Tuesday, 10 October 2017

An epic adventure in the Indian Himalayas ; the Hero MTB Himalayas

12 months ago I moved to Edinburgh, I started a new job to re-focus on my veterinary career. 12 months ago I was told I should let go of any racing aspirations for 2017 to save myself from irreversible nerve damage caused by a vertebral fracture in my lower back. 12 months ago I tried to let go of my dreams and live a more settled and less chaotic crazy life. But as the months passed late last year and the days got darker, my feet got more itchy and my being more restless. Until I stumbled up on this magic race high in the Indian Himalayas which radiated adventure and needed a huge dose of resilience in order to complete. It was exactly what I needed and the race lived up to its reputation in every possible way. The journey to get to the start line working together with my Physio and my coach Rab, getting through the highs and the lows was rewarded with the completion of the Hero MTB Himalayas stage race. Which ended up being so much more than just the icing on the cake.
Final preparations at Edinburgh airport before leaving all familiarity behind
The race organiser Ashish Sood had an ability to connect people in such a way that long life friendships were made and incredible experiences shared they would be treasured for many years to come. Never had I felt more compassion from people I barely knew when things did not go according to plan and never had I felt more supported on the days that my legs could show what they were capable off, by fellow riders. A true family feeling was created.

a tight group was quickly formed
The unpredictability of the course with moving objects in the form of donkeys, cows, children, people, cars, trucks, motorbikes and the possibility of them jumping out at you at any particularly point in time required a focus which could never fade over the 60-90km long days in 30 degrees heat. It added an extra dimension to the race which was adventurous in nature and attracted a certain type of people. I have never raced a race where my brain had to process so many different impressions simultaneously leaving me exhausted at times. The beauty of the mountains, its people, their way of living hidden far away on the rooftop of the world. Magic is a word which sprang to mind so many times whilst racing through the Indian Himalayas.
can never escape from my passion for horses!

Nothing really could have prepared me for how it all ended up unfolding. And although the first 4 days were the hardest days mentally and physically I have had for a long time, the pain and suffering I endured was more than worth the finishers medal I received crossing the finish line on the last stage. It has given me a slightly strange feeling of pride and satisfaction still in need of processing for a few more days to come. 

what was supposed to be an easy 1 hour spin post travel turned into a 4 hour epic with Karen and Lucy

I had been a bit anxious a few days before the trip to India as it had been a long time since I had ventured out by myself to do something this adventurous so far away from anything familiar. But as things always have a way of working out I caught up with fellow veterinarian Lucy Coldwell upon arrival who in turn knew the Ozzie girls, Chrissy, Eve and Karen and it was not long before we had created our own little Himalayan family adding members along the way. It always felt a bit like coming home when you surrounded yourself with like minded people with a similar out look on life.
The beautiful colours of India
In typical Indian style nothing would run on time in the following days and we never really knew what was going on but somehow everything always fell into place. So before we even set off racing, the stories already started to unravel; Lucy lost her bike in her travels which magically appeared early morning at the race hotel. Thomas Engelsgjerd (Norwegian Thomas) his bike broke during travel so he rebuild Ashish’s bike to fit him as best as possible being a good 10cm taller in height than Ashish. It caused for entertainment during the whole race when not much was left of the bike towards the final stages, but this did not seem to slow him down that much! Thomas deserved legendary status for riding an ill fitting bike as well as he did though the brutal stages and coming 2nd overall! Catherine Williamson had trouble locating her luggage and arrived  empty handed 5 minutes before (a last minute added) prologue through the city of Shimlah. Eve’s shocks on her bike were in constant lock down and Karen’s breaks decided to hug the rotars causing the wheels to be stuck. None of these small set backs seemed to faze anyone, almost as if this was part of racing the Hero MTB Himalayas and it would all work out anyway. There was the plan and there was what happened. And no one seemed concerned the two did not match! 

navigating through Indian traffic required skill in itself!

Stage 1; 68km 1700hm

After a lot of anticipation, an awareness ride through town, random interviews with the Indian Television, a brutal prologue of 5 minutes  including riding down slippery steps in the middle of town which no one took seriously, it was finally time to start the first stage of the race. A 67km ride with 1700m of ascend starting with a leisurely untimed 11km out of town before turning into a insanely rough descend which was a warning to the MTB Himalayas virgins for what was to come in the week ahead. 

Before we were allowed to set off the list of riders was called out one by one to tick off who was present. Jersey number one, jersey number two.., jersey number two... last call jersey number two.. all the way up to Jersey number 90. This ended up being a daily ritual which would be repeated at every start of the stage causing for quite a lot of laughs! I will hear the guys voice yelling out the numbers in my sleep for a while to come!!

ready to start!
I felt strong on the first day, happy racing in the top third of the pack with Eve, Chrissy and Rafael soaking up the experience riding solidly but none of us taking it too seriously. I was in a good head space comfortably tackling the climbs and descends, happy to be riding in good company. Some of the single track was brutally gnarly with no space for errors and steep cliffs lurking at us whilst riding over tyre wide single trail. I was loving it riding better technically than I had done for a long time!
Most of the technical riding was conquered when somehow I managed to ride my front wheel of a narrow concrete ledge and summersaulted into a rocky ravine. I hit the sharp rocks hard and heard Eve screaming who was riding behind me. “I am ok, I am ok!” I yelled back checking all my limbs which seemed to be all in one piece albeit badly bruised and scratched. I was leaning against the vertical face hanging on for dear life to my bike. When I looked below an angry river was a long way down waiting to swallow me! I was lucky I was not on my own and with the help of 3 people I climbed back up to safety. 

some real sketchy downhill with slippery steps and drops

 I had hit the rocks hard but all I wanted was to continue, to keep going, I was worried that if I would sit down, I would not be able to get up again. I could hear the voices of Eve and Chrissy as if they were miles away whilst they were standing right next to me. And I could not see clearly. My vision would come in and out like a zoom on a photo camera. “I am ok, I am ok” I kept on repeating, “lets keep on riding” I mumbled checking if my bike was still functional. I recognised my own state of overdrive which I turned to when things went wrong. “just keep moving forward” the survival mechanism I was accustomed to. The rest of the stage turned into a bit of a blur as I was fighting dizziness, head aches, the heat, and my legs seemed powerless. I reluctantly watched the girls ride away from me on the final 17km climb. I did not expect having to dig this deep so early in the race and when I finally reached the finish line I nearly collapsed. Not a good start. Lucy forced me to get nutrition down and everyone showed concern. It felt really nice to have such a solid support network around me. Corinne the Physio at the camp fixed my wounds and I felt as good as new crawling into my tent that night. Or so I made myself believe! 

we ended up riding part of the course on our pre race spin

Stage 2; 90km 2100hm
woke up a couple of times through the night feeling very nauseas and struggled eating any food at breakfast. I was not the only one not feeling 100% as Lucy’s stomach had also been in protest and she stood on the start line loaded up with imodium. I decided to ride as easy as I could and stuck early on with the lovely Marketta from the Czech Republic (but living in Spain). I was feeling very average which did not improve by a short detour after we  manage to miss one of the arrows! But I was in entertaining company the whole day so it was just a matter of ticking of the km’s. The climbs were brutally hot and rough and the descents needing 100% focus to survive them in one piece. The technical stuff did excite me, putting in practice all I learned of Rab over the last 12 months and I managed to stay on the bike when other people jumped off and walked. It was a buzzing feeling.  I realised on stage 2 I had never done anything quite this extreme, dodging honking car’s on the fast down hills and avoiding frontal collisions with random cows showing up out of nowhere. It was an adventure in every possible way!

Some of the best single track I ever ridden
My head did not seem to be 100% and I went through stages where my vision got so blurred everything would go black. I could not stomach any of the gels taking up all the space in my jersey pockets and I tried to consume as much water as I possibly could to stay hydrated but I reached the camp site completely and utterly empty which got me really worried.
I realised my tumble of the ledge into the ravine had caused some sort of shut down in my body causing severe headaches, dizziness and nausea with a lack power in my legs. It did seem to come and go however and I wanted to race so badly that I decided I would just keep riding and hope for the best. It was easy to let go of all what went wrong during the day at camp post race when we were consuming loads of good food chatting away in great company. 
Barefoot guy

As the race went on we were getting to know some of the legends of this race. There was a guy nicknamed "barefoot guy" as he rode barefeet and not only that, before setting off from Shimlah he had already 2100km in his legs riding to the start all the way from Sangli. Barefoot guy had raced 12 editions of the Hero MTB Himalayas giving him proper legendary status and being as modest as they come not really aware of the magnitude of his own inner strength being able to do this.Another rider who was not aware she was making history was the lovely Indian rider Poonam Rana, the first Indian female ever participating in the race, setting a great example showing what females are capable off in a man dominated society. She absolutely kicked ass! 
Stage 3; 77km 3100hm

Jersey number 37A, Jersey number 37B...

I don’t think I have ever reached the lows I reached mentally on stage 3. The race started with a 45km long climb to an altitude over 3000m. There was no hiding from anything on this course. After the first 5kms I already managed to vomit up my breakfast and nothing I ate or drank stayed down. Looking back I should have pulled out and that thought entered my brain almost every km of the way but stubbornly I refused. My body had nothing to give, it was in a state of shutdown and I was fighting it every step and every move.  When I got lost with 15kms of climbing to go, adding another 10km climb I mentally broke in a million pieces. I knew I was now so far back, it was just me against the course. And so I battled on, getting off and on the bike, crawling up the massive mountain counting down the meters (kms were too long in my mind). The altitude cooled my broken body and at times I felt a little better making up a bit of ground. But no nutrition would stay in my stomach and I knew that this was an extremely bad thing. When I finally reached the top, I felt a bit more positive that I made it this far. I picked up the pace a little on the descend. But it turned into what seemed like hours of bone shaking rough gravel road slaloming through traffic who would seem to have it in for you. I felt like I was in a pacman game having to avoid the big gaping mouths of upcoming traffic. And as the kms disappeared underneath me during this brutal stage, I faded every second into a deeper state of fatigue. I reached one of the last feed stations and asked how far I had to go, “10kms” I was told. “only 2kms uphill” and then down. I could do that I thought. I looked at my watch and calculated that I should reach camp after 8 hours of riding. How I managed to ride the last 10kms in over two hours I really do not know. Suddenly my brain stopped functioning and I could simply not ride my bike anymore, I kept on jumping off the bike and walking. If you could even call it that. I simply lost the strength to turn over the pedals. I started talking to myself “keep moving, keep moving” “one foot in front of the other” I was walking as if I was drunk not being able to focus on going in a straight line wobbling all over the place. Every now and then I improved again and could ride for a few meters but this 10km was the longest 10km I had ever ridden. I lost the ability to react to the traffic and I thought I would actually get hit but somehow felt I could do nothing about that. I would try and stare the driver into submission which did seem to work.
Endlessly long climbs
Then suddenly it got dark and I could not control the panic arising in my head. I could not spot a camp site near by even though I had to be close. It was now getting too dangerous to ride so I tried to make myself visible to the traffic by yelling and jumping up and down like a possessed person whenever a car or truck headed towards me. I stopped to ask some of the locals if I was heading the right way since I could not spot the white arrows on the road anymore, and within a few seconds I was surrounded by what felt like a thousand men staring at me. I panicked and possibly hit one of the guys trying to get out of the way. I started to cry almost uncontrollably, imagining the men chasing me down like a witch hunt. My imagination got the better of me. I could hear laughter all around me as if I was in some kind of horror movie. I had visions of disappearing deep in to the Indian Himalayas never to be found EVER again. And as I sobbed my way down the hill (now back on the bike) suddenly it appeared in front of me, out of nowhere. The campsite. People surrounding me when I stopped. I was asked my race number. I had to sign in. All the normal routine things I had to do for the last 3 days and it had a strange calming effect on me! The organisers were worried, asking me if I needed medical help, asking me what was wrong. But I could not talk just cry, out of relief that I was safe, and out of absolute fatigue. All my fears of the day rolled down my face in the form of tears. And then Chrissy and Eve appeared followed by Lucy and `Catherine all showing concern and worry. I was hugged warm by Frederic. I was given hot water, warm clothes and food. After a day of hell in solitude I was surrounded again by a bunch of truly remarkable people around me cracking jokes to cheer me up and making me feel like a hero. It was overwhelming how special this felt.
local stray dogs making himself at home in Norwegian Thomasses tent
Lucky we had a rest day after stage 3 which was spent doing absolutely nothing. The camp was situated next to a beautiful small village in the middle of the mountain and we went to a local school to promote cycling which was a nice break from the race routine. I felt pretty broken and the thought of 5 more stages ahead was a little difficult to bare so I tried to live in the moment and not think about the days to come.

Dancing with the local school children

Stage 4 90km 2100hm

In the morning of stage 4 I could not eat any food, I was really worried about the day ahead and did not know if I could mentally pull myself through another day of physically feeling so broken. Trying to fight back my tears it was Karen who very kindly simplified my thoughts for me. I knew that if I did not start I would feel worse than the physical battle to the finish line would make me feel. Not riding would cause me more pain than riding so I lined up. Mentally prepared for a long day on my own. I even packed a head torch and borrowed Karen's camel bag so I was well prepared for the worst case scenario. I cant emphasise enough how friendly and supportive everybody was, people going out of their way to make me feel better which was very much appreciated! 
The stage started with another long steep climb but to my excitement I found myself in a little group of Portuguese riders and found a bit of power in my body. It was an awesome feeling which put me immediately in a good frame of mind and I could actually enjoy the scenery and riding my bike. 
The mosts spectacular views I have ever witnessed 
It was nice to be able to take in my surroundings and I appreciated how much work the race organisers must have put in designing this course for us. We were taken through such cool little streets at the back of villages including steps and rocky single trail making every km of the race interesting. We were cheered on by local children high fiving us along the way. I was determined never to miss a white arrow painted on the roads ever again which directed us through the crazy Indian wilderness!! At the last feed station I decided to cool off a little with the dizziness and nausea returning and sat down until I could see and focus properly again. I still could not manage much more than small zips of water but I spotted a toasted cheese sandwich at the feed station and forced one down which made me feel instantly better. The last part of stage 4 I really enjoyed riding. My legs had returned and I was smashing the cool single track through the forest which made me finish stage 4 on a high with something left in the tank. I reached camp very happy, hoping I had turned the corner.

Discussing the adventures of the day with the lovely Marketta

Stage 5 and 6 (92km, 2000hm and 57km 1700hm)

In stages 5 and 6 I started to trust my body a bit more that it would not fall apart like it had in the earlier stages. I still could not eat any food during the stages but I tried to eat as much as I could before and after the races. Stage 5 will be remembered for an evil hike your bike section in the final 9kms making it one of the more brutally long stages of the week. But finishing at a University campus meant there was ice cream! Stage 6 was called heaven’s ridge. It included another 35km long climb at high altitude with such beautiful exposed views which I will remember for ever. I rode a big part of the course with Eve which was really nice. Although it was a tough hot stage, the scenery was like chicken soup for the soul and I felt a little bit stronger once again which added to my confidence. The campsite after stage 6 was located in a quirky beautiful little mountain village with a spectacular clear blue river running through it known for its trout. Ashish took us on a little ride along the river side  which was breathtakingly beautiful. This was followed by drinking real local masala tea, eating momo’s and spicy ginger soup and soaking up the spirit of the village. The peacefulness and tranquility of our post race stroll was rudely swapped for an all night local festival which played loud Indian music till deep into the morning hours. 

A relaxing post stage ride with Ashish, Cory and Lucy

although noisy camp 6 was my favourite camp site of all

Stage 7 ; 90km 2100hm
Although I lined up at the start line with may be 2-3 hours of sleep in my body this ended up my favourite stage of all. It was a truly special day. For the first time since crashing on day 1 I almost felt normal. “Strong Nienke is back” Marketta laughed as we formed a little group and motored up the first climb. The course took us high into the mountains once again, following donkey trails passing the most remote little farms with endless views. Part of the challenge today was avoiding collisions with the donkeys going up the trails, groups of goats, cows and locals walking up with big packs of grass on their backs preparing for winter. I rode with Chrissy and Eve the whole day and it was just magic cruising down the endless descents together. I was in my happy place and felt I had so much more to give if I wanted to but after all the battles during the week I was perfectly comfortable just riding my bike and enjoying every minute of it with the girls. 

Chicken soup for the soul
beating the heat together with Chrissy 

Stage 8; 57km 1700hm

It was a strange sensation lining up on the start for the last time. I knew now that unless my bike would fall apart I was going to make it to the finish line and this made me very happy. Chrissy and I made a pact to ride together and I am so happy we did because the last stage was another brutal one. It was incredibly hot and the long endless climbs were replaced for shorter really steep climbs which followed one after the other, after the other after the other. I was an angry person on stage 8 and I probably have never sworn so much in one day. Physically I was fine but mentally I had reached my limit and I wanted it to be over. It was really nice to have Chrissy with me as we reached low points at different times of the stage and pushed each other through it. There was a 5km steep rough gravel climb which had no real purpose and caused a bit of an anti-climax at the finish line. Chrissy and I felt a bit empty, took a few pictures and decided to find the race hotel which was still about 8kms away. For someone who ALWAYS gets lost, I am proud to say that Chrissy and I were the only riders who managed to find the hotel without too much trouble!

Chrissy and I at the finish 

And then it was over. Just like that. I was utterly broken, physically and mentally I had nothing more to give. What a journey it had been. I will remember this trip for so many different reasons for many many years to come and I hold a special place in my heart for all the people I shared this experience with. A huge thanks to Ashish and the organisers for organising what almost seemed the impossible and doing such a good job in creating a family feeling amongst all riders. The food was incredible and somehow everything always ended up working out. I would highly recommend this race for anyone who is in for an adventure, it is one for the bucket list for sure and you will come home a so much more richer human being than you were before. To repeat so well what was said in one of the Hero MTB Himalaya promo video's "the end of one of adventure is only the beginning of another"A huge thanks to everyone who made this happen for me, it has been an incredible journey which will be difficult to match in future!

"you must face annihilation over and over again to find what is indestructible in yourself" Pema Chodron

Nothing is ever uneventful in India, after 14hrs taxi drive back with American Thomas and a few of the organisers, which included a delicious local Indian breakfast Ashish was kind enough to offer his house for a shower and some relaxation before jumping on a plane home


  1. This is beautifully written. Thanks for such a lovely post. Even I'm gonna remember this trip throughout my life.