(First published in the Birmingham Track Club Newsletter, May 2013)
Twenty hours of driving over rough, mostly mountain, roads delivered me to Jhamtse Gatsal. I was disheveled, a bit disoriented (altitude combined with weariness), and nearly desperate to escape the jeep’s backseat. Despite my rumpled state, my first steps into this “Garden of Compassion” brought me face to face with every one of its children and staff members. Each greeted my wife and me while welcome scarves (khadas) were placed around our necks. Reaching the end of the line, I stopped and took my first real look around.
Where, I wondered, would I run?
It was a stupid question. There was only one option: the road. The same road we had taken to get there. The partially paved, constantly potholed, frequently rim-deep-in-mud road. The byway used by motorists, cows, horses, goats, and an occasional pedestrian. In twenty hours of driving, I had not seen a single runner.
Nonetheless, 5:00 the next morning found me talking to my GPS-equipped watch. “Come on, you can do it,” I chided. “Find the satellite. Find the satellite!” I really wanted to map this run. How often do you get proof that you ran in the Himalayan Mountains? With a cheery chirp, my watch said, “Go!” I obeyed, and in fewer than a dozen steps I thought I might die.
At this point, I should mention that Jhamtse Gatsal is located at an elevation of 6700+ feet. The elevation was saying, “Good morning!” and I was feeling woozy. Was I dizzy because I was gasping for breath, or because the land dropped off to my right? I began to question the wisdom of carving a road into the side of a cliff. Within a few more steps, the dizziness passed, and I continued running. Slowly. Very slowly, which gave my mind time to wander.
I should run on the right side of the road because driving is reversed in India, right? Wait, that won’t work. The cliff’s drop-off is constantly in my peripheral vision, and that makes me dizzy. Guess I can run on the left. Wait, it’s a single lane road. What difference does it make?
From there my thoughts devolved into the dumb and dumber as the running experience grew more unique.
That cow ahead has impressive horns. Is it okay to run past it? I mean, if I get gored, how far could I get before bleeding out? Oh, and enter a dog. How far can you run with rabies?
I will never complain about hills at home again!
Is my heart going to explode? I think my heart is going to explode. How far can I run…never mind.
Are those…horses? Wow, how cool is that—running with the horses? And, oh yes, a few goats to complete the menagerie. Thankfully we’re lower than the yak tend to roam. Are they aggressive? Has there ever been a yak-runner altercation?
All that in a long, 1.5 mile run.
In my defense, I was coming off two months of serious illness that kept me off the roads. Oh, and did I mention the elevation?
Finally returning to the community, I stood in the road, bent over and gasping. (Standing in the road was generally not a problem. It’s sparsely travelled.) Running at Jhamtse Gatsal would be a challenge, but I was determined.
I set a goal of adding a ½ mile each morning, and reached four miles on my last run there. I wanted to reach five before leaving, but four became acceptable as I realized that the pavement ended two miles up the mountain road. There was no way I was going to run the unpaved, switchback that had at least 8” of mud and was prone to landslides, and I couldn’t bring myself to run past the community on the return. That would mean completing the run going up-mountain (Sorry, uphill is not descriptive enough.), and who needs that kind of misery at the end of a run?
As challenging as it was, it was equally inspiring. When I dared to lift my eyes from the road, mountain waterfalls across the valley moved in slow motion. Clouds formed, shifted, and dissipated below me. A raging river ran its own route through the valley, never letting the altitude slow its momentum. How could you not run when this awaited you?
Though I was there to teach, each morning it felt like I was there to run. I’m so glad I pleaded with my watch to find a satellite almost every morning. I know, it sounds like a platitude, but my mind and spirit found release in the bit of pavement I pounded. The runs expanded my vision, inviting me to accept the gift of nature’s beauty.
I park the car. Pelham’s little and little-known Coker Park stretches in front of me. No cows, no waterfalls, and definitely no yak. However, there is an occasional deer, a flowing creek (at least after recent rain), and once I met a Great Dane while starting a run here.
I sigh. It’s not the Indian Himalayas. It’s not exotic at all. But it’s not void of beauty either.
Come on, I tell myself, find and accept the gift, even here.
My watch finds a satellite and chirps. I run, more aware and more grateful to experience the world, even the familiar parts, mile by mile.
I thought of you recently – and had to laugh – when I saw a banner in Tawang (the 2-hours-away, nearest “big town” to JGCC) advertising an upcoming marathon! Aside from staff, volunteers, and kids on rare occasion, I too have never seen others out running here.
A marathon? Here? Surprising. And cool.
Anyway, if you ever need another excuse to visit, now you have one. 🙂
~ Heather B.
Heather, how fun to hear from you! A marathon in Tawang?!? I am intrigued! I searched online but did not find any info. Any race in that region would be a major challenge! Still, it could be unforgettable!