A talent for trail running offers Nepal’s best a shot at a better life, while the country’s potential as a destination drives running tourism.
Story by Richard Bull
“Can I run in the race, sir?” said the young porter to Ramesh Bhattachan. Bhattachan’s recounting is slightly embellished every time, but the outcome is always the same. The young man, Sudip Kulung, delivers his heavy load to Everest Basecamp, hears that a trail race is happening the following day, joins up and duly beats a field of talented local runners to win the first 65-km Everest Ultra.
‘So much potential, so much natural talent. Surely they could be the Kenyans or Ethiopians of trail running!’ As a race organiser in Nepal, I’ve heard many people say something like this about the local running talent. But Kulung’s story sums up the nearly-but-not-quite trajectory of Nepali trail running.
Since that day in 2010, his racing career has been sporadic and relied heavily on natural talent (along with Bhattachan’s coaching), culminating in a second place to star ultrarunner Kilian Jornet at Malaysia’s Kinabalu Climbathon. There Kulung set a record time for the punishingly technical 2,000m descent from the bald summit. But after a number of races, and with a sketchy approach to training, Kulung returned home to work on the family farm to the south of the Everest region. From there he hikes up to run the Everest Marathon every May 29 – more often than not, pocketing the US$1,000 winner’s prize money.
A few years ago, James Hallett, a South African filmmaker, phoned me. He was preparing a funding pitch for a documentary about trail runners in Nepal. He was describing a scene in his mind where the morning sun would be lighting up the mountains, and a group of silhouetted sturdy-legged local runners would be pounding on to the horizon. “Where would best be to film that?” he asked.
In reality, Nepal is a nation of walkers. Tens of thousands of kilometres of trails connect villages and valleys. Though trails are increasingly being bulldozed into basic jeep-able roads, every day the majority of the population walk a reasonable distance in sandals on rough trails. From this, people develop an effortless agility from a very young age. Unless you are watching children playing, running looks out of place here, oddly urgent in a very laidback country. “Why are you running?” people often ask. The filmmaker canned his plan.
Samir Tamang is an elite athlete by any measure. He came second in a Nepali Army race in the eastern hills and was selected for their sports club’s marathon team. He came second to Xavier Thévenard in the 2014 TDS race in Chamonix (a 119-km race in the French Alps with an altitude gain of 7,250 m) and won the 2015 Asia Ultra Skyrunning Championship. Nevertheless he says: “I am from a rural village where the basic concern of the breadwinner is just that, to put bread on the table somehow. People do not usually care about how exactly it is being done as long as it is being done. My family doesn’t really know I am an ultrarunner; they believe I do army tasks only. When I tell them about the races and my achievements, they just say, ‘Ahhh,’ and that is that. They just think that I am doing a stint for the Army while racing; they do not really understand it.” As of writing, he is serving a year as a UN Peacekeeper in Lebanon which has put his hopes to continue competing in the World Skyrunning series on hold.
In a country short of resources, where enormous effort is needed to earn a living, putting energy into sport beyond school years is looked at as frivolous: people don’t understand how it could possibly help them in their daily lives.
Still some persevere. In early 2014, a young woman from the east of the country, Mira Rai, turned up on a Saturday morning at a national park gate expecting to train with two local runners she’d met some days earlier. She had discovered running while serving as a child-soldier for Maoist insurgents and had kept at it after the insurgency ended. The ‘training’ turned out to be a 50-km trail race. Starting in cheap shoes, baggy tracksuit pants and a cotton t-shirt, she ended with a wide smile having discovered that trail running could be a competitive sport.
Rai then won her first international race (and only her third-ever trail race), the Sellaronda 56km in Italy, in a record time – and followed it with another first at the Mont Blanc 80-km ultra in Chamonix, providing a country battered by the April 2015 earthquake with a small piece of positive news that made the front pages. A win in a sport that is still not formally recognised in Nepal became a balm for the nation, and made her a national heroine.
It’s not just Rai’s endurance that makes her special, developed on long days carrying bags of rice to sell at market during her childhood. She has an acute awareness of the need to seize opportunities, with a conscious, vocalised gratitude for every opportunity that comes her way.
In early 2016, she set up a company to organise races and promote running in Nepal, and in March she was honored by the government, receiving a cheque for US$1,000, along with the members of the India-beating U-19 cricket team, for service to the nation. She also met Prince Harry at the British Embassy in Kathmandu at a fancy garden dinner attended by the great and good of Nepal. Among the polished shoes, dry-cleaned suits and saris, Rai sat, grinning brilliantly, dressed head-to-toe in Salomon running kit.
There she showed her joyful ease with people, whether she is talking with the man on the street, or a Royal prince: “Hello Prince Harry, I am Mira Rai from on the mountain. I am looong runner. Nice to meet you!” Her openness and enthusiasm has won her friends and opened doors all over the world.
But she knows too that a running career is a fragile and temporary thing. It keeps her feet firmly on the ground. Seeing Nepal’s celebrated marathon heroes – including Baikuntha Manandhar, three-time gold medallist at the South Asia Games in the 1980s – jobless and poor after their careers slowed, Rai has diligently saved every dollar and euro she’s won and invested in a small piece of farmland together with her brother and sister, where they plan to raise chickens.
While there are still no leagues of runners for the filmmaker to shoot his morning scene with, Rai is now a mountain-running moviestar, with an eponymous film soon to go on tour in the country, funded by its own online viewing sales and support from the country’s largest media group. Local races are popping up and participation is growing with almost 140 men and women running the 10-km and 27-km distances at the Kathmandu Ultra in January.
While the native trail running scene finds its feet, Nepal as a trail running destination is steadily growing too. Co-founder of Trail Running Nepal, Roger Henke explains: “Nepal has a great diversity of stunning mountainscapes, but where else does one find mountainscapes that are inhabited, and offer a low-cost, locally run infrastructure of teahouses and lodges for trekkers and runners? That is truly unique. It allows for endless possibilities of multi-day, even multi-week pedestrian exploration of Himalayan trails shared with local travellers, carrying a minimum of equipment, living off the land, contributing to the local economy, without the need to be particularly rich to do so.”
Compared to other places more commonly associated with trail running, Nepal’s trails are alive, everyday thoroughfares for the rural population. Winding through rhododendrons in bloom turning hillsides red, past tiny homes where plates are endlessly refilled with dal bhat (a stew of pulses, served with rice), on the way to for monasteries where maroon-robed troops of shaven-headed monks invite you for endlessly refilled cups of tea, you meet a nation on the trails: uniformed children on the long walk to school, woodcutters working in the forest, traders selling pots carried from the city, pilgrims en route to temples.
Prince Harry, speaking of why he or anyone else should visit Nepal, said, “. . . Most of all you have to come to meet the Nepali people. I’ve rarely in my life felt so welcomed as I have over the last few days.” He then extended his stay by nearly a week to get into the hills to meet more of them.
For the trail runner, carrying only a light pack and some rupees, Nepal is a challenging theatre of runnable trails that offers a journey as long as the free time you can afford. The main limitation to short trips is altitude. Acclimatisation above 3,000m can’t be rushed. To go deep into the mountains needs a week or more.
For those who don’t want to self-organise, and like the company of like-minded people from around the world, there are numerous multi-day stage races throughout the year, and in 2017 Nepal will host what is almost certainly the toughest trail event on Earth: the Great Himal Race, or “the race you can see from the moon,” as Belgian runner, Wouter Hamelinck, dubbed it. Starting at Kanchenjunga Base Camp in the far east of Nepal, its 45 stages cover 1,800km with 90,000m of elevation gain.
Presenting one of the world’s most gruelling races, together with a fairytale film about Mira Rai, can only help Nepal grow in the imagination of runners around the world. Here trails don’t need to be built, only discovered: it’s a natural choice for any trail lover.
It’s also an opportunity to make a difference. Trail running can also contribute to the economy, especially and most directly in the rural communities that need it most. Some were among those affected by the 2015 earthquakes, many lack basic services that most of the rest of the world takes for granted. AA
Who’s who of Nepal trail running
It was Roger Henke, Director of the Summit Hotel overlooking Kathmandu, who brought the notion of trail running to Nepal.
He likes to cite Jamaica’s success at sprint distances as a model, where a network of school races form a wide-based pyramid from which to find the best the country has to offer. Success in sprinting matters to the country’s citizens, and that status drives participation.
Nepal’s trail running scene is yet to begin building that pyramid. It’s therefore remarkable that an ultrarunner like Mira Rai could just appear on the world stage. A measure of her ability is having twice finished second behind Sweden’s dominant Emelie Forsberg, winner of the Skyrunning World Championships from 2012 to 2015, and beating Forsberg’s record at the Mont Blanc 80km.
Besides Samir Tamang, also profiled here, other runners from the Nepal Army sports club (who are paid to train to win road marathons against the police and other teams) – Bed Sunuwar, Tirtha Tamang and Aite Tamang – have competed successfully on the international stage.
Tamang’s coach, Ramesh Bhattachan, also coached Sudip Kulung (the porter who won the Everest Ultra, shown here). Bhattachan founded the Annapurna 100 race, one of the country’s longest-running ultras, and has supported and coached talented runners at his Gurkha training camp in Pokhara for years.
For civilians, it is much harder to train while trying to earn a living. Upendra Sunuwar recently won the MSIG 50 race in Hong Kong. He is immensely strong, also coming from a portering background, and now makes a living as a mountain guide for running groups. He can be contacted at www.facebook.com/upendra.sunuwar.1?fref=ts
Another trying to put running at the centre of his life is Som Tamang who runs a charity, Take on Nepal, that is developing trail races to help in the post-quake reconstruction of his village, Batase, in the Helambu area. See http://ultratrailnepal.com/ for details.
When to go
The peak season for most tourism is October and November when the monsoon rains disappear leaving lush green landscape with a high chance of clear skies and mountain views. This clarity continues through winter. Though it gets cold at high altitudes, this period, off-season with most trekkers and climbers, is perfect for runners. Spring arrives in late February, when the temperature hits a sweet spot. As it warms up, more haze and clouds form through March and April. May and June are hot, but retreating to higher altitudes reduces the intensity. The end of June ushers in the monsoon which continues until late September. Some enjoy conditions this time of year too: wet, muddy, warm and brilliant green.
How to get there
All international flights come into the capital Kathmandu. There are a wealth of great trails just a taxi ride from the city and a half-day’s jeep ride will get you close to the big peaks. Getting further afield means a long overland journey or a domestic flight. Air travel in Nepal doesn’t have a great safety record, especially in the monsoon months.
What to bring
There’s very little technical running equipment available in Kathmandu. Bring anything critical from home, tested first. You can buy or rent warm clothing and sleeping bags in Kathmandu, with international brands available, and locally made alternatives that are cheap and reasonably good quality.
Hygiene is important. Your first defence is hand sanitizer, used regularly, and always before eating. While people often blame tainted food or water for travellers’ sickness, very likely it is your own dirty hands (from handling money, door handles etc) touching your mouth that causes the memorable 48 hours of misery.
Accessing many parts of Nepal requires a Trekkers Management Information System (TIMS) card, and certain protected areas, such as Annapurna and Manaslu, also require additional permits, and that you travel in a group of two with a trekking guide. This needs a few days’ advanced planning, so check before you go.
http://trailrunningnepal.org has a list of races, guides and some trail suggestions.