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).

Nepal Day 6 – Exploring Kakani

There were no fixed plans for today and we were free to do whatever we wanted. Breakfast ran from 06:30 to 09:00, and there was the option of yoga up at the Sunset Bar at 07:45. It was nice to have just one day with a lay in, even if it was only until 07:15! I decided not to bother with the yoga and instead hung around until the fog covering the valley had lifted temporarily a little after 08:00.

To start with I headed out towards the village and walked as far as the parade ground before turning back and taking the path up to the stupa. I walked around that area for a while taking photographs of the scenery and wildlife but didn’t really get many shots.

From there I then headed down the hill we’d used for hill sprints the previous morning and found it hard to believe that I’d run up and down this considering how uneven it is. Eventually I found myself going down the hill that is part of the 10km route and for a lot of this I could hear a nearby waterfall – most likely the one that was mentioned in the race briefing.

I didn’t get all the way down the hill before turning back, but the ascent was considerably harder in what was now incredibly warm sunlight. Fortunately I’d got a good supply of water with me, but also made a few stops for photographing birds and insects I’d seen along the route. Along the route a few school children passed with the usual “namaste” greeting, and one of them was carrying a chicken. I thought to myself amusingly that it was his packed lunch.

By 11:00 I was back at the summit camp for the planned talk on Nepal at 11:30, but the speaker had been delayed and would instead be visiting in the afternoon. I used this time before lunch to start packing ready for Sunday and the return to Kathmandu and read for a while.

For lunch it was the start of carb-loading with a meal of rice, beans, and a potato curry. Once again it tasted great and was a must for going back for seconds. After this there was then the talk delayed from earlier, given by Doctor Lolita, describing what Nepal is like and some of the adversities faced.

My afternoon plan was to visit Shivapuri National Park, but when I got there I tried to buy a ticket but was told “no ticket”. I explained I was trying to buy one, and the guard indicated that I needed to get it from the scout house.

However, by the time I got down to the the scout hall the wasn’t enough time to bother going back up so instead sat there and watched a film called “Mira”. This film was about a Nepalese trail runner who became an international runner and went on to come second in the Sky Runner Championship in her first year. Since then she’s gone on to inspire new Nepalese runners, some of which would be taking part in the marathon.

I sat and talked until the evening meal which was what was one of the most interesting carb loading meals ever! This was copious amounts of pasta and vegetable curry – an odd combination, yet it tasted fantastic. During this time they also provided a fundraising update – we were now up to £70K! With a target of £75K it actually looked promising that we’d meet it.

With an early start in the morning I decided that it would be a good idea to get an early night in hope of getting enough sleep to be prepared the best I could be for the marathon that was coming up next.

Nepal Day 5 – Project Kakani Day 2

Today was similar to yesterday – we’d be continuing on the pipeline, but this time with a staggered start to allow a more structured approach. First though it was another 06:00 start for a short run around the mountain. For today’s run we did hill sprints to try and get used to the sort of climbs we’d need to do during the marathon. This only accounted for 2 miles though and shockingly took about 30 minutes!

Once again I had peanut butter on toast for breakfast before we headed out to work on the pipeline again. This time we headed over to the stupa where we’d finished the day before and started off by laying another pipe. For this I helped get it positioned and then took control of getting it buried as I was the first there with a spade. The rest soon joined in and before we knew it we’d caught up with the rest so headed out of the forest and headed down to the village.

In the village some sort of dispute was going on with a drunk local which eventually we needed the gurkha, Tarjan, who was with us to translate and settle it. Eventually we were able to continue laying pipes past the village but we weren’t needed here so carried on back to the summit camp for a quick drink, and then worked hard on digging the trench that went past it.

At lunchtime I had fried rice with vegetables, and a fruit salad in yogurt for dessert. I then wandered around the camp with sore hands for a while trying to photograph butterflies. When we started back we headed quite some way away from camp as the APF had made great progress whilst we had lunch.

In the afternoon we didn’t get to help much, mostly just helping move one of the pipes forward as it got to a narrow bit. We were then sent back to camp so we were out of the way, but it was a chance to try and have a warm shower. No such luck though, the person who got there before me spent about 25 minutes in there meaning the solar heated water had run out.

By the time I’d settled into camp again it was coming up to 16:00 and the day was starting to cool off once more. As a mid-afternoon snack they brought out a phenomenal amount of popcorn and some poppadoms. I’d hoped that whilst sitting up at the camp fire of Sunset Bar that I’d get some good sunset photos but unfortunately it was too cloudy.

I headed back down to the summit camp for a while and talked to some of the people there. Whilst passing the time two walkers who had done the 42km route today turned up with it taking them just under 12 hours to complete. They were the first ever people to complete the Nepal Marathon course!

What followed next was a briefing for each of the different distances available for Saturday. For the 42km race briefing they confirmed times, where the checkpoints were, and some basic health and safety. After the last couple of days my hope was to just complete the race as that sounded challenging enough, but I’ve never really had a time in mind. The only goal I had was to run the first lap, but having experienced the hills now I doubted it.

The evening meal was immediately after and was a three course meal of mushroom soup for starter, and for mains: rice, a type of cheese dish, beef, and a potato curry. The dessert this time was the same sort of rice-like cake as the first night here, but they also had a few fruits available. During the evening update they told us that we’d not quite made the full distance of laying the pipeline – we’d unfortunately fallen 1km short.

For a while I sat in the middle of a dark area of the grounds and used the ping pong table as a way of photographing the night sky. It didn’t seem as good as the previous night but I didn’t stay out too long before heading back to my tent to sleep.

Nepal Day 4 – Project Kakani Day 1

On the 25th April 2015 Nepal suffered a 7.8Mw earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people on top of the 22,000 it injured. In addition to this massive loss of life the damage to the country was significant, and would cost 10 billion USD (50% of their nominal GDP) in order to rebuild everything. This earthquake was centred between the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara and has been a disaster for them for both day to day life, and their heritage. The damage has been widespread, including major damage and destruction to Buddhist temples, even in their famed Kathmandu Durbar Square.

This was not the only aid that the country was in need of however – outside of cities they have other needs such as access to a clean, reliable water supply. Today was the first of two days where we’d be helping the small village of Kakani to build a 5km trench for their water supply. Before this though there was an early morning run planned for 06:00 – a little before sunrise. This run was really hard work even though it was a little under 2 miles – a strong indicator of how difficult the marathon would be; not just because of the altitude but because of the elevation changes.

Back at summit camp I had peanut butter on toast and a banana for breakfast before experiencing the very cold showers. These were a bit of a challenge! We all met up at the camp and split into the same groups as the previous day to make organisation easier. After a quick briefing we then set off walking in the direction of where we’d be digging a trench for the new water pipe.

To start with the Armed Police Force (APF) was helping and had made good progress before we’d even arrived. The organisation of us volunteers however wasn’t great and it wasn’t clear what we were supposed to be doing. As time went on more and more of us got involved and it became hard work digging, laying the piping and reburying it, but we did at least know what was now needed. The APF disappeared before this though, and then all the Nepalese disappeared at 10:30 for lunch. From what I had understood the initial delay in getting everyone started had been the people at the front with machetes to cut a new path through the forest.

Progress seemed good, but in places it was challenging due to the route through the forest including narrow ledges, needing to get through branches and the soreness of our hands after working for a while. It was not a day to stay clean – you just had to dive into it. My shoes, socks, and legs were soon coated in the fine soil and I could feel it moving around inside my shoe as I moved.

At approximately 11:30 we had a short break for drinks and at this point the digging had to be rerouted as they realised their planned route through a ravine would be going too deep and would lose water pressure as a result. After the rest we continued along this new route and I started using the pickaxe to get through some rock. This didn’t last long though as we were soon stopping again for lunch at 13:00.

Lunch was a pack-up consisting of cheese sandwiches, biscuits, banana, and a drink. I wandered around for awhile with my camera and then headed off with a group to find the front of where we’d be digging so we could get back to work. This didn’t go quite according to plan though as we stumbled upon the stupa at the top of the hill so photographed that first before heading back down another path. This path again turned out to be the wrong one, but the third choice was correct – third time lucky!

We carried on working after that until about 15:50 and we’d made it just under half way – a little over 2km. This last part of the day felt slower, and was also the only time I saw someone slip off the path. Fortunately they were stopped by a combination of the trees and the pipeline – the latter of which was used to pull him back up. Our finish was then behind the stupa which we’d stumbled across earlier and this time I took advantage of the view to get photographs of the mountains.

Back at the summit camp I had tea and biscuits and was then straight into the queue for the showers. Once again it was cold, but didn’t seem as bad as earlier – it was needed though as I was coated in mud. There was then more time to waste until the evening meal at 19:00. I didn’t really get to talk to anyone so I decided to spend the evening reading.

This evenings meal consisted of a starter of mushroom soup and pakoras, and the main course of spaghetti and bits of chicken and vegetables. It was quite nice and there was plenty of it. There was also a choice of tomato sauce or chilli sauce to go with it. The dessert was a fruit salad with the option of having honey too. I didn’t really talk much at this point either as everyone was already deep in conversation, or had a full table.

After the evening briefing for the next day I decided to grab an extra blanket for the night, hoping to have a more comfortable evening. At this point they updated us on the fundraising effort – we were now at £63k of the £75k target. We were also told about our progress on the pipeline and confirmed we’d made it to just under halfway which is what had estimated earlier. By 21:30 I’d finished for the day and headed back to the tent to sleep.

Nepal Day 3 – Project: Clean Up Nepal

The first full day in Nepal was set aside for us to visit a place that related to the various projects that sponsorship will have gone towards. Each one of these was for a specific goal such as better education, and equal rights. So for this day I’d be going out at 06:30 and would be helping to clean the streets. So what this actually meant was getting up at 05:30 so I could get ready for the day, and have breakfast at 06:00. For breakfast I had a round of toast and a couple of pieces of bacon and sausage.

It was a short drive to our meeting point where we would meet up with another group in a sort of private square. As we were waiting for them to arrive we were served some lemon tea and got to talk amongst ourselves. Once the group arrived we headed down the road, to a place called Boudha.

This area was a path between buildings with two open spaces that some reasonable looking buildings looked down on. The problem here is that although the land is privately owned they don’t know who owns it yet, but the locals dump their rubbish there. The reason for this is that it’s just something they’re used to doing as they don’t understand the consequences of the pollution, and some can’t afford the collection cost (which would be about 25 rupees) either.

It may seem strange for us to clean it for them in an area with money, but by doing this we could try to change their mindset since this area could afford the collections. As a backup to this they also have a program in schools to educate all children on proper waste management. This is something we’d get to see later in the day.

We were each given a face mask and gloves and were then set to work on picking up rubbish. After a couple of hours we’d run out of bags and it seemed like there was an incredible amount left to do, but comparing it to how it was before it was actually a tremendous difference. There was still work to do though and they’d now hire a couple of labourers to finish the task, put up a new sign indicating it was illegal to dump here (this arrived before we left), put up lights for it, and initially have a guard patrolling the area.

For dinner we were led to a nearby restaurant called Vajra, where we had Nepalese dal bhat which consisted of rice, vegetable curry, chicken curry, and poppadoms. They also had some homemade pickle as well which was very hot. This actually didn’t take too long and we were soon back outside walking.

Our next stop was a UNESCO world heritage site – the Great Boudha stupa. This one had been recently rebuilt with concrete after the earthquake and had only just been reopened by the Prime Minister that morning so was quite busy. We were there long enough to do a complete lap of the square and to also get inside the grounds of part of it. Although it’s smaller than ones I’ve seen elsewhere, I believe this one is supposed to be the biggest in Kathmandu.

To end this trip we then visited a nearby school to watch the play that they perform to educate the children. I didn’t really understand any of it, but it was explained afterwards as being them showing different incorrect ways of disposing of rubbish, and then the proper ways.

We waited in the square after this for our driver to turn up and take us back to the hotel, but this took about 30 minutes which the guide didn’t seem too happy about. Traffic on the way back was slower but we were still the first group to arrive back so we collected our luggage and boarded the bus that was bound for Kakani.

It was entertaining watching them lift the suitcases up onto the roof of each bus. They were secure though as they were also being strapped down and it made me think of how they’d transported luggage in Africa. For this journey I spent most of it talking to the person next to me, but also got a few photos as we headed out of the city and up the winding mountain road.

Not long after sunset we arrived at the lower Kakani community where we had to disembark and walk through the village as they beat drums, and handed us flowers. Some of them in the group ended up with massive bouquets worth! At the other end of the village we reboarded the bus and then repeated this again a little later when we reached the proper village. Here there were also dancers leading us through, and we were shown to a prayer room as well.

Eventually we boarded the bus one last time and it dropped us off at the bottom of the path up to summit camp and the Scouts hut that was being used for the food hall. This was a chance to quickly change into warmer clothes if we needed to. We were welcomed up another hill at the sunset bar with momos, and a glass of rum and cinnamon punch. Everyone caught up on how their days had been with their respective charities whilst keeping warm around a campfire. It was a great atmosphere and everyone had stories to share as they also got to know each other.

The evening meal was then back down the hill in the scout building and was rice and choice of curry once more. This did however finish with some sort of sweet dessert. There was also proper cake for some of us as one of the group had their birthday today and was given cake.

The day ended having located the tent I’d be staying in – it was spacious but cold so decided it’d be a good idea to sleep fully clothed. My hope was that after I’d been there a while it would warm up a little. The inside of the tent consisted to two beds with wooden frames, mattresses, and also a solar-powered lamp that I think could also be charged over USB. I didn’t stay awake long though as it’d been a long couple of days.

Nepal Days 1-2 – London to Kathmandu

The start of another adventure was upon me, but before it could begin I had some time before I’d need to head to the airport for a late afternoon flight. First thing in the morning I took the opportunity to go out for a run as I was unsure of what running I would be doing whilst away other than the planned race. During the run the rain was torrential as “Storm Angus”, the first named storm of the season, battered the country with strong winds and rain.

After one last Sunday roast I then headed to London Heathrow for the first of two flights. At the check-in desk it seemed at first like there was going to be an issue with the rip in my passport. It had got me home from the US okay but here they weren’t okay with it. The check-in person took my passport away and a few minutes later arrived back, confirming it’d actually be okay for travel. After that and security I then had almost three hours to waste before the first of two flights.

On the first flight it was a very well furnished plane with big screens, but the entertainment system for my seat didn’t work. It took off at 18:30 which was a little later than scheduled. It was incredibly warm on the plane, which felt ironic considering that when the inflight meal arrived the chicken was cold and still pink inside. Although they couldn’t fix the food, they fixed the entertainment system so I watched “The Secret Life of Pets”. When the plane landed in Istanbul there was a bit of a wait as we’d somehow arrived early and didn’t have a parking space!

After about 20 minutes we finally parked up and took a ride around the airport to the terminal building. As soon as I got there I headed to international departures and was directed to the gate for Kathmandu where people were already boarding another bus. This left in the opposite direction and was soon boarding a bigger Airbus 330.

A little later they served breakfast, but it was just a pot of scrambled egg so still couldn’t eat anything. Fortunately I’d brought a mince pie flavoured flapjack with me so had that. Time passed slowly so I watched “Ice Age: Collision Course” to pass the time. I’d hoped to see Mount Everest as we approached Kathmandu but sadly they wanted the blinds closed to start with, and I think it was too far east for us to see from the plane anyway. I did wonder though if the right hand side of the plane would have been able to see it as we circled for 15 minutes.

It took almost two hours to get through the visa collection in this tiny airport. The process required people to queue for one of two working machines first to fill in visa details and have a picture taken. The next step was to “queue” for one of three cashiers to pay the visa fee. Of the options it said it could be paid as US$25 or £20. With the current exchange rate it still meant that dollars worked out cheaper though. The entire process wasn’t that obvious though and a I saw a lot of people having to ask what was required. It was also indicated that not all the information that was “required” needed to be accurate or completed either.

Once through immigration it was then quick to get through the airport security check to the baggage claims. My suitcase was on one side, ready to collect due to how long I’d taken. I then met up with Nick from Impact Marathons Series, and some others that were already waiting in the airport. We waited for a few more to arrive then headed to Hotel Manaslu.

On the way our driver got pulled over by the traffic police and it looked like he was given a ticket for something. I’m not sure what though as the driving there is similar to the likes of India and China, but I know he had to show some sort of identity. My best guess was that it was for him blocking the flow of traffic in one lane due to him having changed his mind about where he was going.

By the time we got to the hotel it was 15:00 and I would have three hours until the scheduled welcome drinks. After being giving a key to the room I was finally able to drop my bags off and change into shorts. Nick from Impact Marathon Series had hand written personalised cards for everyone and attached it to a bag with a t-shirt inside, and had placed a baseball cap on each pillow. I wandered around the hotel taking photos as the place looked quite nice. Afterwards I headed out and exchanged £80 into the local currency – far more than I was likely to need, but it’s good to be prepared.

From there I walked a little over 2km to Hanumandhoka Durbar Square and paid the 1000 rupees they charge for foreign nationals. I knew ahead of going there that a lot of the buildings on this square are damaged or destroyed as a result of the earthquake in 2015. The route there was relatively easy, made even easier using an offline map. As the roads got narrower the cars became fewer, and were replaced by mopeds and bicycles.

With the rickshaws around it reminded me a little of China, especially being hassled frequently. Having been to quite a few similar places now around the world I knew to just carry on walking unless I was actually interested. One of these that runs near to the square is apparently famous and is named Freak Street and is lined with souvenir shops, food places, and pretty much anything you might need. I did wonder if I was being hassled less persistently as I was in my own as I know when I’ve been part of a tour group they seem to pester more.

Hanumandhoka Durbar Square is also known as Kathmandu Durbar Square and is one of three royal squares in Kathmandu. This one was constructed during the Licchavi period but none of the current buildings are from that period having been reconstructed numerous times.This was also the seat of power for numerous Shah Kings between 1484 and 1896.

The square is quite large and is actually more like three squares combined by a path. The temples and palaces that weren’t falling down were covered with locals or obscured by ugly street lights. The look of this area really reminded me of China and Mongolia – likely because of Buddhism being their main religion. Whilst the damage was evident, it was also obvious that funds were now finally feeding into restoration efforts to restore these temples to their former glory. Behind one of the temple buildings there were even some cows wandering around freely which reminded me more of India!

As I left the square the sun had started to set, and even though I didn’t take the most direct route back to the hotel I got there before it was completely dark. On the way I stopped at one of the many shops selling souvenirs and bought a Ganesh mask for my wall.

Back at the hotel I spoke to some of the others doing the marathon as waiters walked around with plates of deep fried vegetables and chicken momos. This was just a starter really though as before long they served an evening meal of dal bhat at 19:30. It wasn’t a bad meal either and was quite varied. Whilst people ate it was also being filmed by one of Kathmandu’s national news stations. For dessert there was swiss roll with what seemed to be rice pudding.

After the food there was then a briefing outside to tell us what would be happening in the following days. This started with Nick from Impact Marathon Series, then one of the locals from the community, and then finally a fund raising manager from Street Child. We also got to find out what time we’d need to be heading out in the morning for whichever project we’d be visiting.

Nepal Trip Preparation

At the end of 2015 an opportunity arose for 2016 as I heard about a new marathon by Impact Marathon Series which aimed to bring aid to Nepal following their recent earthquake. When abroad I usually do some training runs, but so far I hadn’t had the opportunity to race. As this was a country I’d not yet visited, after asking a few questions I decided to go ahead and enter.

This started off as being away for just a week in the build up to the marathon and then going straight home so I decided to go for their “Summit Camp” package. The reason I went for this over the other two available options was that it sounded like it would mean a slightly less crowded tent which would hopefully mean more peace of mind for camera equipment I’d be taking with me. It also sounded like it might be slightly more comfortable which is good when you’re camping and have a marathon to run at the end of it, and would include all the bedding, etc. which is stuff I didn’t really want to be taking with me.

Weeks passed by, and at the end of January the company then offered extension options for the trip with activities such as going to the Mount Everest base camp. Most of them had some aspect I was interested in, but I decided the one that would best suit me was the one which included a hike through the forests, and seeing the Swayambhunath temple. Another positive for this was the potential for seeing a Bengal Tiger – a species I’d love to photograph even if the chances of seeing one were slim.

After this it was quite some time before we started to get details through from the company, and just a month before the race they sent out a suggested packing list. The downside to this was that they suggested trail shoes would be a requirement, and it was already too late for me to be able to wear in any new shoes so would need to stick with my normal running shoes. This could create a bit of a challenge depending on the conditions and terrain, but one I’d need to accept.

In terms of what the plan was for when we arrive things were still a little up in the air, and all I knew was that I’d need to sort out a tourism visa on arrival (US$25 would be needed for this along with a passport sized photo), and that they’d pick everyone up from the airport. For the visa though the Nepal tourism website says that you need a letter of invitation (the marathon company said this isn’t actually required), but also an address for where you’d be staying. Unfortunately even two weeks before the intended travel date I still hadn’t heard what this would be.

I did find out later however that they’d been posting information to social media and to a blog, but they’d not been emailing the updates as well which is why I had missed them. Despite this, I did see that they offer marathons in other developing countries which I’d likely consider for future years.

I’d read reports that power is pretty limited in Nepal as their hydroelectric dams can’t meet their demand, and that power would also be at a cost. Based on this I decided I wouldn’t take my laptop as normal and instead bought a new iPad Pro and would take my USB charging pack as well. It’s possible it may not be the same in the athlete’s village, but I decided to plan ahead as if it was.

Based on what I’d already decided, and what had been suggested, I decided to pack the following equipment:

  • Apple iPad Pro 256Gb (Wi-Fi only) with Pencil and Smart Keyboard,
  • Canon EOS 5D mk III camera,
  • Canon EOS 5D mk II camera,
  • Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens,
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens,
  • Sigma APO 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens,
  • Garmin ForeRunner 235,
  • CompactFlash Cards,
  • 4 batteries for Canon EOS 5D (one of higher capacity),
  • Lens pen, air blower, and cloth for cleaning equipment,
  • Chargers for iPad/iPhone, cameras, and watch

Other items, including my running kit which I’d also need would then be:

  • Saucony Omni 13 trainers,
  • 2x technical tees,
  • Running shorts,
  • 2x running socks,
  • Flipbelt,
  • Buff,
  • A bag of jelly babies,
  • A small bag of crunchy nut cornflakes for marathon-day breakfast,
  • 75cl Water-to-go water bottle with filter,
  • Unilite PS-H8 head torch.

This was on top of packing normal clothes for the two weeks for warm(ish) and humid conditions, but making sure there were some warm clothes for evenings when it would likely be far cooler due to the altitude. I’ve stayed up-to-date on immunisations so fortunately hadn’t needed to get any during training on the lead up to this marathon either. I did however make sure I’d got hand gel, and Diethyltoluamide (more commonly known as deet), just in case.

As the remaining weeks passed by, training although a long way behind, got easier in the cooler weather. I may not have been ready for running up mountains, but at least I’d be able to get around the course and hopefully enjoy the two weeks.

My only worry now was getting my tourism visa on arrival in Nepal.

Leeds Abbey Dash 2016

I’ve not had much luck with the couple of 10K races I’ve had this year. One of my goals for 2016 had been to go sub-40 at 10K distance – but so far I’d not achieved this. For the first of these attempts I just couldn’t keep going in the heat and for the last 5K I completely lost the pace and walked frequently. On the second of these 10K attempts I was injured and found hobbling around the course just couldn’t be done at speed.

A friend mentioned she was doing the Leeds Abbey Dash in November and has on occasion suggested we should pace each other to a sub-40 10K, but thus far our calendars hadn’t really made it a possibility and we’d never actually met in person! I wasn’t sure at first because of the travel time, but eventually decided it was a great idea and it could be a fun race.

We’d both planned on meeting up the day before the race in Leeds so we wouldn’t need to travel up on the day. Again I was unsure about this as it was “only” a 10K, but eventually I decided that driving for 2 hours before a race isn’t the best, so I drove up to Leeds the day before. Once I got there I met up with Gen at the train station, though her train had been delayed by about 20 minutes. It was an easy afternoon, and I got to take some photographs of Kirkstall Abbey (a place we’d be running past during the race) whilst we talked about running. After all, what else would runners talk about the day before a race?!

In the evening I had a beef lasagna and was all ready to tackle the race, though fully expected my time to be about 42 minutes. I then relaxed for a few hours, wondering what the race would be like.

 

Race Day

I hadn’t thought about it being Guy Fawkes night on the Saturday and found fireworks kept me awake until about 23:00. I then woke up at 02:20 and didn’t really sleep much after that until I got up at 06:00 for breakfast. Just as I would with a half or a full marathon, I’d packed breakfast with me so I could have something I know before the race. This usually helps to minimise the risk of a stomach ache or worse during the race.

After breakfast I met up with Gen and we headed towards the start of the race. There’s quite a few expensive car parks around, but found one on Wellington Place that was £3 for Sunday. We then headed to the start and found where our starting pens would be, but it turned out the baggage drop for Gen was near the finish which was in a completely different location so we walked over to that in the freezing cold. I guess it was good though as it kept us moving before the race start so we were probably warmer than we could have been.

Gen did her warm up around a nearby park, and I decided (unusually!) to do a lap of it as well at a slow pace, just to try and not feel the cold as much. From there Gen went to the sub-40 pen, and I went to the front of the sub-45 pen, fully intending on catching the sub-40 racers. Just before the race starts they move the pens into position one by one so that everyone is starting in order, and at the same time – it’s probably a good way to use pens actually.

As the race began I could see the sub-40 pacer ahead of me and I was determined that I would get closer and would try and stick not too far behind by half way. As it happened, I covered my first mile at 6:13min/mile pace and had caught up with the pacer already, but I stuck behind him as I figured it wasn’t that likely I’d be able to stay that close for the entire race, let alone in front of.

Not long after this I caught up with Gen and said “hi” to her as I passed, just as the route turned into the car park of a retail park. On the way out of this though there was a pedestrian in the middle of the runners who seems to have not seen the runners coming and got trapped amongst us. Fortunately nobody was to my immediate right so was able to quickly dodge out of the way, but it was pretty crowded.

After the second mile had passed it was then a continual up-hill climb to Kirkstall Abbey and I found myself really wanting to walk. I knew that if I did though then I would be disappointed with my time no matter what I got so forced myself to carry on and fortunately it did level off again briefly. At 5K the route then had a hairpin bend to go back in the opposite direction, so I glanced at my watch and saw 20:12. If I’d been running a 5K I’d have been incredibly disappointed, and I thought to myself that if I could somehow manage to do the second half in the same time then it won’t be sub-40 but perhaps I could narrowly get a PB.

I kept running, and for some of the fourth mile it was down hill, which was something of a relief after the long gentle incline. When I saw the 7K sign I found myself really wanting to walk again, and I’d lost ground behind the sub-40 pacer so figured that a PB was probably unlikely now. By the time I reached 9K and the climb back up to the city centre and town hall I decided that I’d probably set off too quickly and now I may as well walk up the hill as I wasn’t going to get a PB or meet my goal.

After walking for about 20 seconds I decided to make one last push and started to pick up speed again for the remainder of the hill and started to get up to sprinting speed as I crossed the line. As I did so I stopped my watch and saw 40:04 – I couldn’t believe how close I’d come to beating my goal! My legs at this point felt fine and I realised immediately how stupid it was of me to have started walking without having at least looked at my watch first. Strava however indicated my 10K PB was now 39:47, but that was only because I’d run slightly over 10K from weaving around people.

My official time was also 40:04 and I finished in position 637 out of 8664 finishers putting me into the first 7%. After finishing they handed over a white chocolate Lion bar (which was incredibly tough due to the cold weather!), a bottle of water, and then a finishers tee. It was great to meet Gen and she was really good company; hopefully we’ll get to race together again in future (thanks for putting up with me Gen! Was appreciated!). I’ll almost definitely be back in Leeds for next year’s Abbey Dash as well!

I’d surprised myself – I didn’t think I could PB, but I did and by a whole minute more than the PB I’d set in training at the start of the year. This being my first PB since I was injured is something of a relief and hopefully means I’m now back to where I was before. Now I can continue working hard and hopefully set some new PBs in the spring, with new (or similar) goals. I’ll be aiming for a sub-19 5K, sub-39 10K, sub-89 Half, and a 3:10 marathon. I’m quite a way off for some of these goals, but I’m sure they’ll help to push me harder.

Leicester Half Marathon 2016

At the start of the year training had been going that well that I’d got a shinny new 10K PB during a training run and had been doing 10 mile runs on consecutive weeks in a little over an hour. It felt good, and I was confident of finally getting a sub-90 half marathon time so entered the Coventry Half. However, this is where my attempts at half marathons took a wrong turn. I never got to try the Coventry Half as I caught the flu a few days before, and lost a couple of weeks of training too. I did turn this around and by the time of the Spring marathon season things were back on track.

With things looking good I entered the Leicester Half Marathon for the second year running, deciding as my current PB was on that hilly course then I could probably get my sub-90 there also. Again, things didn’t go according to plan and I lost some more training time due to an ankle injury I got whilst being a tourist in Moscow and found when I got back to training (which I wasn’t allowed to do any running on hills or trails for) that I hadn’t quite been prepared for running in the heat of the summer.

It felt like I was going from excuse to excuse – I’d lost quite a bit of speed during the summer and the Robin Hood marathon proved that I wasn’t ready. I knew my hope for a PB at the Leicester Half was nigh impossible. It left me nervous about the race as whatever time I finished in would be an indication of how much speed I’d lost.

On the race day it was spitting with rain and was cold, so I decided as I wasn’t sure how fast I’d be able to go I’d wear a hoodie and the usual shorts. Despite my reservations that I’d be capable of it, I stood around in the sub-90 pen and listened to people discuss their planned paces such as 7:30 and 10:30 minutes per mile. I did wonder why they were in a faster pen than their planned times, but to be honest I wasn’t expecting to get sub-90 either, not now anyway.

For the first 5K I was 7 seconds slower than last year, but was on target for a sub-90 time however. The first mile of this was down hill with a slow start due to the usual crowds, but I managed to get up to pace by the half way point in this mile. I didn’t know I was slightly behind where I was at this point last year but it felt like a good confidence boost.

After leaving Belgrave and the Golden Mile behind there were literally no spectators at all and time seemed to slow considerably. Once I reached Thurmaston the crowds were out in force and they were giving their usual great support. This time last year I remember that I was tired when leaving the village but this time I felt fine and was incredibly pleased (though I imagine some were unhappy as there was a car driving amongst the runners!). At this point I realised that I was ahead of time for getting a sub-90 time and thought that I might just actually do it.

As usual, after the dual carriageway the route then splits away from the marathon runners and heads into Watermead Country Park. It was at this point that I reached the 10K mark and although I didn’t know it at the time I was ahead time-wise compared to last year. Things were looking good, though I was starting to lose concentration as I knew this was coming up to the point where in the marathon I rolled my ankle dodging a cyclist. This year I dodged a cyclist again, but with ease, though I did splash through a puddle.

When leaving the country park I found the hill out to be draining and walked for a few steps. This was the beginning for the end for me as for the first time this race my pace dropped to be slower than 07:00 min/mile for mile 8. The next mile was then down hill so it wasn’t quite as bad and there was a sign I might still be able to keep going, but I couldn’t. As I got closer to the National Space Centre I was starting to walk again and must have walked at least three times during this mile. I did a quick calculation in my head and decided that if I could maintain an average pace of no slower than 07:30min/mile for the remainder that I could do it – I could get that time I wanted.

For the remainder of the race I knew it was going to be a case of convincing myself I could keep going even though my head was telling me I should walk for a bit. Over the remaining miles I walked frequently – but this point having developed a blister on my right toe and each mile was slower than the one that came before it. With only 2 miles left I knew I was no longer going to get the time I had originally planned for all those months ago, but there was still a chance of a PB – I hoped that would be enough to make me work harder. However I slowed further and soon found that even if by some miracle I was able to get back to at least 7 min/mile pace and maintain it, I wasn’t even going to match last years time. Feeling deflated I walked up most of New Walk and then only started running with 0.2 miles to go so that I could at least finish running.

I finished in position 132 of 1932 finishers (first 6.8%), and 74th in my category, with a chip time of 1:33:23. That was 2:27 slower that last year’s race. It felt like a complete failure, but what I really should consider this to be is a benchmark to improve upon.

This year the goodie bag consisted of:

  • Finishers medal,
  • Finishers tee,
  • Banana,
  • A bottle of mineral water,
  • Packet of Walkers crisps (it IS Leicester after all!),
  • Haribo Super Mix,
  • and a Granola bar.

Overall the race is pretty well supported, and I actually quite like the route despite the hills. I’m used to running hills so don’t mind the ones in this race too much – just I know this year I was under prepared for them. I now know how much I’ve slowed down by now, and what areas I need to work more on so hopefully in the next few months I can do another half marathon and even though it won’t be in 2016 as planned, I should hopefully still manage to achieve this goal.

Now that I can, over the next few months I’ll start to reintroduce hills into my runs and will also try to keep up with the speedwork as well as I prepare to train for my next (well, next next) marathon.

Arizona Days 8 & 9 – Going Home

The end of the adventure was finally upon us, and after so many hectic days we actually had a day with nothing planned. I got up at 07:00 and went running, but after just half a mile a lightning bolt came down in front of me – after another half mile I decided to cut my run short and turn back having only completed two miles.

After breakfast we packed ready for the flight in the afternoon and we said goodbye to my friend who would be flying to Canada long before we left for England. Me and my sister then headed out into the heat of Phoenix to explore a little. We soon found that the dry heat, although only in the 30s (centigrade) was still warm enough to make us want to keep out of the direct sunlight as much as possible.

We wandered for quite some time but never really found anything worth seeing – though I did take a photograph of Coopertown which is a bar run by the singer Alice Cooper. It appeared that the part of Phoenix we were in was mostly businesses and restaurants so was pretty limited.

By midday we’d given up on looking for anywhere to look around, and so decided we’d eat at the Hard Rock Cafe. I had one of their burgers, but it was difficult to eat as by this point my lips had become so cracked, and bloody from the dry heat that they were too sore to move. I then had an Apple Cobbler for dessert which was quite nice, and was filling enough to know that I could then last until late evening before any more food.

For a while we continued to wander around Phoenix, taking breaks in the shade where we could, but eventually decided we’d get to the airport early and so took the shuttle bus from the hotel – arriving 5 hours early.

Getting through security was relatively quick – my sister again didn’t have any problem getting her medication through though they did have a good look at the amount of candy she was carrying in her backpack. Whilst sitting around waiting I was able to sort through some of my photographs from the trip, and also heard from my friend who had arrived back in Canada before we’d even left.

Over the PA system we also heard that they’d banned the use of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones due to the risk of explosions and were requesting that passengers turn them off and cannot charge them on aircrafts or in the airport. For an airport to specifically name a make and model of a device shows how bad the situation with them must be, especially when the company has recalled all of the devices.

Hours passed and eventually we boarded the flight. It was a bit of organised chaos though as they were trying to get enough people to completely fill a Boeing 747-400 onboard in the space of 20 minutes; but had no space at the gate at all as it was one without a seating area. This was causing confusion from people on where they should queue but eventually we were able to board and take our seats.

Time on the plane home passed quickly as I watched the classic film “Chariots of Fire”, and also an episode of “Blackadder The Third”. For the first of the meals on the plane there was dinner shortly after reaching cruising altitude – I had chicken arabiatta with cheesecake.

I was in dire need of sleep, but couldn’t. If I was lucky I may have had the odd few minutes of sleep here and there when I closed my eyes, but for the most part I was awake. About an hour before we were due to land they served a full English breakfast – the first meal across the flights that hadn’t been too good.

The plane landed almost 30 minutes early, before they’d had chance to hand out the immigration cards to those that would need them. As a result passengers were told that they couldn’t put their tray tables down for leaning on as we were too close to landing.

Fortunately immigration and baggage collection didn’t take too long and I could travel the remaining (just over) 2 hours home by car. After almost 33 hours awake, I could finally sleep.

It had been a busy week travelling around the state of Arizona and had seen so much. We’d driven 1,962 miles, and on top of that, although not much, I’d run or walked for 41.28 miles across the week meaning I’d covered over 2,000 miles. There’s definitely places where we could have spent more time, but I’m glad the itinerary I’d planned worked out as well as it did. Hopefully next time I visit the US it will be at least as successful as this grand adventure.