PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 April, 2001, 12:00am

Running 160 kilometres (100 miles) at high altitude on the roof of the world is no mean feat for even the fittest young athlete. But when you are 61, officially retired, and were once told not to expect to walk again, never mind run, the challenge enters a new dimension.

The event is billed as the 'world's most beautiful marathon' and some entrants get so high they feel they can reach up and touch a piece of heaven as they trip along the Himalayas. The yearly Mt Everest Marathon above India's tea estates of Darjeeling, where they still make a good cuppa and play re-runs of The Sound Of Music in village cinemas, is part of the 100-mile Himalayan Stage Race and comes on the third stanza of the five-day challenge.

Completing about 32km a day through isolated jungles, pine forests and cheered on by villagers - while yaks, wild ponies or red pandas take a curious peek at the throng - may strike a chord in the hardy band of adventurers who compete each year in early November, but it sounded like the height of folly to me.

The race was better suited to the Von Trapps of this world and, from remarks by American journalist Steve Seaton, who took part a few years ago, the pack wasn't singing Climb Every Mountain as it went along.

Running at 3,700 metres, said Seaton, felt like 'trying to breathe with two small men sitting on your chest'. And that after having to climb out of his sleeping bag to face running in icy conditions before the sun switched on fully. Yet, despite the arduous conditions, Seaton's story had a silver lining: 'Although the marathon part of the race took me double my usual time, who cares? You don't come to the Himalayas for fast times. It was the most memorable race I have ever run, and the most enjoyable.'

Another finisher, 45-year-old American Linda van Tilborg, told how the stunning surroundings kept her going. 'I expected the race to be difficult. But somehow, even when you feel nauseous and tired from running at altitude, the magnificence of the course buoys you up and makes you glad you're up there. I thought I would need supplemental oxygen, but all I was allowed were English tea biscuits, bananas and water. I was exhilarated when I finished the race on my feet. I was greatly encouraged by villagers. Sometimes children ran alongside us.'

I first heard about the race last year and wondered whether I could complete the 100-miler on India's side of the Himalayas. Was I already suffering mountain sickness? After all, a pal of mine had recently been stricken with altitude sickness simply hiking in the Himalayas and had to be carried off the mountain.

Even so, it's far from unprecedented for competitors in their 50s and 60s to complete the Himalayan race. But my re-modelled right leg is five centimetres shorter than my left, courtesy of the double-wheeler bus that ran over me as a five-year-old and put me in hospital for eight major operations. The accident left me pushing myself around on my hands as a child while my leg healed.

When I belatedly set aside cigarettes and alcohol in 1975 and took up running, the imbalance in my legs made it look like I was running on a broken piston. But I had long been accustomed to the problem and was just grateful I still had the leg that doctors had been pondering whether to chop off and replace with an artificial one.

I managed only 300 metres that first day, but subsequently went on to log seven standard marathons, a couple of 56km races, and the 80km 'Comrades', the premier long-distance race in my native South Africa.

Training for the Himalayas, even at 61, obviously has to include plenty of distance running.

Training: My current weekly target is 48km made up of four 8km runs with a longer one of about 16km, gradually increasing both the daily mileage and the longer run to about 40km.

I have been an LSD - long, slow distance - adherent since I started running and picked up my tips from gurus such as aerobics author Ken Cooper, famed New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard and American medical expert Dr George Sheehan. Basically, this means that I believe in 'regular' and 'progressive' exercise. Regular in my case means running five times a week and progressive that the distance should increase gradually. Because of the gradual increases, one has to be patient.

Runners who expect too much, too soon, get injured, their competitive instincts getting the better of them. In the end, your endurance suffers as the resultant injuries mean time off from training.

Whoever invented the 'no pain, no gain' theory must have been high on ego.

Take your time and you'll get where you want eventually, and in my case that's reaching the end of the trail in the Himalayas. In addition, I do a couple of hundred sit-ups and leg-raises in the mornings plus the occasional workout with 10kg dumb-bells.

Nutrition: I opt for low-fat foods, plenty of carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables which I supplement with a protein powder and Vitamin C tablets. Creatine gave me energy, but seemed to tighten my calf muscles, so I chucked it away. I aim at taking in about 3,000 calories a day and focus on food that gives 'slow-release' energy like pasta, rice and baked potatoes.

A journey of a 1,000 miles starts with a single step, says the Chinese proverb, and I have already taken the first few . . .

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