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The Space Between The Race: Mustang Trail Race 2015

Bryon Powell writes his experience at the 2015 Mustang Trail Race, an 8-stage trail race in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region.

By on April 25, 2016 | Comments

[Writer’s Note: It’s been exactly one year since the devastating earthquake hit Nepal. At the time of the quake, myself and another two-dozen foreigners were running a stage of the Mustang Trail Race in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region. We and the area we were in were minimally affected. For numerous reasons, the decision was made to continue with the event.

While it may seem crass to write of a fantastic holiday experience with the background of such suffering and loss of life, in no way do I mean to demean the tragic events surrounding the Nepali earthquake nor the individuals affected. Rather, in speaking with Nepalis up at Annapurna Base Camp a week after the earthquake, they said “Tell your friends about Nepal” in the context of hoping that they would visit. In the year since, I’ve heard that echoed by all whom have a connection with Nepal. It is my hope that if you have the means and are inclined, it is my hope that this article will encourage you to visit as soon as you can. Significant areas of the country were minimally affected and returned to operating normally with days of the earthquake. Now, it should be presumed that Nepal is ready and eager for your visit.

Of course, there were areas that were devastated by the quake and individuals elsewhere who lost everything. These people do need your material support. One option is to donate through Kilian Jornet’s Langtang project. Where through that program or another, please donate what you can!]

Kagbeni - Mustang Trail Race

Kagbeni, the start of the Mustang Trail Race, with Annapurna towering above.
All photos: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

The Mustang Trail Race, and all that it entails, deserves more than a stage-by-stage report of courses, placings, and landmarks. It’s much bigger than that. Pulling together what that bigger picture is… has proven elusive. Hence, it’s a year later and I’m just now publishing this piece. However, if the Mustang Trail Race is anything, it’s eye opening. Before explaining why, some mundane context is necessary.

What is the Mustang Trail Race? Well, it’s a nine-day, eight-stage, approximately 100-mile (160km) running tour through Nepal’s Upper Mustang region for about 25 runners. Located north of the main Himalayan ranges, Upper Mustang is a high desert that was closed to foreigners until two decades ago. Today, it still sees far fewer than 5,000 foreign tourists each year. Put these factors together and you’ve got a week and a half of running through a remote landscape with an intimate group of fellow runners.

Upfront, I’ll share that this race turned out to be a strongly introspective experience for me, in a very good way. However, that meant intentionally perceiving negative emotions more acutely than usual and I recount that below. Think of them as noteworthy turbulence on a flight to a great place.

Desert - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

The technicolor dream that is the Mustang Trail Race.

The Landscape

Nearly anyone who considers traveling to Nepal will be drawn at least in part by the landscape. While Everest, Annapurna, and their kin are the headliners that more often gain the marquee, Mustang is the indie film the blows you away.

If you love the desert, then Mustang is for you. The same holds true if you’re a lover of majestic mountains. I love both enough that I choose to live on the flanks of the La Sal Mountains outside Moab, Utah. Well, Mustang is that to a higher power.

Desert and Mountain - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

Desert and mountains… my happy place.

Before you ever touch foot in Mustang you fly through Kali Gandaki gorge, arguably the world’s grandest chasm on a plane tiny enough that you feel you could stick your arms out the windows and touch deified mountains. These include Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, two of the world’s 10 tallest mountains. Throughout the Mustang experience, you’re never more than a breathtaking climb away from witnessing their majesty. More often, you get to enjoy the view of some spectacular, snow-capped peak from the rustic teahouses you’ll stay at along the way. Let me tell you, seeing a 6,000-meter peak at sunrise or sunset is something you want to do!

Yara - Stage 6 - 2015 Mustang Trail Run

Ok, this is the midday view over Yara, where Stage 5 ended.

While the Himalaya make for some fantastic window dressing, the semi-arid southern Tibetan Plateau is your home for most of a fortnight. The desert landforms enchant on all scales. On the grandest, you see strata of wild colors and jaunting angles. From time to time, you encounter fantastic forms that are best described as Gaudí-esque. Everywhere the geology is exposed, from fine sands to water-tumbled rocks from the heights of the Himalaya.

Gaudi - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

Gaudí-esque, right?

The highly sedimentary geology is the matrix for one of the most stunning features of Mustang, it’s hand-hewn cave complexes. From small non-descript cliff-face cells and large single-room Buddhist temples on up to five-story, interconnected complexes and cliff-sides specked with dozens of seemingly unreachable individual adits. We had a chance to visit a variety of these caves during the race. Uniquely, at specific noteworthy points along the race route, you paused your time by signing in and out of a register, so no one felt compelled to skip the area’s course-side attractions. We toured spectacular caves during these breaks, while some of us did further exploring after our daily runs were complete.

In fact, I loved my post-stage wanderings whether through the walled city of Lo Manthang and the rough-hewn fields surrounding small towns or hours out into the countryside to explore the geology, the paleontology, and the archeology. What had happened before me, before us never failed to draw me on… even to the point of injury! Highlights include a few trips collecting ammonite fossils, revered through the Indian subcontinent as incarnations of the god Vishnu, and, on one such trip, to the most stunning cave complex I’ve ever seen… all while being chased by the ever-growing shadows cast by the setting sun and, on occasion, by some unseen herder’s Tibetan Mastiff. Sometimes these wanderings were with others, such as around the labyrinth of Lo Manthang or on local ammonite-gathering expeditions, but more often, they were my own retreat into myself.

Upper Mustang Caves - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

A cave complex found on a multi-hour post-stage stroll.

The Self

It may be hard to believe, but I live an incredibly frantic life without breaks. In the six years leading up to this race, I’d not taken a single work break longer than two-and-a-half days. As someone who’s dabbled in yoga and, perhaps, has a busy, troubled mind, I brought a book on mindfulness with me on the trip and hoped to find some relaxation, peace, and introspection. That’s not all I found.

Seven years ago, I ran the Marathon des Sables. I looked forward to the scenery, the racing, the challenge, etc. I looked forward to the positive constructs the race would provide. In the wake of MdS, I also appreciated the many ways the race provided disconnection. Going into the Mustang Trail Race, I was consciously eager to find that disconnection. It’s something that I now yearn for more than almost anything else. Even before the race started we climbed the aptly named Windy Pass. Atop the pass, I leaned into the wind, shirt unfurled as I turned myself into a human prayer flag. Worry, doubt, stress… all of the creeping dread of daily life briskly blew down the Kali Gandaki gorge.

Annapurna from Windy Pass - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

The view of the Annapurna Massif from Windy Pass.

As time went by, pretenses of Western civilization also drifted away. What I looked like, what I smelt like, what I wore, or how dirty I was… I didn’t give two shits. I was who I was, not my cosmetic self. I am tempted to say I was not my appearance, but that would be wholly incorrect. A smile, a laugh…. these outward appearances affected others. So too did, a look of discontent. It became clear that appearances certainly do matter, it’s just not the appearances that we too often focus upon. Why is our focus so often skewed? Perhaps, it’s easier to wash our face than to hold a smile consistently upon it. Perhaps, we delude ourselves that a foul look is less offensive than a foul smell. Regardless, perspective was found under the watch of the Himalayan peaks.

Prayer flags - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

There’s something cleansing about prayer flags in the wind.

Being part of an organized tour, in a small group, with little left to your control for nearly two weeks… well, you’re bound to find unpleasant emotions. Personally, I experienced a few bouts of anger with one particularly acute event. Even having read most of my mindfulness book and trying to work through the anger, I found I could not. This surprised me as, in the grand scheme of things, the anger’s trigger was a minor inconvenience and one that paled in comparison to other difficulties I faced during the event. Having the relative vacuum of the race in which to have the anger ferment provided a simple context and the expansive headroom to investigate the causes, my reactions, and, eventually, my acceptance. This was a gift. One that I’d not have received amidst the buzz of everyday life.

Tanggye stupas - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

Tanggye, the site of my breakdown.

During the race, I occasionally became annoyed at others’ non-resilience or seeming neediness. I’d like to say that I tried to accept others’ difficulties and did so with success, but that was rarely the case. It was only after the fact, in further looking at my own mental hang ups, that I could see their struggles with frustration were oh so similar to mine. We were all being human. Different situations didn’t meet our hopes or expectations. Other factors such as fatigue or injury or illness or a simple bad mood turned mere surprises into something worse. I hope that I am more aware and accepting of others’ reactions to such surprises in the future.

So why is there so much “space” in which to find oneself and perspective during the Mustang Trail Race? As millennia worth of desert ascetic prophets suggest, the sparse, wide-open landscapes of Mustang lend their expanses to those who seek them. There’s also the disconnection from the electronic devices that now permeate and I’d go so far as to say dominate our lives. After one day, there was no wifi or cell signal for Western phone plans. (You could buy a Nepali sim card that would have worked in some towns, but for the love of peace, why?) Add a lack of newspapers and television to the disappearance of the internet and you’re left with yourself, the landscape, and the people around you, as well as any book you might have brought. Gone is access to the instantaneous, temporary gratifications with which we fill our lives. On top of that, there’s the incredible simplicity of daily life during the race that goes something like: get up, eat breakfast, run, eat lunch, sit or walk around in leisure, have tea, repeat leisure, eat dinner, go to bed. Basically, you’re just running and relaxing while others take care of all your needs. Yes, this is terribly indulgent, but it’s also a way to escape the mundane and spend time in your own head. And an experience that might just open your eyes.

Prayer flags and mani wheels - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

I should look at this picture every time I need peace.

The People (of Nepal)

Of course, much of the above may simply be a reflection of the Nepali people that surrounded me before, during, and after the race. Before and after the earthquake. I’ve never seen such lack of wealth nor such contentment. I’ve never seen so much tragedy nor so much joy. I’ve never seen so much destruction nor so much resilience. Quite simply, the Nepali are the most remarkable I’ve ever encountered. To be surrounded by them in their country makes you want to aspire to be more like them.

Kid running - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

A child jumps into the start of one of the stages.

I’m not particularly comfortable describing a people’s lack of wealth, in the Western sense, as it seems judgmental, but in this case it’s to highlight how little “wealth” means. Life in Upper Mustang is scratched from the dry earth whether by human hand or the hoof of the numerous goats which live there. In the rarely treed expanses, “wealth” is displayed by the wood stacked on one’s roof. Heating and cooking are done mostly with goat droppings that are meticulously gathered into heaps along the village streets. The women sing while they work away in the kitchen and are quick to smile when a passerby, foreign or local, offers up “didi” (“aunty”) on the way by. The rare toy is an ages-old bike rim or a cobbled together “ball,” although that certainly doesn’t stop kids from playing with contagious joy (or Messi being carved into the occasional door). Old monks and young couples slowly stroll around the town before sunset: perhaps, spinning the prayer wheels or, perhaps, simply chatting away. Genuine smiles everywhere, all day. Fake smiles? Not so much.

Monks - Lo Manthang - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

Monks strolling around Lo Manthang.

I witnessed the resilience of the Nepali people post-earthquake increase incrementally as my journey took me out of the hinterlands of Upper Mustang, first to the noticeable, but relatively minor damage in Jomsom; then, to the greater, but non-evident destruction in Pokhara; before driving through stricken countryside to Kathmandu where every 100th or 1,00oth building was laid to rubble or resting Tower-of-Pisa-like against its neighbor. Although each step in this journey was separated by a few days, life on the streets carried on in much the same cadence as when I’d been in the respective towns just two weeks earlier on our voyage to the race start. Foreigners could oblige themselves to the same services as before with little more than this or that item not being on the menu. Surely, I could see men and women digging through the rubble of a collapsed building, but traffic zoomed by in front of them, the shops on either side sold their wares,* the café across the street served guests from six countries, while a man installed a cobblestone sidewalk, just as he’d been doing the week before the earthquake. In the city, the people took what happened and carried on.

(* I am stuck with an image of a young local woman walking along such a Kathmandu street with a boy no more than three years old. As they casually walked past a convenience-store-like stall, he points up toward the ceiling. He’s spotted something. The young woman goes in, talks to the proprietor, and walks out. The boy’s face lights up as she opens and hands him a small bag of chips. Her face lights up in response. What struck me was the ordinariness of this moment as well as the joy in each of them.)

Kids on tractor - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

The race transported gear on a tractor… and the local kids hopped on quick!

The Organization

Race organizer Richard Bull and his team made everyone feel at home both in the chaos of Kathmandu, the stillness of Mustang, and everywhere in between. I showed up in Kathmandu without accommodations (my bad!) and not only did he personally sort things out in quick order, he quickly connected me with another Mustang participant and had us in a cab on our way to a non-touristy Nepali New Year’s celebration, which itself was one of the highlights of my trip to Nepal!

Nepali New Year's Celebration

Nepali New Year’s Celebration.

Richard managed to herd cats (us runners) with the greatest of grace as we gathered ourselves and our final gear in Kathmandu, traveled (on multiple flights) from Kathmandu to Pokhara for a night, and again on to Jomsom, the doorstep to Mustang. Few things happen effortlessly, but the Mustang Trail Race team always appeared to take it in stride, and so, too, did we. This was most apparent in the wake of the earthquake. We were in an extremely remote location with the most minimal of communications, literally a single text-based satellite communicator. Still, conditions in Mustang, Pokhara, and Kathmandu as well as travel conditions in between were calmly assessed and shared with the group. While it’s a situation none of us would want to be in, I felt assured and secure throughout.

Richard Bull - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

Richard sharing as authentic a moment as one can find.

While Richard leads the charge at the Mustang Trail Race, it’s truly a team effort. Highlighting that team were Dhir and Bikash. Dhir was our polyglot professor who explained the Nepali culture and Tibetan Buddhism… when he wasn’t cracking a joke with his sarcastic humor. Bikash was our intrepid doctor who nursed many of us through our various maladies. Personally, he got me through my worst-ever bout of GI distress and gave me a pair of rubber gloves and medical tape, which I transformed into a cure for crippling plantar fasciitis.

Bikash - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

Bikash along the course after curing me.

On the headlining side, much of our route was marked by none other than part-time Nepal resident Lizzy Hawker and we were joined in the race by Nepal’s Mira Rai, who had a breakout year on the international trail scene last year.

Mira Rai - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

Mira’s joy for life and running was evident at the race.

The All In All

I’ve now taken part in three stage races and each meaningfully touched my life. Eight years ago, I met my better half, Meghan Hicks, while running the TransRockies Run in Colorado. It was also my first time traveling to a race to report on it for iRunFar. A year later, I ran the Marathon des Sables. It was there that I decided to quit my job as a Washington, DC attorney to move out West and pursue iRunFar full-time.

While I didn’t find my love or quit my profession at the Mustang Trail Race, it was just as meaningful an experience. At no other time in my life have I had so much time and space to think about thinking, to think about nothing, to just be. Nor had I been in an environment that so stimulated and cultivated reflection. The experience was awesome, in all senses of the word.

Magic of Mustang - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

The magic of Mustang.

Oh, and the Mustang Trail Race was quite possibly the most beautiful race I’ve ever run. The majesty of the Himalaya ever on the horizon and the incredible diversity of desert landscapes certainly enhanced both my inward and outward experiences.

[If you fancy a trip to Nepal this year, Richard also organizes the seven-stage Manaslu Trail Race in November.]

Thorung La - 2015 Mustang Trail Race

Heading toward Thorung La, a 5,000-meter pass on the Annapurna Circuit, during the final stage.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.