Monday, September 15, 2008

TR -Bhutan- Part 2

8/31 –9/11/08
Part 2

Now where were we? Oh yes – we had arrived in Thimphu and were eager to meet the other groups of ’guest’ runners. After checking into the hotel and enjoying a morning tea break Khandu informed us that the rest of the day was free until we joined up with the other guests at 3 pm for a bus tour of the marathon course. He asked if he could drive us anywhere. We all agreed that we would like a short drive/tour around Thimphu to get the layout of the city.

As we started our drive around the city Khandu suggested that we drive out to the Motithang Takin Preserve to see Bhutan’s national animal – the Takin that is a cross between a goat and a cow. This became a contentious/sore point for me. One of my chief complaints with the tour and tour agency was the lack of a formal itinerary and lack of information. Because I was expecting a short tour of the city I did not bring my camera. Thankfully Corinna brought her camera and promised to send me some photos of the Takins! After seeing the Takins we drove back into the city and went to the only Italian restaurant in Bhutan for lunch. I ordered a pizza with lots of pepperoni and meat – my 2nd best meal in Bhutan! Thimphu is very small and compact so the tour was short and I decided to go shopping for souvenirs. I had seen a unique Bhutanese musical instrument in the shops in Paro but decided to wait till Thimphu where I expected there would be better selections and prices. Much to my surprise and chagrin I could not find the instruments in Thimphu? I returned to the hotel to meet the other guest runners including an old running friend and fellow Country Club member, Andy, who was also adding another country to his list. Andy and I had just met recently when we ran the Estes Park Marathon - ’the Highest Paved Marathon in the World’. We were curious how this marathon course would compare to Estes Park?

There were 15 guest runners –13 running the marathon and 2 running the Half and 3 spouses who were not running. We loaded onto a bus and began our tour of the course.
Again I didn’t bring a camera because I believed it to be strictly a drive/tour of the course? The course started in downtown Thimphu near the National Stadium (elev. 2320m/7650ft) and climbed gently along the right bank of the Wang Chhu (river). At 7 Km it crossed the Dechencholing Bridge to the left bank (2384m/7867ft) and at 7.9Km the two courses (marathon & Half) diverged. The marathon course began to climb the 1st BAH (Bad Ass Hill) to 2508m/8276ft past some water towers where it turned north and entered a pine forest where there were a series of short BAHs until it reached the Begana Bridge (2510m/8283ft) at 15Km. The course then climbed another BAH through oak forests to a turnaround point near the Cheri Goemba (monastery) at 17.9Km and 2583m/8524ft. We stopped at the monastery for a photo op – except for Maddog who had no camera! The course then looped back over the Begana Bridge and past a large gold-painted petroglyph of Chenrisig on a rock beside the road (again no camera for a photo!).
The course continued to retrace the route back to the BAH at the water tower and down to the bridge at Dechencholing where it rejoined the Half marathon course. It then turned into an army base and passed the Queen Mother’s Palace as it climbed up into the mountains overlooking Thimphu from the west. At 32Km the course climbed the final BAH – 5Km long and reached an elevation of 2480m/8200ft before descending back into the city and the finish line. As the bus chugged/strained up that final BAH I commented to the group that “this hill will be an ‘absolute bitch’ tomorrow”! Andy and I and agreed that the course looked much tougher than Estes Park because of the number of BAHs. I finished Estes Park in 4:13 but felt I was in much better shape for this race so my target remained 4 hrs but I expected to finish between 4:00 and 4:15?

The itinerary called for a pasta dinner and party that evening but again there was a serious lack of information. I had learned my lesson and carried a camera but they neglected to advise us that the party would be held outside? It was cold at 7pm and most runners had not dressed properly so it was difficult to enjoy the wonderful dancers and singers who entertained us with traditional songs and dances. Luckily we moved inside for the pre-race dinner and another nasty surprise! The pasta and rice were served COLD! Now I do admit that I am set/rigid in my pre-race diet requirements. I always-always- eat HOT spaghetti bolognaise and will not deviate from this proven routine! I hate COLD food so I refused to eat any of the pasta dinner. I wanted to leave and go back to the Italian restaurant for ‘real’ food but didn’t want to be rude. So instead I returned to the hotel hungry and ate a power bar for my pre-race dinner and hoped that the huge pizza I ate for lunch would carry me through the race?

Since I was not in a good mood at that point I informed my roommate that if he woke me up (again) in the middle of the night (3am) chomping or nibbling on a power bar I would change his nickname from ‘MadMonk’ to ‘Chipmunk’! Either he got the message or ran out of power bars and I got a full night’s sleep before the race!

The races started at 6:30am but Khandu drove us to the start line at 5:30 so we could enjoy the opening ceremony – a traditional Marchhang ceremony to invoke the deities for the protection and good luck of all runners. Khandu became our ‘de facto’ Sports Manager and promised to follow us around the course so I gave him my back-up camera to take photos along the course. In addition to the 15 ‘guest’ runners there were more than 100 local runners. The races were treated as two separate events. There was no doubt that the locals would kick our butts. The locals did not pay an entry fee (most would not enter if they had to pay) and were eligible for cash awards equivalent to two months salary (paid from the $300 entry fee charged to the guest runners). There were no awards for guests! All we got for our $300 was a race T-shirt and a finisher’s medal and certificate! And the results were kept separate.

The weather was nice at the start- cloudy and temps in the low 50sF. The race started on time and the locals took off like rockets. Also one guest runner took off very fast – a young male runner from Norway? I let him go figuring that the hills and elevation would soon slow him down? I ran with some local and guest runners for the first 7Km. After I crossed the Dechencholing Bridge a young German runner passed me and I decided to let him go also but to keep him in sight. As we started climbing the 1st BAH I was determined to run the entire hill. However as we approached the top of the BAH near the water towers my legs were churning madly but they felt like they were moving in ’slow motion’? I figured I could power walk faster and easier than I was supposedly running!
I was correct but I was also concerned that I was setting a bad precedent very early in the race? We turned on to the side road and entered the pine forest. As I crossed the Benang Bridge over the Wang Chhu at 15Km I met the three local leaders of the race. That meant they had a 6Km lead on me at that point and I knew I would not see them again! I started the climb up the BAH to the turnaround point at Cheri Goemba and was disappointed that I had to start power walking again? As I approached the turn point I met the young Norwegian and then the German runner and timed my split to the turn point. I calculated that the Norwegian had a 6 min lead and the German about 4 minutes. I remembered the distance at that point (17.9Km/11m) and was not concerned because I figured/hoped the hills and elevation would slow them down? The return leg down the BAH and back to the bridge was easy and I was able to haul ass! However once I crossed the bridge I was faced again with the series of short BAHs. The gold – painted petroglyph took my mind off the BAHs and pain for a few minutes and soon I reached a water station – the only station that knew what the distance was – 23.3Km. I looked at my watch – 2:05! A sub 4-hr finish was not looking good because the 2nd Half had a lot of BAHs and elevation change? But I kept on pushing the pace. A few minutes later I heard a loud noise/commotion and a tribe of 20/30 monkeys clamored out of the forest and crossed the road in front of me. I didn’t want to threaten their territory so I stopped immediately and retreated while they crossed the road. A few minutes later I met the MadMonk coming in the opposite direction and hoped that he would have an opportunity to see the monkeys. (He did).

Soon I reached the main road and the top of the BAH at the water towers. I was looking forward to that BAH this time – a 2Km steep descent! I hauled ass hoping that I might close within sight of the youngsters ahead of me. However when I reached the water station where the course rejoined the Half (26.9Km) there was no sign of the youngsters. I realized I would not catch them unless they crashed on the final BAH? I began the climb in to the mountains west of the city and enjoyed some nice views of Thimphu (when I wasn’t grimacing with pain). And finally I reached the section of the course I was dreading – the final BAH that climbed steeply/relentlessly for 5km! It did not take long for my prediction to come true! After 1 Km of climbing/running my legs again felt like they were moving in super slow motion? That BAH was an ‘Absolute Bitch”! I developed a strategy to walk 30 secs/run 2 min and managed to maintain that cycle except for a few very steep sections where it became walk 30 secs/run 30 secs! I was becoming concerned that I might not finish under 4:30 with all the walking that I had to do?

I reached a water station near the top of the BAH. No water! That didn’t upset me as much as the fact that the volunteer had no idea what the distance was or how far it was to the finish line! I needed to know how far it was to the finish line so I could determine how hard I needed to push the pace? I decided to push the pace to the top of that BAH/Absolute Bitch! When I finally crested that BAH a support car came by and gave me a bottle of water. I asked “How far to the finish line”? The answer was useless – “30 minutes”! 30 minutes for whom? I looked at my watch – it was just under 4 hours! If he was correct I would be lucky to finish under 4:30? Maddog screamed at me “That is not acceptable”! I agreed and we decided that I had to push the pace – all out- to the finish line. If I crashed at least I would go down in flames trying! I figured it was 4 or 5Km to the finish line – and all downhill. I hauled ass and soon was pleasantly surprised/rewarded when I made a sharp turn at a large Stupa. I remembered that Stupa was approximately 1 mile from the finish line. I looked at my watch – about 4:05! I was then confident that I could finish under 4:15 and qualify for Boston. That final mile was a very steep downhill so I stretched out my stride and used gravity to fly down that hill. I reached the bottom of that BAH and downtown Thimphu at 4:10 and could see the finish line on the other side of the Wang Chhu! I looked at the bridge. The sidewalk was crowded with pedestrians that would impede my path/speed and there was no traffic control on the bridge. I decided to take a chance and charged down the middle of the traffic lane forcing and trusting cars to avoid me? I made it across the bridge safely and begged the old bod to give me one final jolt of adrenalin so I could sprint up the final, short/steep hill to cross the finish line in 4:13:23!

The youngsters were waiting at the finish line. The Norwegian had finished in 4:01 and the German in 4:08. I was not disappointed – they were half my age and I had finished in 3rd place (among the guest runners). And it turned out that I was the only runner (including the locals) who finished that tough course with a BQ time! I was pleased! I waited at the finish line for the first guest female to finish (from Hong Kong) in 4:33. Then I decided I might as well walk back to the hotel for a long hot shower since the MM would not finish for another two hours. After a much-needed shower I met several of my fellow runners in the hotel lobby. Everyone agreed with my course assessment – it was tough and that last BAH was an ’Absolute Bitch’. Andy and I agreed that it was much tougher than Estes Park but the strange coincidence was that I finished in the exact same time as Estes Park and Andy finished exactly one hour behind me – the same as Estes Park?

Most runners were going to lunch at the hotel but I can’t eat after a race so I walked back to the finish line to wait for the MadMonk. The race director had assigned two teenagers to accompany the MM through the 2nd half and he was in constant contact with the volunteers. When the MM reached the Stupa near the finish I walked backwards on the course to escort him to the finish line. He finished in 6:53:26. He was a very tired puppy – but he had survived! He was the last guest to finish but NOT the last runner. A local couple, Japanese expats living in Bhutan, finished 5 minutes later. The race director, Penjo, called all guests to reassemble at the finish area for the awards ceremony. The cash awards were presented to the local winners and all the guests received a finisher’s medal and certificate.

Everyone returned to the hotel. While MM enjoyed a hot shower Penjo asked Andy and I to meet with him to provide feedback and comments to improve the race. We were glad to do so over a few well-deserved beers. Penjo indicated that he planned to hold two marathons next year. One in the Spring in the Punakha Valley where the elevation is lower and the course would be flatter and then probably repeat the same marathon and course that we ran in the Fall? By that time I was starving since I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hrs. I asked Penjo to perform a miracle and find me a Yak steak. He tried valiantly and called more than a dozen restaurants in Thimphu – but alas no Yak steaks to be had? So he drove me to the Italian restaurant where the owner/chef cooked us a BIG pork chop with potatoes. The BEST meal I ate in Bhutan!

After that great meal I visited several more handicraft shops in the hopes of finding my musical instruments but no luck. I wasn’t concerned since we would return to Paro and I could buy them there. I did find all the other souvenirs I needed so most of my shopping was done. Later that evening Andy’s group invited us to go to the Italian restaurant for dinner. I thought that was a great idea but the rest of my group wanted to go to a small local restaurant for ‘typical’ Bhutanese food- read “veggie’. I don’t know why I agreed because I refused to eat any veggie crap and ordered a dish of chicken with chili peppers. It was spicy but tasty but I really wished I had gone back to the Italian restaurant for ‘real’ food!

The following day most of the groups parted ways and continued on their different tours. We were scheduled to drive to the Punakha Valley. Although it was only 76 Km it was a 3 –hr drive because it was necessary to drive over a pass at Docha Lu (3140m/10,362ft) and then descend to Punakha (1250m/4125ft). We made a short stop at Simtokha to take photos of the Simtokha Dzong built in 1629. Then we began the long drive that was tough on Khandu and scary for his guests! The road is paved but is a narrow, single lane and it can be a scary challenge when you meet another vehicle! Both cars must swerve on to the shoulder and there are no guardrails to prevent a car from plummeting 3000+feet off the sides of the mountains! However in a few hours we safely reached Docha Lu where there was a large array of prayer flags and a collection of 108 chortens built in 2005 to commemorate the loss of life caused by the flushing out of Assamese militants in Southern Bhutan. As usual the chortens were shrouded in rain clouds. A few hours later we had descended safely to Punakha valley and checked into a hotel in Wangdue. Due to the low elevation of Punakha Valley and the warm climate the valley is very fertile and provides two crops of rice and tropical fruit such as oranges and bananas. The scenery was spectacular with terraced rice fields climbing up the sides of the mountains.

After a short rest and lunch we drove up the valley to visit the Punakha Dzong, one of Bhutan’s most impressive dzongs. It sits at the confluence of the Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Pho Chhu (Father River). Punakha was the capital of Bhutan for more than 300 years so the dzong was the seat of government power. After visiting the dzong we were scheduled to visit a monastery that required a short hike. However Corinna was suffering from a sprained ankle and could barely walk and the MM was still exhausted from the marathon so we rebelled and told Khandu that we would take photos from the road! We decided to head back to the hotel to rest, use the Internet and drink beer!

The following morning MD and MM wanted to do a short run so we left the hotel at 6am and headed south on the highway. About 2 Km from the hotel we reached a police checkpoint. MD stopped and explained that he was jogging and wanted to run another 5 km past the checkpoint? The guard looked at him like he was crazy and said, ”OK, have a good day sir”! After turning around I met many kids walking to school. They were very friendly and curious wanting to know where I was from, etc. I really enjoyed talking to the kids! After breakfast we were scheduled to visit our last dzong – the Wangdue Phrodrang Dzong on the edge of Wangdue at the confluence of the Punak Tsang Chhu and the Dang Chhu. But first we asked Khandu to drive us to the Wangdue Elementary School where we would donate our final school supplies. We arrived as the morning assembly was being dismissed and got to talk to a lot of the students. Then we found the principal who gladly accepted our gifts. Needless to say we felt quite pleased/happy with ourselves when we left the school. Then it was on to the dzong. The Wangdue Dzong was built in 1638 and was the most authentic dzong we visited. Most of the architecture and buildings were original. Also we arrived at an opportune time. There were many local Buddhist laymen practicing dances for an upcoming festival in the courtyard and we were invited into a building to watch Bhutanese women rehearsing songs and dances for the festival. And then we were invited into the temple to watch some student Monks performing a ceremony and lastly invited into a classroom where students were being taught.

That was the best visit of a dzong – either because of the above activities or maybe because it was the LAST? By then we were completely dzong’d and temple’d out!
So we headed back to Thimpu and the long scary ride over Docha Lu pass. We arrived in Thimphu in time for lunch – you guessed it – another veggie lunch! However by then I had resolved that I did not want to see or eat any more rice or green veggies for at least 3 months! I refused to eat any more veggies! Instead I ordered a big plate of French Fries – hot, greasy chips made from scratch with fresh potatoes. They were wonderful! The 3rd best meal I ate in Bhutan!

We then continued our drive/journey back to Paro. When we reached Paro I insisted that Khandu drive us to a few handicraft shops so I could buy my musical instruments. I can’t tell you what they were because they are Xmas gifts for our kids and they (hopefully) read these reports. But they will make a great addition to their collection of unique musical instruments from around the world. I also insisted on one more stop – to buy a birthday cake! After we checked into the same hotel Corinna enjoyed a hot stone bath while MD and MM enjoyed a Thai massage before dinner. Then I went to the bar to gorge myself on peanuts and Bhutanese beer knowing that it would be unlikely that I could/would eat any (veggie) dinner! But I did enjoy the birthday cake after we sung Happy Birthday to celebrate Khandu’s 28th birthday!

The next morning I believe Khandu was happy to be finished with his babysitting duties as he dropped us off at the Paro airport for our flights to Bangkok. Since MD and MM had an early flight home the next day we booked a hotel near the airport. Unfortunately it was located in a local/industrial area and the only decent restaurant was at the hotel- a Seafood restaurant. I was really looking forward to a BIG beefsteak but had to enjoy a nice seafood dinner instead. The following morning we started our 32-hr journey home. I arrived in a snowstorm late Thu night! Didn’t sleep much because of jetlag but when I did get up I realized that winter is on its way to the High Country! The Aspens are turning golden and the mountaintops have a fresh dusting of snow – both are signs that it is time to leave Colorado!

We will stay for one more week to close up the house and pack for the long drive to Florida. We must be back in FL by the end of Sept because I plan to leave from FL for my next marathon/adventure in Nicaragua in early Oct!

Stay tuned!

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