Here’s the final installment on the Bhutan race series. Enjoy!
It’s race time. I’m trying to keep my eyes open long enough to at least record a few thoughts and memories I would like to keep from the last two days. It is already the night after stage 2. Stage 1 went really well. I had a lovely checkpoint that I shared with Laura in a little open air shack by a large suspension bridge. Prayer flags fluttered in the breeze while white water rafters hooted and hollered down the river. A handful of people were struggling with the altitude which was odd since we were well under 2000 meters. I think people are starting to think themselves sick with thoughts of altitude sickness. Our camp after stage 1 was at a monastery. It was so sweet – a few of the monks would come and talk to me. Mainly to practice their English but maybe also as a small window to the rest of the world. We were invited to take part in one of their sacred Buddhist ceremonies. It was so cool! And I was so thankful to get that opportunity. In a small, elaborately decorated room rows and rows of monks rocked and chanted. There were statues of Buddha – past, present, and future. The incense and the chanting made for a very unique experience. I won’t forget it anytime soon.
Today was physically very challenging. I think that the ADK winter school was actually a little more difficult but this was no walk in the park. It was 29 km with an elevation change of roughly 2000 meters. I starting walking with my medical kit about an hour before the runner’s start time. There was no vehicle access on Stage 2, so once I started walking, there was no way else to go except up… and to the finish. The dogs from the monastery walked with us, and ended up following the first runner all the way to our camp. We walked through step cultivated fields, and thick jungle, and mud, and tiny villages. But most importantly – we walked up. Roughly 14 km straight up a mountainside. I fell twice because the rocks and mud were so slippy. I was exhausted the first bit of the climb but finally fell into a rhythm. Just like with the winter school, once I started getting enough fluids and food into me, my legs finally had a little get up and go. There were leaches everywhere! Apparently they sit on rocks and in trees, and fall on unsuspecting travelers. Really… heat seeking flying leaches!?! I had a giant one on my wrist. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I squealed just a little bit like a girl. Oh well, not my finest hour. We got stuck behind a bunch of cows on the trail, and even got charged by the bull of the group. I felt like the climb would never stop, but it did. And then came the 10 km of straight downhill. It went well though. I felt happy while walking despite the physical struggle. I feel proud of this body that propelled me up and down a mountain. I also feel humbled by the course.
Stage 3 was another tough climb. The course ends at a very sacred monastery that stands at 3,600 meters. There is no car access to this holy space, so everything has to be carried up and hauled by mules. We walked from the last point accessible on the road and it was a roughly 4 km climb. The path was steep and rocky. This day was the auspicious day that the Buddha was both born and died, so the trail up was covered with pious Buddhist pilgrims headed to the monastery. There was a celebratory atmosphere with family groups stopping often for tea with traditional music blasting from tinny portable speakers. We were offered refreshments more than once but we had to make it to the top before the runners started streaming past. I figured if elderly women in long skirts and plastic sandals could make the climb, I really should try to tone down my huffing and puffing. The view from the top was gorgeous! And the monks were much friendlier than expected. I spent the entire day at the finish line as Erin could not make the climb up. There were no major issues thankfully. I had treated a few cases of altitude sickness the night before to prevent problems at our high sleeping altitude. The runners played a soccer match against the monks which seemed to be the highlight of everyone’s evening. We lost. The monks took the match quite seriously and you could tell that they had been practicing. Guess what was for dinner again???? Rice and vegetables. Just like every other night. I have never had to eat the exact same thing over and over again before and it is a bit of a struggle. I hate to complain because the staff is so great, and it’s wonderful that we have food catered for us. But….. I have been forcing myself to eat at every meal because I know that I need the calories but it’s getting tougher and tougher. Good thing that I never travel anywhere without massive quantities of snacks. The buffalo pretzels, goldfish, beef sticks, and fruit snacks have been irreplaceable. After dinner, it was an unbelievable view when the moon came out. There was a pale, full moon peaking in and out of the clouds perfectly framed by mountains. I tried to take a number of pictures but of course it did the incredible setting no justice. We slept in a small classroom on the floor. It was cold but I was happy to finally take my sleeping bag out of the compression sack. I slept like a rock!
5:30am of Stage 4 had me getting ready to get out on the course. I walked down 11+ km to checkpoint 1 with one of the local guides. It was a gorgeous walk. I could not have been happier to be on the trail in the early morning. The first few km were still a climb and my legs were wailing their protests. But then the trail meandered through a meadow and then a steady downhill trek through virgin forest. I chatted with my guide, Kinzang, most of the way down. I learned a lot about both Buddhist and Bhutanese culture. A few of the runners passed us and were in good spirits. This walk has created a lot of happy memories. At checkpoint 1, there was a little fire by a stream. This is such an unspoiled and beautiful country. One of our runner’s was having a problem with mentally tackling the distance but decided to continue on for one more checkpoint. She ultimately dropped out but I’m glad that she showed herself that she was capable of going farther than she wanted to. The drive to our farm camp was horrendous. We were stopped for at least 30 minutes on the road while an endloader completed a construction project. Then the winding road coming off the mountain commenced. Stefan kept telling our driver that he was too slow which made for tire squealing turns around blind corners in the other lane. Gooooooood. Cows and people vied for space on the blacktop as well. After several white knuckle hours, we arrived at a dingy and fly-ridden farm house. A dimpled toddler showed off for his guests with his coke chugging antics. It was touching to see all of the runners wait to eat their dinner until our last racer made it in. We made a little tunnel for him to run through. I love the camaraderie at these events. Dinner was more of the same…bleh. I was exhausted after dinner and my little spot on the floor felt like a small semblance of home when I crawled onto my therma-rest. Two more stages with tomorrow being the long day. Almost there.
Thankfully the long day went smoothly and was not quite as long as expected. The runners started their ultra in two separate groups. We all kind of dreaded yet expected a finish in the dark. I was at checkpoint 4 along with Laura. By far, the filthiest checkpoint of all of Global Limits races. We shared a small space of concrete with the flies, the garbage, two town drunks, and lots of dogs. The one bright moment of a very long and hot day was getting some local dumplings with extremely hot chili sauce. The runners came through quickly and in high spirits despite the intimidating distance of the day and the heat. Stage 5 ends at the ruins of a Bhutanese fortress. It was a tight cork-screwing pass that allowed one to gain entry to the finisher’s circle. There was not much to see at the ruins but it was a peaceful place to pass away a few hours. At least the fly population was slightly more moderated. After all runners were in, it was clinic time. Despite just a small distance to complete in the morning, there was a lot of requests for medical assistance this night. Strained ankles, abrasions, black toe nails, muscle soreness, chafing, gurgling stomachs, and the ever-present blister. I was happy to comply with requests as all of these racers were just one day from being finishers.
4:30AM came early on the last day. It always does. Krista and I picked up Hellen, one of the racer’s girlfriends, so that she could see the grand finale. The luggage truck ride up the mountain was hair-rising to say the least. And it seemed that the more we squealed, the more the driver laughed and jammed his foot onto the gas. We made it to the parking area with some vertigo but otherwise unscathed. It’s about a 4 km walk up to Tiger’s Nest – an extremely holy monastery and religious site for the Buddhist religion. It was a hell of a climb… like usual. The views of the mist in the surrounding mountains was breathtaking. And the view of Tiger’s Nest, which looked to be about straight up, was intimidating. We got into a traffic jam on the way up as one of the most holy Buddhist Tibetan monks was visiting for the day. Unfortunately this individual is wheelchair bound therefore a team of younger monks shouldered him, literally, up the narrow and steep path. Throngs of pilgrims shuffled in their wake. We finally reached the finish area and began to get ready for the first runners. I still never manage to avoid feeling emotion as each person that I have cheered on all week crosses the finish line. Some runners are nonchalant about their accomplishment, others break down into hugs and cries. I am always thankful to be part of this little world. Congrats team!
The day and a half after the race is over is truly to be savored. We are staying at a 5-star hotel outside of Paro. The imposing grey stone structure is covered in beautiful and colorful carvings. There is even a spa! Laura and I treat ourselves to a relaxation massage and I can’t remember feeling more relaxed in my life. There are no flies here, toilets to sit on, cold drinks to be had, and beds! Luxury! The ending ceremony is touching but seems like a stepping stone until everyone can head out downtown to truly celebrate. My comment – I can sleep when I’m dead, when I’m in Bhutan I karaoke. Manu commandeered us a party bus and the vehicle was totally full and blasting early 2000’s hip hop as it pulled away from our hotel. The karaoke bar unfortunately was having technical difficulties but we were able to find “Club Insomnia” where our crew took over not only the dance floor but behind the bar area as well. Another rowdy bus ride found us exhausted and back at the hotel. What a perfect way to end a difficult week!
There is no rest for the weary…. I leave in just a few days for another multi-stage race. I don’t need my passport for this one as it is in the Western US. Check out Desert Rats to get a heads up on what I will be up to next. (I’m already here by the way, sorry, I have gotten behind on my blogging)
Thanks for reading! And thanks to all the runners for sharing a small piece of their impressive running lives with me. It is always a pleasure to take care of you.