Start at the race Hotel, Pokhara Holiday Inn, opposite the airport, at 5:30AM to give you all the maximum number of daylight hours (sunrise 6:50, sunset 17:20); this early start implies that you’ll need your headlight for the first half to three quarters of an hour!
We’ve chosen the quietest route out of the city, which means that we’ll be leaving the airport road at the first crossing, turning West towards the Sarangkot ridge, crossing another bigger intersection until we come to a quiet North going road running parallel to the ridge. We’ll have marshals making sure you’re going to stay on track. Once on this road the route choice is easy: head straight, if in doubt, take the road that follows the ridge, the major choice being at an intersection with a statue where you should head left. From there onwards, just head out of town, cross a side river of the Seti on the way, and head North West until you leave the main road in Hyangja towards the ridge that starts lining the road to the North from here onwards, on a side road that is marked by a big tree. Again, a marshal at the crossing will show the way. Another five hundred meters or so on tarmac before the surface turns into what in local lingo is called a “rough road” and you come to the first drink station.
You’ll have covered around 11 km by now, it is going to be light, and you’ll have worked harder than you might notice because the road has gradually climbed 300 meters. Road runners may profit from this bit of the route, for most trail runners it’ll add to the difficulty of this ultra.
From the drinks station the rough road goes up on a gradient that is going to be runnable for most at this stage of the race. Up into a forest, and when the weather is favourable, very soon the views are glorious. Early on there are two shortcuts, in Nepal shortcuts are always steeper than the longer but easier main trail, up to you to spot them and up to you to take them. For the rest, when in doubt, stay on the main rough road going up, until you come to a sign-boarded turn off up to the eco-village of Astam: don’t take it, continue straight and level (sign). When you come to another road going back up and off steeply to your left, while the road ahead goes down with a house in view, go straight (sign) and then take the road up along the house, not the one veering off and around to the right (sign). Lots of pretty level easy trail here, with great views of the Mardi Khola (river) valley and Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare (Fishtail) towering above the lower ridges. You’ll get a first glimpse to the other side of the ridge too, with Naudanda in the distance on the next ridge South that is between you and Pokhara lake. The 100k runners will return via that village to the lake. Stay on the jeep road until it makes a sharp left turn with an old smaller trail going straight and immediately right and up (stairs): the old trail to Dhampus. We’ll sign this turn off but if we mess up or you miss it, don’t worry, the rough road will bring you to exactly the same spot: the entrance to Dhampus. When you are on the old village trail, which has a couple of steeper climbs in it and is the first bit of typical Annapurna region stone steps trail of the route, take the level trail to the right when the steep straight trail goes up to a small temple (sign), and then take the left trail up at a chautara (resting platform for porters) (sign) which brings you to a small pond. Here the rough road comes in from the left and hits the jeep road coming up from the valley at the other side of the ridge. Follow that jeep road up and to the right into Dhampus village where the second drinks station is located.
You’ll veer off into the village, cross the jeep road again, continuing on the old trail (up, sign), until you hit the jeep road again. Follow it and stay on the upper one until it peters out in upper Dhampus and turns into a forest trail. The character of the run now changes considerably. You’re in for a fair bit of climbing through wonderful forest, passing a couple of clearings, follow the signs pointing towards Pitam Deurali, and when there is no sign and you’re in doubt, take the trail staying on the right side of the ridge. You’ll climb to Pothana first, a small village on a pass, then on to Pitam Deurali, from where the trail descends steeply to Bhichok where it emerges from the forest and hits village area. The views are now all the time onto different valleys and Annapurna South dominates the horizon, very much close up. From here it is gradually down to the larger villages of first Tolka and then Landrung. When in Landrung, continue all the way down the village until the lowest part where the third drinks station is located at the spot where the trail to Ghandrung drops down to the river.
The descent to the Modi Khola is steep but not very long (300 something meters), the ascent to Ghandrung however, is as steep and a lot longer (600 something to the fourth drinks station). The reality of this ultra trail will dawn on you latest in this stretch of less than 4km. The drinks station is also the turnaround point for the 50k runners. They will have seen a sign pointing left towards Birethanti earlier, but the route (sign) requires another 700 meters (and approx. 150 climbing) to the start of the village, hitting the actual return trail (with a railing along it) just before the village gate. From the fourth drinks station the 50k runners will return on their steps taking this straight forward 10k trail down along the Modi Khola river valley to the finish at Birethanti.
For those who want to do the 70km, the cut-off time for leaving Ghandrung is 13:00 hours, giving runners 7:30 hours from the start. This cut-off time is set so as to allow runners to at least reach Ghorepani by daylight. For most this implies a descent of at least 4 hours to Bhirethanti. There is also a cut-off time for 100km runners in Birethanti and you’ll have to pass Ghandrung around 12:00 to be able to make that time.
The 70k and 100k runners continue up through Ghandrung village on stone steps. We’ll try to sign the trail to Tadapani but make sure to ask whenever in doubt! The two major directions out of the village are a level trail North towards Kyumnu, a couple of houses on a pass on the ridge between Ghandrung and the Annapurna range, and the trail up into the forest to the West towards Tadapani. Watch for the Kyumnu trail in the distance so you know what not to take. There is one steep staircase to the left that is not the correct trail, but in general up and left is the way to go. When you hit a forest trail T-crossing with the left hand bit coming in from above and continuing down to the right and signed Ghandrung, go up and left and leave all worries about where to go behind. From now onwards it’s a steep ascent on a small trail, lots of it along a little river, until a lodge in the middle of the forest called Baisi Kharka (buffalo pasture). From here the trail levels of and enters beautiful old growth forest. Many my age who have read the lord of the rings before the films hit the screen will feel they enter their imagination of a middle earth forest. Just follow the trail until you come to Tadapani, just before the village a trail veers off to the left and up. Take the right trail that enters the village from below and to the fifth drinks station. Tadapani is on a saddle in the ridge with a grandiose view across old growth Rhododendron forest towards Annapurna South and Machhepuchhare.
From here you descend the saddle steeply into an inner valley (approx. 250m down) and then steeply up the other side to the first lodge of Banthanti. From here, looking back where you came from, you can see Annapurna South through the Tadapani opening in the ridge to the North. If you look to the South you’ll see a wild forested valley joining another valley lower down, with a larger village on the opposite side of that other valley. This is Ulleri, and you’ll run through a couple of hours and many positive and negative altitude meters later. From Bhanthanti, the trail levels off a bit at first, passes another lodge and enters and follows a river gorge up, and at the end steeply up (the first part on a stair case with a railing) until you reach the first lodge of Deurali, then the second and soon after an undulating ridge with views to the North and the South through the stunted Rhododendron trees. You are now at the highest point of the run and stay there for about a kilometre. The ridge then opens up and you descend to a dilapidated house next to a chautara with the same view as the famous Poon Hill view point (which you can see from here – look for a denuded hill top with a view tower on top of it, a bit to the West). Ghorepani with its blue roofs is also visible below. From here follow the heavily eroded trail downwards in the direction of Ghorepani until you come to another clearing with a chautara. Here, take the stone steps going straight down to the right (sign), don’t continue on the trail that keeps following the ridge towards Poon Hill! Once on the downhill trail you’ll emerge without any chance of getting lost in Ghorepani and the sixth drinks station.
The 100km runners are now just beyond midway. The trail from here to the 70k finishing village of Birethanti is one long downhill, without much chance of losing the way. The first stretch is on a rocky trail, interspersed with bit of forest floor with roots. Quite technical, requiring constant attention, but not that steep. Some shady sections are always wet and thus slippery, requiring even more care. If we’re unlucky and get rain, lots and lots of the trail is going to slippery which will increase the difficulty exponentially….
When you hit the seventh drinks station in Banthanti (another one…) the character of the descent changes into more gradual village paths, nearly all paved/steps, all the way to Ulleri and its endless, very steep and uneven staircase down to the suspension bridge at Tirkedhunga. When you’ve made it this far, your legs are bound to be a bit wobbly, but the steep sections are now all behind you. From here to the eighth drinks station at Sudame, and on to the finish of the 70k at Birethanti the gradually descending trail (in Nepal that never excludes the occasional uphill – beware…) follows the river. Stay at the side you’re on, and when in doubt, don’t worry, when there is a route choice they tend to come back together eventually. Try to enjoy the river hugging trail, especially a bit lower down you enter a different ecological zone and thus a very different landscape from what you’ve crossed just an hour or two ago. By now you’re feet and ankles will have increasing trouble with the rocky bits of trail make sure you stay focused. The very last couple of kilometres before Birethanti are a blundering infrastructural mess, formerly known as a jeep road, now mostly reduced to dodgy single track. This is what happens to brain dead human schemes that disregard the mountain. Then you enter Birethanti, continue to the end of the village and see the finish of the 50k and 70k, and the ninth drink station for the 100k.
For those who do the 100k, the cut-off time for leaving Birethanti is going to be 20:00 hours, 14.5 hours from the start.
Nearly all 100k runners, will leave Birethanti just before night fall or after dark. The first two kilometres to the main road are still on a rough track, following the river. Marshals will point you to the shortcuts. Once on the main road the going is straight forward, but……:
We’ll have no more drinks stations on this bit, but lots of mobile support (motor bikes and a couple of cars). At Naudanda you’ll leave the pitch road for a rough road, continuing on the ridge rather than descending to the river vally to the North. Soon after Naudanda you’ll take a rough road going down to the Southeast, hitting the valley floor at Pame, continuing left on rough road towards Pokhara’s lakeside. The last couple of kilometres are tarmac again, to and along the famous tourist strip and back to the finish at the race hotel. The turn offs in and beyond Naudanda, and two places along lakeside where your absent brain may get confused will have marshals to point you in the right direction.
Congrats! You’ve made and finished a historic edition of the Annapurna100!