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Achieving The Inconceivable: Climbing 3600m During A 55km Mountain Race In Nepal

Five important life lessons from having the curiosity to get to the start line and courage to get to the finish. 

The starting line of this story is the moment I signed up for the 55km race in Nepal. It wasn’t a bucket list item. (I don’t believe in bucket lists…but that’s a different story!) I signed up for a writing retreat in Nepal (no bucket for this one either) because I’d never been to Nepal, the itinerary sounded great and there’s nothing better than hanging out with people doing something I love. 

As I often do, once signed up for the writing retreat, I searched online to see what running races were happening while I was in Nepal. “Oh look! A 55km trail race in the Annapurna Mountains. I’ve never climbed that high or run that far before. I’m going to sign up for that!” (You can read more about my pre-race reflection and goal setting in this post “What was I trying to prove?”

Fast forward from sign up in June 2019 to the actual race start on Oct 26, 2019. It was 4am and dark. Very dark. We were in the small village of Dhampus in the Annapurna mountains. The only light was from the racers’ mandatory headlamps. Both 100k and 55k racers huddled in the start line corral shivering in the damp morning mountain air. Without much fanfare, the start signal sounded and about 160 runners shuffled forward, eventually picking up speed and spreading out into a long string of lights weaving through the darkness. 

A smile settled on my face. I’d been looking forward to the start, curious about what this journey would entail. Reflecting inward on this sacred 55k journey of the unknown, I glanced up to determine if the tunnel feeling was because we were under a bridge or a canopy of trees. Thwack!! Face down in the rocks, blood oozing from the tear in my running pants on my left knee, my right palm aching and bruised from taking the brunt of the fall.

Lesson 1: Don’t look up when running in the dark!

Pay attention to the path to identify and navigate rocks, roots and unknown twists, turns, ups and downs. (This lesson applies when feeling ‘in the dark’ or unknown on any new project or activity – pay attention to the markers to see the potential hazards and ensure safe forward progress!)

I had tripped over a rock on the flat path which I could have easily avoided had I been paying attention to the path ahead instead of looking up. I realized my curiosity would have to wait till daylight. My task at this moment was to ensure steady forward progress from an upright position. I brushed the dirt out of the big scrape on my knee and continued running. 

While somewhat concerned about the throbbing pain in my hand for when the time came to pull out my climbing poles, I focused on re-connecting to my joy of finally running in the mountains. Besides, fretting wouldn’t accomplish anything other than deplete my energy. 

Because it was so dark and the reflective directional markers on the ground difficult to see, I stayed close to a runner just in front of me. I didn’t want to get lost in this deep dark on a now winding, shifting, zigzagging path.

The next 10 km passed uneventfully as I melted into the meditative rhythm of my feet moving my body along the path. Suddenly I was jarred into alertness at the sound of clackity thump, clackity thump. My fellow runner was moving quickly across a long narrow bridge. Without forethought I picked up my pace to keep him in my line of sight. It was still pitch black out and unknown to him, he was my guide.  

Shortly after the bridge, the darkness began to fade and the splendour of our surroundings took form through the murky light. More light coincided with higher elevations and the view became more spectacular. It also meant that we could see what was ahead. I stopped and gasped. Stretching like a thread across a large canyon was another bridge. So long! So narrow! So high! So scary! The red plastic tape marker in the tree confirmed that we were meant to go across. I knew right away that this was the same style of bridge we had crossed earlier in the dark yet seeing this one now was unnerving. 

Crossing wasn’t optional however. I walked steadily along the seeming never-ending expanse putting one foot in front of the other, not looking left or right or down. When I arrived at the 3rd (!) similar style bridge later in the day, my fear had diminished and I moved more confidently across – walking – but moving without hesitation.

Lesson 2: Just say yes and trust in the outcome.

Sometimes being courageous in the dark is a good thing. Especially if we know the way forward. Just go. Don’t waste time making up fearful stories about what we see before us.

In the preamble on the race website, the route was described as 18 km of rolling terrain  followed by 12 km of climbing with a 2000m rise in elevation. In reality it was 20km of up and up and up. While I hoped for a reprieve with some flat running, it really was wishful thinking. Up we went.

Throughout the endless climbing and the entire race, I remember feeling acceptance of the challenge, determination to get to the finish, and awe of what I was accomplishing and the stunning surroundings. I credit my custom yoga training with Yogrishi Vishvketu with fortifying me with the stamina, resilience and energy necessary to make it to the top. 

At about 32 km – and 11.5 hours –  I reached what I thought was the peak. Excited to now be descending I paused for a cup of warm tea. Not so I learned. “You have one more km to climb to high camp. It will take you about 2 hours to get up and back.” How could that be? How could 1km take so long? I soon found out. Vertical climbing in altitude which felt like slow motion. Hauling myself up rocks and makeshift stairs of rock, using my climbing poles and raising my knees higher than my waist on each step of the toughest portions. Yet I made it!! Up to high camp, a little more than 3600m. Yippee!

Lesson 3: ‘Steady with your mind and fluid with your body’ as the yogis say.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Engage your mind in the task at hand to keep energy flowing. Physical motion combined with mindful focus enables you to access your reserves of untapped potential and endless energy. 

Finally I began my decent down the mountain after obtaining my wrist band to prove I’d made it to the top! Exactly as forewarned, it took me 2 hours to do the 1km climb and return back to checkpoint 4. As I moved past the checkpoint, a woman called out to me. “They’re closing check point 5 at 7pm. You won’t make it. You’re going to have to stay on the mountain overnight. It’s getting dark. You can stop now.” It was 5:30 pm and I had no intention of stopping. “There isn’t a cutoff time for the 55km race. Why are they closing it?” The race assistant didn’t know. Not wanting to waste anymore time, I took off down the path. I knew I wouldn’t make it to checkpoint 5 by 7pm but I wanted to keep going anyway. 

Luck was with me! Just behind me was my running ‘guide’ from the morning. We’d been leap frogging each other all day and together we navigated our way down in the diminishing light. Our progress was slow. They didn’t have the reflective night markers at this stage of the race  only the red plastic tape hanging up in trees and bushes. In the dark, as I’d learned first thing in the race (see Lesson 1!) we need to look down to find the path and navigate the obstacles. Since there weren’t any reflective markers at ground level we had to keep stopping and scan the trees with our headlamps to determine the route. Slow going even as we came out of altitude. 

Eventually the race assistants caught up with us and insisted that we stop for the night. It was 8pm at this time. We knew we were close to checkpoint 5 but it had already closed. Frustrated, angry, and without options, my now running partner, Chanwit, and I reluctantly agreed to stop. I stopped my watch at this time too. 16 hours elapsed time. Sigh. How I wished I could keep going. I had the energy and wherewithal but circumstances and last minute rule changes got in the way. 

Lesson 4: Be your own navigator.

On two separate occasions during the first 20 km I ended up off course by blindly following the runner in front of me, trusting that they were going the right way. Extra distance meant an exponentially larger amount of extra time because of the difficulty of the course. While the total distance added from these wrong turns and back tracking was only 3 km, the time was much more significant because of the steep climbing and slowing effects of altitude. After the second time off course, I became diligent about navigating for myself and staying on course. While I’ll never know, I may have made the cutoff time at checkpoint 5 had I not gone off course and if I’d known there was a cutoff!

We were back on the course by 5am the next morning. Chanwit took off quickly. Since time no longer mattered (although I did restart my watch), I chose to enjoy the journey ‘down’ the mountain. I say 'down' in quotes because the volume of uphill and stairs was astonishing for a downhill! One segment involved climbing about 6 sections of steep stone stairs…up and up and up. At the top I came out of the forest into a never-ending expanse of bright blue cloudless sky. An extraordinary moment punctuated by the fact that my watch said 55km. My personal finish line on the clearest day of my entire 5 weeks in Nepal. I stopped for a few moments taking it all in, acknowledging myself for what I had accomplished. 

With a smile on my face and warmth in my heart, I carried on to the ‘official’ race finish. Only there wasn’t a finish line. The organizers had packed up and disappeared, apparently unconcerned about the people who had to stay on the mountain overnight. (More than 25 I heard.) An unimpressive ‘finish’ in many respects – no sign of race activity, no luggage, no medical support if needed, no transport back to town. I’m glad I took the time to enjoy my magic finishing moment a few km back on the mountain. Along with a few other morning finishers, we arranged a taxi, located our luggage and got where we needed to go. 

Lesson 5: Be your own official.

Don’t let anyone else decide what’s good enough or whether you ‘finished’. Especially when they randomly change the rules with no forewarning. 

According to the online race stats, my race was recorded as a DNF (did not finish). No athlete ever wants to have these three letters as their finishing time. My ego fuelled my initial reaction. “What will people think? Everyone looking online will see this DNF!” I had no time to moan about it because I had to fly back to Kathmandu for my writing retreat that same day. 

Once settled in Kathmandu and having some good food, rest and reflection time, my heart won over my ego. Who were they to say what was good enough? Who were they to say I didn’t  finish after changing the rules? What I know for sure is that I did finish the entire distance, plus an extra 3km! The break overnight was not my choosing however I wouldn’t trade my spectacular ‘photo finish’ line the next morning for anything. 

Getting to the start line was extraordinary in and of itself. My overall race specific experience for this race in Nepal was minimal however my strategic training that took all these factors into account including integrating yoga as a primary practice, got me to the top and to the finish…without pain, injury, soreness, blisters or tightness. Extraordinary as well! I was tired after engaging my body, mind and spirit for such a long time. And I was elated. Exuberant at what I’d accomplished. The race felt a hundred times harder than I could have imagined. Even the professional athletes said it was much harder than they expected. And yet this once chubby smoking party girl completed it too. Yippee yahoo!!

Now I can take all that I’ve learned and test it out at the Squamish 50k in British Columbia this summer. Always eager to find more in me! (Update: waiting for summer 2022 to do this race due to pandemic postponement.) 

Lasting Lesson: Listen to your heart.

You’ve got what it takes to accomplish your secret wishes or dreams or crazy ideas like climbing mountains or trying something completely new or career goals like growing your business. You have the wherewithal to make it real. Your possibilities are unlimited. Just take one step and then another, course correct if needed and then keep moving. You pick your start line and you officiate your finish line. You decide what’s good enough. And you don’t need a medal to prove it. In your heart you’ll be glowing and your shining eyes will reflect your accomplishment from the inside.

What life lessons have you learned by taking on a seemingly inconceivable goal?  How did it change you? By the way, I'm sure it did change you because that's what really big goals do for us... and that's why we do them!!!

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