Staring into the tiny dark eye was like connecting with an intelligent being from different world. Their bendy trunk curled and wriggled as I cleaned their wrinkly skin with water from the Rapti river in Chitwan National Park. Nepal has always held a special place in my heart since being that awe-struck eleven year old dressed in a red and white stripy swimming costume washing an elephant.
Over the years I’ve been drawn back again and again to this country, home to the biggest mountain playground on our planet to wonder and wander. My passion for running led to completing the Everest marathon in 2007 with my father and I’ve returned as a World Challenge (2013) and Duke of Edinburgh (2015) expedition leader to share the delights with students. I’d planned to return in 2020 though sadly my entry to the Mustang Trail race was yet another COVID casualty.
At the end of 2022 planning the year ahead my intention was firmly set to return though it took a degree of juggling project commitments with some squeezy deadlines to give myself permission and space to step away from normal life for over three weeks. I was determined to live what I discuss daily with my coaching clients to create a work/lifestyle which aligns with my values and beliefs.
Nepal is a trekkers paradise with iconic routes in the Everest and Annapurna regions where tourism has exploded in recent years. The Manaslu circuit nestled between the Tibetan border and Annapurna range remains largely untouched and quieter. The 110 mile (177 km) route is usually tackled in thirteen to seventeen days; the Manaslu trail race takes a speedier nine days (seven stages with two additional ‘active’ rest/pass crossing days). There’s also a chunky 12,310m ascent the equivalent of one and half times the height Everest though slightly less descent at 10,274m. If you’re interested to dive into further statistics on the route – check out – link here.
The bustling and hustling vast urban sprawl of Kathmandu is the gateway to Nepal and within this metropolis tourists congregate in Thamel. It’s a relief to hunt out old haunts; Kathmandu Guest House, Garden of Dreams, Himalayan Java café, yoga @ Thamel, Seeing Hands massage centre and Durbar Square. The chaotic traffic, persistent street hawkers, spicy Nepali food, colourful temples and talkative street dogs assault my senses and are a welcome change to my norm.
The aptly named Manaslu Hotel is our race HQ and home for the first few days where it’s a pleasure to meet my running buddies for this challenge. It’s the people that lie at the heart of multi-stage running events with a melting pot of global nationalities; chatty South Africans, straight-talking Swiss, self-deprecating Brits and laid-back Italians. Friendships are formed fast across generations united by a shared love of the mountains and running. An eclectic group of individuals who form a powerful self-contained and supportive community for a few brief days; then connections that last a lifetime.
There’s time to pack, weigh, repack and weigh kit again to meet the requisite 10kg for the mules who kindly carry our necessities from camp to camp. The thorough race briefing covers all safety essentials; hand washing, altitude, sickness, getting lost etc. There’s an optional shake-out run to Shivpuri Peak which at only 2,732m immediately dwarfs any lumpy bit of England; particularly my nearby favourite training hill near the Westbury White Horse which reaches a lofty 80m. Halfway up seemingly endless stairs with my legs burning and lungs on fire a wistful regret flitters through my mind; ‘I’ve not done ‘enough’ training’… whatever that could have been over the last few months.
The following day buses are packed and loaded with people and bags and the impenetrable smog of Kathmandu fades into the rear view mirror. Grey soot covered vegetation gives way to greenery and terraced fields cut into vertical mountain sides. Eight bone rattling and spine juddering hours later we’re welcomed with a shower of Mala (Marigold) petals to the small village of Soti Khala which sits on the banks of the roaring Buri Gandaki river. Over the next few days we’ll trace the river to its source high up on the Nepali/Tibetan border.
Day one dawns bright and clear with the prospect of 2080m vertical ascent (and more troublingly descent for my knees - 1650m descent). Ultra-running is a delicate balance of energy conservation against speed; the ability to push limits without breaking. Multi-stage events take this to another level. My ‘be the tortoise’ mantra circles internally on repeat as Ashma, Nirmala and Julin three sprightly female Nepali trail-runners and Mimmi and Ida both leggy blonde athletic Swedish pros effortlessly float into the distance.
Dialing into a steady rhythm metres fall away tracked by a trail of fellow runners; Tor, Catalin, Joe, Simon and Andrew. Silence is momentarily broken with murmurs of conversation as our route passes the villages of Lapu and Lapsibot both devastated by the 2015 earthquake and subsequently rebuilt. The first snowy peak of Ganesh Himal slides into view and dominates the horizon before the brutal descent back towards the Buri Gandaki river and time to rest before tomorrow’s challenge.
Over the next few days it’s clear there’s a rigorous military precision to the ‘behind the scenes’ logistics to care for forty-five runners at altitude and organise the race that is headed up by the dynamic duo Richard and Neer. The chef performs daily magic to create tasty meals on a single burner, the trail markers rise before dawn to adorn the trail ahead with pink ribbons, muleteers coax reluctant beasts upwards weighted down with bags and the doctor ponders twisted ankles, tendons and testicles.
To be continued*
Note* After arriving back into the dark and cold of English winter and reflecting on my experiences these words blossomed into a couple of posts. Watch this space for Part 2.
Thank you for joining my journey to the highest mountains on our planet.
Manaslu trail race team - Ananta
My younger self aged eleven with my brother - Thanks to my dad (Edward Watson) for hunting through family archives. Sadly no elephant washing photos!
Buddha's Eye at Boudhanath in Kathmandu - Anna-Marie
Marigold petals in my hair for our arrival in Soti Khola - Caught on camera by Ananta
Upwards. Forever upwards - Snapped on the trails by Toni Spasenoski
The Himalayan Night Sky - Captured by Toni Spasenoski