Thanks to Asia Trail Magazine and Matt Moroz for allowing us to republish this article from the Mustang Trail Race. You can download in PDF format by clicking the image below, or simply read the text version below.
Asia Trail is a magazine focusing on trail running in Asia, surprisingly enough! A great read and a digital version is available. See the next two links.
- Download as PDF (30MB).
MORE THAN JUST A RACE
This clichéd moniker is bandied about almost as often as the tiresome claims of ‘Toughest footrace on Earth’, ‘Planet’s toughest foot race’, or simply ‘World’s Toughest’. These claims often come from the race organizer in an attempt to gain competitor interest, and allow these same competitors to begin basking in the kudos of undertaking such a challenge. Such claims hint towards self-indulgence and rarely serve much practical purpose. Judging different running events against each other is often as logical as claiming that Mozart is better than Beethoven. Everyone will have an opinion, everyone will have a bias depending on their own limited experience, and at the end of the day, everybody knows deep down that this is a moot point; we all know that the real hardcore athletes go for ‘Tough Mudder’.
But seriously, when it comes to The Mustang Trail Race (a race that is completely bereft of clichés), the irony is that the moniker actually fits perfectly. Ironic in that this understated race would never make such claims such is the overwhelming sense of modesty.
So why does this race (above many others) deserve this description? It could be the incredible cultural experience, the infinite wonder of the landscapes, the challenge of not only the race distance and multi-day aspect, but also the fact that a hefty proportion of the race is performed at over 4000m. It could be none of those things, but instead; the intense camaraderie that forms from only 25 competitors living in close quarters for 10+ days plus a small (but perfectly formed) organisation crew, with a bunch of ever willing mules and their handlers.
Perhaps there we have some of the essence of why, but we may also wonder about the unique feel of a race in which competition pails into insignificance compared to the beauty surrounding it. A race which is so progressive in its format that it enforces a check-in/check-out approach to certain checkpoints so that no-one has to rush the most special cultural relics that Mustang offers. The clock remains stopped while the competitor explores the particular wonder on offer.
The Kingdom of Mustang harbors many cultural gems. To offer competitors the chance to witness this region first hand must be an absolute privilege. As race organizers, Richard Bull and co. must enjoy such satisfaction at witnessing their runners’ reactions every day, and with each new day experiencing the place freshly through this new group of eyes. The history and the culture of Mustang is etched into the landscape with both domestic and religious cave dwellings carved into the mountain sides. Less glorious and encompassing as Petra or Angkor, but this is made up for with absolute mystery and atmosphere in the geographical make-up of the location. The small villages that break up the trail offer amazing people, and architecture. Each is distinct in its look and feel but all are somehow quintessentially Mustang.
From the very start the race passed through some of the most epic and beautiful landscapes imaginable, yet on the morning of Stage 5 (Lo Manthang to Yara) competitors and organisers alike were offered the most surprising and spectacularly images so far. The previous evening’s snow fall was joined by far more overnight and together they offered unseasonally white landscapes as far as the eye could see. The already photogenic town of Lo Manthang was catapulted to even higher echelons of serene beauty. The vantage point of the hotel’s 2nd floor roof top became the hot spot of the morning, all thoughts of hungry bellies and nutrition before the day’s stage taking a back seat. Any worries of missing this opportunity to refuel and rehydrate were soon tempered as it was revealed that the mass snow fall had created a bit of a conundrum. Although the route for the day was not too dangerous, the abilities to find the trail and mark thoroughly were severely hampered. It was with unanimous pleasure that news of a group hiking stage was announced and received. Dear memories of the first day’s group walk into Kagbeni were still fresh in everyone’s minds. The chance to share a similar bonding experience, only this time in the most idyllic setting imaginable, would have brought a smile to even the most competitive and hardened racer. To blast through the terrain on a day like this would be such a waste. To rush such an experience would show an incredible lack of appreciation for Nepal’s natural wonders. The thought of racing on this day seemed as tacky, ugly, and outright wrong as a tabloid style talk show host (thinking Jeremy Kyle). It seems that the often quoted motivation spiel about the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ being the same word for ‘opportunity’ is somewhat misleading. Either way, the situation provided a case in point whereby a little drama and technical difficulty offered the chance for one of the most rewarding days of the entire race.
The one person out of a job on this day was Lizzy Hawker. Lizzy tirelessly helped mark the course, manned water stations, timed people in and out, and helped with every need of the competitors large or small (including keeping all saturated with lemon tea). Lizzy’s presence was a constant delight and added a very special aspect to the event. When an ultra/trail running legend is so humble that they give all to the group while burying their own disappointment at being injured it offers all an incredible and lasting lesson in humility and generosity.
So to the actual racing! Logically, to have more than just a race, certainly we must have at least that. Although the racing was diluted (or enhanced, make your own choice here) by mutual respect among competitors, complete support of one another, and the full range of distractions previously discussed, there was still a race going on. The extremely talented Nepali girls Mira Rai (22 years old) and Yam Kumari Rai (17 years old) dominated the female event. They powered uphill with great strength and poise and demonstrated their potential to everyone. Perhaps inspired by their male counterparts Phudorjee Lama Sherpa and Upendra Sunuwar, the two girls will hopefully have started getting their own ideas of just where trail running could take them. They certainly were not going to pass up this opportunity of showing us all how it was done.
Phudorjee and Upendra were joined at the front by American Andy Wellman for the majority of the race. After being in Nepal for two months Andy showed great strength and used his acclimatization to full effect. Hailing from Silverton, Colorado (host town of Hardrock 100 and itself at an elevation of 2,800 metres), it’s unclear quite how much local acclimatization Andy would require, but whichever way you look at it, he gave the Nepal runners a great race.
Andy was thwarted in the end by a chest infection. The rest of the competitors were forever more robbed of the enthralling daily updates of who was where and what was the time gap when they hit the water station. The grandstand finale never quite materialized either, with all three parties fighting it out for victory, but in a way this was a far greater finish and more apt to the race. To this end the final result will remain a mystery to the reader, it really doesn’t seem to matter. The spirit that the race was run in, and that the event itself provoked are of far greater importance to who placed where and who won what. In years to come the competitors themselves will struggle to remember those details, but all will easily recollect the overall feel of the race.
While the race played out in Mustang, just 200 miles away tragedy befell sixteen Nepalese guides on Everest. This resonated with the western competitors so will have made an even deeper impact with the Nepali contingent. With the dangers of one pursuit becoming increasingly evident perhaps this trail running avenue may become ever more attractive to the very talented and strong Nepali athletes who may have previously been attracted to climbing. For Mira and Yam Kumari Rai, Upendra and Phudorjee we wish the best that trail running has to offer. In time, perhaps, we will speak about the Nepali trail runners in a similar way that East African distance runners are discussed today. [Mira has since been to Hong Kong]
So back to the title, ‘more than just a race’. It certainly seemed that way to the protagonists, but the notions of more or less are not exactly ideal. A race of many rare and wonderful qualities might be more accurate. Here’s hoping that this slightly different and disjointed ‘race report’ captures that. Similarly to exalting a great novel or movie, it is the author’s hope that the act of describing a race, (without describing a race), goes some way to whetting the appetite to discover more in the only proper way available. Open the book, play the movie, and head to Mustang in April 2015 to see the magic for yourself.