Mustang Trail Race

Running across a bridge in Mustang – Richard Bull photo

“Every place distills an atmosphere–a state of mind–that can more easily be felt than described, a something that overshadows all activities and bathes all events in a peculiar light. Some places have a feeling of sleepiness, others one of loneliness and desolation. But every place in Mustang was, I felt, characterized by dynamism and an enthusiasm that infected the entire population.” – Michel Peissel, “Mustang”

“A rocky cave in the wilderness was the home of your spiritual Father. A deserted and solitary place is a divine abode.” – Marpa the Translator, from “The Life of Milarepa”

The wall of Lo Manthang on a fresh morning after snowfall – Richard Bull photo

The idea of visiting the forbidden kingdom of Mustang first entered my mind as I descended from the summit of the Thorung La pass on the Annapurna Circuit last year. The Thorung La is the highest point on the famous circuit and from it’s 17,000+ ft. summit the views in every direction are expansive to say the least. Technically, as one descends into the town of Muktinath far below you are entering the Nepali district of Mustang, but the heart of the kingdom, the area which the country restricts access to – Upper Mustang – remains mostly invisible behind 4,000 meter passes and peaks to the north. As Paulo and I walked slowly down from the culmination of our Annapurna trek, I peered restlessly off into that dry and desolate land hidden from view, feeling as if I could perhaps stand a little higher on my tippy toes and see what lay beyond the barren dirt hills, catch a glimpse of a magical land which had no reality to me but was only a concept. I don’t know why I was drawn to look yearningly in that direction in the first place, except perhaps for the mystique the area generated amongst the other Annapurna trekkers. The high cost for a permit and the low number of trekkers allowed in by the government of Nepal turned it into a fable around evening dinner tables in guesthouses from Chame to Manang. Everyone seemed to agree on one thing about Mustang: while very few had visited it, they all had heard that it was amazing. But our trail bent off in another direction, which we eagerly pursued in search of more adventure and growth, and Mustang was filed away into the very large mental bin titled, “places I would like to go one day.”

Flash forward almost exactly one year and I was poised to enter Upper Mustang from the town of Kagbeni, a green farming oasis on the edge of the wide stony Kali Gandhaki river gorge. The water carves its way through the hills and mountains blocking the way into Upper Mustang, yet still bends out of sight just above town so that the mystery of what lies to the north prevails. The circumstances which led to me being there were so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that I can only percieve them as a long tangled thread perfectly described as, “what is meant to be.” If I had set out with a firm intention to visit Mustang within a year it seems likely that other plans, obligations, new decisions – Life – would have inevitably intervened, as it always seems to do. But instead Life decided that my path needed an adventure through Mustang in order to develop the way that it is supposed to, and so the many random ocurances and decisions that could only be seen as related after the fact worked their magic, and I stood alone in Kagbeni awaiting the group with which I would venture into Mustang.

A happy group of runners above Kongcholing Cave on stage 4. L to R -> Mira Rai, Matt Moroz, Upendra Sunewar, PhuDorjee Lama Sherpa, Nicola Bassi, Marco Baretta, Andy Wellman – Richard Bull photo

The reason for me going to Mustang was an event which was right up my alley – the Mustang Trail Race. This second year race winds its way through the highlights of the land in eight running stages spread out over the course of nine days and covers roughly 200km of rocky desert on very runnable trails mostly at elevations of around 4000 meters. As the culmination of a seven week long “Nepal spring training running camp” of my own design, it was the perfect chance to inject a significant amount of volume into my training (the most running I had ever done in one week) as well as some intensity and speed – and I would get to explore Mustang! Buzzing with anticipation would be how I would describe myself at that moment.

The group of about 25 other runners were traveling to Kagbeni from Kathmandu, where I met up with them at our guesthouse for lunch. They had already been traveling together for a few days now and so had made all the introductions, but I was quickly thrown into the mix and got the chance to meet a really great bunch of people. As a former guide I’ve had plenty of opportunities to witness how “random” group dynamics such as this one can end up working out, and I must say that our group was really great, everyone got along just wonderful, supported each other through the entire adventure, and added to the positive dynamic of the entire experience! The organizers and leaders of the race – Richard Bull, an ex-pat brit who is working hard and generously to solidify and grow the mountain running scene in Nepal, Dhir Priya, one of the most knowledgable and weirdly funny trekking guides in this country, and Lizzy Hawker, a professional ultra-runner who is known for her staggering endurance feats around the world – put together an event, a shared experience and adventure, that felt as if it was simultaneously pieced together on the spot moment to moment, and yet also instilled the faith that absolutely nothing had been overlooked. Perfection was impossible to achieve here, and was never promised, but in that way there was no pressure for the experience to unfold any other way than exactly as it did – perfectly.

Tite Togni crosses a river on stage 6 – Richard Bull photo

Looking back now at the experience, I feel as if the race became a kind of nine day meditation. When I try to remember what I thought about in Mustang, I realize that I really didn’t think about a whole lot of anything. Expressed another way, perhaps I thought and talked about a lot, but those things lingered only for the present moment, and then were gone. There are plenty of things I remember: the wide open sky, the snowy peaks above the eroded, haunting landscape, the artwork in the caves and monasteries, the exceedingly friendly local people encountered along the way, the conversations with my new friends. I realize now that I was living almost entirely in the moment, and more than that, I was just noticing and absorbing everything as it happened without judgement. It seems as if nothing was better or worse than anything else. I had virtually no expectations going into this race, and so there was nothing to compare what actually happened with. The routine day in and day out was so similar: everything became either running, recovering, or enjoying the company of others and exploring new towns, places, or spiritual traditions while doing one of these two things. Never was I uncomfortable, never did I wish that things were any different, pine for anywhere else, or look at what was happening and desire something different. It all just was, as it was. A beautiful thing! A mindset I feel lucky to have discovered, as wide open as the land itself.

Coming into this race there were two main things on my mind pertaining to running. First was how would my legs feel and respond after having not run at high intensities for around eight months due to the shin splints I suffered last year. Second was that I was really excited for the opportunity to run with some of Nepal’s top mountain runners. Although they have few opportunities and therefore there are few Nepali people who have the chance to seriously develop their running talents, the people here never-the-less have a long tradition of traveling by foot in these mountains (the roads in this country are actually just trails), and of course they live in the largest and most rugged mountains in the world. As a passionate mountain runner, the chance to spend nine days running with the best Nepalis must be similar to a road runner going to train in the Rift Valley with the Kenyans, and man was I excited to see how these people moved through their home terrain and to learn what I could!

Tite Togni descends the final hill into the small town of Tangye, stage 6 – Richard Bull photo

Then of course there are the details of the running itself, which cannot be separated from the places which we ran through. In conversations with Rich a month or so before the race he told me about how it’s just not that intense of a race, because it would be stupid to have your head down charging through this amazing landscape without seeing any of it. That made perfect sense to me, more of a group run than a real race, we are all tourists here after all. I adjusted myself accordingly and planned to run easy most days, certainly not to race hard. But, as it turns out, it was a race alright, straight from kilometer one!

On the first morning we left Kagbeni and followed the enticing Kali Gandhaki gorge towards upper Mustang. The first half of the stage was on a dirt road (in Nepal a dirt road which would service bus traffic would be considered extreme off-roading in the US, the kinds of roads only found in the mountains of Colorado or the deserts of Utah!) and with the energies flowing, the pace was hot. Upendra Sunewar and PhuDorjee Lama Sherpa, the two male Nepali runners present for the run, set off faster than I would have liked, but I decided it was worth the energy to stay with them or they would just be gone and I would see and learn nothing, so I hung on. Wearing my heart rate monitor which I had been using for training, I saw that my heart rate skyrocketed way above the training limits I had set for it, and soon had to turn off the incessant beeping telling me I was going too hard. Running at 11,000 feet isn’t easy, but by the end of our adventure this altitude would feel low and rich! With us as well was the young Italian Nicola Bassi, always smiling and laughing, and a pleasure to be around. We stayed packed together until suddenly we were lost, we had missed an inobvious turn in our mad rush up a goat trail in a deep canyon, and were now walking up the streambed, trying to keep our feet dry, and wondering where to go. Together we looked at the map and realized we needed to be on a high plateau to our left, so we climbed goat trails up there and rediscovered the way. But luckily the need to work together to understand where we had gone wrong dispelled the competitive tension, and now we walked along together for awhile, far out in the lead, getting to know each other a bit and laughing at our good fortune, our own silliness, and just out of profound happiness. Suddenly this felt like the meet-up adventure run I was in the mood for and we finished the rest of the stage together, running along easily, often stopping to take photos in the incredible towns of Tetang with its blood red rock walls and Chhuksang back along the river. The day finished with a steep climb up to the small town of Tsaile, one of many oasis’ in this beautiful dry land.

The runners leaving Tangye to start stage 7. Upendra Sunewar is on the left and PhuDorjee Lama Sherpa is in the front – Richard Bull photo

And then we settled into our first taste of the other half of the adventure – the waiting and recovering. While we were racing along between villages we had a whole long string of donkeys carrying our gear on their backs. But of course, donkeys are not as fast as humans, and so each day we spent most of the day waiting for our stuff to arrive, wearing only the clothes and eating only the food we had decided to carry with us running. This was not a bad thing, but I soon realized that the lucky ones, or maybe just smart ones, were the slower folk who got to spend all day out on the trail, enjoying the amazingness of it all, and then had little time to wait to put on their puffy jacket at the finish. I was not so smart, the plan I stumbled into was to race along at top speed, surely missing things, and then spending most of my day waiting in the wind with too little clothes on. But it was great to be able to cheer everyone into the finish as they came in, smiles on their faces, and to then trade stories about what happened in the intervening hours while we had all been struggling through our own stories written in the same book.

The second stage was one of the hardest of the trip – 30km and 2300m of ascent over four passes above 4000m – between Tsaile and another small, windy, beautiful town called Ghemi. Straight out of the gate was a 700m climb. With the previous day’s warm-up I felt really good running up this hill. PhuDorjee was behind me for a while, but at the top of the pass I turned around and there was nobody in sight. I was surprised as I had just been in my own zone and had not realized I had left everyone behind. But with a lead I decided to keep up the effort through the next village and climb. The second large descent of the day was into a gorge which can only be called Grand Canyon-esque, the bottom thousands of feet below, so far it was not at all visible. Bombing down a hill here I suddenly turned a corner and startled a huge herd of goats, who immediately stampeded in their fright. I watched as one white goat somehow got knocked off the trail and tumbled a bit down the hillside. Somehow in the chaos of the goat stampede I didn’t follow the rest of what happened to that goat, but telling the story later around tea in a comfy guesthouse, some funny folk decided I would forever be dubbed “the goatslayer.” Anyway, shortly after that moment I ran to Chungsi Cave, a really cool monastery built into a giant cave with a shrine and some old ladies carrying on a puja. This was our first “timeout” spot in the race. We would stop at places of cultural or other significance that we would run by because it would be silly to be there and not stop to see and explore what there was to offer because we were too concerned with racing. So instead we would take a timeout. A piece of paper would be at the location, we would sign in the time we arrived, stay as long as we wanted, then sign out when we left and entered the race again. I was very happy for these breaks along the way as seeing the crazy monasteries was a huge reason behind why I wanted to travel to Mustang in the first place. On this day I discovered that I had built a seven minute lead over Upendra and PhuDorjee, one I figured would be large enough to carry through the day, so I was able to mentally relax into running efficiently in the lead. I set out alone for the second half of the day with two more climbs and had a grand time enjoying the sights at my own cruising speed. The day ended with a large downhill into Ghemi and a 14 minute victory for me.

Enjoying the incredible sights and fine trail of stage 7. Dhaulagiri is the tall pointy mountain behind me. Richard Bull photo.

I think everyone pretty much took it for granted that Upendra would win this race, as he had won it the previous year and pretty much seems to own these long distance stage races. But the talk around the table that night was how I was now leading the race. Being in the lead so suddenly was as unexpected for me as it was for everyone else I think, and everyone was curious what would happen the next day. I had had so much fun running fast and had put aside my fears about the shin splints, while also realizing that my training had been good and I was fit and acclimatized. It seemed lame and uninspiring to settle back into a “training” pace after what had just happened, it felt like the only thing to do was to take the race seriously and try to do my best to win, so that’s what I resolved to do, although I promised myself that I would back off if any hint of injury or other malady came on.

So on stage three Upendra set off running fast up the hill out of Ghemi past a huge long line of mani stones (spiritual mantras carved in tibetan into rocks which are then stacked into a wall) which were said to be the entrails of the demon that Guru Rimpoche, Padma Sambhava (the character responsible for bringing Buddhism from India to Tibet and largely converting the population), defeated in order to allow Ghar Gumba, the monastery we were to visit later in the day to be built. The large red cliffs reminiscent of Moab which we ran by overlooking the town of Dhakmar were said to be stained by the blood of that same demon. Eventually, at the top of the first pass of the day, Upendra and I reached the gumba (tibetan word for monastery) together and got another timeout to explore, one which I think we were both very happy for. PhuDorjee arrived a moment later and we all enjoyed our short break and took some photos, drank some tea, before setting off up the last pass before Lo Manthang, the capital. This pass seemed to go on forever with many false summits and high altitude, but after the timeout break I felt better and managed to get another gap on Upendra. After the long grassy downhill into town, we joined LIzzy at the finish for some tea and shelter from the afternoon wind and played hacky sack while the others finished. The next day was for rest, so at the break I had a 16 minute lead, but was not at all certain I would be able to hold out till the end, I already felt super tired.

Running one of the most spectacular stretches of trail in Mustang. But really all the trails were amazing! Richard Bull photo

On our rest day we explored the amazing walled city of Lo Manthang, the capital of Mustang. A road had only just recently been finished to Lo Manthang, coming from Nepal within the past year, and so the change is already trickling in, but it’s bound to become more obvious as time goes on. It was a blessing to see this city which I had read a lot about in its current state. The city now expands outside of the famous tall and thick wall which has protected it for time immemorial, but the heart of it lies within the wall, a tangled maze of three story houses and taller buildings above narrow, foot-traffic only alleyways and water causeways. We had the incredible luck to be able to see two ancient monasteries within the walls – Thupchen and Jampa – which were of particular interest to me. Mustang has been independent for most of the time since with was united into one kingdom in the 13th century, but it has alternately pledged its allegiance and sided with either Tibet or Nepal, depending on the times and political situation. Its culture is very much Tibetan Buddhist, and since most of the ancient monasteries in Tibet were destroyed by the Chinese after their invasion in the 1950’s, the ancient monasteries in Mustang are some of oldest and most spectacular in existence today. We visited Thupchen first, which had the most amazing painted murals all over the walls I have seen. These are currently being restored by an Italian artist which has worked in the Sistene Chapel, and I felt lucky to see these murals and this process at work. Jampa Gumba was also known as the “mandala” gumba, as its walls were adorned almost exclusively with thanka mandalas, over 108 of them, some of them incredibly huge and elaborate. The centerpiece of this gumba was the giant 30 foot tall statue of the Buddha Maitreya, the “future” buddha yet to come, which was impressive to say the least. Dhir served as an incredible resource and tour guide for these gumbas. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos within either of these unique monasteries…

Tite Togni strikes a yoga pose in typical spectacular Mustang scenery on stage 7. Richard Bull photo

Stage four of the race was a circular route which began and ended in Lo Manthang and was about 30 kilometers, although mostly flat with little vertical gain. We toured through some villages before heading up a deserted and very dry valley directly in the river bed, and the further we went, the more impressive the eroded dirt formations became. After a steep climb we arrived at Kongcholing Cave, which for me was probably the coolest thing we saw on the entire journey. We had a timeout here, and since it took so long to hike up to the top of the ridge and explore the cave, virtually the entire group congregated mid-race at this point, where many of us were able to enjoy each other’s company out on the track for the first and only time of the journey, which was special. Combined with the downright bizarre landscape and rock formations and airy setting, the mood up here was so joyful, we couldn’t help but laugh, yell at each other, jump around for photos, count our blessings and be grateful to be in such a place. On my way down from the cave I passed Tite, an exceedingly cheerful and very flexible Italian woman, who suddenly declared that today was her birthday, and suddenly we were all singing for her from our different places along the trail, voices echoing off the cavernous walls in every direction. What a great birthday! The cave itself faced east and rested just below the top of a high ridgeline made of crumbling dirt. The only thing that comes to mind to compare it to would be Bryce Canyon in Utah. The cave was not natural, it was carved out of the dirt by hand, but inside were incredible old frescoes apparently over 2000 years old of at least 58 buddhas and yogis of the past. This cave was only recently re-discovered in 2007 by a wandering goat herder. So incredibly random as to defy belief, but that was the essence of Mustang. From Kongcholing I ran together with Upendra and PhuDorjee in a line as we passed the town of Chhoser which existed half within man-made stone houses and half contained within caves carved out of the rocks in some ancient time. We soon turned up another valley and ran to Jzong Cave, another interesting timeout. This cave was typical of the literally thousands of caves that we saw carved into the dirt and stone cliffs of the land everywhere we went. However, it was the only one we were actually able to explore, making it rather special. By crawling in a small entrance hole we gained access to five stories of carved out caves and hundreds of rooms. The three of us climbed up rickety wooden ladders to the highest level, were we could look out windows and contemplate the motivation of the people who created these caves. Apparently they were used as protection by the local villagers against raiding bandits back in the day. Another cool cultural sight to behold. Upon leaving I ran again with the Nepalis, and we all settled into a rhythm together over our only pass and highpoint of the day, and then cruised down the long descent back into Lo Manthang, finishing together. Lucky for us we finished early, as later in the day runners experienced hail and then quite a snowstorm up on this pass.

The snow soon enveloped Lo Manthang and continued for hours during the afternoon piling up to a few inches, which is apparently incredibly rare. A person from Nepal rarely thinks about much besides having fun it seems, and quite a snowball fight ensued. The photos of the mountains on the morning of stage five were serene and white! But the snowfall inspired the trip leaders to cancel the race for the day, not knowing how the conditions would affect everyone’s experience, and it was decided that we would instead all trek together over to the next village of Yara, which was far more remote and off the beaten track than we had so far been traveling. The trail followed a high ridge for the first half where the views of the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna Himal were again stunning, and the high mountains of Dolpo to our west continually beckoned. Again I stood on my tippy toes and tried to see over the high horizon, but Dolpo remains a mystery to me. Soon we dropped down an incredible descent through cliff bands for around 1000 meters to the bottom of the Kali Gandhaki river gorge. At one narrow gap through the cliffs I was walking with Upendra who pointed out a couple of giant vultures roosting in a cave just above our heads. He then told me about how in the village below, and all over Mustang, a common way to send off the dead from this world to the next was by “Sky Burial.” Upendra knew all about these things as he had spent a couple of years living in Mustang and had seen these sky burials with his own eyes. Basically after a lama (Buddhist priest) blesses the dead soul, his body is then cut up into pieces and left out on a prominent rock for the vultures to eat and carry away. In the culture of Mustang this in considered to be a far more worthy way of dealing with a body than by burying it in the ground. I found this an interesting thing to ponder as I continued on beneath the beating sun and wide open sky of Mustang, to fly away as a bird… The final leg of this day involved walking up a long dry riverbed wherein lay many ammonite fossils found in black rocks. Once I am looking for crystals or rocks on the ground I soon find myself rather obsessed, and I kept walking slower and slower as I scanned the ground for these rare rocks. By the time we reached Yara I had collected some 12 or so, which I of course could not keep as they weighed far too much anyway. Our lodging in Yara was rather sparse, with not enough beds to go around for the entire group, so many got to sleep in tents or just out on the roof like I did with Matt, something which reminded me of the good old days back in college, where it seemed we were always too lazy to bother setting up an actual tent. We finished our day by hiking about an hour up the same riverbed to a cave system called Tashi Kabum, which was in many ways similar to Jzong cave, although much more eroded away. Remarkably though, one of the chambers of this cave was a giant dome covered in clay plaster and painted with frescoes and mantras and a couple of very fine buddhas. In the center of the room was a huge chorten. I was again simply in awe of the paradox of this land. Who created such pieces of work? Nowhere seems more remote, and then way up in the remotest corners of the remotest place, suddenly you find yourself confronted with temples and works of art of such quality tucked into a deep cave that one can only laugh and marvel and feel lucky to have seen such a thing…

Despite the fantastic company of my peers on this adventure, I felt the desire for more space to myself, and so as they all walked off back down the valley to Yara, I instead scrambled up to a high cave in Tashi Kabum and sat there in silence for about an hour, meditating. I wanted to feel the loneliness and emptiness of Mustang as it really was, when there were no voices or people present. To me at that moment it was not enough to see such emptiness, I wanted to feel it deep within. And so I sat, eyes closed and eyes open, listening, looking, feeling what Mustang really was. I spend an inordinate amount of time in my life alone out in the vast empty wilderness and so am quite used to the true sounds of nature, the silence of the mountains and their wind, just being as they are, uninterrupted by human noise. Like every other time I choose to sit silently in the mountains, I soon settled into remembering this glorious loneliness. It was familiar and comforting and gave me an instant boost of energy. But as I continued to sit there in Mustang, I noticed something else was going on as well, all around me and continuously. I could actually hear the mountains crumbling down to dust. The incessant breezes which blew through these wastelands were constantly knocking off little pebbles and pieces of dirt, which were then trickling down the hills until they entrained more dirt into tiny little landslides on miniature scale, which created little trickling noises like a small stream. And this was happening everywhere all around me, all the time as I sat in silence. The subtlety of this never-ending erosion was completely lost on me every other day as I dashed through these lands, my eyes focused exclusively on the rocks which might trip me, my ears filled with the wind created by my own breath. The only constant in this ephemeral world is change, and I couldn’t help but smile at my chance to witness these lands in their natural state of decay. It felt like watching a time-lapse video but in real time and slow motion. I felt that I could take inspiration from this land which is constantly shedding its top layer and strive to continuously work to shed my own attachments and preoccupations, even if only at a geologic pace.

But the race went on at a much faster than geologic pace. Stage six proved to be the deciding day of the whole thing, but not because of what happened during the run, but rather because of the effect that it had. For me personally it felt like a day in which the Universe decided to “help” me by adding obstacles to my path. A friendly and cute dog had been following our group for many days and had decided to spend virtually the entire night keeping all of the campers awake by barking at the dogs of Yara. In the morning there were complaints all around and it seemed as if nobody had slept. We started the day by walking uphill again for about an hour and a half to another renowned gumba called Luri Gumba. This monastery was again inside of a cave at the top of a tall precipice, and featured incredible painted frescoes of many ancient yogis, which Dhir was able to explain to us. Although I was interested in the cultural stuff, the anticipation of waiting for hours to begin the race was making me antsy. The easy walk the day before had me feeling fresh and ready to run. There were only a few stages left and this one was meant to be tough – only 13 miles in distance but over 2000m of vertical. Upendra was more serious than his usual joking and smiling self and so I could tell he was planning to run hard. Once we were finally done with our walk, our tea, and our gumba tour, we could now focus on running, and we set out blitzing down a really cool narrow canyon which we had walked up. This was some of the funnest running of the trip for me bombing through there as fast as I could go with the Nepalis right behind! We regained the town of Yara, and I took a wrong turn down some random alleyway. By the time I had figured it all out and got back on track Upendra was a little ahead of me heading into the river bottom. We were meant to take a left up river for a ways before heading up a 300m hill to a high plateau, but for whatever reason the Nepalis just went straight up. Having spent their whole lives traveling these hills, they often saw “the way” different than we did, and followed the flow of the hills accordingly. Usually I followed them, but today I didn’t see them go different, so soon found myself all alone. I was fine with this until about halfway up the hill when I looked up to see them cresting the rise above me, now many minutes ahead. At first I couldn’t believe it and was frustrated, but I got my head on right and remembered that the point of racing is to challenge oneself to see where your limits lie, and if they were now ahead of me, it just meant that I was supposed to try harder than I thought I would have to in order to catch up. I accepted this challenge with a smile, it actually made things much more fun! But with a large gap of a lead, I found that suddenly they were not cruising along as we had together so many days thus far, they seemed to be pushing much harder, perhaps hoping to put a big dent in the time gap. Up and down relentless 50m hills we ran, and I slowly closed the gap by running as hard as I ever have, reaching Upendra at the bottom of a huge hill where we had to cross a river. There was no bridge across this river, but like I often do in Colorado I just splashed right through the water, knowing my feet would dry, and headed up the huge 700m hill beyond. I put my head down and was power hiking for all I was worth to stay ahead of Upendra at this point, but then I heard a whistle and looked to the right, where he was moving uphill even in elevation to me, but on the other side of a huge eroded canyon. Suddenly I heard Richard’s warning of the night before in my head “don’t just head uphill on the wrong side of these canyons cause you won’t be able to get across further up.” Aw crap, I had gone wrong again. But I wasn’t about to go back downhill, so I went further up anyway, where I did eventually find a way across the canyon, but by this time Upendra was a couple of minutes ahead up the hill. It felt like a slow motion battle as it was now a hiking race, but soon enough the trail turned to crazy steep downhill which we bombed down at top speed. Needless to say I didn’t take any pictures this day, mostly I was trying to not slip off the narrow track and die. Soon enough we dropped down into the incredible hamlet of Tangye and luckily the race for the day was over with Upendra coming in a couple of minutes ahead. Despite getting off trail a couple times and getting second on the day, this was by far the most rewarding run of the adventure for me, as it was the only one which took everything that I had. It was such a blessing to have someone so talented as Upendra to run with and push me as far as I could go, and I appreciated every minute of the experience! This was exactly what I had hoped to experience here on this trip and I felt so lucky to have gotten it! But then the Universe decided to “help” me again and within minutes of finishing I had a runny nose, soon I couldn’t stop sneezing, my head clogged up completely with mucus, I got a sore throat, and by early evening I was suffering from a full head cold. I think the day-to-day effort proved to be too much for me to sustain, and like many of the people on the trip I succumbed. Added to that was the fact that when the donkeys showed up with our bags mine had obviously fallen off, or something. Virtually every strap was torn in half, there were huge rips throughout the bag and my things had been re-stuffed inside, they had obviously fallen out along the way. My trusty backpack which I have had for probably nine years of adventures had suffered its last. RIP. Thank goodness I had no more backpacking planned this journey!

Sarah Walters running in the riverbed below the fort at Chhuksang. Richard Bull photo.

Stage seven was billed by Richard as the most scenic of the journey and he was correct! From Tangye, a tiny village with friendly people whose name apparently means “eight piles,” which Dhir interpreted for us to mean the eight large orange stupas which were the centerpiece of the town, we crossed the confluence of a couple very large river valleys which again reminded me of Utah, this time the River Road area near Moab, and headed up a large 1000m climb. With snot dripping out of my nose and my ears clogged so that it was difficult to hear, I decided to embark at my own pace, and if I felt ok, then to try to keep up my pace. But very quickly I knew that it was foolish to consider racing anymore and so I settled into a more casual tourist mode of enjoying the day. I got to travel along with Frank, Roger, David, and Richard, none of whom I had the pleasure of joining on the trail up to this point. It was really nice to be able to take in the views, to talk with different people, and to have the pressure of the mounting race off my chest. The trail took us along the crest of a huge ridge for many miles. Dropping off to one side were 1,000 foot tall orange and red sandstone cliffs and looming above us always were Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. We took some great pictures here and had a laughing good time!

On our last day out of Chhuksang we headed over the Gyu La towards Muktinath, a place where I had been through less than two weeks earlier on my trip round Annapurna. I still felt very stuffed and it seemed at this point the race was pretty much wrapped up position wise after eight days on the move. In the end Upendra Sunawar took the victory followed by PhuDorjee Lama Sherpa and then me in third. I can’t really say enough about how impressed I was by these two Nepali gentlemen and how blessed I felt to get to know them and run with them. At this point in my life running in the mountains is quickly taking on the quality of being something sacred to me and as such I cannot think of many ways in which to bond with someone more powerful than enjoying a good long run in the mountains. Not only were these guys always totally gracious competitors, but they are also a ton of fun to be around always laughing and telling jokes. So many times we helped each other to stay on the trail and not go awry. These guys have a ton of experience and many wins between them in these long distance, many day or week long stage races in the Himalaya, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but their ability to stay strong and run fast day after day is astounding. When my energy waned they were basically unfazed. These guys are not sponsored athletes and there are no prize purses to be won in the races that they compete in. They are out there running for the exact same reason as we all are – purely for the love and enjoyment. It inspires them and brings love to their lives. They manage to sustain themselves by working as climbing and trekking guides, but they often take time out during the busy money-making seasons for these races. I feel very very lucky to have made friends with these two characters and I am also happy that they have the opportunity to run outside their own country like the rest of us. PhuDorjee is planning to the run in the Skyrunning World Championships in Chamonix this June and Upendra if I’m not mistaken is planning to run in Italy this July. Run fast guys! To help them with these endeavors, click here.

Although the climb to the Gyu La was long, I found it to be an enjoyable hike with great views, and I was lucky to get to run down from the crest into town with Matt Moroz for the first time on the journey. We had a good talk on the rolling and cruisey trails about what the trip had really been all about, what we had enjoyed the most, and especially the joys and pains of stage racing. This was my first time traveling around the world for the sake of racing, and also the first time I had ever experienced a new culture and landscape viewed through the lens of racing through it. I have to say I really enjoyed it, the dynamic of intense athletic pursuit added another dimension to traveling. For me this trip will not only be about experiencing the culture and wide open landscapes and sights of the Forbidden Kingdom, but will also be infused with the energy of having strove for excellence at the same time. One of my favorite aspects of racing is that I get to share a running experience with so many like-minded people, and I truly cherished to chance to hear the experiences of so many great people striving for the same thing in the same place and having a totally different ride! So Amazing! Thanks Mustang Trail Race! And thanks of course to all those that made this happen: Richard Bull, Dhir, Lizzy Hawker the world’s best trail marker, and their staff!

~ ONE LOVE! ~

Crazy formations and cliff dwellings above the town of Yara. Richard Bull photo.