To start this article, I think it’s important to give an overview of my short running experience. I started to run with my husband five years ago and I registered to my first trail race two years ago in Hong Kong: the race was 9 km long and I was so proud of my accomplishment. Over the years, I trained constantly so I made some progress: running faster and longer but honestly nothing crazy. I completed my first half marathon in February 2019 and my longest run was a 28 km FLAT trail running race in March 2019. I still remember the pain I had to go through during the last kilometres. At this point, I would never have imagined to be able to complete an Ultra Marathon in Nepal. But sometimes destiny pushes you to accomplish something you would never believe in. And that’s how this story begins.
My husband, Rudy, used to challenge himself on long distance races and has always wanted to race in Nepal. For multiple months, he looked for a race and then he found Annapurna Ultra Marathon which was also the Golden Trail Series Final. Nepal has never been on my travelling list but I decided to join the trip as many of his running teammate also registered. My plan was to go there, visit, hike and be the support during checkpoints. Initially the race course was supposed to be in the shape of a large Y. My plan was to do only the V part and be able to support and encourage the team when they were coming back from the summit. Rudy quickly realised it would be easier to register for the race officially so I would be allowed to come to the start line with all runners using race transportation, then hike in the Annapurna National Park as well as enjoy water from the checkpoints. As you know there is always a BUT…
This plan never happened … Three weeks before flying to Nepal, I randomly visited the website to check the departure time and I realised the course has been changed from a Y to a V, so there was no more shortcuts. Either I race for 43 km or I wait for them at the finish line all day long. When you have no choice, you take crazy decisions. This is how I knew I would have to run FORTY THREE kilometres in the Annapurna mountains.
Let’s introduce the craziest running challenge I had to deal with: 43 kilometres starting at 1500 metres of altitude going all the way to 3800+ meters and then down. 20 kilometres to reach the top and 23 kilometres of downhill. Obviously at this point I was not trained or experienced enough to complete it. I only had 3 weeks to train as much as I could. My husband pushed me to run as many kilometres as possible and I managed to reach more than 50 km a week (to me that was a lot!).
Three weeks and two flights later we arrived to Pokhara. I fell in love with Nepal at first sight. The race check in was held in a beautiful garden in the backyard of a nice Nepalese house. I had to do my first mandatory gear check. It was only once I took my bib and attached the timing chip to my wrist that I felt a weird feeling between adrenaline and fear. To finish the day, we visited the city and went for a sunset run around Pokhara. We all went back to the house in order to prepare our bags, shoes, to rest and sleep. The day after was going to be long, very long.
The alarm was set at 4.00 am, we had a nice breakfast and the entire team was excited to start the race. The race organisers rented jeeps to take all runners to the start line. Such an adventure to go there, driving in the dark, roads getting smaller and smaller. We were all enjoying the wonderful landscapes appearing from the morning darkness. At the start line I realised that only pros or very fit runners were taking part in the race. I could not even see one person like me. So yes, I started to panic and my husband, too. I could only think of one thing: « I will be the last one ».
An hour later, we met at the start line and at 9.00 am sharp, they rang the bell - Let’s start! My plan was very simple: pace myself very well until the top of the race in order to be able to run the downhill as I like without too much pain in my legs. After only 100 m, I felt so alone, literally everybody dropped me, even the very few runners who looked like semi-beginners.
As soon as I started to climb, I discovered all of the wonderful landscapes around me which totally erased the frustration of being the last one. I just realised I had a chance to enjoy a beautiful day in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. Along the first 20 km, it was a wonderful hike with music, food, selfies and smiles. I managed to catch up with some runners who dropped me earlier - that was a great feeling. I reached the top of the race after 7 hours! YES, 7 hours but when I arrived to the top, volunteers were surprised to see me fresher than most of the runners in front of me. I took the time to talk with them, took some pictures with Annapurna peak in the background and I knew that only the downhill was left. Such a relief! At this moment, I was imagining my husband and his teammate celebrating at the finish line, but I still had 20 kilometres left.
Around 8 pm, 28 kilometres into the race, it started to get dark so I had to use my head lamp… for the first time of my life! I took a couple of minutes to understand how to wear it as the battery was not clipped properly. Once I was ready I left the check point and then magic happened. I will always remember the feeling I had while running at night for the first time of my life. I enjoyed it so much I started laughing. I surprised myself to be able to run at a decent pace and enjoy the night in the Nepalese forest. There were many trees with reflecting leaves which gave the impression of always being under a spotlight. I shared many kilometres with two ladies until a Nepalese runner caught us. I decided to follow him as I wanted to rush a bit, imagining my husband waiting for me.
Just before the last checkpoint at the 38th kilometre, we caught a French runner who hoped to find some strength to finish the race with us.
At the very last checkpoint, we had a bad surprise as volunteers announced it was cut off time and we were not allowed to continue. I was surprised as I knew we still had some time before the cut off but I didn’t want to argue and I decided to stop my journey there. I thought Jeeps would be available in order to drive us to the finish line but they informed us there was no jeep and we would have to sleep there and hike down the following morning. In panic, I decided to run away and follow the ribbons until the finish line. My French running mate followed me. I think I have never ran faster before. So many scenarios went through my head. What if my husband is not there anymore? Have they removed the ribbons for the last kilometres? Have they already packed everything? Will we be able to find the finish line? I almost starting to cry while I was pushing to go faster … We were running in the Annapurna National Park at night with fear to arrive at the finish line with nobody there to drive us back to Pokhara.
And suddenly, we started to hear many people yelling… What a relief! But that was nothing compared to the incredible feeling I had when I realised those people were my husband and his teammates waiting for me! I thought, they went back home as I asked them not to wait for me in the morning. This moment will forever be etched in my memory. We were so happy to cross the finish line together after hours spent hiking and running but with the adrenaline and the fear of having to sleep at the last checkpoint, I probably gave the craziest hug ever to my husband. A bus was waiting to drive us back to the city. It was an epic journey with loud local music and around 50 runners who just completed the most epic marathon ever. I was proud to share all the pictures I took during my race with my friends who confessed they didn’t really take the time to enjoy Annapurna. I still had energy to describe every emotion I went through and what I learnt about myself, while my husband was trying to understand how his wife ran an Ultra Trail in Nepal!!
It took me 12 hours and 30 minutes to complete this marathon and I have arrived among the last ten runners in the race but at that moment I realised:
No matter what was my ranking or finish time, that day I have already won everything.