Global Limits Bhutan – The Last Secret – 200km Race Report

The Global Limits ‘Last Secret’ race is a six-stage 200km race through the unique kingdom of Bhutan.   Here, Colin Harper shares his epic account of the race in the Land of Happiness . . .

(Warning:  ultra-length post ahead!)

The Global Limits series of stage races are a well-established set of adventure running through off-the-beaten track locales.  Each race is roughly 200 – 250km over six days, but unlike other races with the format, the GL races are semi-supported – you don’t have to carry all your equipment with you, and there is a lot more local interaction than is typical.   Some of their races involve overnight stays in local houses, temples and sacred grounds.   The GL spirit of adventure and discovery lends itself well withit’s most renowned race location – the kingdom of Bhutan.

Bhutan is a landlocked country high in the Himalayas, both geographically and politically isolated – the government’s strong focus on quality of life, avoiding over-development and the prevalence of Buddhism makes it a unique country.   

It’s not the easiest country to get to – for a start, the Bhutanese government has a strict foreign visitor quota which is strongly enforced.  The government even imposed a daily fee on visitors.  Secondly, there’s only a handful of flights into Paro each week, coming from Delhi, Calcutta, Nepal and Bangkok.  The people of Bhutan are very protective of their country and their heritage, and quite rightly choose to control the impact that tourism and globalisation have on their country.

With it’s green, lush hills, unspoilt vistas and iconic Dzongs (fortresses) scattered throughout the land, it’s no surprise that Stefan from Global Limits saw the potential of Bhutan for a stage race.  

In early June 2017, the 5th edition of ‘The Last Secret’ race was held.  Colin Harper has kindly allowed me to share his account of the race here (note the account was originally published on Colin’s personal running blog here)

Enjoy Colin’s epic retelling his experience in Bhutan, a truly unique race in a unique country!

Global Limits Bhutan – The Last Secret – Pre-Race

When I first looked at the Last secret Ultra in Bhutan I could see a number of challenges. On paper the distance didn’t look to be too much of an issue – however an average amount of ascent of one mile per day did. I should point out in case anyone is confused this does not mean that each day I would finish a mile higher than we started –only if I got terribly lost and climbed Everest by mistake could that happen. Each day consisted of some ups and some downs. Most days had more ups than downs, in every way as it happened which was good in at least some respects.

One of the significant challenges was just getting to Bhutan. Only two airlines fly into Bhutan, they don’t fly anywhere else and they don’t connect to the rest of the airline network. For reasons of cost, visas and a short flight into Bhutan we (Sharon and myself) decided to fly via Nepal. Given that Tribhuvan (Kathmandu) Airport appears to apologise for being terrible on its official web page I wasn’t expecting much but actually it wasn’t too bad.

I should say at this point that this account is based entirely on my (notoriously poor) memory. I didn’t make notes and so if anyone from the race is reading this and I don’t mention your presence at any particular point or event it is no reflection on how interesting I found you or what sort of impression you made, it is purely down to my bad memory. Anyway the first people we met were Melanie and Bob from the USA and Rodrigo, who was one of the volunteers.  Rodrigo was easy to remember as he had the most magnificent beard of any of the Global Limits team. We also discovered later he had gone to Glasgow to improve his English and then moved to Sheffield for better weather. Possibly only British readers of the blog will understand how funny those two things are.

We had obtained seats on the left hand side of the aircraft as per the Global Limits recommendation in order to get a good view of the Himalayas.  If anyone is familiar with the Father Ted ‘Small….far away’ episode with Dougal and the cows they will understand the conversation around trying to identify Everest. I photographed everything with the intention of working out which mountain it really was later.

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Fairly sure this is Everest…

At Bhutan Stefan, the race director and head of Global limits, was waiting to take us to the hotel in Thimphu where we would be spending our last couple of nights before the adventure began. At the hotel I met the only person whose name I had recognised on the entry list, Joey Sharma. I didn’t know Joey very well but we had met at various XNRG events in the past. We almost formed Team XNRG for the race but due to Joey, Sharon and myself all being 5’ 6” or under it became ‘Team Dwarf’. I also met several other runners I ‘knew’ from Facebook as well as others that I hadn’t had any contact with and many rounds of introductions did absolutely nothing to cement anyone’s names in my mind.

When we walked round Thimphu we saw a huge number of dogs sleeping in the streets. There is a reason the dogs sleep all day, it’s so they can bark all night. I took earplugs as per the race director’s instructions – they are pretty good ear plugs – but they were little defence against the barking and howling of a pack of Bhutanese dogs. Anyway apart from that I slept well on my first night in Bhutan.

As well as being a race, the Last Secret gives many opportunities to see Bhutan and its culture. On Friday morning we were taken on a cultural tour of Thimphu. The first highlight was the National Memorial Chorten, a huge Buddhist Stupa built in 1974 to honour the third Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972). It is a massive structure and was being turned into a flower garden ready for a visit by the Japanese Princess Mako.

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Nation Memorial Chorten

The city tour finished with a visit to the Tango Monastery and a stop at a view point to take in the city and particularly the enormous Tashichhoe Dzong, the most prominent landmark in Thimphu and the offices and throne room of the King of Bhutan.

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Tashichhoe Dzong – slightly misty as it had started to rain

So far we were having a great time on holiday but of course the main purpose of the trip was to do some running. The first race related activity started on our return to the hotel – kit check and baggage weighing.

For reasons of safety everyone is required to carry a certain amount of equipment on the race. None of this is complicated and is mainly the sort of stuff most people would carry anyway such as a rain jacket, first aid kit etc. Spare equipment, food, sleeping bag etc. is transported from camp to camp and each competitor is allowed up to 10kg of stuff. My bag was right on the 10kg limit, although there were a few non-essentials I could leave behind if it turned out to be overweight. Apart from having to run back to my room to get my head torch (a mandatory kit item) which I’d forgotten to pack, kit check was passed with no problems and I moved on to the medical check (no issues) and number collection. For this race you don’t actually get a number, everyone has their name on their identification plates, one for the front, one for the back. We were also all given Global Limits caps to wear at least for the start, and a couple of iron-on patches to wear on our race clothes. As I had three sets of race clothes I pinned the patches to my hydration vest instead.

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Kit checked and approved to run! (Photo credit: Global Limits)

Most of the other competitors arrived through the day and I couldn’t help but notice that many of them looked as if they could be quite fast. This would be my last night in a real bed for nearly a week and possibly as a result of knowing this the dogs didn’t seem nearly as noisy that night. Tomorrow we would transfer to the first camp in preparation for the race start on Sunday…

The night before the start of the race was to be spent at a campsite in Punakha, a couple of kilometres from the start line at Punakha Dzong (Dzong is Bhutanese for fortress).

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Punakha Dzong – the race starts on the bridge

We were then transferred to our first camp – which was a nice location by the river but not quite as spectacular as the Dzong!

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Our first camp site

Before we start on the ‘running’ part of this adventure this might be a good time to introduce the Global Limits team. I’ve already mentioned Rodrigo and his beard, our other ‘volunteers without portfolio’ were Harri Washington – who had come from Cambodia to volunteer and hence was mostly cold and often wearing a surprisingly large number of coats, Meese Geert from Belgium and Kinzang Wangdi from Bhutan. In addition we had two doctors from the USA, Ryan Paterson and Tatiana Havryliuk who looked after our medical needs for the week.

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Medical Briefing from Ryan and Tatiana (Photo Credit: Global Limits)

All of the team are equally important but it’s probably fair to say that if Manu Pastor messed up it would have the biggest effect on the race as he was the course marker. I went wrong several times during the week but I could never blame the course marking. Every time I returned to the course it was difficult to work out how I could have missed the markings – except that I have shown in the past that even a GPS watch buzzing away when I leave the course isn’t necessarily enough to keep me on the straight and narrow so what chance did orange flags/paint/ribbons have?

Last but certainly not least is Stefan Betzelt, the Race Director and the heart of the race. Stefan can seem a bit aloof as he doesn’t spend all his time chatting to competitors and asking how it’s going. What he does do is invest a huge amount of time and effort in making sure that the race runs as well as he can possibly make it. Every day pictures and race reports are uploaded to the internet so that friends and family can follow the race, camp organisation and support is checked, nothing is left to chance and if something hasn’t been done Stefan is the one that makes it happen. He also cares enormously about his runners and does everything he can to get everyone to the finish line, he does have a sense of humour and the ‘Stern German’ persona certainly gets things done.

After our first ‘camp meal’ and the race briefing we all retired to our tents to try and get some sleep before the next morning when the race would begin…

28 May 2017 – Day One, Punakha to Chorten Nyingpo

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Day One Road Book (Credit: Global Limits)

The Great Day Dawns… actually most days start by dawning so that wasn’t surprising – me being awake to see it was slightly more so however. It had rained pretty heavily in the night and a few people had found the tents to be less waterproof than they would have liked. Our tent had a small puddle where I had accidentally pushed one of my bits of kit against the side but fortunately it was the dry bag I had taken for my sleeping bag and down jacket so no harm was done – others were less lucky…

Anyway we packed and breakfasted an sat awaiting the call from Stefan to go to the start. As I’ve hinted already, Stefan likes to make the race an experience and so we were greeted back at the Dzong by 500 local school children who sang the Bhutanese National Anthem for us, I think it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever heard.

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Stefan addressing the race before the children sing the Bhutanese National Anthem

It was also the birthday of Moo Woong, the oldest competitor, a 74 year old South Korean and so the children and runners obviously sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.

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Moo Woong – I think he will remember his birthday (photo credit: Global Limits)

If this wasn’t all enough we were blessed by the Lama of the dzong. Obviously we all wanted our photo taken with the Lama, leading Stefan to wryly comment ‘This is not the last Lama you will see this week’. No, but it was our first – ever – and so we were a bit excited.

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Does this happen at the start of any other race in the world?
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What an awesome bunch! (photo credit: Global Limits)

Eventually Stefan managed to restore some sort of order and we were there on the start line of a race we’d entered over a year earlier. we had spent two months in an altitude tent, I had been running around 60 miles per week average and we’d spent a week running in Fuerteventura so we could do 20 miles a day for 5 consecutive days. would it be enough? Now we would start to find out. Suddenly it was go and 50 runners set out across the bridge from the Punakha Dzong to start the 2017 Last Secret Ultra!

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…and we are off! (Photo credit: Global Limits)

Now might be a good time to say something about the first stage. As was usual for all stages there were checkpoints at between 8 and 12km at 11.4km, 9.5km and then 9.8km to the finish. The amount of climb was quite modest by the standards of the race, 1263m of ascent and 729m of descent. The first section to the first checkpoint was fairly flat, down the valley to a suspension bridge across the river..

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Just crossed the small bridge (photo credit: Global Limits)

…and then back up the valley to the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan.

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I thought this bridge was a bit scary – I had no idea what was to come!

CP1 was at the end of the bridge and impossible to miss. Hence the confusion when one of the competitors claimed to have missed CP1. When it was described to him his reply was ‘Oh so that was why the people there were trying to give me water…’ Not having run for a few days and being very excited lead to me setting off way too quickly. The fact I could see the motorbike leading us along the first part of the course didn’t help as of course I thought I could keep up with it. I arrived at CP1 in fourth position and knew I really shouldn’t have. However Ryan and Meese gave me a great welcome and some water, one third of the first stage was done!

Not long after CP1 I saw this:

 Global Limits Bhutan - The Last Secret - 200km Race Report 16
Look familiar?

12km into the race and I’m more or less back where I started – don’t let anyone tell you Stefan doesn’t have a sense of humour!
I’ve run through a few sporting venues in my ultra running career, mainly golf courses and football pitches. However possibly only in Bhutan will an ultra take you past an archery tournament! Fortunately they were all very good and I didn’t gain any feathery appendages as I passed them.

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Bhutanese Archery

The race then passed through a few kilometres of the King’s farmland (he didn’t appear to be doing any farming at the time) before apparently vanishing over a cliff to a path near the river. By now I was paying for my excessively quick start and I lost a couple of places on the way to CP2.

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CP2 – the site of my first wobble!

I arrived at CP2 feeling OK and ‘high-fiving’ with Harri and Tatiana but as soon as I stopped I felt very dizzy. There was a short sharp climb out of the checkpoint and I felt that it would be stupid to immediately leave the checkpoint, as there was a doctor there, and risk collapsing out of sight. So I sat down for a few minutes and drank some water and electrolytes until I felt better. I lost a few more places but I felt a lot better and was ready to continue.

The final section had a couple of flattish kilometres before we got onto the major climb of the day, almost 440m in less than 6.5km. By now I was very glad I had trekking poles. The climb was along a road so it wasn’t technical but I was struggling a bit and definitely paying for my ‘chase the motorbike’ antics earlier in the day.

I was very happy to get my first view of our finishing point for the day…

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A welcome sight – Chorten Nyingpo Monastery

…but where exactly was the finish?

The answer was keep following the flags and tape, go clockwise round the small temple and there you are.

 Global Limits Bhutan - The Last Secret - 200km Race Report 20
The end of the first stage! 

Kurt Alderweireldt from Belgium was first in a time of 3:10:20. I finished in 9th place in a time of 4:03:39. Sharon was not far behind in 15th in a time of 4:22:30. My hope for the race based on absolutely no data whatsoever was to finish in the top 10 so I was reasonably happy with my day’s work, especially as the running hadn’t quite gone perfectly.

I was told there were ‘showers’ and to get one quickly before the rest of the runners arrived. The shower was actually a cold water tap which at least allowed me to wash the dirt off and maintain a slightly cleaner aspect than  I had expected at the end of Day One. As there was no where to change I came back from the tap with just my towel round my waist. This did incur Stefan’s displeasure as Marilena had to have her finish photo retaken as there was ‘A naked man in my picture’. I would dispute the ‘naked’ bit but I do fully accept that me in a towel does nothing to enhance the background of any photo, especially not if the focus should be on the plucky race finisher!

The rest of the afternoon was largely dedicated to resting before the unique experiences awaiting us in the evening. I also noticed that the fly sheets and guy ropes of the tents were noticeably more taught than they had been at the first camp, indicating that once again our race director was making sure we were taken care of and that we would all stay dry if it rained.

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Hard work this runnning!

The Buddhist monks don’t allow photography in their temples so I have no more pictures but what followed the evening meal was a truly unique and memorable experience that very few people get to share. We were allowed to attend the evening prayer ceremony and then receive a blessing from the Lama of the monastery at which we could make a wish. I tried to follow the spirit of Buddhism and asked for everyone to complete the race safely rather than just me.

I had found the first day very challenging. This was fine except that I had the road book and so I knew that every other day had more ascent and more descent apart from the very last day. That day seemed a very long way away…

29 May 2017 – Day Two, Chorten Nyingpo to Thimphu Valley

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Day Two Road Book (credit: Global Limits)

I slept quite well after the exertions of the first day, maybe the prayers of the monks helped too. This was just as well as Day Two had the greatest amount of climb of any day on the race and most of it occurred in a single climb, we would gain nearly 1800m of altitude over around 14km of the race. The first checkpoint was at 10km, approximately a third of the way through the long climb. The second checkpoint was 9km later and would mark the start of the final 9.7km, mainly downhill, to the third camp. Today’s route had far less asphalt than Day One which, I felt, was a good thing as trail running is my ‘thing’ and whilst this meant it could be much more technical than Day One it should be interesting.
Anyway the time for speculation came to an end and it was time to start running again.

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Race restart at the front of the monastery – where I hoped the finish would be yesterday
(Photo credit:Global Limits)

It was a beautiful day and the scenery promised to be spectacular – if it had been a little more horizontal it would have been perfect.

Global Limits Bhutan - The Last Secret - 200km Race Report 24Into the Bhutanese countryside (Photo credit: Global Limits)

Actually the first few kilometres were a great undulating trail through the forest. So far I had succeeded in following the markings perfectly but obviously that couldn’t last. Sure enough five and a half kilometres into the day I randomly turned away from the markings and managed to find a whole different path through the forest. Even better, it got really muddy in places. Unfortunately I hadn’t made all my fellow competitors aware of my tendency towards a state of being geographically challenged (lost) and so several of them followed me. It took me about 300m of not seeing any markers to realise that this particular piece of Bhutan wasn’t on the race route so we turned round and went back through the mud until we saw something orange. In fact the first orange thing I saw was Sharon in her orange and purple Little Baddow Ridge Runners t-shirt. I also saw a whole line of orange flags, which is probably why Sharon was so surprised to see me emerging from blatantly the wrong part of the forest.

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Fantastic forest trails…

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…little wooden bridges…

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…and the inevitable suspension bridge

The first check point arrived quite suddenly but was very welcome and I topped up my water bottles ready to continue upwards. For me the trail was perfect, actually I wouldn’t have wanted it any more ‘horizontal’. Yes it was challenging but there were sections to be walked, sections to be jogged and enough variation to prevent it turning into the kind of long slog that I found the end of Day One to be.

Eventually I reached the second checkpoint and the summit of the climb – it seems strange to even think I could be disappointed to reach the top of a mountain climb but I’d really enjoyed the run/hike up through the forest.

Global Limits Bhutan - The Last Secret - 200km Race Report 28
The final checkpoint and the end of the climb (Photo credit: Global Limits)

Fortunately the trail kept on giving even on the downhill sections with spectacular vistas giving way to views of the valley in which we would be spending the night.

Global Limits Bhutan - The Last Secret - 200km Race Report 29Great views from the trail

The forest trail became a track which became a road, all downhill so all good. Then the course turned off and up into a farmyard and then up some steps! In the grand scheme of things the ‘climb’ was tiny but my legs were only expecting ‘down’ and registered their protest at the unexpected ‘up’ by cramping up in places where I didn’t know I had muscles. The countryside gave way to the town we were staying in, the road ‘undulated’ a little but as I knew I was nearly there I tried to keep running even on the slightly uphill sections.

Whereas yesterday’s finish was a little tricky to find, today’s was right at the entrance to the farmhouse we were staying at and so arrived very suddenly. The local children were very excited by the race and were at the finish to greet the runners.
Global Limits Bhutan - The Last Secret - 200km Race Report 30Katherine gathered quite an entourage at the finish! (Photo credit: Global Limits)

Once again Kurt won the stage in a time of 4:41:40. I was seventh overall in a time of 5:46:56, Sharon was 22nd in 6:48:51.

At the beginning of the day I was very nervous and not at all sure how I was going to cope with the stage. At the end of the day I was feeling great and telling anyone that would listen how that was the best day’s running I’d ever done. The trail was fantastic, my photos don’t begin to do it justice. The weather was good, I felt  good, I was two places higher than yesterday – could life get any better? Well, yes. Tatiana showed me the sleeping area, a large hall. She said we could also use the rooms off the hall. The first one already had several runners in it but the second had no occupants but did have… a double bed! I quickly got my bag and Sharon’s and claimed said bed for us. It wasn’t the softest and obviously we still slept in our sleeping bags but it was great nonetheless!

I have mentioned the dogs of Bhutan before and decided that I would take a couple of photos of the dogs at this farm. I needn’t have bothered, this wasn’t going to be the last time I saw at least one of them…

Global Limits Bhutan - The Last Secret - 200km Race Report 31‘OK guys, I may be gone for some time…’

So a great day of running, a bed, what more could I want? Oh, I forgot to mention, the farm also sold beer…
Food, beer and time to retire to bed ready for the third day of the Last Secret!

30 May 2017 – Day Three, Thimphu Valley to Phajoding Monastery

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Day Three Road Book (Credit: Global Limits)

After a reasonable nights sleep thanks to beer and a bed it was time to prepare for the third day of the race. Today promised to be particularly challenging as not only would it take us to our highest campsite, we also had a game of football to play when we got there!

This stage again had two checkpoints, the first was at 10.5km after a reasonably flat, predominantly road section. The second was 9.5km later after a short sharp climb. The couple of kilometres after the checkpoint was fairly flat and had the potential to give great views over Thimphu. Then it was a long hard climb all the way up to the Phajoding Monastery at 3600m. The total stage distance was 27.8km.

The stage started with a big loop around Changtagang, the small town we had spent the night in. The route then went along the valley across the river and back along the other side until it reached the first checkpoint, almost opposite our start point.

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Sharon passes the Buddha (Photo credit: Global Limits)

Today there would be a lot of prayer flags en-route. When I was in Thimphu I looked up at the surrounding hills and saw the prayer flags and thought it would be quite cool to be up there with them. Well today I was going to be there!

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Looking back across the valley

As it happened prayer flags weren’t the only thing I had seen before that I would be seeing a lot of today, remember the dog I photographed at the last camp?…

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Me and my shadow… (Photo credit: Global Limits)

As we left the last camp a few of the dogs started running with us. After a few kilometres it became obvious that this particular dog had decided to follow me for a while. I didn’t mind too much but the problem I’ve always had with dogs is that they have no perception of just how much less stable two legs are than four. If I stopped dead in front of the dog it would have no problem. I had to hurdle the dog. If I nudged it’s back legs it would have no problem. I nearly ended up in a ditch. Eventually after about 17km a few local dogs took exception to my escort and a small fight ensued. I took the opportunity to move swiftly on…

After a couple of kilometres I started to feel slightly guilty at abandoning dog to his fate. I shouldn’t have worried, at the bottom of the sharp climb to checkpoint 2, there he was…Global Limits Bhutan - The Last Secret - 200km Race Report 36

The climb was slightly challenging but did give great views over Thimphu. Unfortunately it was a little misty but still well worth the climb.

The second checkpoint provided me with yet another ultra running ‘first’ – I’ve never been to a checkpoint with its own giant prayer wheel before!

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Checkpoint Two (Photo credit: Global Limits)
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More Prayer Flags
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Yours Truly well among the prayer flags (Photo credit: Global Limits)

As well as all the brightly coloured prayer flags there are sections of plain white flags to commemorate the dead.

After the views across Thimphu the path took a decidedly upward turn…

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Onwards and Upwards

I met a few Bhutanese on the climb up all of whom gave words of encouragement and assured me I was nearly there. I don’t know if all of them really knew where ‘there’ was but the encouragement was very welcome.

Eventually I came to the monastery gate. As with the previous monastery the finish line wasn’t immediately obvious…

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Where is the finish line?…
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…Ah there it is! (Photo credit: Global Limits)

The finish line was as always a welcome sight. Unfortunately it was raining and so the views down the valley weren’t as spectacular (or visible) as they might have been.

We had two classrooms and the dining hall to sleep in. The first runners were rewarded for their speed by being put in the classroom furthest from the toilets and with the squeakiest door ever put on a building. Once again Kurt was first in a time of 3:43:51. I managed my best placing of the race in fifth with a time of 4:28:11. Sharon came in 17th in a time of 4:55:25. As a result I was in the hut furthest from the toilets. I secured a spot in it for Sharon too, something which, as things transpired, she wouldn’t entirely thank me for…

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The resting place of the day’s ‘Elite’ runners

Having finished the stage there was now just the small matter of the football match. The novice monks at the monastery love football and practice all year for the annual Phajoding Monastery vs Global Limits football match – at least that was what Stefan told us. He also told us that anyone who didn’t play for at least two minutes would get a one hour time penalty. Personally I had been looking forward to it, not because I have even the slightest footballing talent but because, well, come on, playing football at 3600m against a bunch of Buddhist monks – what’s not to love?

George was appointed manager – George is Greek-Australian living in Ireland and took to the role like a monk to prayer and soon we were 1-0 up. Then the Phajoding Under-10s left the pitch and things got serious.

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Goalmouth action! (Photo credit: Global Limits)

We played with much enthusiasm but it’s probably fair to say that there are only two performances that really stood out. Marilena had an excellent spell in goal and Kat was our stand-out outfield player and the Lama’s Player of The Match.

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Player of the Match! (Photo credit: Global Limits)

Apparently we lost 4-3 but the result was irrelevant (only because we lost), the main thing was everyone including the monks had a lot of fun and I suspect it is an experience I will never get to repeat.

After the evening meal and the briefing for the next day it was time to retire to the squeaky door’ed classroom to bed. We had been warned at the briefing that the rain would make some of the following stage very slippery – by now it was raining a lot…

31 May 2017 – Day Four, Phajoding Monastery to Paro

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Day Four Road Book (Credit: Global Limits)

I had more or less decided that in terms of race position Day Four would be mainly about damage limitation. Before I came to Bhutan I would have said I was reasonable at descending, however that’s through the woods and hills of South-East England. The woods and mountains of Bhutan were a very different prospect and I knew from previous stages that many of the runners had infinitely better balance and confidence on the steep technical downhill than I did.

Sharon was also not very confident, partly for the same reason as me but also she had had some ‘issues’ during the night resulting in wet uncomfortable trips to the distant toilet – I suspect she would much rather have been in the nearer dining room sleeping area!

Today’s stage was the longest so far at 38km. The first checkpoint was after the slippery downhill stuff at 11.8km. The second was supposed to be 9.8km later but around 4km was removed from the route as the rain had made a river impassable and so we had to take a short cut. As it happened one of our number would insist on running 38km this day but more of that later… The third and final checkpoint was another 7.8km on – after we had gone over a pass nearly as high as our starting point. Then it was downhill practically all the way to the finish.

Just before we started on the slippery downhill, there was the small matter of another 120 or so metres of ‘up’ to reach the highest point on the course. I set off fairly quickly as I knew I’d be slow on the downhill so I wanted to be sure I could be in as many people’s way as possible. That wasn’t the real reason, the real reason was I wanted to make up as much ground on my stronger areas to minimise my overall losses. However once we reached the downhill I did feel that I had just succeeded in being an additional obstacle to people’s descent. I slipped, slithered and fell down most of the slope. The most memorable moment for me was when I slipped, slid and stumbled about 20 metres and managed to avoid falling. Jodi was right behind me and acknowledged my efforts with a cry of ‘Great job!’ – at which point I slipped down the hill on my backside and rather ruined the moment. I didn’t take many photographs, well one in fact, looking back up through the trees. It doesn’t in any way even hint at how hard I found that descent.

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Looks fairly innocuous – so why did I slide down most of it?

Unfortunately this descent was to cause John to have to retire from the race and fly home early. I saw the x-ray and can confirm there was nothing funny about the break he sustained to his humerus when he fell. Although I fell over quite a lot I sustained nothing worse than a muddy backside, a slightly bent walking pole and slightly dented pride.

Eventually I reached the first checkpoint. My recollection of it is tenuous but I think I’d taken my jacket off by then so I looked a bit less muddy.

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The course may have been tricky but the views were still great

After all that down it was time for some undulations leading to the next climb. Due to the slight diversion the second checkpoint arrived somewhat earlier than expected. I was working my way up through some trees when I heard a loud noise I eventually realised was a small child. As I approached the checkpoint I passed a farmhouse above me. A child was standing on the veranda shout (I think) ‘Winner!, Winner!’ I wasn’t winning but it was nice to see another child taking such an interest in the race.

After the checkpoint it was basically straight up to the top of the next pass. A couple of years ago a road (wide track) was cut zigzagging up the mountain. Our race, being a trail race, followed the original trail and so crossed the new ‘road’ several times. It was on one of these crossings I lost concentration and started following the road. Once again the lack of orange markers gave me a clue and I doubled back onto the correct route.

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Onwards and upwards – again!

At the top of the hill there was a monastery. I should have guessed really – Bhutanese monks seem to love high places!

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At the top of the pass

Fortunately the down from the second pass was much easier than the first. It didn’t seem to have rained as much and the gradient was less. In fact it was very much the sort of thing I like running and suddenly I felt a bit more confident about the day.

I was running free and relaxed when I reached the final checkpoint. To my surprise Simon was just leaving as I arrived at the checkpoint. I was delighted when Kenzang informed me that it was mainly the same sort of downhill until the final couple of kilometres when we would encounter some paddy fields. I would have been even happier if it had all been trail rather than a track leading to tarmac but the main thing was I could run a fast as I liked and soon I caught Simon who later commented I seemed to be ‘on a mission’ when I passed him. I think it was all the pent-up nervous energy I accumulated on the first muddy downhill!

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Into the valley

As always the orange ribbons/flags/paint were leading us home. There were also some large yellow (not orange) arrows from the Paro Marathon a couple of weeks before on our route but no-one would follow those – would they?

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A reassuring ribbon

After while the down gave way to our first encounter with paddy fields.  

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Paddy fields

After crossing those (on the paths, not straight through the wet bits) the course went along the side of the river until it reached the finish.

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Nearly there
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Kurt found the day much easier than ‘Dog’! (Photo credit: Global Limits)

Some time before I finished Kurt took his fourth stage win in 4:37:59. Obviously ‘my’ dog from yesterday had found me too slow and decided to follow Kurt today…

…this was obviously much harder than following me as ‘Dog’ crossed the finish line and promptly collapsed! Unfortunately not all the day’s dogs were as friendly as ‘Dog’, and Jodi sustained the first dog bite anyone had ever received in all the editions of the race.

I finished in seventh place in a time of 5:50:14.  Sharon was 20th in a time of 7:23:41.

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I’m not sure this moment was quite as romantic as the picture suggests (Photo credit: Global Limits)

At the start of the blog I mentioned someone might have run the full 38km. I also commented on the Paro Marathon markers. Today was the only day I finished ahead of Loz Wong. Mainly because he decided to do some of the Paro Marathon and find the finish by following the markers for the following day backwards to today’s camp. Despite that I still only beat him by 9 minutes!

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Not a bad place to spend the night

Every day’s camp had included some memorable feature however today’s resting place proved to be the most memorable by far! Firstly our hosts undertook to wash all our shoes and running clothes for us! Given that I had spent much of the earlier parts of the day sliding along on my backside this was very welcome. They even washed the mud off my jacket and my walking poles for me.

This was great but before I handed my clothes in for washing I was to have an even more unique washing experience. I knew from reading about previous editions of the Last Secret that we might be offered a traditional Bhutanese stone bath and this was the place it would happen. The baths are actually large wooded troughs. The end of the bath is divided off and hot stones are placed in this section to heat the water. The baths are used by everyone and the water isn’t changed between bathers so obviously you should be clean before getting in. Enter ‘Momma’, her wash mitt and a big bar of red soap! I don’t think I have been washed quite so thoroughly by someone else since I was a baby. it was pretty much an all over scrub and it felt great, four days of dirt and grime was vigorously scrubbed and rinsed away and then I was shown to my stone bath. This race had a lot of highlights but I’m not sure any of the others are quite so indelibly burned into my memory!

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Momma’s Bath House

Given how chilly and moist the day had started it seemed barely feasible that we were strolling around in bright sunshine, clean, watching our washing dry. The only thing that prevented the evening being absolutely perfect was the number of flies in the vicinity, however I’m fairly sure I was of much less interest to them now I was clean and smelling of soap than I had been when I arrived at the farmhouse. The only other lowlight was having to say goodbye to John as he was headed home to have an operation to put his arm back together.

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Not a bad view either

At the beginning of the day I really wasn’t sure that this was going to be a good day for me. By the end I had decided that it was possibly overall the best day of the race. A beer would have made it even better but as it was I was feeling refreshed and recharged. This was just as well as tomorrow was the 53.5km ‘Long Day’…

1 June 2017 – Day Five, Paro to Drukyal Dzong

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Day Five Road Book (Credit: Global Limits)

Day Five was the longest day of the race. We would basically explore the valley in which Paro was situated before heading upwards to our last camp before the final push up to the Tiger’s Nest. As the day was 53.5km long there were four checkpoints very evenly spaced at 10.7km, 10.3km, 10.8km and 10.0km leaving 11.7km to the finish. Strangely I had been looking forward to the long day. There was a lot of tarmac on it and it promised to be quite hot in the valley but whilst the total up and down was considerable (2048m and 1745m respectively) it was more of a series of undulations rather than the monolithic climbs and descents of the previous days. All in all, even with the longer distance and the tarmac, I felt it favoured my running strengths more than many of the previous days. Of course all this was pure conjecture until we actually started running…

In order to give everyone the best chance of finishing in daylight, those who had taken more than 24 hours total running time to reach the end of Day Four started an hour earlier than the rest. That meant that 19 of us started at 7am. Sharon was highly excited as she was the 19th of the 19 ‘elite athletes’ on the later start.

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The finest Ultra Runners in Bhutan at that moment – possibly… (Photo credit: Global Limits)

I set off quite quickly but I had no qualms about walking the steeper uphill sections. This was going to be a long day and it wouldn’t be won in the first 10km. It could however be lost there. Speaking of lost…

Just over 7km into the day I decided to stop following the markers and run down the road into a village instead. I ran less than 200m before I stopped to look for a marker and instead saw an old man with an outstretched arm pointing back the way I had come…

Mike and Loz had been close behind me but hadn’t seen my error. As a result they would spend the next 20km believing I had taken off at an awesome pace and was some way in front of them – not about 400m behind and dropping further back all day.

The course was along a road/track until the first checkpoint where we turned off the road and into paddy fields.

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Leaving Checkpoint One (Photo credit: Global Limits)

Primarily this blog is my story of my Last Secret Ultra. However there are one or two others that have been mentioned and so I feel it is time I mentioned again the other member of ‘Team Dwarf’, Joey Sharma. The race was not being kind to Joey. She had gone down with a quite debilitating chest infection and, combined with the altitude, it had lead to her not finishing the previous day. Unlike many ultras a DNF is not the end. Obviously you can’t be part of the overall rankings but you can start the next day and keep running as much as you can (subject to the doctors’ permission obviously). Despite really not being very well Joey was undaunted and started Day Five. When I passed her she was making plans to buy coca-cola at the first open shop she found. She may have been one of the ‘dwarves’ but her spirit was enormous.

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The spirit of the Last Secret in a picture (Photo credit: Global Limits)

There was ‘another’ that seemed determined to get to the finish too. I didn’t see ‘Dog’ on Day Five but from the pictures he looked to have been following Dan and Gary.  Hopefully he decided to follow someone else before they went for their own little off course excursion…

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Dan, Gary and… ‘Dog’? (Photo credit: Global Limits)
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A path across the paddy fields

After a while we left the paddy fields and climbed up towards the second checkpoint. I could pretend my plan was to visit the Rinpung Dzong back in the valley but the reality I spontaneously turned right for no terribly good reason and ran down a couple of hundred metres before I realised I’d better run back up and get on the course again.

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‘High Fiving’ with the local children with the Rinpung Dzong in the background – where it should be  (Photo credit:Global Limits)

At Checkpoint Two I was asked if I had got lost – Loz and Mike had apparently enquired just how far ahead I had managed to get only to be told I hadn’t passed CP2 yet!

After Checkpoint Two it was down hill to a long straight road that ran parallel with the runway. Unfortunately I didn’t time my arrival to properly see the ‘interesting’ approach that aircraft have to make to Paro Airport so I just had to put my head down and run until I reached the end of the airport.

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Welcome to Bhutan – the sign at the exit to the airport

After the airport the race continued along the Paro – Thimphu Highway until we crossed the river.

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Another of Bhutan’s suspension bridges

Due to the recent rain the river was somewhat higher than it was when the course had been checked the previous week. As a result it was somewhat ‘challenging’ (virtually impossible) to walk alongside it with either getting shredded by thorn bushes or getting wet feet. It was in no way dangerous but if it hadn’t been for the usual plentiful marking I would have been less sure someone hadn’t sent me in there for a laugh….

After getting a little damp the course turned back towards Paro. The road wasn’t the most exciting thing but fortunately the road signs provided some amusement. When I first saw this I thought it was warning drivers about runners but closer inspection indicated it was probably warning there was a school nearby.

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Beware of runners?

Eventually I reached Checkpoint Three at a viewpoint for Paro airport.

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Paro Airport – again

After a while the course took us back down alongside the river – this time on a very solid path – and then back across the river. From there it was a run of around 5km alongside the river to checkpoint five. I adopted a run-walk strategy based on counting lamposts, running to a particular feature or building or just generally doing anything to keep myself going as it was getting quite hot and this wasn’t the most interesting part of the race to say the least.

Fortunately I’m quite used to the ‘mental challenge’ this sort of running brings – so much so that I ran straight past the bridge back over the river to the final Checkpoint…

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Back on course! (Photo credit: Global Limits)

After the final checkpoint the course went away from Paro and towards our final overnight halt. However the final few kilometres were going to be far from easy for me. I was making a particular meal out of trying to cross a river on some slippery logs when I felt a pair of hands on my waist and heard the words ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you’. Alison was much more poised and balanced than me – I was more like a new-born deer with an inner ear infection – and she had caught me up and decided to take pity on me and help me across the big scary bridge (actually about two metres of logs above 50cm of water). There was also a fair amount of balancing along paddy fields and Alison was soon ahead of me – as was Andrew, who I had left behind on the long boring road bits but again was much better than me on the shorter, interesting wet bits.

I had also had a few stomach issues since just before the last checkpoint. I hoped to get to the finish but eventually I had to stop and deal with them. This left me feeling rather better and once we got off all the scary bits I caught back up with Alison. Soon I had my first view of today’s finishing point…

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Drukyal Dzong – yes, the finish is at the top of the hill naturally

Just to increase the mental anguish, all the runners that had already finished were at the camp at the bottom of the hill – many with beer.

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The finish! Quite a climb but so worth it!

Kurt took his fifth stage win in 6:13:05. I was just over an hour behind in 7:18:13 and seventh place. I was very happy with that as I had finished further behind Kurt in terms of time on some much shorter stages. Sharon finished in 8:45:05 and 22nd place. She crossed the line in tears, mainly from emotion rather than pain as this was her furthest ever single run and she finally realised that she would be able to finish the Last Secret Ultra and get to the Tiger’s Nest. I never doubted that for a minute but it’s very hard to convince her just how good a runner she is.

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Emotional finish (Photo credit:Global Limits)

After finishing it was time to go back down the hill (there was a short cut) and join the others in beer drinking. The mood was particularly good in camp that night – especially after Nigel built us a ‘small’ camp fire.

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Sitting round the camp fire

Tomorrow there was just the small matter of the final 15km to the Tiger’s Nest. How hard could that be? I would find out very soon…

2 June 2017 – Day Six, Drukyal Dzong to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery

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Day Six Road Book (Credit: Global Limits)

So this was it – we had finally reached the last day of the 2017 Global Limits Last Secret Ultra! On paper this looked like more or less a formality, it was the shortest stage at 14.6km. The climb and descent was also the smallest, 1205m of up and 691m of down. There was only one checkpoint 10.7km at the start of the final climb to the Tiger’s Nest. In order to get everyone to the Tiger’s Nest reasonably early in the day most of those outside the overall classification would leave at 5:30am and be driven to the first checkpoint. from where they would walk up to the finish. The majority would leave at 6am and the top 20 would leave at 7am. Currently I was seventh and Sharon was eighteenth so we both left on the last start.

Although I knew this should be a formality I wasn’t taking anything for granted and sure enough this stage would present some challenges that I was going to find very hard to overcome.

The start was quite straightforward, big wide tracks that undulated without any major climbing and so I set off at a reasonable pace feeling quite confident.

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Easy running!

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…getting trickier but still OK

 As I’ve mentioned before I’m not great at the tricky technical descent, however what really, really scares me is narrow ledges and sheer drops. I’d had to cope with a few of those yesterday but today I was so far out of my comfort zone that it felt like my comfort zone had flown home early and left me behind. There are channels cut into the mountainside that collect the water from the mountains. I’m not sure of the purpose of them – I would guess they are for irrigation but maybe not. Anyway the point is that these channels have a side maybe 30-50cm wide that also forms the path. fortunately Peter took a great picture of me causing a traffic jam whilst being utterly terrified on one of these which shows what I’m trying to describe. Don’t be fooled by the trees to the left of the channel in the picture, that side is basically a sheer drop.

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Probably the most scared I got all week  (Photo credit: Peter Minicka)

Once again Alison caught me up, this time with her husband Neil. Eventually we got to a point where I was happy to stand still frozen with terror while they passed me and I continued very slowly on. After a while I realised the water in the channel was only about calf deep and ran several sections in the gully rather than inching along the path. I know it’s stupid, mark out a similar width path on the ground and I could run along it all day long without even thinking about it but stick it on the side of a mountain and I’m in bits!

After what seemed like several days the path became more normal and I was able to make up the ground I had lost by striding purposefully rather than petrifiedly as previously.

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I probably should have spun these to give thanks for the fact I didn’t fall off a mountain

Soon I reached the only checkpoint of the day. Just after the checkpoint was the place you could hire a horse to take you half way up the mountain. We were also among the tourists walking up to the Tiger’s Nest which gave me a boost. I was a finely honed athlete and these were just people. Of course in reality I had no way of knowing how fit these people were but I was fairly sure that none of them had run about 180km over the previous five days to get there so if they could do it surely I could?

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Into the last part of the last day

 Soon the end was in sight – in the distance admittedly but it was in sight.

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The Tiger’s Nest, my Final Destination – still looks a very long way away though…

Eventually I reached the final set of steps to the Tiger’s Nest. There are actually more steps down than up but this isn’t much of an advantage as the only way back is via the same steps. There are around 500-600 steps down and 100-200 back up again.

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Sharon descending the steps

The finish was at the base of the Tiger’s Nest and we had been warned not to sprint too hard as it was a small area with a sheer drop all around. I always try and at least end my races running and completely forgot this – fortunately Stefan managed to capture my moment of glory just before I kind of collided with him.

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Finished! (Photo credit:Global Limits)

Sharon wasn’t far behind me and made the most of the finish, coming in with upraised arms and enjoying every second. Kurt had completed his clean sweep of stage wins in 2:02:00. I was sixth in 2:33:55 and Sharon was 21st in 2:57:15.

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Told you you could do it! (Photo credit:Global Limits)

Our final times and positions were 7th overall and 5th male in a total time of 30:01:08 for me; and 19th overall, 9th female in a total time of 35:12:47 for Sharon. Kurt’s total time was 24:28:55.

Before I move on to the post race activities and discussions I must mention the last classified finisher, Kim. Kim had the worst possible start to the event when, due to a visa issue, she was unable to collect her luggage at Delhi Airport. Fortunately she was wearing her running shoes but everything else was either borrowed from her fellow competitors or bought in Thimphu. Despite this she kept smiling and finished every stage until she had her moment in front of the Tiger’s Nest.

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Kim finishing- not in the kit she imagined she would have but still with a smile (Photo credit:Global Limits)

As mentioned in a previous blog entry unfortunately Joey didn’t finish but she was at the Tiger’s Nest to meet everyone and we got a picture for our friends at XNRG.

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Life being lived with Extreme Energy! (Photo credit:Global Limits)

At this point I have to say a massive thank you to the simply amazing Global Limits Team that kept us safe and happy throughout the event – if you look very closely you can even see that Stefan is smiling!

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The Best Team! (Photo credit:Global Limits)

However it seems appropriate go give the last word on the race to one of the dogs of Bhutan…

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I’m just going to sit here…

Of course this isn’t quite the end of the story. Obviously we visited the Tiger’s nest Monastery. Well, we’d run nearly 200km to get there so it would have been a shame not to go in. Then there was the small matter of getting back down the mountain. However this time I could spend some time really taking in the scenery.

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The view from the Tiger’s Nest
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Looking back to the Tiger’s Nest
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Picture says it all really

The descent was made a little easier by a stop at the cafeteria half way down the mountain.

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Food! (and beer)

This provided the perfect opportunity to get a last group photo.

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2017 Global Limits Last secret Ultra Cast and Crew! (Photo credit:Global Limits)

The walk back down the mountain wasn’t quite without incident. I’m not sure exactly what happened but I suddenly saw Dave hanging onto the side of the mountain having slipped off the path. He was quickly grabbed and pulled to safety but it showed that just because the race was over we couldn’t fully relax quite yet.

Fortunately there were no other incidents. Also fortunately those of us that split off and took ‘the path less travelled’ down the mountain did arrive at the same place as those that took the route we had come up by. Buses were waiting to take us to our hotel and well…even if I hadn’t spent most of the last week sleeping on various versions of things that weren’t entirely flat I would still have been stunned by the room we had. For a start in had a proper super-mega-massive-king size bed in it. I hadn’t seen any sort of bed since the end of Day Two but this was just my idea of heaven in bed form.

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A bed! I know that’s obvious but words can’t express how good it looked at that moment

After a much needed shower and bath and some clean clothes we retired to the bar until it was time for our Cultural Show.

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Traditional Bhutanese Dance – women…
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…and men

After the show it was time for food and prizes. Our Guest of Honour was The former Chief Justice of Bhutan, His Excellency Mr Sonam Topgay. He was the architect of the Constitution of Bhutan, of which we were all given a copy, some in English, some in Bhutanese. This is one of the more unusual gifts I’ve been given at a race but this was such a unique race it didn’t seem all that unusual.

Stefan had changed into a Bhutanese robe. He kept complaining it was tight but no-one dare ask if that was just because he is somewhat larger than the average Bhutanese male or if it was because he’d put weight on since he bought it.

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His Excellency Mr Sonam Topgay, Stefan’s wife Teresa and of course the man himself (Photo credit:Global Limits)

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Eagerly awaiting our turn to collect or prizes – or perhaps we were just eagerly awaiting food  (Photo credit:Global Limits)

As I said, this race was unique. As a result I suppose it would have been stupid to expect to be rewarded with anything as mainstream as a medal. We did get a nice t-shirt but the main memento for completing the race was a Bhutanese Prayer Wheel.

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His ‘n’ Hers Prayer Wheels

The first three men and women got much bigger Prayer Wheels naturally.

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Loz, Kurt and Michael – 3rd, 1st and 2nd males (Photo credit:Global Limits)
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Wiwin, Sabina and Ruthann 3rd, 1st and 2nd Females (Photo credit:Global Limits)

After the meal we went to the bar from where some of our number hit the clubs in Paro. Me? I had a date with that particularly enticing bed…

So that’s it, the end of my story. I hope those of you that have stuck with it until now found it reasonably entertaining – or at least liked the pictures. It has all been written in a bit of a hurry as I was trying to capture my thoughts while I still remembered them so there are probably a few errors or ‘alternative facts’ as we now call them. As a result I know many incidents have been left out, Karl and Aaron’s late night frog herding, Ralf having his phone washed, and although I took a few wrong turns at least I never got so far off course the Race Director had to pick me up in his car and put me back on the route (if you are reading this you know who you are).

There are also a lot of people I didn’t mention. Firstly our local Bhutanese support. The food wasn’t exactly Michelin restaurant quality but there was plenty of it and it was always served with a smile, as were the vast number of cups of tea I drank at the end of each day. I’ve also not mentioned many of my fellow runners, in some ways this has made this blog poorer as I’m sure many of them have more exciting stories than mine. However the only story I feel qualified to tell is mine and this was it. To every one of my fellow runners I say thank you, all of you made the event richer by being there, I just wish there had been time to get to know you all. There was absolutely no point in the race when I wanted to push any of you off a mountain and I hope you all felt the same way about me. If you didn’t I’m very, very, sorry. I know, I can be very annoying…

The penultimate thank you goes to Ed Chapman and XNRG. If Ed hadn’t done a presentation on this race at the XNRG Pony Express race we would probably never have entered so a massive thank you for that.

Obviously the last thank you goes to all at Global Limits, especially Stefan Betzelt. This race worked on so many levels, as a run, a cultural experience and as a way to make some new friends. Basically this was down to an awesome team which looked after all the tricky bits so we could get on with the easy bit – running 192km, climbing 10800m…sorry, did I say easy? Anyway it was a hugely enjoyable experience, if you like the look of it then go and do it, you won’t regret it.

We are currently planning to meet up with Stefan again in Cambodia in 2018 – he doesn’t know it yet though…

Colin’s blog originally appeared on his personal running blog: https://colinrunning.blogspot.com

All photos are copyright of Colin Harper and Stefan Betzelt/Global Limits.

Check out Global Limits website – their series of stage races in Albania, Bhutan and Cambodia recently made our Great Adventure Stage Races list – and also read more about the series in our Global Limits Cambodia Race Report.

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Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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