You get dumb legs and stunning perspectives at India’s epic Himalayan 100 Stage Race.
Something bad was going to happen. Whether it would be in one minute or one hour, I did not know. But I do know my body, and it was out of control. Sooner or later, it was going to make that one false step that would result in injury, chaos or possibly death.
I was going down because my body literally was going down—way, way down a legendary descent along the biggest mountains on Earth, the Himalayas. It was day three of India’s five-day Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race, a day that features a trail that plummets 5,305 feet in about five miles. That’s a drop of one solid vertical mile—a 20 percent grade, 1,000 feet per mile. From a barren rockscape above the tree line to the bottom of a lush river valley, a path of ancient cobblestones and wooden slats spiral downward with no rises, no flats and no relief except for herds of goats and cows to dodge. “It’s painful and endless,” warned Sean Falconer, a 36-year-old South African who’d done it before, adding that we’d hate it more than anything else in this brutal race—even more than climbing similar grades for hours.
The problem is concentric contractions, in which your muscles simultaneously resist a load while lengthening, such as lowering a weight or making a downhill step. After 1,500 feet of concentrics, my quads were completely fatigued. After 2,500 feet, when my calves, glutes and hamstrings joined them, I had a strange realization. I am two people, and one of them is getting dumber by the minute.
Like a punched–out boxer, my legs and feet were getting dazed and confused, and sloppy and uncoordinated. Unable to follow the instructions from my eyes and the ground, they were losing proprioception, the sense of where your body parts are in relation to Earth and space. All the while, my brain, nourished by the ever-thicker oxygen of the lower elevations, was becoming sharper, more analytical. It was as if the bottom half of me was getting drunk. And when it started making mistakes, the sober top half of me started getting really scared.
By 3,000 feet of descent, with temperatures rising, lovely emerald doves and maroon Orioles flittering in the breeze, and the mountainside exploding in rain-forest green, my ability to make the precise micro-second adjustments needed for perfect balance was gone. Off a millimeter here and three millimeters there on the tight switchbacks, I started skidding, sliding, stumbling and catching myself. It was terrifying—like driving a car with a broken steering wheel. Of course, I tried slowing down and walking, but that actually hurt more than running and oddly made my slipping and tripping worse, in the way that pedaling a bike too slowly makes you wobbly. So, to get this nightmare over with (and to stay ahead of my back-of-the-pack rivals, Walter, a 61-year-old from Hong Kong and Julia, a middle-aged German, who both had no idea I was racing them), I kept running, hoping to reach the hanging bridge over the Sirikhola River before the hammer fell.
Then, after 3,500 feet of descent, as civilization appeared and water runoff, yak dung and humidity slickened the cobblestones and the mountain came alive with sounds of dogs, chickens, insects and music, and the trail became even steeper as it passed by the backyards of hillside farms and Buddhist shrines and Hindu monuments and tiny neighborhoods with groups of men telling jokes and women in bright-colored saris out shopping and school kids in neat, blue uniforms smiling at you and saying ,“Namaste,” I fell off a cliff.