Himalayan Hill Queen: Nepal’s Manikala Rai

Stellar performances by the Nepalese in Hong Kong in recent months have cemented their domination of hilly mountain ultras: a blistering sub-11 hour record in the 2013 Oxfam Trailwalker, first place in the 2013 The North Face 100 Hong Kong and a remarkable 1–2 finish at the Vibram Hong Kong 100 Ultra Trail. But if the men are the kings of the hills, Manikala Rai is the queen. She is Nepal’s first international female ultra runner. And at 25 years of age, she has only just begun.

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Manikala recently won several races in Europe. Photo: Cyril Bussat

Manikala smiles energetically on seeing me, her warm embrace a reminder of the kindness of the Nepalese. Although it’s almost a year since we met, she hasn’t forgotten. Back then, she was a wide-eyed and innocent, demure and unsure, dependent and isolated by the language barrier. She had left Nepal for the first time to compete in the 2013 Vibram Hong Kong 100 (100km / 4,500D+) – her first-ever 100 kilometre ultra. If she finished, she would become the first Nepalese woman to achieve that feat in an international race. Manikala completed the gruelling course in 13h 31min 47s – fast enough for a fourth-place finish and a coveted place in the history books.

“It was a very big challenge for me. I never thought I could do it – not 100 kilometres – never,” she blurted.

Standing before me 11 months later, the transformation is abundantly clear. She is now a confident athlete. And before we even have a chance to sit, she’s talking in almost-fluent English about her three months in France, where she spent the days training and racing in the European Alps.

Yet she is as humble as ever. When I remark that she appears strong and fit, she giggles before modestly opening up about her apprehension over the looming The North Face 100 Hong Kong (100km / 6,300D+).

“It will not be easy, I would just like to do my best,” she says earnestly. “I hope for top five, but if I come top ten that is also good. I’m always improving.” In fact, she did significantly better: she won the women’s race, overwhelming her competitors to cross the line in a dominant 15h 37min 08s, more than an hour ahead of her closest competitor and 12th overall.


The story of Manikala’s talent unfolds like that of many of the Nepalese. Growing up, she never ran.

“I was very fat,” she states emphatically, ignoring my disbelieving interruption. Although she wasn’t sporty, she enjoyed hiking. With her village in the Solo Khumbu region of Nepal nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas at 2,000m above sea level, she walked an hour to school every day. And back.

In order to earn money while studying, she worked as a porter, which made her heart strong and her legs stronger. Then she met Phu Dhorjee Lama Sherpa, a talented Nepalese mountain runner, and was inspired. After watching women descend Everest in the high-altitude Tenzing Hilary Marathon in 2009, and spurred on by Phu Dhorjee’s encouragement, she ran the race the following year, finishing fifth among the local women. It was a hint of what was to come.

Manikala won the 300km stage race Trail des 3 Vallées, Nepal. Photo: Dawa Sherpa

Manikala won the 300km stage race Trail des 3 Vallées, Nepal.
Photo: Dawa Sherpa

Two years later, she ran the 2012 Annapurna 50km mountain race and her potential was finally unveiled. She was the first female runner over the line in 6h 15min. Later that year, she also won Dachhiri Dawa Sherpa’s 300km stage race in Nepal, Trail des 3 vallées.

Manikala entered seven races in Europe during the past summer, winning three of them. In August it was the Trail du barlatay (50km / 2,700D+) in Switzerland, in September the Humanitrail (50km / 3,200D+), also in Switzerland, and in October the Trail du massif des brasses (28km / 1,600D+) in France.

The only kink in her performances was the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (119km /7,200D+), where she pulled the pin at 111km – an agonising eight kilometres from the finish.

“It was too difficult for me,” she admits with a grimace as she remembers the punishing ascents.

Her favourite race distance is the relatively short 50km.

“The 100 kilometre distance is also good, but it’s hard to get training in Nepal as such races are not very well organised,” Manikala says.

She doesn’t have a regular training schedule or a coach. Instead, she runs when she can and learns from her Nepalese “running brothers” – Aite Tamang, Samir Tamang and Purna Tamang among them. Her greatest challenge, believe it or not, is flat terrain.

“There are no roads in my village, so I find running on flat very difficult.”

For the irrepressible Manikala, running offers the impossible: impossible achievements and impossible travel to places she could never dream of while growing up in a modest village in Nepal.

But it hasn’t come easily or without considerable assistance. After watching village girls bounding up and down the hills in flip-flops while taking part in an ultra in Nepal, passionate athlete Natalia Sierant returned home determined to sponsor a female runner to join one of Hong Kong’s many races. With the help of one of Nepal’s trail running pioneers and co-organiser of the Annapurna 100 races, Ramesh Bhattachan, Manikala was selected to represent Nepal’s female runners at the 2013 Vibram HK 100.


Manikala is a proof that sport has no boundaries

Sierant

Manikala running in Nepal. Photo: Dawa Sherpa

Manikala running in Nepal.
Photo: Dawa Sherpa

“She is a proof that sport has no boundaries,” says Sierant. “I saw Manikala running in the HK 100 and she just looked beautiful. She makes running look easy. You can tell that she simply loves running. She runs gently, almost effortlessly. You can say she is natural, but having the Himalayas on her doorstep sort of helps, I guess,” says Sierant.

“She is kind, humble, but also proud and independent. She loves meeting western runners and is curious about the world. She is proof that if we want something badly enough, the whole world makes our dreams come true.”

Encouraged by the potential of the Nepalese and seeing the transformations that were taking place, Sierant made further fundraising requests of friends and family to donate to “Team Nepal” – a team set up to support elite Nepalese runners, Manikala among them.

The funds enabled the team to train and travel to Hong Kong and Europe during 2013 to compete.

“Running is a big part of my life and sometimes I take it for granted: new running shoes, entry to HK 100 seem to be no issue. For Nepalese it is simply impossible to be part of the world’s running community. Their monthly wage wouldn’t even cover the cost of one pair of shoes. I believe western runners have an obligation to help these amazing, humble, determined young runners to archive their goals,” says Sierant.

Although race winnings are increasing, it’s not nearly enough. The HK$10,000 prize money at TNF 100 Hong Kong would barely cover Manikala’s costs of getting to Hong Kong.

Plus, sadly, there’s no future in it.

“After she goes back to Nepal, what does she do? How can she continue to run? In the village, at least she has some income,” says Subarna Thapa Magar, one of the founders of the Hong Kong-Nepalese Trail Running Association and part of Team Nepal. “With training and support, she can do so much more.”

Manikala acknowledges the strain.

“It is difficult to balance life in the village and running,” she admits. But for now, she couldn’t be happier. “I enjoy running very much. In France everything was so pretty and I just loved running in the hills. It’s very beautiful – more beautiful than in Nepal. In Nepal, it is a very difficult life.”

Apart from the opportunity to compete in more races overseas, she dreams about more Nepalese women having the opportunities she has enjoyed.

“There are, of course, more Nepalese female runners back in Nepal that are faster than me, but they don’t have the opportunities. I am very lucky.”

Lucky, determined and supremely talented – that rare combination needed for the latent talent of so many Nepalese to shine.

Hawker adopted the Himalayan region. Photo: Alex Treadway

Hawker adopted the Himalayan region. Photo: Alex Treadway

Lizzy Hawker on Nepal
No other Western ultra runner knows the hills of Nepal and the potential of its people quite like Lizzy Hawker. She has run from the Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu, a journey of 319 kilometres, three times and holds the record over that distance of 63 hours and 8 minutes.

In 2011 Hawker attempted to run the Great Himalayan Trail, a journey of 1,600km from the east to the west of Nepal in mountainous areas bordering Tibet. But her attempt was foiled early on when she lost a pouch of valuables, including much-needed permits and a satellite phone. She spent three nights alone in the wilderness, before she stumbled into a local village and safety. Hawker believes the Nepalese have the potential to be the best mountain runners in the world. But, as in Manikala’s case, a lack of funding and support stands in their way.

“At the moment, most of the runners who’ve got the chance to run have either had a bit of a break, like Upendra Sunuwar [who’s been Lizzy’s guide on numerous occasions] or they’ve worked in the army or the police so they have that opportunity.”

“But for most of the Nepalese people, it is simply about subsistence living in the mountains. If you’re in the situation where all your effort is going to grow the food that you need to eat and carry it down the trail to the next village, you haven’t got the leisure to use the trails for running. They must look at some of these racers and wonder what on earth we’re doing.”

Hawker reminds us that adventure is a luxury.

“It’s only once we’ve become more wealthy as a nation that people actually have leisure time and then actually the need of sport.” Yet she also believes humans still need something to strive for; to be uncomfortable, discover limits and then overcome them.

“When we forget that, I think that’s where people go wrong and get depressed at sitting at a desk for 12 hours a day. [Adventure] just seems to be a human need somehow.”

How to support the Nepalese Runners
“Is it surprising that they run so far, over such terrain, so fast?” So it says in the TrailRunningNepal.org website, run by Richard Bull who tries to support local Nepalese trail runners and develop local trail races in Nepal. It’s not surprising, the site goes on, “when you have no concept of limitations on your abilities”.
Though physical restraints on Nepalese mountain runners seem few as they glide up the mountains, the greatest problem they face is funding.
“Although Dragon Air have supported Nepalese runners to travel to Hong Kong for three years running, the tax on the tickets (around US$800) still needs to be paid. The first issue they have is cash, an all too common problem in Nepal, specifically for the flights,” says the most recent campaign on the website. “In Nepal where professional salary starts around US$150 per month, and with inflation somewhere around 12%, it’d be a year of saving to afford the tax on the ticket.”
To date, thousands of dollars have been donated to Nepalese runners to get them to the start lines. If you too would like to support Nepalese runners, please visit TrailRunningNepal.org for future campaigns to assist Nepalese runners.

Author note: I am pledging my writer’s fee for this article to help future female Nepalese runners visit Hong Kong – keep an eye out on the website and details on how you too can support!

By Rachel Jacqueline. This article originally appeared in our Mar/Apr 2014 issue.

Interview: Asia’s Extreme Ultra Runners

Without doubt, the list of extreme ultra runners hailing from America and Europe is long and lustrous. But as the sport rises in popularity in Asia, a handful of runners are completing extraordinary feats and putting this corner of the world on the map.

Law Chor Kin determined to complete the Badwater 135 with temperatures logged at over 50 ˚C.

Law Chor Kin determined to complete the Badwater 135 with temperatures logged at over 50 ˚C.

Law Chor Kin has been to hell and back, but he still smiles at the thought. The Hongkonger completed the legendary 2013 Badwater 135 ultra marathon earlier in record temperatures, calling it the “hardest run” of his ultra running career. But every painful and impossible step was worth the immeasurable lessons gained. That’s not to say the 217km (135 miles) journey was enjoyable.

“I have never experienced such a hard time during a race,” he says, recalling the never-ending tarmac, battles against incessant headwinds like a “giant hairdryer in your face”, all the while suffering through constant stomach cramps and dehydration.

Add to that the oppressive heat of Death Valley – the lowest point in America at 86 m (282 ft) below sea level. The air temperature was logged at 54 ˚C at the 67 km (41 mile) mark and the surface temperature was a whopping 76 ˚C. Yet, the 36 year old surveying officer overcame ceaseless battles to finish in 37h 50min 59s.

“I was amazed how a tough mind and strong determination could overcome the seemingly impossible mission.”

Just twelve hours before crossing the finish line at Whitney Portal, his crew wasn’t sure he’d make it. Though he’d started confidently, waves of nausea set in after 70km (43 miles). Then came the vomiting. He was forced, frustratingly, to a shuffle and then lying in his support vehicle, defeated.

Asked if he thought of giving up, his response is an emphatic “no”.

“I always had the goal to finish, no matter what.” His crew, meanwhile, had other ideas. Without keeping on top of his nutrition, Law’s outlook did not look good.

But as dawn broke and he received the all clear from the medical tent, he trudged on. Realising his stomach issues were due to drinking iced water, he shifted to something warmer and began stomaching food. Soon, he picked up the pace.

Ironically, the hilliest, most challenging final sections of the race are where Law did his best. Despite 150 km (93 miles) and 20-odd hours on his legs, he began running the uphills and gained on his competitors. In the final 20 km he surged to the finish, crossing triumphantly with the Hong Kong flag in his arms. The harrowing experience consolidated ten years of ultra running for Law.

“No matter how well you prepared, for such a long distance and tough race, there are so many things that are out of your control, like the weather, how your body reacts,” he lists.

“But the uncontrollables are uncontrollable. If one can focus on what he can manage and try his very best, then one can finally get to the goal.”

Though Law hopes to return to the desert one day to fulfil his goal of a top ten finish, it won’t be anytime soon.

“Badwater needs careful planning, committed training, and careful execution…. I believe with the experience I had this year, I will do much better next time.”

In the meantime, he’s taking a more relaxed approach, participating in local races with his wife, Ida Lee, also an accomplished ultra runner, and enjoying running with friends. He recently completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker with team 2XU HOKA UFO in 12h 35min, taking third place.

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Photo: Daniel Chung

Law Chor Kin, Hong Kong
2013 Badwater Ultramarathon, Death Valley, California, USA
217km (135 miles); 3,962m (13,000ft) D+
37h 50min 59s; 30th out of 81 finishers

Chor Kin’s top five ultras:
1. Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, USA
2. Raleigh Tornado 156, Hong Kong
3. Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge, Hong Kong
4. Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, France
5. Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, Japan

Ever DNF’ed? Once, during UTMB 2011, when the route was changed due to inclement weather.

Favourite quote. It’s my own: “If you think you can, you can!”


 

Climbing towards Grand Tournalin at 2,535 m D+ (TDG 2013). Photo: Wang Bo

When it comes to running ultras, Jeri Chua doesn’t like to think too much. If a race piques her interest, she goes with her gut and signs up. So when stories from a friend of the ‘world’s craziest mountain race’ stirred familiar urgings, Chua knew she had to register. Six months later she found herself at the start line of the Tor Des Geants wondering what on earth she had got herself into.

There are marathons, there are ultra marathons, and then there are mammoth beasts of ultra running adventures. Tor Des Geants falls into the last category. Over six days (150 h cut off), runners journey for 330 km (205 miles) though the foothills of the highest Four-Thousanders in the Alps, through the Gran Paradiso Natural Park and the Mont Avic Regional Park – up and down repeatedly for over 24,000 m (79,000 ft) of positive elevation gain.

“I spent the first two days trying to think of ways to DNF legitimately,” says the pocket-sized Chua, rattling off a large list of ailments that plagued her on her grueling six-day journey with an accomplished smile – giant blisters, swollen limbs, sleep deprivation and near hypothermia.

Endless ascents and descents tested her resolve. To add to the challenges, on the first day she came to the rescue of Chinese ultra runner Yuan Yuan who had suffered a terrible fall, only to discover en route that he had later passed away in hospital.

“I convinced myself just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and after that, failure was not an option,” she says. “I really tried not to let it bother me too much… at the very least a small gesture would be to finish to honour his effort.” 

“Danger was always present in varying levels, more so when you’re so tired you can’t walk straight and there’s a sheer drop to one side of the trail,” she explains. The fourth night was the most challenging: after climbing peaks above 2,000 m (6,500 ft) overnight through severe sleep deprivation, at the sight of a mountain refuge silhouetted against the sunrise, she burst into tears of relief.

“My main fear was not being able to continue if I fell, and who on earth would come get me, and how. There were points when I really didn’t think I’d make it that night.”

After six days of walking, running and fast hiking and sleeping a mere 5.5 hours she crossed the finish – the first Singaporean woman to do so yet. She celebrated with a bottle of champagne and three pizzas.

For Chua, it’s journeys like these that equip her with lasting life lessons.

“I like how my limits get tested…when you’re stripped down to mind over matter.” But she admits TDG took every bit of determination and resources she had.

Despite the brutality of the event, she doesn’t hesitate to recommend it to others.

“It’s the most beautiful event I’ve ever done,” she exclaims before adding a word of warning: “just be prepared!”

Next on the agenda is a 300 km (186 mile) journey over Thailand’s trail to “explore some new terrain” she says casually. She has also signed up for the TransRockies ultra in the Colorado Rockies in 2014.

Photo: Shamsul Adzrin

Photo: Shamsul Adzrin

Jeri Chua, Singapore
2013 Tor Des Geants, Italy
330km (205 miles), 24,000m (79,000 ft) D+
145h 38min 29s; 298th out of 383 finishers, 22nd female out of 38 female finishers

Have you ever DNF’ed? Yes, for various reasons usually injury related, but mainly so I can live to race another day.

Favourite quote: I’m torn between “If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.”, or “Pain is temporary, but your finish time on the internet is forever.” I use both regularly!


 

Jonnifer finishing his second 100 miler despite injuries. Photo: Rick Gaston

Jonnifer finishing his second 100 miler despite injuries. Photo: Rick Gaston

In 2012, Jonnifer “Jon” Lacanlale became the first Filipino to complete the famous Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. More incredible than his historic finish is the journey it took – he ran much of the race with two sprained ankles and just 30 % vision.

“Gives me goose bumps every time I think of it,” he says, recalling his 29 hour and 50 minute journey. With his eyesight deteriorating from 43 km (27 miles) – presumably from altitude – he began tripping on the rocky trails, spraining both ankles. Despite his injuries, he dug deep to finish just ten minutes short of the 30-hour cut off.

Topping off his list of achievements since is a sub-30 hour finish at the Bighorn 100 miler in June this year – his second 100 miler after an impressive second place finish at Philippines Hardcore 100 in February. In between he completed the Four Lakes 100 kilometres ultra and TNF100, both in the Philippines. Not bad for someone who only picked up ultra running five years ago.

Though running has always been a part of his life, it wasn’t until he decided to run 50 km (31 miles) for charity in 2008 that Jon found his penchant for running far. In the same year, he signed up for the TNF100 in the Philippines and has been running further and faster ever since.

“[One hundred miles] seems to be a natural progression. Just thinking what lies beyond 100 km mark evokes curiosity and gives a primal appeal to it.”

Taking part in such challenges are also a way for the 43 year old lawyer to find out what he’s capable of.

“I don’t think it is all about physical prowess. There must be a spiritual aspect to it,” he offers. “You also get to see more of the beautiful spots or landmarks when doing 100 milers.”

Jon has used his running exploits to give back to the local Filipino ultra community, which is growing exponentially. Since 2011, Jon has been organizing the Clark-Miyamit Falls Trail Ultra (CM50) with 50 miles and 60 km distances. The out-and-back course follows a footpath connecting an old air base to the scenic Miyamit Falls in Pampanga, near Mount Pinatubo, Philippines. The hilly Miyamit had been Jon’s training ground, and one day the idea struck him to share it with others.

“From a measly 50 or so runners in 2011, the race has now attracted, both local and foreign, almost 200 runners in the November 2013 edition and the CM50 (miles) grants 2 qualifying points for UTMB.”

Photo: Rick Gaston

Photo: Rick Gaston

Jonnifer Lacanlale, Philippines
Bighorn 100 miler, Wyoming, USA
5,580 m (18,300 ft) D+
29h 33min 32s; 59th out of 117 finishers
Jon’s top five ultras:
1. Great North Walk 100 Miler, Australia
2. Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, France
3. Hardcore 100 Miles, Philippines
4. The North Face 100, Philippines
        5. Western States Endurance Run

Ever DNF’ed? Yes once because of gastroenteritis.

Favourite quote: “Out of sufferings have emerged the strongest souls; the massive characters are seared with scars.” Kahlil Gibran


 

Andre standing a high four after completing the Grand Slam. Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Andre standing a high four after completing the Grand Slam. Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

For some runners, a single 100 mile race is enough. For Andre Blumberg, even four of them within 10 weeks didn’t hit the mark. To add an extra element to this unthinkable feat, known as the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, Blumberg travelled back and forth from Hong Kong four times, accumulated almost 105,000 km in the air and took only 22 days of annual leave. Impressive, to say the least.

“I landed in the US on a Wednesday to run a 100 miler on the Saturday; I landed back in Hong Kong at 6am, home to shower, in the office at 9am for half a dozen back-to-back meetings… It was brutal but it was truly an epic summer,” he says now with a mixture of relief and accomplishment.

The Grand Slam is so challenging that only 254 runners have achieved it in its 27-year history (some of them, more than once). It starts with the historic Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in Squaw Valley, California. An unusual band of weather made the course uncomfortably hot this year, resulting in a 65 % finisher rate. But Blumberg, ever cautious and with the end goal in mind, soldiered on through the day, crossing the line in 26:37:11 and earning himself the coveted bronze buckle.

He returned less than a month later, this time for the east coast and the Vermont 100 Miler. Statistically the easiest of the quartet, the ups and downs were still relentless. Add to that humid weather and a “no headphone rule” it was the hardest of the lot, he says. But, with another one down, Blumberg was halfway there.

Before he had time to recover, he was off to Leadville, Colorado – the highest of all the races and where his journey almost ended. On his way to the 97 km (60 miles) checkpoint, a glance at the watch and quick mental arithmetic showed he was in danger of missing the cut off – a fact he attributes to an oversubscribed out-and-back course “and that there was no Coke at the aid stations, easy fuel for my degrading stomach at the time”.

Thankfully, a lone pacer came across Blumberg and offered to run him home. Despite his condition, Blumberg hesitated before accepting the offer. A man of extremes, he had imposed another requirement on his Grand Slam goal: no pacers, and certainly no mules, although race rules allow it.

“Ultra running in my view is an individual sport,” he rationalises. “Aside from the physical aspect, the mental side is quite important to finish a 100 mile race. Having a pacer blurs that line substantially… Personally I like to be solely accountable whether I finish or not, and finishing without a pacer is just so much more of an achievement.”

Despite his strict moral boundaries, he allowed himself the company and made it to the checkpoint with minutes to spare. He went on to finish in 29h 28min 36s.

 With a renewed lust for his Grand Slam journey he prepared himself for the crowning moment: Wasatch 100.

“Just 20 days after Leadville: 8,000 m (26,200 ft) of climbing, altitude and rugged trail in parts… The perfect climax,” he says with a wry smile. He finished in 34h 57min 00s – the longest of the lot – but knowing the saga was finally completed.

“Doing the Grand Slam is totally different from competing in an individual race. I always kept the whole series in mind. Finishing a race in itself didn’t mean anything… It was about the journey.”

On the downside, completing in these iconic races as part of the Grand Slam took the sheen off each achievement. Celebration was short lived, his eyes quickly settling in on the next challenge.

“Looking back, I find that a bit sad since celebrating the milestones was very limited. And then all of a sudden it was all over: ten weeks, four races. Boom – all finished…. I wish I could wind back and press the “replay” button and relive the highlights again.”

But in typical Blumberg style, the wheels are already set in motion for his next challenge: the HURT100 miler in Hawaii in January. After that, he will run the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge – a total of 298 km (185 miles) and 14,400 m (47,200 ft) in cumulative elevation over the region’s four long distance trails. Then, to celebrate his 45th birthday in 2015, he’s in the early stages of planning

For Blumberg, it’s all about the mental fortitude, rather than the physical achievements in ultra running.

“Talent is certainly not my forte… It takes a lot of effort for me,” he admits (although his exploits show otherwise). “My mental strength is an asset. There is a narrow line between determination and craziness, and I leave it to the reader to decide.”

Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Andre Blumberg, Hong Kong resident (German)
Grand Slam of Ultra running: Western States 100, the Vermont 100, the Leadville Trail 100 and the Wasatch Front 100
640km (398 miles) ; 22,768m (74,700 ft) D+; 117h 19min 29s

Andre’s top five ultras:
1. 2013 HK4TUC
2. 2012 Northburn 100
3. 2013 Wasatch 100
4. 2012 UTMF
5. 2013 Leadville 100

Ever DNF’ed? Yes. I DNF’ed the TD100 miler in the Philippines in both 2011 and 2012 because, in hindsight, I didn’t want it hard enough. I plan to go back one day and finish it on the podium.

Favourite quote: Dare to dream – what can be imagined can be achieved

By Rachel Jacqueline. This article originally appeared in our Jan/Feb 2014 issue.