The Annapurna Ultra mountain run might just put the country on the map. What happened when our writer gave it a spin?
Ringed by 7,000m and 8,000m peaks, Annapurna Base Camp lies in the centre of a small basin, known as the Sanctuary. Ever since the mountain was first climbed by Maurice Herzog’s 1950 expedition, ABC has become both a destination for trekkers and a starting point for mountaineers. But at 4am on Sunday morning, as we trudged up the slopes in the strange half-light produced by a dark sky and a white ground, we were neither. Instead, we were approaching the start line of Annapurna Ultra mountain run (the AUM – pronounced as the Hindu mantra ॐ).
Having recently swapped the sweltering humidity of Nigeria for the breathtaking altitudes of Nepal, my first move was naturally to look for a local ultramarathon. The internet answered my call in the form Les Chevaliers du Vent, a French running group, engaged on a two-week tour, which kindly consented to my joining them for their main event.
Such was my naivety that I had envisaged leaving work on the Friday afternoon in time the group for the race on Sunday. Then I was politely informed (a week beforehand) that the start line was at least three days’ walk away from the nearest road. Fortunately the Diwali holidays gave me a small chance of making it, and a dig through the stockrooms of Kathmandu provided most of the requisite kit. So, after a flight to Pokhara and a bumpy bus journey, I set off up the mountain in search of a chap called Bruno, sustained on my ascent by a combination of dahl bat (lentils and rice) and Nepalese apple pie.
Halfway up the mountain I spied some wiry looking Francophones – and after a stereotypically frosty reception they turned out to be a lovely bunch. The only problem was that it had been 10 years since I last tried to speak schoolboy French – and I wasn’t even any good at it then.
Les Chevaliers deserve a proper introduction: organised by Bruno Poirier, a legend of Nepalese trail running, the group of 30 runners contained two families, lots of gold teeth, about 50 UTMB finishes (Europe’s most famous 100 miler), and barely an ounce of fat.
At 6.30am, with the south face that Chris Bonington’s expedition famously scaled in 1970 towering behind us, we started running. A dozen Nepalese runners shot off, possibly to compensate for their wholly inadequate clothing in tje sub-zero temperatures. With 83km, 2,100m of ascent and 5,500m of decent to g,o I plodded off at a decidedly more pedestrian pace.
Within the first few hours we seemed to have travelled through three entirely different seasons: from deep snow and wheezy altitudes to icy steps and leafy forests and then to scorching unshaded mountain paths; all equally beautiful and painful in their own particular way.
For a while, I found myself running with a couple of Nepali runners, until I realised that I had neither the knees nor the risk appetite to stick with them as they threw themselves down uneven steps perched precariously on the side of precipices. After that it was merely a question of trying to keep them in my sights on the gruelling uphill marches and the very occasional flats.
It being high season, I also had to squeeze past or, on one improvised occasion, practically hurdle over some startled trekkers. On the plus side it meant the route was well lined with tea houses selling boiled water and Nepal’s famously energising Coconut Crunchee biscuits.
With 20km to go it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other; fortunately, this sport doesn’t ask much more than that. By the time I finally reached our destination in the lovely lakeside town of Pokhara, the two leading Nepalese were showered and changed although, satisfyingly, I just about managed to hold off the French.
Until now, running in Nepal has mainly been the domain of elite professionals in training and a few hardcore amateurs, but this country has unrivalled attractions as an ultramarathon destination. And it’s not just the trails that have untapped potential. A new generation of Nepalese runners, conditioned by years of carrying heavy loads up and down mountains, are beginning to receive professional training. The results are impressive, with Mira Rai recently pulling off a great victory in the MSIG HK 50 in Hong Kong.
So, if stunning snow-capped scenery, endless winding mountain trails and supportive, if slightly perplexed, locals sounds like a good holiday to you then I can’t recommend trail running in Nepal enough. (Source: The Guardian)
::The start line of the race Photograph: Alfie Pearce-Higgins
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