Days gently slip pass and begin to blur with the morning rituals of tea, breakfast, pack duffle bag and final kit check as the start line beckons. Time spent on the trails reveals how these routes are the lifeblood of the region that connect village to village. We pass mule trains stacked high with bags, gas bottles and foodstuffs; elderly women bent double woven baskets balanced on their heads and swathes of children headed for school. Each day the finish line brings respite for the legs with shared tales of time on the trails over salty noodle soup, before cold showers, stretches to relieve tight muscles, tea and biscuits, yet more food as darkness falls and the warmth of our sleeping bags beckon.
On our third night it’s a privilege to stay at the Hinang Gompa monastery in contrast to our usual tourist lodges. A cluster of buildings with multi-coloured roofs, ornate window and door carvings covered in prayer flags nestled under a massive rock face. The dorm rooms recently vacated by trainee monks for Pokhara over the winter months offer a glimpse into their lives; intricately crafted wax mandalas, piles of prayer books and a tube of Pringles. It’s strange to imagine the daily routine of our rooms usual occupant against my own ‘normal’.
Each day we head onwards and upwards guided by pink ribbons that the locals favour. It’s not uncommon to see young girls with pink ribbons in their hair or once an entire mule train decorated with flashes of pink that adds an extra navigational challenge. The out and back check point on the vast Pungyen Gompa plateau takes us above 4,000m for the first time where the ‘check-in/check-out’ system allows us time to savour the view. I spend a magical hour immersed in the moment as clouds shape shift across the blue sky and sunlight dances across majestic snowy peaks.
Stage five brings one of the world’s highest vertical kilometres (VK) to Manaslu base camp at 4,742m. Far higher beyond these trails in the realm of mountaineers sits the summit of Manaslu or ‘mountain of the soul’ at 8,163m though it’s hidden shrouded in cloud as we zig zag upwards. Base camp is perched on the edge of the glacier and as snow gently begins to fall I’m grateful to head down where the warmth of our lodge and spicy potato and chickpea soup awaits.
Our afternoons are a gentle haze of mellow conversations wrapped in down jackets and huddled around a yak dung fueled fire for warmth. Over the last week ‘normal’ life and the rest of the world has faded. I’ve resisted the temptation to access WiFi connection and let emails, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Strava or Instagram infiltrate this sacred mountain space. In the twenty-first century screen-free time is precious and I’m keen to honour my decision to myself.
Before stage six unfolds children from the local school in Samagaon congregate for the renowned annual race. Toddlers to teenagers sprint the kilometre through the village encouraged by our team with a reward of chocolate, orange juice and stationary at the finish line. The ‘flattish’ nine kilometres with only 450m ascent on paper in the hallowed race roadbook is ‘easy’ to underestimate. Yesterday’s snow turns to mud and the trail becomes similar to trails in soggy southwest England. Each step became a physical ordeal that I can only imagine are comparable to the symptoms of a twenty-a-day smoker habit. A welcome break awaits in Samdo, a remote village perched on a tiny plateau surrounded by steep slopes close to the Tibetan border. It’s populated by third generation Tibetan refugees who created a new home in this harsh environment in the 1970s.
The active ‘rest’ day in preparation for Larkya La high pass (5,106m) crossing involves a twenty kilometre hike to the Nepali/Tibetan border with 1,300m ascent (and descent). My mind marvels at the ‘rest’ description as I trudge forever upwards and struggle to breathe. A tiny red dot in the distance that signals the border turns into a Chinese flag with coils of barbed wire stretched across the snow. It’s a stark reminder of geopolitics at play in a remote far flung valley which impacts the day-to-day lives of so many people.
From the frosty village of Bimtang nestled in a steeped sided valley stage seven sweeps downwards through coniferous forests. After nine days I’m physically and mentally depleted; each step a struggle. The steep descent and change in altitude affects my sight and the path becomes a blurred whirl. My pace grounds to a halt as I carefully manoeuvre trees stumps, rocks and streams until the swirls recede and my vision becomes clear. Relieved and exhausted I cross the final finish line to enter Tilje where Diwali festivities are in full swing.
Within the blink of an eye it’s all over… The avid contrast of days in the Himalayan mountains to the hustle and congested bustle of Kathmandu. It’s time for final celebrations and goodbyes as our group heads back to their lives scattered across the globe forever united by shared experiences and memories for a few precious days. Until our paths cross again…
Monthly Cycle – Race Day 1 annoyingly corresponded with day 1 of my monthly cycle with period logistics and stomach cramps along the way. This low hormone phase can enhance athletic performance though I’d opt to avoid the worry of possible leakage.
Drink Tea – There’s always time for tea; especially the sweet and spicy milky goodness of Masala tea. Tea is key to help hydrate; rest and enjoy a good chat over.
High Altitude - It takes time to adjust the lofty heights of the Himalayas and anyone can succumb to high-altitude sickness a range of symptoms; blurred vision, swollen testicles, coughs, psychosis and more. At sea level the effectively available oxygen is 20.9% compared to 11% for our high point at 5,160m which places stress on the body. Refer back to Top Tip number 2 – Drink tea.
Surrounded by Poverty - Nepali rural communities scratch a hard living from the land and it’s particularly tough as winter sets in. The traditional slate roof houses where the yaks and chickens live downstairs and the locals live upstairs kept warm with yak-poo fires are a stark contrast to western lifestyles. I feel incredibly privileged to have the means to be able to travel and take part in trail running events within the UK and overseas. The costs involved in footwear, clothing, race entry and travel means it’s sadly inaccessible for a large proportion of our global population. We collectively need to re-think solutions to improve accessibility so everyone can enjoy our sport.
Manaslu trail race is more than a race. Daily podium positions and times which switch between the pros and Nepalis; then overall results fail to capture the essence of this special event. If you’re a runner or strong hiker seeking respite from the modern world, who feels the urge to connect with others and be in awe at the power of Mother Nature - this event could be for you.
Thank you for joining my journey to the highest mountains on our planet.