Being awoken by your alarm at 4am after a restless sleep isn't a welcoming start to the morning but the brain was already mentally focused on the challenge ahead and there was no time to complain about the lack of sleep.
The rustling activity of athletes beginning to rise could be heard across the camp site and so begins the ritual. Within 2 hours gear must be packed, breakfast had, legs and back taped up, several toilet stops had, running pack repacked and checked and constant wonderings whether we had prepared well enough for the event.
As I eventually poked my head out of my head my weary eyes were soon glancing upon glorious mist hovering above the river and dancing amongst the mountains in the distance. It was a glorious sight and only the beginning of the natural jewels of Bhutan that we would bear witness to.
Soon we headed back to the Punakha Dzong for the official opening ceremony and what an emotional start to the day it was.
As we arrived at the Dzong we were greeted by the smiling faces and cheers of about 200 local students dressed in their sports attire. As we made our way across the bridge, students created a tunnel for us and the cheering and entrance was like being at an Olympic ceremony. You could feel the buzz in the air, the energy and the enthusiasm of the students wash over you and fill your body with an exhilaration and delirium. Am I really here experiencing this?
The students proceeded to sing the Bhutanese Anthem for us in voices that rose to the skies and filled our ears and hearts with a subdued eeriness. It was magical and unique and of course tears were brimming at my eyes. I took a deep breath and a moment to reflect on the privilege of being here to experience such a special gift from a very kind group of people.
We were also honored to have been blessed by the Lama of the monastery. Clad in his red robes, head down he chanted a blessing for us all.......I could only imagine it was to keep us safe, to journey with happiness in one's heart and to be one with the nature.
At 8am stop watches were started and feet began pounding the road.....we were off and the first stage of the race had began. We were all smiling and joyous to get started, the legs felt a little foreign but it wasn't long before they warmed up and we realised what we were in for.
During this stage we would cross the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan and yes it was long and a little shaky under foot. But it was beautiful, especially as we ran toward it, we could see the bridge adorned with colourful prayer flags, whispering their good fortune to us as the wind blew amongst them. Prayer flags were to be seen as we ran every where in Bhutan but particularly near a monastery. Seeing these flags sprawled across bridges, mountains cliffs and valleys was like spotting a rainbow after the rain and each time they brought smiles to our faces and refocused our mental and spiritual energies within.
It wasn't long before we were climbing the mountain sides and thrust amongst the towering vegetation and the gasping breaths that escaped our chests were evidence of the rapid gain in altitude.
I was beginning to feel light headed and my heart rate was much higher than it should have been and it wasn't due to over exertion.......I was beginning to feel the affects of the altitude. Having suffered from altitude sickness, I knew this would be my demon in this race. I had to climb it slow and easy......
We were mesmerised by the hovering mist and the ancient religious monuments that adorned the landscape and the local fair of horses, cattle and locals that shared the trails with us.
We enjoyed staying at the monastery for the night, a privilege very few people have the honor to experience. As we hang our clothes to dry, stretched and rehydrated in the grounds of the monastery, monks clad in red robes wandered about doing their daily rituals and marveled at the sight they saw of athletes of all walks of life sprawled across the lawns around them. Again the meal was prepared by the attentive and courteous locals, we also had the privilege of attending the evening chanting ceremony with the monks. As we sat crossed leg for 45 minutes we witnessed the bellow tones and chants of monks from the ages of 6 and above. The beating of the drums evoked an awareness within and we were soon engulfed in the sea of meditation and chanting, a moving and unforgetable experience.
This adventure wasn't just about the running, it was about being immersed within the culture on so many levels and having the honor and privilege to participate in special events that very few people have the opportunity to so so.
Stage one was definitely a challenge and it was time to try and get some sleep for another early start. As I closed my eyes, I could feel the magic of Bhutan and it's aspirations of happiness begin to fill every pore of my body...........