast – tortuously long lectures regarding his awesome array of virtues and his vast wisdom of the known and unknown universe. Crucial information about the race – such as the start time, route profile, arrangements for drop-bags, a description of the terrain, any potential hazards – became lost in a confused tirade of frenzied gibberish and smug self-congratulation. Safety briefings were unnervingly sketchy, and they mostly boiled down to the following:

To sum up, he couldn’t lead a monkey to a banana raffle and it was possibly for this reason that I was in the totally dark as to where stage three finished. Those final miles were the toughest of the whole race for me. I was all out of gels, ragged from the descent, and cramping badly. The road was busy with jeeps ferrying people around and mules carrying heavy loads. A group of giggling school children walked past me on a hill. I felt very foolish. I felt like punching someone. I felt like crying but nothing would come out. Had there been a stand at the side of the road selling coffee and doughnuts, I’d have abandoned there and then. But there wasn’t, so I got my shit together as best I could and closed the thing out. Those final miles had brought me to the brink of hysteria. Yet by the time the next exhausted runner came in I had binged on several packets of chips and bunches of miniature bananas, paid a boy a small fortune to bring me a pineapple daiquiri (he could only find beer, but that was okay), and was over the worst of it.

Early on stage three.PHOTO: EARLY ON STAGE THREE.

Wednesday 30th October 2013.

The final two stages were a disappointment. 13 miles and 17 miles and tarmac every step of the way.  A quick glance at any trekking map of the region would reveal a vast network of cool-looking, interlinked single-track. So why on earth was I running a half-marathon through a dark jungle on the road to a random point halfway up an anonymous hillside and then getting the bus back to where I started?

The Mahatma refused to answer, he didn’t do small talk, he didn’t do banter, he was a surly bastard. All I wanted to do was speak to the man in a decent human manner and find out what he thought about things, but despite repeated requests, he refused to answer my questions, and I had many questions to lay on him, about any problem or any random idea that happened into my mind. What’s your real name? Is The Doc a doctor of medicine or an animal doctor? Where do I go to drink snake venom shots? Is it possible to hunt wild game? Where can I hire an elephant? Where do I go to play poker with a gorilla? Why have I been in Darjeeling for eight days without anybody offering me a cup of tea? Have you fathered any children? Have you ever climbed a mountain? How much do you pay your helpers? What happened to the t-shirts I gave you for the marshals and the $3000 we donated to the helpers?

So to stage four and another fractured day. It was warm and hazy and there was a lot of fast running. I was red-eyed and feverish still, but anybody could be a runner on a day like this. I cruised the stage in 80 minutes with the what-the-hell kind of indifference of a man moving in a hard straight line towards a known horizon. I’d had enough. I wanted out. While waiting for the others to come in I dozed on a deck-chair by the side of the road, fending off the flies and waves of strange memories. The Mahatma eyed me from a safe distance, with an expression like a granite wall.

The good news was we were no longer in Sandakphu. We were now residents of another grimy, backwards little village, Rimbik (2000m), and there was no prohibition in Rimbik. For those last two days I was as contented as a snail. I could go out for a shave and relax and get drunk. The barber’s shop was open and I went in and it smelled of swept dust, shaving cream, pomade, and the wet circles left by beer bottles. I had my beard removed, my nose hairs plucked, and my head expertly massaged while downing a cold one. At the guest house where we were billeted there were two brands of ale available – 4% and 8%. I sat on the balcony of my room overlooking the town and drank and rested and waited for something to happen. Nothing did. What a blessed relief.

On The RoadPHOTO: ON THE ROAD.

Thursday 31st October 2013.

Despite rumours and a dubious history of sightings, Darjeeling’s unique wildlife had so far failed to make an appearance. The Mahatma had been very specific on the danger of tigers in the region. Forget about seeing a tiger, he reassured us all during one of his interminable speeches. You will never see the tiger that kills you. By day five I had seen nothing apart from the ubiquitous crows and dogs, but on the final stage I heard animals of all shapes and sizes whisper to me from unseen places in the impenetrable riot of vegetation that bordered each side of the road. Just another feature of the mad black hole into which I had descended and feared I would never climb back out of.

My central memory of the last day of the race seems to hang on one stark and menacing moment. It was early on in stage five and I was tapping out six minute kilometres on a smooth uphill stretch of tarmac. Because of the drop in altitude I didn’t really notice the grade of the hills any more except with pleasure. A Land Rover slowed to a crawl right alongside me. The window wound down and The Mahatma’s beady yellow eyes peered out at me, glassy with fear and batshit crazy. He said nothing and let his gaze bore into me for several minutes, like an animal peering out of a forest on fire, or like he was looking upon a demon escaped from hell. Or perhaps like he were the demon, trying to think up something that would bring me to my knees. I couldn’t decide which. Then he grunted something at his driver and sped off up the road in a cloud of diesel fumes.

I still don’t know what to make of that, I surely don’t. And I’ve thought about that moment a lot. I was doing a dull thing with style, making an art of the thing, it wasn’t something that could be faked, and he loathed me for it, because he knew in some nervous corner of his heart that to do such a thing took a strength and a discipline he would never possess or even understand. Maybe that was it. From the very beginning The Mahatma had gone to great lengths to point out that this wasn’t a race and that running up the hills really wasn’t appropriate. His constant mantra was Slow Is Good. I had come to think that my only reason for being there at all was to show him that Fast Is Better.

The maddening image of The Mahatma staring me out stayed with me for the rest of the day. The only way to whip it was to hang on until evening and banish the ghosts with beer, let the alcohol seep through my system and turn the bad thoughts into good ones.

PHOTO: SOULJA BOY.

PHOTO: SOULJA BOY.

Sunday 3rd November 2013.

Life is full of surprises. Some you don’t want, like a slug in a shoe, while others are completely unexpected but more than welcome. India is a slug in your shoe. The Himalayan 100 had been a bad trip, a cruel oddity of a race, weird and frenzied in some moments, slow and dirty in others. My only feeling for India was one of absolute and visceral aversion. Too much had happened in those eight long and degrading days and I never did get to really enjoy the beauty of hills. I had learned only one thing and that was, Never Trust A Man In A Tracksuit.

Or was I missing something crucial? It had been 73-year-old Jed’s seventh Himalayan 100 mile stage race. Everything about Jed was old apart from his eyes and they were the same colour as the sky and animated and undefeated. If it gets your blood racing then it’s probably worth doing, he explained to me. And bearing this in mind, I tried to compose a fitting epitaph for the race on the long flight home. Yet there was no escaping the dread that still rattled within my chest; and no escaping the echo of Mr. Kurtz’ final words from The Heart Of Darkness – The Horror! The Horror!


About Martin Cox

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