Nepal Day 7 – Nepal International Marathon

Marathon training often takes me three to four months of gradually building up some base miles and speed and then starting to increase the distance in two week periods. This worked well when I was training for the ultra marathon and marathons at the start of the year and is something I think I should be doing for all my marathons now.

In the case of the Nepal marathon the training had not gone to plan at all due to an ankle injury and I’d adapted to this the best I could. My biggest hope was that doing a marathon a month before this one, and having had two faster races between these (the 10K of which was a personal best) that I might just stand a chance of completing this run. I’d also missed out on a lot of hill training so knowing that this one would have a cumulative climb equivalent to climbing Ben Nevis twice would not be easy. They referred to this course as “The Beast of Shivapuri” and with good reason, it was a course that would be testing both physically and mentally with it’s average height above sea level being 2,030 metres.

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I like to be consistent with what I eat before a marathon so had packed some crunchy nut cornflakes to eat this morning. I couldn’t be completely consistent though as I didn’t have the normal milk I’d have, it was instead warm milk that made it taste funny. After breakfast I normally like to have a few hours before I do a marathon, but this would mean getting up at 05:00 which I wasn’t keen on. As we’d be led away from camp at 07:00 I decided that getting up just before 06:00 would be good enough to have time to digest breakfast.

I sat around for a while making sure I was completely ready for when we set off. It was then a short walk to the UN APF parade ground for the start line. Along the route the local hotels and guest houses had opened up for all runners so that they could use their facilities on the way. At the parade ground there was an area for bag drop, and an area for signing the waiver for running in this race.

Whilst waiting for the start I stood around talking to some of the others runners and noticed that it had already warmed up enough to be comfortable in just a t-shirt and shorts – it was likely this was going to be one of the warmer races I’ve done.

After the Nepal national anthem the race started and it was a pretty quick start with a good sized group of people going out at sub-7:00 min/mile (myself included). This was all down hill to start with until we reached some prayer flags at the bottom of the hill where we had to turn around and head back up the hill before turning off at a junction we’d passed on the way down (my strategy was to walk every up hill so I got overtaken by half a dozen people here).

Just after passing the motorbike that had been leading us, I noticed a few runners that had been behind me, that had never passed me, were now in front of me. When I saw one of them I knew she asked me how I got behind her and it became apparent that a group of people had turned off down this road early instead of going down to the bottom of the hill so had cut their route short by just under mile. From what I heard after the race it seemed most after the first 20 or 30 had done the same. It didn’t really bother me though as it wasn’t necessarily their fault as if they couldn’t see runners in front of them at the time then there was no signage to indicate it anyway. The reason one of them had given was that they thought the elites had made a mistake (note: I am certainly not an elite, not even by any stretch of the imagination!).

There were some steep climbs on this route that eventually led back to near the scout hut, but I hadn’t made as bad time as I thought I might have. Instead of going up passed the hut it instead went down the side and around the back past an old metal hut where the ground was so sodden that I couldn’t help but get my feet wet. At this point a group of us had pretty much stayed together but as the climbs got steeper through the trees a few started to fall back.

The route twists and turns all over the place with climbs, falls, and flat bits – a lot of which can be a little technical due to the rocks in the road. This was even more so in the points where the paths narrowed or crossed streams. In some places the views were incredible, but in others what would likely have been a good view was obscured by cloud. It wasn’t a problem, just the reality of being in the mountains and a reminder we were at altitude. The route was still incredibly scenic – more so than any race I’ve done in the UK.

Eventually I caught up with another group that were going at a reasonable pace, as time passed some of those dropped back behind too, and even more when we got to the waterfall crossing where we needed to use a rope to cross safely. Once again I got water in my shoes and I knew I’d be getting a blister. After a while it became just two of us that were keeping the pace, but then I overtook and lost the other at some point in Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park.

This park was hard work and I completely ignored the aid stations and just ran straight through for all of them on this lap. For this race I was carrying the same Salomon backpack I used at Canalathon with a full 2 litre reservoir, and also some jelly babies. Unfortunately around mile 9 when I took the bag from my pocket it was upside down and I lost almost half of them over the floor, just as I had done in a race once before. This meant I’d need to change my fuelling strategy to suit. What I’d decided was I’d eat one for every second mile instead of every mile like I normally would. For a time this worked fine, and I even had the energy to walk up some very steep hills without going too slow so that at points it wasn’t quite as steep I could break into a jog.

Eventually some down paths were in sight and I mostly managed to tackle them faster and was able to pass a few more runners who seemed not as confident with their footing – though to be honest I was concentrating hard and just hoping for the best! For only my second trail race it seems I cope with uneven surfaces pretty well so may try more of them in future. This increase in pace continued all the way down past the scout hut ready for the start of the second lap where they put a red band on my wrist.

Very early on in this second lap I had to stop to make sure a runner was okay, he didn’t look too good but was okay to walk back to the aid station that we’d just passed. With that dealt with I carried on and this time managed to avoid getting my feet wet when passing the hut. This time the path through the trees felt much harder though and I wondered if I was going to hit the sub-5 hour time that the first lap had indicated was more than possible.

Each hill felt tougher and longer than before but I tried to pull back the lost time on the downhills. It didn’t work though and for a long time I was on my own. There was nobody about so I couldn’t drop in behind another runner and match their pace, or use them as a target to either not lose sight of, or to eventually overtake. This was getting mentally challenging but I knew my legs still had more in them. At this point I was confident I could finish but was starting to lose hope of the sub-5 hour time.

Once I’d entered the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park for the last time I stopped for a toilet break – which was okay as from the top of the mountain I could see there was nobody about. One of the people I’d passed before the end of the first lap had passed me not long before this and she said she expected I’d be passing her again on the downhill this lap. It never happened though.

Mile after mile passed and it was now mostly walking with a few running breaks when the route was noticeably going down hill. If it was flat, uphill, or only a gentle decline I didn’t bother trying to run. It felt like this course had now beaten me.

Not long before the last aid station before a long gap I’d got a number of small stones in my shoes. I decided for the first time I’d stop at one and I’d get them out at the aid station, but when I saw it I instead topped up my reservoir with water even though I’d got over a litre left. I’d forgotten to take my shoes off as well so instead took them off down the road and a motorcyclist asked if I was okay – I explained what I was doing and I carried on walking.

This time the long climb seemed to last forever and I walked it all. Even at walking pace I overtook a few people who were also walking though, but then got held back by some mountain bikers, and then some backpackers who were blocking the narrow path and wouldn’t let me past. This would only have meant a few minutes difference to my time at best though so although irritating it wasn’t the end of the world.

Eventually I saw the familiar path that I knew led out of the park so I started running again and ran most of the way from there to the scout hut and the final aid station. By this time I’d still got 2 miles to go and I’d run out of jelly babies so grabbed three biscuits from there and started running again. They were difficult to eat whilst watching my step running down hill so eventually walked to finish eating them and had a sip of water before running the remainder of the downhill segment at a slower than normal pace.

This ended with the same hill we’d done hill sprints on before, and this time it didn’t feel good. Not only did I walk up it, I actually had to stop a few times to catch my breath. At the top of this hill I ran down to the school area, and then walked up the final hill. This was it, no more up hills to go. I was finally able to pick up speed and ran down the hill, careful not to push too hard.

I then spotted the parade ground and rounded the corner on the hill to it. As soon as I hit the sand I upped my pace to a steady one until the final bend when I sprinted to the finish with almost everything I’d got left. I overshot the finish slightly as had to walk back to join the finishers queue.

Upon finishing they put the red dye of a Sindoor tree on your forehead, a garland of flowers around your neck, and then a piece of cloth that says “Nepal International Marathon” on it. This is followed by a finishers certificate, water, banana and biscuits. For those of us that had been staying at the scout hut we also got two lunch tokens so we could get some warm food; I went for chicken momos, and vegetable chowmein.

Once I’d eaten what I could of these and clapped in a few runners that I recognised from our group, I collected my bag and headed back to the scout hut. It was a welcome sight and it was a chance for a warm shower – the first one that hadn’t been cold all week. When I got there they also gave me a carton of juice to help me re-hydrate.

My official time was 5:23 in position 17 out of 77. This put me in the first 22% of finishers which isn’t great, but considering the difficulty of this course and my inexperience of trails I guess it’s not too bad really. It was really about the whole experience and getting to visit a new country than going for time. In this week we’d also helped to make a difference to the lives of the people in this community, and had a fun time making new friends along the way.

During the race one thing I often thought was that it as more of an adventure than a race – jumping or striding over fallen trees and boulders, clambering across rocks, being careful on narrow ledges, and crossing waterfalls. I think this course has a bit of everything to throw at you.

For the hours that followed I congratulated runners as they arrived at the scout hut, and talked about our experiences of the course. As sunset approached the clouds rolled in and we could see them drift into the camp. I went up to Sunset Bar for a drink of Coca-cola and just sat and talked some more until it was time for the evening meal. Today it was rice, pakoras, chicken, and a pumpkin and potato curry. A big meal to easily satisfy the hunger of those that had run.

After this there were presentations for the various teams that were involved in making this week what it was. It takes a lot of skilled people to make an event like this work well and smoothly – I think Nick and his team had done an amazing job. We also got an update from the fundraising as well – the target had been met! Now it was time to try and smash it as people got their post-race donations in (we later heard it had made it up to £85K raised!).

A lot of people also said their goodbyes and celebrated as this would be the last time some people could see each other with tomorrow’s bus being an early one. Unfortunately I was in the group that would be leaving camp at 06:00 tomorrow, although originally I’d been told 10:00 – this meant instead of celebrating with the others I had to finish packing and attempt to get some sleep before a day of travel and sightseeing.

Above is a video put together by Ben Arthur which shows some of the course of the Nepal International Marathon (the bits near the village).

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