The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

26.2 miles of sheet ice and vodka

Several months ago whilst sat in a youth hostel in China we found a discarded and dog-eared Russian guidebook. Leafing through this Hol read about a Winter Games Festival in Irkutsk. A quick consultation of the Oracle (my all encompassing trip planning spreadsheet), and it became clear that we would be there bang in the middle of it. Spectacular luck. Delving around on the internet and we then found an invitation to join the VIth Annual Lake Baikal Ice Marathon. This is the point in the film version of our trip where off-key strings will start reaching a crescendo, the sky will darken amd a roll of thunder will reverberate in the background. Inspired by the irresponsible amounts of brown sugar on the porridge I was eating I immediately proclaimed we should enter. Oh dear...

The small issues of where we would train, the fact that neither of us had run anythink like a marathon before and that the whole thing was across the frozen surface of the world's deepest and oldest lake could wait. To prevent any back out we employed the same trick that got us on the trip in the first place and emailed lots of people about it. However, in the cold light of day we began to realise what we had undertaken to do. One of the few websites we found where someone had thawed their fingers out enough to write up their experiences was by a russian ultra-runner called simply 'Gorkov'. It wasn't reassuring. He wrote:  
The wind was blowing from the south, so the left side of the face required some attention, had to rub it from time to time.  The temperature must have been around -10C, not too bad.
-10 degrees centigrade... in the middle of the day... Not too bad? Holy Jeez. Also, what the hell does 'some attention' mean? Oh, he also said he had to stop and check a compass he had on him when the weather 'deteriorated'. Being lost on top of a giant lake in a Siberian winter? Never before had this been top of my to do list. Considering that I developed chilblains sitting typing at a keyboard in Kathmandu, many would call this undertaking foolish. Yet somehow we have two more people stupid enough to join us, and even a kit supplier to help us get over the ice with their specialist ice running footwear: Yaktrax.

So it is that Tim, Eoin, Holly (for the half marathon) and I will all line up on the icy start line on the 7th March. The course stretches a full 26.2 miles from one side of the lake to the other and, depending on the wind, the course is either up to around 5" deep in snow or is sheet ice. On a good day they say you can see the other end of the course from the start. Other people call this a bad day because of the mental strain of running for hour upon hour through a totally featureless landscape without looking like you are getting any closer to the finish. I assume this is why every 5km there is a refreshment stop. Not your usual Lucozade or Powerbar type fare here though. Hot tea and Vodka.

However, despite all our worries we have managed to crack on with some training. This in itself hasn't been that simple either. Air pollution is a serious problem in Kathmandu. Particulate matter concentrations of heavy metals often exceed threshold values at which human health is severely affected. And the worst time of year? Winter. The bowl shape of the Kathmandu valley traps the cold air causing it to stagnate, the brick ovens fire up and choke the air with black smoke, and the fine dust from the roads gets thicker and thicker with no rain to wash it away. Our first runs we were plagued by sharp chest pains and asthma like symptoms, in part due to the fact the whole city is 1,400m high, but since then we have found certain back roads that have fewer trucks on. That said there are still times when you have to run through clouds of thick black diesel smoke and dust, being chased by a rabid dogs whilst leaping over piles of burning rubbish.

On the bad days the advisories that say even staying in Kathmandu for a couple of days is a bad idea ring in your head, and you question the value of doing the marathon. But then 2 minutes later you turn a corner and you are running towards pink tipped 8,000m peaks tousled with cloud and the sun is dipping behind ancient temples and gold roofed monasteries. Some of my fondest memories of Kathmandu will be running around the valley. Eager kids running alongside you calling your name, misty mornings with the sounds of distant worship carried along rivers, and teams of traditionally robed monks having furious football matches on dusty fields.

We now have under three weeks left working at Volunteer Society Nepal before two of Hol's girlfriends come out. She has been craving lady chats for around 16 months now and we are both getting very excited about the prospect of starting our return trip on 13th February when we will head back into Tibet en route to Russia. I am sure the marathon training handbook doesn't read, "Have large number of rude sounding cocktails and beers with long absent friends in Kathmandu, sit in jeep for a week, sit on train for 3 days solid, go on beers with other friend you haven't seen in 17 months in Shanghai, sit on train for another 3 days solid, run marathon". However, this seems to be our only option. It'll be a huge relief to have finished it and be sat at the, no doubt vodka laced, Gala dinner on the evening of the 7th March. In our heads it is then just a hop, skip and a jump back to Europe and, as long as our knees hold up, we should be in rapid shape for the trip back across Europe on Carlos the tandem. Magic.

1 comment:

Rad said...

What a challenge- best of luck to the both of you. If the soundtrack to you drumming up the idea in the first place was off-key strings reaching a crescendo then surely this (link below) will have to accompany the actual race?