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Rewriting our stories: running in uncertain times

An ultrarunner and veterinarian, Kirra Balmanno is no stranger to challenges or unpredictability. But 2020 was a new kind of test for all of us. She shares how lessons learned at high altitude can help us all to adapt to uncertainty. 

 

By Kirra Balmanno 

 

Time is a fantastical concept in Nepal, especially when caught up in the beauty of the Himalayas, among the highest mountains of them all. Where the only clock to beat is the one that gently disappears behind the peaks each evening, giving the mountains a surreal glow. No matter how great the hunger for momos and ginger lemon honey tea may be, you cannot help but stop for a moment and take it all in. Nepalese sunsets: deliciousness for the eyes. 

 

At least that’s how I imagined to be witnessing sunsets at the beginning of 2020, when On handed over the briefing for my next project: running through the Mustang district of Nepal. A region aptly referred to as “The Last Forbidden Kingdom,” rich in caves and myth, sparse in oxygen molecules and steeped in undisturbed Tibetan Buddhist culture. Ancient monasteries spark the imaginations of the 1000 visitors that are permitted to enter the region each year. Legends of endurance-heightened Lung-gom-pa monks running across high alpine deserts are told in these parts, along with tales of mythical creatures such as the yeti and snow leopard.

   

 

Each year, a flock of adventure-hungry trail runners gather in the village of Kagbeni to begin an eight-day quest through the trans-himalayan region bordering Tibet – the Mustang Trail Race. I had planned to take part in the race, after skipping the light-plane commute on Yeti Air and instead running the 100(ish) kilometers upstream of the Kali Gandaki river and into the Muktinath valley to reach the start line. 

 

Why? The age-old question that we who identify as runners are so often asked. Because the transcendence I find through discomfort is a little obsession of mine I suppose. Or perhaps the cognitive bias of the Peak-End theory – that experiences are remembered only by how they are felt at their peak –  is impacting the accuracy of my memory, allowing myself to forget how cold and hard it really is to run hundreds of kilometers at altitudes up to 6000 meters. All I remember is the sense of freedom that running high up in the Himalayas brings. Where time is an illusory construct, much like the general tenor of 2020. 

 

So, there I was, on the Sunshine Coast of Australia, with bags packed and fresh Cloudventures shined for the Magical Himalayas. Flights had been booked for a yearlong collection of exciting races and exotic places. The most “planned” year I’d had since 2016 when I left Oz and embarked on some unintentionally spiritual/nomadic journey that found me searching for green dots on rocks in the mountains of Al Hajar and throwing up behind bushes in the Caucasus between exploring every nook and cranny of single trails in the Wallis Alps of Switzerland and using my iPhone as a torch as I ran home in the dark from an Annapurna Base Camp mission (or two). 

 

Then the world seemingly sent us all to our rooms and closed her doors… the pandemic was upon us.

 

2020 has been a challenging year for the global whole. I certainly didn’t tick off many of my penned-in-diary plans, not that it matters in a bigger picture where the supply of ventilators ran so short that we veterinarians were asked to lend ours to help human hospitals. However, it’s been a poignant time for reflection, and I have much to be grateful for, with some incredible mountain running experiences included. So instead of some epic adventure tale about running through the Himalayas, here are my musings about rewriting the story – having a way, losing the way and carving a new way. I hope you can relate, as I think most lives have been shaken up by the lessons of impermanence brought to us by 2020.

 

 

Losing the way:  Drawing on some of the most impactful lessons taken from running long, and often alone, in high mountain ranges around the world. 

 

Gratitude

Grounded yet grateful,my initial reaction to COVID-19 was: “OK! This is how it is. Let’s accept the current situation and figure out a new plan. There are lessons to be found here just as there are when my headlamp dies at Chomrong and I still need to make it back to Nyapul.” My optimistic naivety also had me assuming that it would be no time until the big wide world would be ours to explore again. 

 

I was impressed by my own adaptability, yet my usually concentrated positivity progressively diluted as days turned into weeks then months. Regularly pulling my mind away from mountain-dreamland and back to the present moment became tiresome. I kindly asked my four-legged patients to “sit” and “stay”, yet I was finding it increasingly challenging to do this myself. A serial traveler with a penchant for mountain landscapes and harsher climates, locked in a tropical oasis surrounded by perfect beaches, perfectly tanned abs and plentiful supplies of fresh papaya and coconut yoghurt. Can you imagine? I needed to change the narrative and regain some perspective.

 

 

After an especially busy day at the clinic, I had an impactful phone conversation with my dear friend Ram. Ram lives in Nepal and owns his own trekking company. He has staff to take care of and his business relies on tourists and the Himalayas remaining open to the world. He also usually visits Europe each summer to race ultra marathons because he’s fast – really fast! I recall the first time we met, picking him up from the station in Chamonix and driving together to the start line of the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. I’m pretty sure his left running shoe was held up with duct tape at the time. He came second. 

 

I asked how everything was going in Nepal.  I honestly expected some crushing news. Instead, Ram gave me the most positive answer I had heard since pandemonium began – “We have plenty of farming here so there is an abundance of food. I’m unable to do treks at the moment so I’ve been helping a local charity to bring phones and tablets for education to children in regional areas.” Just as the ripped shoe hadn’t hindered Ram’s performance in an ultra, COVID-19 hadn’t stopped him from doing incredible things when the uncontrollables changed. 

 

This ability to see the positives and make the most of these unexpected circumstances delivered some cogent perspective. I’m not sure if Ram knows how much this little conversation influenced my outlook, but it was a refreshing reminder to remain grateful, control what we can and surrender to the rest.

 

 

The nature of impermanence

In mountain running, sometimes the path ahead is a desolate high alpine pass with little beauty to be seen. However, with a few additional steps and breaths, summits can be reached and the lush, green valleys of blossom-lined trails beyond the peak reveal themselves. If we can accept these dry and high climbs for what they are and all that they bring us – gratitude, growth and stronger glutes – then the descent is not only sweeter, but we live more fully, with the knowledge that the flowing single trail we love so much will indeed lead to another uphill. 

 

Acceptance and appreciation for both the ups and downs, ebbs and flows of the route (and life), free from the cravings of sweet single trails and the aversions of the grinding uphills (or vice versa, if you’re so inclined), can liberate the suffering they otherwise impose. In other words – equanimity.

 

Meditate

Between multi-day stage races encircling some of the highest peaks in the world and tagging base camps in the Himalayas, I had previously invested ten days of my life to sitting in silence and finding similar lessons to endurance running through the techniques of Vipassana meditation. 

 

Last year, somewhere between Innsbruck in Austria and Switzerland’s Engadin Valley, where getting mindful in the mountains meant that sitting still with my thoughts didn’t feel like such a necessity, I lost my daily ritual of meditation. Re-cultivating the practice, in lieu of days on end of long and lonely trails to reach some Zen, has made a significant improvement in my adaptability to the changes that 2020 has delivered. 

 

Metaphorical glaciers: The obstacle is the way

The obstacles we face are often not as literal as crossing a freezing glacial river to get to an overnight destination or sending a chossy scramble to reach the next peak. Ice walls this year have been predominantly of the metaphorical kind, standing between us and our goals. Here’s to figuratively, and in some cases literally, learning to ice climb to advance the actions that initially appear as impediments to action. 

 

Finding flow in nature

In addition to a gateway for a more peaceful perspective, nature immersion has been proven to do all kinds of good for our immune system, like increase levels of Natural Killer (NK) cells that work to eliminate virus-infected cells. Not that we need a scientific excuse for heading into the rainforest to float over tree roots and find our ecstasis on verdant single trail. While back in Oz, I took to laps of the 7k loop of my local botanical gardens in Maroochydore, daily, to inhale fresh air and harness the flow state. 

 

 

Carving a new way

 

On racing during a pandemic

September appeared and I made my way back to the Alps. Via ridgeline crossings in Carinthia and sunrise summits in Zermatt, I boomeranged to Innsbruck right on schedule for the postponed start of the Innsbruck Alpine Trailrun Festival. One hundred and fifteen kilometers of techno and single trails makes for a good time to reflect on racing during a pandemic. I stepped into the sea of buff-masked trail runners, all 1.5 meters apart, blasting some Tay-Tay (that’s between you and me) in my ears before heading out for a Friday night of dancing on the trails that circumnavigate the coolest mountain city under the moon. Underprepared, followed by a little overtrained, wasn't a great recipe for success, but I couldn’t deny my gratitude and excitement for the opportunity to race once again, especially given that “disease” has been a dominant headline of world news for the majority of the year.   

 

Toeing the start line of an ultra is a pretty unique feeling, pandemic or not. You go into it knowing that there will be some deep lows and real highs, but no idea of when or where and how long each wave of emotions will last. The beauty I find in this unique sport is to feel it all and appreciate it for what it is, accepting that change is the only constant and the pain and pleasure are all just experiences, reminding us of what it means to be fully alive.   

 

In a year of so much uncertainty (and so many metaphors), an ultra served as a beautiful reminder to embrace the unknown, find strength through the challenges and showed that it is possible to rewrite our stories and find adventure in the most unexpected of places (and times). 

 

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