On October 27, 2018 I witnessed the 13th edition of the Annapurna 100 trail race, organized by Trail Running Nepal offering 50K and 100K distances with over 3,000 and 6,000 meters of elevation gain respectively.
The races started and finished in the small Nepalese village of Dhampus in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. (link on map) and I hiked and ran over 25 kilometers of the course with the film and photography crew during the race. On course, I hesitantly walked across a shaky wire-bridge over one-hundred feet long, danced over technical rooty downhills in dense Oregon-like forests, learned new breathing techniques running to 3,500 meters at Mardi Himal High Camp, timed my foot plants descending quickly on ancient stone steps, smiled and said “Namaste” to every runner I could, received cheers from villagers, ate Snickers at aid stations and embraced the magnificent views of the 8,000-meter Annapurna and the holy Machhapuchhare (a.k.a. The Fishtail) mountains.
I was fortunate to have spent the night before the race at Mardi Himal High Camp, the race’s highpoint. I awoke on race morning before sunrise and was greeted to the unforgettable sight of more stars than sky. The silhouettes of The Fishtail and Annapurna were slowly filled with color by sunrise. The Annapurna 100 undoubtedly provided an experience of the Himalayas that lived up to my expectations and fantasies about these majestic mountains.
Out of 132 runners who lined up at 4am for the race starts, 56 were Nepalese and 76 hailed from 17 different nations including the United States, Canada, Peru, France, Germany, Netherlands, U.K., Greece, Switzerland, Israel, Jordan China, India, Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Nepal. This diversity of the race environment allowed me to spark fun conversations with people from across the globe, learn about other cultures, and hear interesting stories of how others were adapting to the unique Nepalese environment.
The race organizers were kind and enthusiastic. Acting race director, Richard Bull, author and Lizzy Hawker, unprecedented 5-time winner of UTMB, groups of local Nepali photographers, medics and staff members at Freedom Trekking Agency and many others dedicated their time from early Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon carrying out the many duties of the race from timing, tracking, giving directions, cutting Snickers bars, making PB&J sandwiches, taping sprained ankles, sweeping the course in the night, arranging transportation and many other jobs. For the race organizers, sleep came only after the race was finished!
Nepalese Trail Running Culture
After documenting my experience at The Malnad Ultra in India this past October, I arrived in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, curious about what Nepalese trail running would be like. I was familiar with the success story of Mira Rai, child-soldier turned Salomon professional trail runner. Rai was awarded the 2017 National Geographic Adventurer of the year and she currently promotes a trail running movement with the mission of providing more career opportunities for women in Nepal.
When I arrived in Nepal and chatted with race director Richard Bull, I was surprised to learn I’d have the opportunity to meet Rai at the race. On race day, Rai greeted runners at the highpoint aid station, finish line, and throughout the course. Runners ecstatically talked to Rai in Nepalese and I witnessed several groups stop for pictures with her like she was the Michael Jordan of Nepal. Rai’s signature also adorned the finishers’ certificate for the race. My several encounters with her over the weekend led me to understand her as enthusiastic, full of energy, and happy to meet and greet everyone at the race.
Despite Rai’s efforts to bring attention to the sport, Nepali trail running is still a new prospect in the culture. One of my new Nepali friends who has competed in several Nepalese races, such as the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon and the Mustang Trail Race, explained that when someone is seen running, many Nepalese people will assume they must be training for the military. Participating in running as a sport or as a way to stay healthy is not yet common in Nepal.
Tourist trekking on Nepal’s mountain trails is a rapidly growing industry. The increasing popularity of treks such as Everest Base Camp or the Annapurna Circuit have led to the construction of many hotels, shops, tea houses and Jeep roads for tourists’ convenience while traveling along the trails. Not much solitude will be found on many Himalayan trails.
Although the Annapurna 100 is a race and not a tourist trek, there was a large contingent of Annapurna 100’s international participants who partook in trekking before or after the event. I talked to runners who ascended Island Peak, 6,189 meters, the week before the race, or who planned to go trekking across 5,000-meter passes in the Everest region after the race. These racer’s idea to combine incredible trekking excursions with racing the Annapurna 100 fascinated me. Never before had I been at a trail race and heard so many stories of amazing adventures in the mountains.
The race course itself was also directly affected by expanding tourism. Some of the course is on less-popular trails around Dhampus, but the majority of the route up and down from Dhampus to Mardi Himal High Camp is a well-trafficked route for trekkers hiking the Mardi Himal Trek. As a result, runners encountered long trains of donkeys carrying supplies up to high camp. One will notice donkeys carrying items such as Coca-Cola, Snickers, and Mars bars to almost every highcamp in Nepal’s Himalayas. Furthermore, runners encountered large trekking groups, several of which stepped off the trail and provided excellent cheering sections throughout the course. One large group of approximately twenty-five French trekkers spent nearly ten minutes in a meadow before high camp cheering, “Bravo bravo, allez, vas-y!” to runners passing by.
No description of an event in Nepal would be honest without recognizing the commitment it takes to travel throughout the country. The Nepalese experience of travel is quite different from what one will find in the US, and international runners of the Annapurna 100 should be aware of these difference. For example, a bus scheduled to leave at 7am might leave at 8 am, one’s driver might occasionally stop in the middle of the road to talk to friends in an oncoming Jeep, roads might be so bumpy one can’t read a book without losing one’s place, and overall one should expect an extended length of time to arrive at one’s destinations.
The 2019 edition of the Annapurna 100 will gain additional attention next year when it becomes Salomon’s finale of the 2019 Golden Trail Series. The top 10 women and men in the series will be invited to compete in a 42K at the Annapurna 100, which will likely be shown on Salomon TV I look forward to seeing how the event will change with the inclusion of some of the best trail runners in the world.