Manaslu Mountain Trail Race Report 2013: Literally Bonking

Warning, this post has blood and a weird mixture of bragging and self-deprecating tendencies.  So you might just want to switch to the online photo album instead where it is a little more muted.
Bad idea at the end of Deception Pass 50k.
When I fail, it is usually with astonishing stupidity. If we forget about last week, the last time I had stitches was when I was a kid and ran into a stop sign on my bike. A few years later, when I was twelve, I lost my campsite in the woods and never found it again. As far as I know that tent is still out there. I got beat up in Bangkok at 17 and swindled at 19 in Morocco. At 21, I walked into a Chinese police station when I was supposed to be sneaking into Tibet only to be fined and expelled. A little older, but none wiser, I misspelled ‘Disertation’ on the cover page of my dissertation. Ignoring an angry big toe nail almost ruined my summit push on Everest  in 2011 (gross blog post). When I was running across the US in 2012, I sat on the highest object in the middle of a field during a lightning storm. And one day in Iowa I sat down for a break and then ran in the wrong direction for six miles, turning a 34 mile day into a 46 mile day from hell. And these are only the things I am willing to admit.

Now that I’ve convinced you of my back country competence, and how you should join an S2Mountaineering trip with me, let me say that for every epic failure I’ve had a lot of drama-free successes. But it wouldn’t be an adventure if there wasn’t a potential for things going south.

Trying hard to be a running bum in Nepal over the past couple months, I succeeded in gaining entry into the Manaslu Mountain Race organized by www.trailrunningnepal.org.  I figured it would be good recon for a possible future solo run, fun to hang with an international crew of runners, and good orientation to see how a stage run is organized. I was there to help the race director Richard Bull on whatever needed helping and to run a little.

Some very cool people

After a long bumpy bus ride, complete with tensions related to Maoists protesting the upcoming elections, we arrived for the night in Arughat Bazaar. The next morning we were escorted to the start line by a small 3-man band and a good portion of the village and then we were off!  We ran close to 25k on rocky undulating trail, squeezing by mule trains on precarious trails etched into the sides of cliffs. I touched a lot of mule ass in the process (just to get by, really).

Race spectator

The farther in we ventured, the more rustic things became. This wasn’t like the trek to Everest Base Camp with streams of trekkers and a relatively solid infrastructure. For some reason rocks are usually placed on holes in these bridges. Makes sense, right?

Run across this fast, I dare you.

I ran really hard that first day. That is not me, but this time I leaned into things and finished the day 3rd place man, 6th overall. The people in front of me were top notch to say the least (and also damn nice folk). Phu Dorjee Sherpa is one of the fastest runners in Nepal and literally floats down trail, Anna Frost (‘Frosty’) is one of the fastest female trail runners in the world running for Salomon, Claire Price runs for Hoka and set a course record at the Vibram Hong Kong 100k last year; Aussie Mick Thwaite drinks as much beer as me and is sponsored by Mass Nutrition and training for a 240k uphill (!) road race. Anne-Marie Flammersfeld became the first women to win the 4 desert racing series and brought a private camera man Christian.

What the hell was I doing near these people? I didn’t know, but I was tickled and banking on being able to do well with the altitude, technical trail, and back-to-back running days that were coming up. And it wasn’t just these fast runners that impressed me, everyone had a unique story, kindness, and a determination for adventure that was both impressive and infectious and familiar including National Geographic 2013 Adventurer Lizzy Hawker who was taking it easy, healing from multiple stress fractures.

Shaun, Claire, and James wasting no time going after food.

And it got better. Each day became a party. After finishing, we would load up on food (ok, beer too), find spots in the sun, and cheer people as they rolled in…When it got dark, we would find warmth inside and rush outside to cheer whenever we saw a headlamp bob down the trail.

On the second day we ran ~39k and I finished 5th overall and 2nd place man. Anna, Anne-Marie and Claire were doing an amazing job holding 2-4th places. On the third day, we climbed up to 3,100m/10,000ft and finished at Himling Monastery after 25k. I ran as hard as I could that morning, leading for a good bit along technical trail before getting passed. I finished 2nd place man behind Phu Dorjee and 3rd overall behind Frosty. (I’m pretty sure Mick would have beat me but he was dealing with a stomach bug and Anne-Marie had hurt her knee the day before).

Stage 3 early finish group.
L-R: Claire Price, Frosty, Anne-Marie, Me, Mick.
Photo by Phu Dorjee Sherpa

The fourth stage had me completely pumped up and ready to race. For years I have been a mid-pack runner for the most part, content to smell flowers, chat at aid stations, and take it easy so I could finish without actually trying too hard. But this was different and the higher we went, the stronger I was feeling. I bolted from the start line, jockeying to get into the front of the pack before we all funneled through a small door in the monastery gate.

Himling Monastary

Let me just say, in my own feeble defense, a lot of doors in Nepal and Tibet are incredibly short. This is not so much about stunted growth curves, as about superstitions that suggest small doors can keep out evil spirits (or maybe dumb white guys).

The very very very small door flanked a huge door which for some reason we had not opened. I wasn’t interested in getting caught behind 35 people trying to get through our door so I floored it. At the last obnoxious second, I was able to squeeze between Frosty and Phu before we ran through the door. Maybe I should say ‘before they ran through the door’.  In the end, you could say I tried unsuccessfully to follow a short Sherpa through a very short door. Or you could say I was simply stupid, uncoordinated, and distracted and blinded with a huge baseball hat. Either are the truth and the outcome is the same.

Running at full speed my forehead connected solidly with the wooden door jam which was anchored in concrete. The rest of my body continued at a decent pace forward. I landed on my back on the other side of the door. I remember huge jolts of electricity coursing through my arms and legs and blood dripping down my face. I remember irrationally thinking I could get stitched up in under ten minutes and get back into the race. I remember thinking ‘SHIT’.

Luck runs out.
Photo by Richard Bull

While this was not a lucky event, I was extremely lucky to have it happen at the race start and for Richard Bull to have taken medical support on the trip seriously. The race doctor was nearby. With a diploma in mountain medicine and a residency at Everest ER – I can’t think of a better person to take care of me then Dr. Pranev. I know some of his colleagues at Everest Base Camp (that big toe nail thing again) and there are simply no finer.

Award winning video to follow.

A log roll and spinal assessment found full range of movement and reflexes with the exception of massive pins and needles in my left hand. I was so focused on this, I declined getting injected with a local for the stitches, something I later regretted.  The setting was as rustic as you can get: on a table in a dark dining room permeated by wood smoke from the adjoining kitchen. A gunny sack became my head support and hot water bottles were stuffed around me to keep me warm. The doc had the kitchen boil his swiss army knife and wore a Petzl headlamp. The first stitch felt like it was going to pull my forehead off. Big thanks to Krishna for holding my head still and Richard, Lizzy, and Dhair for being there. I’m pretty sure the doc was trying to stitch ‘For a good time call Dr. Pranev‘ into my forehead but was short on suture thread.

Bummed.
Photo by Richard Bull.

In all, I spent about 2 hours on that table thinking about the fragility of our bodies and how much I tend to take for granted. The pins and needles diminished in both hands and we weighed the pros and cons of leveraging my evac insurance and calling a helicopter to rule out any spinal issues. But after an awkward test of walking around the monastery and spinning every prayer wheel I passed for good luck, we agreed I could try to walk the day’s 22k so long as I carried nothing and kept close to Richard, Lizzy, Dhir, and Pranev who were carrying full packs and also walking.

Test Walk.
Photo by Richard Bull. 

Before setting off, Lizzy bent down and tied both of my shoes. It had been at least 35 years since someone else tied my shoes; having one of the best mountain runners in the world tie them almost made it all worth while. And so off we went. I walked like an old man with a bad back and a stroke, my left hand guarded and claw-like, disappointed I was out of the race and embarrassed at my own stupidity.  The scenery did its best to distract me and slowly the miles unfolded; we pulled in after dark and the reception I got nearly bowled me over.

Lizzy Hawker Taking in the Alpine Glow

We spent the next two nights in the Tibetan village of Sama. The 5k trail up to Manaslu Base Camp was super steep and technical; Pranev forbade me from doing it in case the jarring aggravated something. I wasn’t in a position to argue but it felt really different to simply spectate. People were incredibly nice and none nicer then Richard Mobley who happened to be an orthopedic surgeon from New Zealand, specializing in upper limb issues. We talked a lot about there being no substitute from good imagery, but that I seemed stable and improving and hopefully it was a temporary impingement on my left brachial plexus. I started a course of oral dexamethosone which is a potent steroid I usually carry to treat brain swelling hat can be caused by high altitude. Another use is to treat spinal inflammation. But because it masks altitude sickness, it had to be stopped before we got closer to the 5,100m Larkya Pass. I spent the day hobbling around, moping about not being able to run, and taking pictures.

The kids we met were beyond cute, the comradeship with other runners, the mountain scenery and frankly good medical care and drugs helped me feel stronger and stronger. I walked the next day with Kevin who was great company and the sole survivor of the Red Bull team, his partners Lil and Daniel having chartered a helicopter to get back to Kathmandu. The following day was a rest day before the pass and I took full advantage of it…

Richard organized a kids race in Sama.
I call these three the ‘Bad Ass Posse’ or ‘BAP’ for short.
And in Samdo, Andrew donated a bunch of books to the local school.
Layered up and ready for the winter.

We set out before dawn, trying to allow as much time as possible for everyone to get over the 5,100m Larkya pass. Other trekking groups had turned around because of 100k winds only a few days prior. In the pre-dawn inkiness, I linked up with the leaders and even though it wasn’t a timed race, we moved fast – picking our way across frozen streams and through the quietness that surround most alpine starts. We delighted as the rising sun lit Manaslu and then swept across a glacier before warming us back to normal.  At the pass we hugged and high five’d and then started a crazy descent that asked for ice axes and ropes that we did not have.

On the last day the ‘fast group’ started about 30 minutes later as we were all supposed to jump into jeeps when the trail finally turned into road (this is the same road building effort I wrote about when fast packing the Annapurna Circuit in 2011). We squeezed around the fire in the kitchen and tried to warm our hands. I heard someone say something about it being a social run, a little later we went outside and we were off running down the valley.  Within a few minutes I was overheated and had to stop to take off my pack and so I could lose some layers, I watched the pack disappear.  Back on my feet, I came around a corner and found the group standing in the trail. ‘What’s wrong?’, I yelled to them thinking someone must have gotten hurt and their answer was ‘We’re waiting for you!’ Wow. We ran for about 3 hours as a group, stopping when any of us needed to hit the bathroom and during a couple different falls, fortunately just skinned knees (not mine!). There was not a shred of competitiveness. It was a great experience and we crossed the finish line holding hands. I’ve never done something like that before.

The big finish.
Photo by Jake Zmrhal
All smiles
Claire Price and Anna Frost – two incredibly fast women
Lizzy Hawker – runner  and person extraordinaire.

And that is about it. What is missing from this race report is not just a better description of the course, but a better description of all the amazing people who were part of this journey. People from all walks of life joined up and each had a unique story and an amazing personality. It’s hard to forget Karen who never stopped smiling and never gave up (finishing at 2:30am one day!). Husband and wife David and Claire who had almost done the run in 2012 as their honeymoon. And Sylvie (4th woman!) and Denis (3rd place man after Mick!) who were ski instructors in Switzerland.  Or the Red Bull/Coyote Ugly team took the good with the bad. Peter and Sabine, Tricia, Yasmin, Jake who could out walk runners, I could go on and on; the bottom line is these people made the event, not the mountain. And www.trailrunningnepal.org also made the event happen with the perfect amount of support. I strongly recommend you check out future events, especially the Mustang Race in April. These things are walkable too!

Mustang Terrain- photo http://mustangtrailrace.com/

Back in Kathmandu, the news is not so great. I’ve been on the MRI circuit. It looks like a posterior fracture on C7 and there is some other stuff going on as well. But in all likelihood it will all heal on its own, I just need to stop running for a while and ‘take it easy’. Will do as I am going to Thailand tomorrow for John and Kathleen’s wedding. They have resumed their world tour! Just park me under a palm tree, I’ll be the dork on the beach with the cervical collar.

Hmmmm…..what did I learn from this? a) I am really good at running really fast into door jams. b) I will always always carry a first aid kit in the back-country including steri-strips. c) www.trailrunningnepal.org just joined www.rainshadowrunning.com as my two favorite race companies. d) The Manaslu Circuit is stunning. Even if you don’t want to run it, hike it: http://manaslucircuittrek.com/  e) Amazing people can make an experience amazing. f) I will not take my health for granted. g) Life is short, we really should play hard. h) I use the word ‘amazing’ too much.

For the full photo album (52 pics) please go here. Otherwise, thanks for reading this far, go where you need to go but watch out for low doors! Have a great Thanksgiving if you are in the States but either way give thanks for your health. Travel safe.

~Seth
Kathmandu

As always, big thanks to PROBAR for fueling me!
PS- and a big thanks to Matt Palilla for dealing with garbled sat phone calls and posting results on the Manaslu pages.

9 Responses to “Manaslu Mountain Trail Race Report 2013: Literally Bonking

  • Seth, where are your sponsors bro?

  • Great blog. Sorry to hear you couldn’t run the whole thing. Do mustang next year its incredible. Much more runnable than manaslu and warmer….

  • Where I come from, “literally bonking” would suggest fornicating on the trail?

    Nigel

  • Welcome to the fractured neck club! Seriously though, heal well and take some lazy beach time in Thailand. You’ve earned it, head injury or not.

  • Ouch! Heal well.

  • Thanks for the comments! Mustang is really a draw Holly, it looks incredible. And Nigel with your queen’s English, that did not cross my mind. Funny. You, as a cyclist, I’m sure know it is used a lot in running to describe running out of fuel/hypoglycemia generally. Or bonking into the wall. (translate that as you will.. :)

    • Oh, ooh oh, my! Seth! LOVED reading this, finally! I had been wondering about that door jamb post you made, and how it all came to happen and pass! Your adventure stories are Always, always luring! Now you know how grateful I was to you, the sole one willing to tape up my sore feet on the trek up Kili! Didn’t know your toe-nail story then!

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