On Saturday, I completed my first ultra marathon trail race – the Western Kathmandu Valley Rim 50k!! It was probably the most difficult physical challenge I’ve ever accomplished – and was achieved with the help of fun and supportive running (and non-running) friends, Nepal’s scenery (which is hugely motivational for me, even when seriously fatigued), and the many Snickers bars I consumed along the way. Four, to be exact.
On the car ride back from the Jamacho trail race in January, Chris, Suman and I decided that we would run the 50k race in March (maybe they had decided earlier than that, but high on endorphins after that 18k race, I distinctly remember that being the moment when I thought – Ok yeah, my goal has been to finish a 50k this year, my running friends are on board, let’s do this!)
Over the past two months or so, I’ve been training for the race with my usual running crew – Chris & Suman – with some runs thrown in with Raj, Narayan and others. I built up to running about 35-45 miles per week, with some long 20ish mile runs thrown in. I could tell I was gaining strength and endurance, and things were looking good.
Still though, nothing can quite prepare you for a 50k, and especially not one like the Western KTM Valley 50k, which demands 3,816m (~12,000 ft) of elevation gain over the course’s 31 miles. Czech out that elevation map:
From seasoned ultra/trail runners, I had learned the game plan for survival: walk (literally) every uphill, run the flats and downs. As someone used to running races in which you actually RUN the entire time, it initially seemed counterintuitive to walk so much of a running race (hell, you don’t even stop during a road marathon!). But having run enough of the hills around Kathmandu to respect their hilly-ness, this plan made the daunting 50k feat seem doable. Packing my running bag the night before – stuffing nuts, gummy bears, and muesli bars into every available crevice, I felt pretty calm.
The gun went off at 7:15 am, and we immediately started the first climb up Jamacho.
This is a STEEP climb (~1,000m climb over 3k of distance), but one which rewards you with a stupa, cheerful prayer flags and (on a clear day) amazing mountain views – though none on this race day. I made it to this point with Suman, and we took a victorious photo together at the top.
After Jamacho, the real trials of miles/miles of trials began. I ran with a few other women/guys for awhile, but then after Checkpoint #1, found myself alone – for the hottest, most difficult part of the course (if you refer back to the elevation map, it’s that HUGE climb in the middle). That was one humbling hill. I had to stop about every 10-20 meters just to re-group and catch my breath. Shoutout to my friend Sarah, who had provided me with Sports Beans (you can’t really find nutrition stuff like Gu, etc. here, so I have been saving those electrolyte-laden beans for weeks!) – I swear those Sports Beans got me up that monster hill. Stuffed them all into my mouth, chased ’em with a Snickers, and slowly made it up and over.
While going up the ‘hill’ (hate calling these hills ‘hills’ – they are mountains, people! but not when the Himalayas are in your backyard…), my legs aching, my lungs strained, sweat pouring down my face, I resolved myself to doing the 33k instead (I knew there was an upcoming turnoff where some runners would do the shorter route while others would continue on for the 50). But funny enough, as soon as the hill was over, my legs felt refreshed, I got my breath back, and by the time I reached the next checkpoint, I was feeling good again. Ironically, the folks at the checkpoint then tried to convince me to do the 33k route, but there were other Nepali guys continuing on to the 50k, so at least I’d have some people to run with for awhile. Off on the 50k route we went, no turning back.
The rest of the race was much more ‘pleasant’ – albeit still really tough. It was so nice to be running with other people! We reached the next checkpoint pretty quickly (it was pretty much an all downhill ~7k stretch) – and this checkpoint was managed by villagers who presented us with flowers and homemade roti, among myriad other treats. They were really nice people, and I also felt energized by their telling us that I was the second female to come through (after superstar Nepali runner Mira Rai)!
More uphills. A guy named Mahindra and I separated from the rest of the guys and did our walk/run routine up and down rolling hills for the next 8k or so. We reached the next checkpoint, which was in a beautiful village nestled in the hills behind Champadevi. The villagers running this checkpoint were quite hilarious. The sequential questions they asked me, in Nepali: 1) do you have a baby? 2) are you married? 3) do you have a boyfriend? 4) how MANY boyfriends do you have? Cue LOTS of laughter. Mahindra and I laughed along and went on our way.
From behind, we saw another woman (Katiya – I think?) catching up to us, and she turned out to be an ultra veteran (has done 100k+ races before). She set a faster pace for us going up Champadevi, and was very motivational. With her stamina, strength and determination pulling us up the hill, she, Mahindra and I made it to the next checkpoint – at the 42k mark.
At that point, something kind of animalistic emerged inside me, and I decided the race NEEDED to be over. I was exhausted, I wanted to be done (we had been going for 8+ hours at this point). I grabbed another Snickers, downed some water, and started off at a jog. Slowly I peeled away from Katiya and Mahindra and forced my legs to take me up and down the rolling hills of Champadevi until we reached the staircase, which I’ve hiked before. I knew exactly how far it was to the finish line, and decided to give it all I had.
Not sure exactly how fast I did the last 5k, which was mostly downhill save for one last gruesome staircase – but it felt like a sprint. Once I crested the hill heading toward Hattiban, I could hear the festival and knew I was close. I barreled downhill as fast as I could and before I knew it, the 50k, those 31 miles, the farthest I’ve ever run –
And that was that. Then, pizza and a beer.