The Mustang Trail Race, Nepal April 2018
This is a short report on the Mustang race that I ran in April. There are more photographs and details on my blog at finlaysmustangrace2018.com.
I had wanted to do this race for a couple of years, having first read about it in Lizzie Hawkers book, Runner. It is an eight day stage race run through the remote region of Mustang in Northern Nepal. Mustang borders China and the Tibetan plateau and is sheltered by some of the world’s highest mountains. Over eight days we would run about 170km on mountain trails and climb over 10,000m through the mountains. The area is a high altitude dessert and in April the weather is very dry and cool. We did experience early morning ice and on one day, fresh snow on a high pass.
For me this was going to be a big running adventure, a chance to test myself in real mountains and an opportunity to meet like-minded runners from around the world. I was also acutely aware of the altitude challenge, especially for someone living in Lincolnshire!
In April this year, via four successively smaller airplanes, I finally arrived in Jomsom, the main meeting point for the race. The trip out had been an adventure in its own right, especially travelling through Nepal.
In Jomsom it was soon clear that I was the only Brit in the very international group of 21 runners. There was a big US contingent and Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand and Nepal were all represented.
Before we could start the race we had a really tough 16km trek, crossing high mountain passes to get to the start point of the race and the gateway to northern Mustang. Mustang is a restricted area with strict access and a rigorous permit system to limit visitors and we would be issued permits and start the race from the village of Kagbeni.
The first night in Kagbeni was my introduction to Nepalese village life and Nepalese tea houses, essentially a cross between a very basic hotel and a back-packers hostel. Whilst facilities were extremely basic and water a precious commodity, it was a great way of getting to know your fellow runners.
In the morning we were up early to pack bags that would be transported by tractor to the endpoint of that stage, the next village in an arc looping through the mountains. After a very sociable breakfast we toured the village while our permits were processed then lined up for the start.
Stage 1: Distance 18km, Accum. Ascent 500m, Highest Altitude 3,380m
Stage 1 was a gentle introduction to the rocky dessert landscape of Mustang. The route was a mixture of dusty and rocky road running, narrow trails along river valleys, a wide rocky plateau and small villages. The route was very well marked with pink ribbons and there was a water station at the half way point. Near the end we crossed a typical Himalayan suspension bridge before struggling in the thin air on a 100m climb to the finish in the village of Tsaile. I ran with Carlos, a Spanish runner who had flown over from his home in South America.
Stage 2: Distance 26km, Accum. Ascent 2,200m, Highest Altitude 3,998m
Stage 2 was a monster day. We had a very early start and spent the first half of the day climbing in and out of deep canyons following narrow trails that clung to rocky cliffs. In places the exposure was very scary with steep drops below. Again I teamed up with Carlos and it was good to have company on these very remote, exposed trails. There was a water station in a remote village and I opted to buy a bottle of coke from an enterprising old lady who had set out a bucket of water with drinks next to the aid station. We eventually made it to the finish in the village of Ghemi where we stayed in an amazing tea house. It was my birthday and our support team presented me with a huge birthday cake and we all recharged our carb stores.
Stage 3: Distance 21km, Accum. Ascent 1,100m, Highest Altitude 4,299m
I woke up with a mother of all headaches, I suspect from the exertion and altitude of the previous day. However, after breakfast and a couple of paracetamol I felt a lot better.
This was one of my favourite stages with two big climbs over high passes. The landscape was stunning, like nothing I had ever seen; flat tilted plateaus and ragged, jagged folds of rock. There were also some nice runnable sections with a long downhill stretch to the finish at Lo Manthang. I did some of this section with Wannachai, a runner from Thailand who I ended up sharing a room with for most of the event. We were both the same age and by far the oldest of the group!
Rest Day: Lo Manthang, Altitude 3,800m.
Day 4 was a rest day to help us acclimatise to the altitude. The day was marred by one of our team having to be helicoptered out due to symptoms of acute mountain sickness. His wife flew out with him so we were down to 19 runners. Thankfully he recovered quickly but they never returned to the race. The rest of us spent the day exploring the ancient walled city of Lo and hiking up to ancient hill forts. We were staying in a big comfortable tea house which was to be our base for three nights.
Stage 4: Distance 26km, Accum. Ascent 1060m, Highest Altitude 4,100m
Stage 4 was a big loop to the north of Lo Manthang up near the Tibet/China border then returning to Lo. It took in a number of ancient monastery sites and places of interest where we were ‘timed-out’ of the race so we could do some sightseeing. There was one monastery that involved a very exposed climb and I opted out of this one. We passed through a number of small villages and our pink ribbon markers appeared on dogs, horses and children. Needless to say we all got a bit lost but it did make us smile!
Stage 5: Distance 15km, Accum. Ascent 900m, Highest Altitude 4,100m
This was a short stage which saw us say goodbye to Lo Manthang and start to loop back south towards Jomsom. It started with a climb up to a pass then a dramatic ascent on a narrow trail through cliffs before reaching a point where it felt like we were stepping into thin air off another cliff. It was actually a steep chute of scree and rock leading down to a village. Here we crossed a river on a big suspension bridge before reaching the finish in a green oasis that was the village of Yara.
Stage 6: Distance 20km, Accum. Ascent 800m, Highest Altitude 3,960m
This was another one of my favourite stages, it was really varied and interesting with a big river crossing and long final descent into another oasis-like village, Tanggye.
We had a 5km uphill hike to a remote monastery, or Gompa, before we could start this stage. The route then took us back downhill, through Yara and on to climb over a succession of plateaus and a high ridge before another dramatic descent to a remote village. We spent the night in a very basic tea house, to wash, we had to go and queue with the villagers at the village tap. Water was very scarce here.
Stage 7: Distance 24km, Accum. Ascent 1,200m, Highest Altitude 4,100m
This was a 24km and 1,200m climb day where I’m afraid I lost my sense of humour and really struggled to finish. The stage started with a river crossing and then a climb of about 800m height in 4km. This was followed by a long undulating ridge before dropping down steeply to the finish. The wind was extremely strong as I negotiated the dramatic and in places very scary 800m final descent to Chuksang. I think all of us managed to fall at some point in the scree and rocks of this challenging downhill section. Even with poles I struggled to stay upright. I was so tired at the finish I struggled to eat. On the plus side we were staying in a new accommodation block behind a tea house with big beds and a great shower. This was our first shower in three days and we had fine dust ingrained in our skin.
Stage 8: Distance 15km, Accum. Ascent 1,250m, Highest Altitude 4,075m
The final stage of the race was quite short at 15km but had a long steady 1,250m climb up to nearly 4,100m.
After my terrible day on stage 7 I stood at the start worrying about the day ahead. We followed a river bed out of the village then very quickly started the long climb. I was feeling surprisingly good and managed to keep up with and then catch a few people that had been beating me. By the time I got to the high pass I still had plenty of energy and really enjoyed the long downhill to the finish in Muktinath. It was one of those magic runs were your legs just want to keep going and you feel you could run forever. In fact I ran so much I only stopped to take a couple of pictures.
For me it was the perfect end to what had been an amazing experience.
Final Thoughts & Reflections
My total time for the 8 stages was 37hrs 14mins and I came 14th out of 21. However, 5 were young Nepalese runners and included the amazing Mira Rai who is a Salomon sponsored athlete.
This was without doubt the biggest and best adventure I have ever had. It was incredibly well organised and Richard Bull and his team worked tirelessly to look after us, feed us and water us. They are a great bunch of guys and girls. My fellow runners were also an amazing bunch and I hope we can keep in touch. My aim is to run the Trans Rockies race next year with some of them.
Importantly, I managed to remain injury free but did lose about 4kg. Although we were well fed we were burning huge amounts of calories and even sleeping is difficult at altitude.