pics: ROBERT SPENCE
"I think that's the hardest one-day event I've ever done in my life, and I've done some," said Rob Cousins, the British endurance-adventurer who once ran 213km in one go. He was referring to the 4th Annual Annapurna 100 race, which took place on March 27. The race heads from Pokhara all the way to the Poon Hill and back to Birethanti, and is now down from 100km to 71km. It's still a bone-crumbler.
My day began with a pleasant 2km morning wake-up jog around Lakeside before we swerved abruptly up the steep 700m to Sarangkot village. The locals, as elsewhere, were out in force to wish the runners "Best of luck!", "Very good!" and even "You're last!"
The track to Kaskikot offers stunning, only-in-Nepal views of Machapucchare and Annapurna. After losing hard-won altitude, the runners finally arrive in Birethanti arguably the real start of the race. Birethanti is both the 31km point and 71km finish. In between comes a seemingly endless 2050m climb via 3080 steps up to Ulleri, the course up to the famous Poon Hill viewpoint, and back down again.
The high hilltops were blushing red with rhododendron, making for an extraordinarily beautiful distraction from the rigours of the trail. But despite the challenging course, the race was won in just 7 hours 30 minutes by Ram Kumar Khatri of Tribhuvan Athletics Club, who took home Rs 50,000 in prize money. No Nepali women entered but the first woman home was Moire O'Sullivan from Ireland, in 12.15. Forty competitors, mainly from the army and police, took to the trail with a number of local villagers and a hint of international flavour.
This year's event was rescued from the brink by Roger Henke and the Summit Hotel, which stepped in as the major sponsor at the last minute. Henke, who is himself a keen trail runner and was the first foreigner to finish in 10.30, said, "I wanted to develop the race and turn it into a trail race because I believe that it has a future from an adventure tourism perspective. I convinced my board to sponsor this year's event and use the experience and contacts for a better event next year. We want much better international exposure and a bigger pot of prize money that can support the training of local athletes."
There's a lot of enthusiasm for the talent and potential of Nepali runners. Rob Cousins has teamed up with Ramesh Bhattachan to train a couple of promising mountain runners for the prestigious Davos ultra-marathon race in Switzerland, the Nepal of Europe.
"That race is a very good comparison to what we've just done. It's less climbing and less altitude and the fastest runner finished that in 7 hours compared to 7.30 here. It compares very well. For these runners to be able to run that fast, at that altitude, up those steps and just keep on going, in that time and still look good and fresh at the end I think it's spectacular."
For this runner, who certainly didn't feel or look fresh by the end, it was as much about competing as it was about eating and drinking along the way. "Khanus! Khanus!" ordered a senior member of Ghorepani mothers' group, offering biscuits, Chinese apples and hot noodle soup. Ah of course mothers understand everything.
For more information about running in Nepal, please visit:http://trailrunningnepal.org/
Annapurna air safari - FROM ISSUE #497 (09 APRIL 2010 - 15 APRIL 2010)