There’s many more places to visit and peaks to climb in the Ladakh Range and Karakoram, and as my familiarity with the language and land continues it seems like ever more doors of interest open up. Stay tuned, I will likely be scheduling to lead another trip for 2015, and let me know if you’re interested to have me come through your town with a multi-media show on this area.
Distance runners take note: one of the more scenic and fascinating marathons in the world today is held at the northern tip of India, the Ladakh Marathon. This last September 14 was the third annual celebration of distance running in the Himalayan rainshadow, terrain reminiscent of the Eastern Sierra on steroids. Rimo Expeditions, the event organizer, asked me to be the official photographer this year, so I got an up-close look at the action and the changing faces in this magnificent territory.
The event actually includes four simultaneous races: a half marathon, a 7k fun run, the showcase marathon, and a super challenging ultra: in over 40 miles the the Khardung La Challenge tours up and over a 17,582-foot high pass. We decided to make the marathon the photographic priority, so from before the 6:30am start I spent several hours riding along the 26-mile course on the back of a motorcycle. I also covered the extensive post-race festivities.
High elevation gives this marathon a fitness fascination. The start is at the race’s high point of 11,800 feet (where the air pressure is about 35% less than at sea level), and from there the course heads down, down to the “lowlands” and a breathtaking (in every way) tour through the villages and grand spaces along the Indus River at around 10,500 feet. The course then ramps back up to finish at the city of Leh at 11,150’. This is not extreme elevation, but it’s plenty high so that visiting contestants need to arrive at least a few days ahead of the race to get used to it. Four or five days should give most everyone enough acclimatization to prevent mountain sickness and allow a reasonable performance. Many visiting runners got by with just three days, but their performance must have suffered. Even better performance and more ease would come from doing a trek through the mountains for a week or two at 12-15,000 feet, as after that the marathon elevations feel pretty tame.
Ladakh was an inland kingdom until a few generations ago, and the main town of Leh until recently was a trade, palace, and religious center “in the middle of nowhere,” where caravans of camels and ponies came from far away to barter wares. After 1947 independence the new nation of India barely knew of its trans-Himalayan territories, and even today many or most Indians won’t recognize the word “Ladakh.” The Ladakhi people are of a mixed Tibetan, Persian, and Kashmiri heritage. A majority are Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition, almost half are Muslim, and a small percentage are Christian. Today Leh has a thriving tourism business with daily flights and dozens of guest houses and curio shops, making it reminiscent of Kathmandu 20 years ago. Most of the visitors are European “adventure-backpacker” tourists and Indians looking to experience the farthest reaches of their nation.
This year the four races attracted about 3000 runners, most of them Ladakhi. This evinces an interesting change compared to when I first started going to Ladakh back in the 1980s, when I was fresh out of college. At that time the overwhelming majority of Ladakhis were subsistence villagers. To hard-working families then, any idea of sports and seeking out extra exercise seemed like crazy foolishness. In fact I remember seeing a play where they poked fun at a Ladakhi character who tried to act cool and modern by wearing a sweat suit and faux-jogging around town. Today tourism, government and military work have allowed many Ladakhis to accumulate enough wealth to buy cars and winter homes in warmer parts of India. In Leh very few people still grow their own barley and wheat, though they might have vegetable and flower gardens. And the new generation of Ladakhis runs in the Marathon—especially students, young adults and soldiers, women as much as men—they are excited about it. The Ladakh Marathon has quickly become an avenue for Ladakhis to build new strengths and identities as people who are advancing into the modern world on their own terms, and staying true to their values and important traditions. Look around the globe and you see that it’s quite rare for cultures anywhere to go from village subsistence to modernity without gross disruption of some sort, but Ladakhis are doing it, and their Marathon is a case in point. Any foreign runner will be welcome, and part of any the experience will be seeing an indigenous people working out a positive future. The post-race party featured both a Ladakhi pop band and a traditional dancing troupe, and it was impressive how seamless was the mix between generations.
This year as before all the races were won by Ladakhis, who of course are genetically adapted to high altitude. Most of them train very little. The ones I interviewed typically said they trained for “about 10 days” to “about a month.” The winning times this year were 3:16 by Shaukat Ali for the men, and 4:10 by Sonam Chuskit among the women. There were a decent number of Indians who came up from the lowlands, as well as a few European runners. The fastest Indian lowlander ran the marathon in 4:11, and a Danish woman came in at 5:02, but I think in both cases they had a minimum of acclimatization time. It seems to me that a 3-hour foreign marathoner who acclimatizes with a couple of weeks or more at altitude could give the Ladakhis some stiff competition. But who knows?
Challenging the Ladakhis in the Khardung La race might be another story. The winner there was Shabbir Hussain, who came in at 6:35, barely a minute ahead of Rigzen Norbu. Tsetan Dolker was the fastest woman there, at 8 hours flat. Along all the courses there are numerous refueling/aid stations.
Rimo director Tsewang Motup is highly optimistic about Ladakhis’ future as runners. India does not have a great long distance running tradition, but there are other marathons around the country, and the top Ladakhis are starting to compete in Mumbai and other locations. Tenacity and a likely genetic altitude advantage tell Motup that Ladakhi runners should start aiming to represent India in a future Olympics, perhaps as early as 2020. We’ll see, we’re shopping for some inspired coaching to visit and get a training program going.
For more information check with me, and know that starting next summer I might be organizing a trek timed to cap off a great mountain holiday with the Ladakh Marathon.