I distinctly noticed on Laveta’s watch when it showed 9am.  That meant that the last day of our MISMS meeting was commencing back at the Dwarika hotel, where I was supposed to be helping South Asian influenza researchers use the BEAST program.  Instead I was out climbing Pulchowki, situated at an elevation of 2782m just outside Kathmandu, already drenched in sweat with my new Nepalese trail running friends Roger, Richard, Narayan, and Laveta.

I had been terribly torn about the decision.  On one hand I really liked the participants at our meeting and wanted to help them master some sophisticated software for the Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of their influenza virus sequence data.  But on the other hand, this was just a puny half day of tutorial.  I had been working for nearly two weeks straight, traveling to Beijing and then on to Kathmandu, giving talks, helping people use the software, explaining all the details of it, over and over again.  So when Laveta invited me to head out to the mountains Saturday morning with some of the local Nepalese ultra trail runner folk she knew, I decided to play hooky.  I mean, I had been on the road for 2 weeks and while I’d had loads of interesting experiences I hadn’t yet done anything just purely for myself.  Despite it being monsoon season, Saturday’s weather called for sun and blue sky — that sealed it.

I knew that I made the right call when halfway up the mountain we were able to look out across the valley to see the snow-capped Himalayas, even glimpsing the Annapurna.  The peaks were so high, jutting out above the clouds, that at first I thought they too were part of the clouds.  They were so beautiful.

There was another unexpected upshot to the good weather.  When Roger explained that the blood streaming down his legs was not from thorns or cuts but from leeches, he then clarified that if it had been raining we all would have been COVERED head to toe in leeches.  I have to say, leeches fall into my Things I Very, Very Much Wish to Avoid category.  Laveta had already warned me about the leeches, recalling that the last time she’d run through the kind of temperate rainforest that covered Pulchowki she’d uncovered loads of leeches on her feet when she took her shoes off.  But she assured me that by then the leeches had been sufficiently ‘gorged’ and although bloated with blood were easy to remove and no longer interested in feeding on her insteps.

Everyone’s legs were covered with blood from the leeches (leeches have anti-coagulants).  Laveta had even removed one from her face, although fortunately it hadn’t yet drawn blood there.  Going up the mountain there wasn’t any leech problem as we were on a graveled Jeep road.  But going down we took a single-track route that was highly overgrown.  In fact, I’m not sure you could refer to it as a ‘track’ at all.  It was more like an impression of a trail — perhaps if one looked at it from a certain angle a trail had once existed there.  (We did encounter a couple cows on the mountain [a lovely spot to be a cow!], prompting Roger to enthuse, ‘Where the cows can go, WE can go!’)  The other problem was that the track was so steep and so slippery (again, they assured me that with rain it would have been even slicker) that in order to not fall on our asses we had to grab handfuls of foliage (Richard and Laveta continually fell on their asses anyway), exposing our hands and arms to any leeches on the nearby foliage.  [Those of you who thought that leeches only exist in ponds and streams, let me expel that delusion — leeches can exist anywhere with sufficient moisture.]

It must have been my lucky day though.  I was the only one not to take a spill and the only one not to get a leech (although I brushed a few off my shoes before they could crawl any higher).  I did get quite a few ladybugs on me, but Roger and Narayan were so disappointed that I hadn’t gotten a leech that they tried to transfer some of their own to me (this was NOT successful).

So once we got down the mountain, braving the leeches, flies with 3-inch stinger-tongues, navigating through the overgrown trails that were slick as ice (I don’t know what is in that soil, but it even glistens like ice — I can’t count how many times I hydroplaned and nearly wiped out), Roger and Narayan announced that we had taken the wrong trail and rather than staying on the ridge had arrived in an unknown village.  We had all long ago run out of water, we were drenched in sweat and covered in blood and mud.  So the Tea Break at the village was very welcome.  Village Tea Breaks are apparently a routine part of Nepalese trail running, and this was in fact our second one of the day, as we had stopped for tea about 3 miles in at the village at the base of the mountain.  Women boiled the tea over an open flame and served it to us with milk and sugar and we ate biscuits.  Nepalese are extremely friendly, as evidenced by their open arms welcome of a very war-torn group of strange trail runners.

We had to add about 4 more miles to get unlost and back to Narayan’s house, where his delightful family served us more tea (Tea Break #3) and a wonderful meal of rice and daal with 7 kinds of beans that had been made for the Hindu religious festival that day.  At the beginning of our run we had passed men partaking in the festival by mass bathing in their underwear in a giant concrete pool with string tied around their necks (something about upper caste members wearing string around their necks and once a year they have to change the string).

Before I sign off, I have to apologize for not having any pictures from this run — from the leech-bled legs to the Himalayas to my colorful running partners*, neglecting to bring a camera was a major omission**.  Especially since I actually wore a pack this time and could have easily toted along a camera (my first experience running with a pack — there was no way I could run 20+ miles in the Nepalese mountains unaided without a pack with water and granola bars and such — and I actually found the pack very comfortable — what a breakthrough!)

*Roger Henke is a Dutch expat living in Kathmandu who now manages the Summit Hotel and runs an excellent website about trail running in Nepal, including the Annapurna 50k/70k/100k in January, visit http://trailrunningnepal.org/.  Roger is exactly how you would imagine a old hat European transplant in Kathmandu trail runner: lanky frame, nothing to them shoes, completely unfazed by anything, was the only one not to exhaust the water supply in his Camelback (as if a camel himself), and with a set notion of what our run was going to entail and entirely non-catering to any of the other group members, some of whom were not particularly enjoying his selection of nonrunable ‘trail’ (Laveta was having an especially rough day, not much taking to the overgrown trails, steep and slippery descents, the leech on her face, her bruised tailbone (from many spills) or her blistered feet and chaffing thighs).  Laveta hails from Baltimore and is in Nepal doing a year of fieldwork for her PhD at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health on the community-wide effect of vaccinated pregnant women with influenza vaccine (very cool study).  Hence, she attended our influenza workshop and provided my critical link to the Kathmandu trail running community (she did marathons and Iron Mans in the States but got into trail running in Nepal).  Narayan is exactly how you would imagine a native Nepalese trail runner, legs toothpick thin, long black hair back in a ponytail, a pronounced hooked nose, friendly but self-contained, gliding up the hills as if he had been raised in these mountains (actually, he had….).  Richard, of the UK originally but with no place he calls ‘home’, represents the substantial ‘lost souls’ category of young people living in Kathmandu.  Richard does various computer-related jobs to make ends meet, broke up with a girlfriend of several years a week ago (she was living in Afghanistan and the distance became too much), and very openly admits that he has lost his traction in life and feels directionless.  Richard had that cutting British wit about him (his favorite game was pointing out the ugliest buildings in Kathmandu, ranging from over-the-top ostentatious in a neighborhood of makeshift shacks to 1970s Soviet Eastern European) and provided good-humored commentary about his opinions about Roger’s selection of ‘trails’.

**Fortunately I found the blog from ultra star Moire O’Sullivan (just published a book Mud, Sweat, and Tears) who had an eerily similar first time run in the Kathmandu mountains with Roger, Richard, et al. with pictures that look entirely familiar so just insert my little face into these photos~ http://moireosullivan.com/2010/03/24/ridge-running-in-kathmandu-valley/


2 Responses to Hooky

  1. Kirstin says:

    Sorry to hear you did not get a leech. I hear they cure anything that ails you! It’s the one thing The Barkley is missing.

  2. martha says:

    That’s exactly what Roger and Narayan said when they tried to stick some on me. I protested that Nothing Ails Me these days. If anyone can do The Barkley it’s Roger Henke.

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