Nepal must be the country with the oddest relationship between the availability of spectacularly beautiful trail running terrain, great infrastructure for trail running and the number of runners actually seen on its trails. But maybe that’s a trail runner’s thought in any trail running paradise.
Running is supposed to be the biggest sports craze world-wide. So where are all these people when running here is as good as it gets? However, it may be, Nepal has lots and lots of untapped potential.
This guide will begin with an overview of the trail running scene in Nepal. Next will come recognition of some of the historic trail runs in Nepal and a list of Nepali trail races. The promise of Nepali trail runners is discussed before non-racing trail running options in Nepal are brought to light. The final piece of the article provides tips for Nepal trail running travel. As usual, there’s a call for comments and questions following the article.
Nepal is a country with three distinct ecological zones, the flat extension of the Gangetic plane in the South, the Middle hills and the Central Himalayan chain (including bits that are already part of the Tibetan plateau). Unlike most major mountain areas, the middle hills and the higher elevations are quite populated, home to a dense network of trading trails connecting villages. Many of those villages have turned the traditional custom of offering a bed and board to itinerant merchants into thriving mountain lodges open to everyone.
Increased (jeep) road building is beginning to eat into some of the tourist trekking areas that have emerged on this existing trail infrastructure over the last four decades. That said, the trail running possibilities remain virtually endless!
Apart from being able to run almost anywhere and find accommodation and food (however basic that might be), what makes trail running in Nepal unique are the people and their culture. You get the laughing “Namaste! Namaste!” from groups of small children walking to their distant schools. You negotiate with yaks for space on the trail. Then you take hot sweet tea in a monastery before you finish an evening by the fire in the kitchen of a lodge drinking local chang, the local homebrew.
Has anyone heard of the Crane brothers who crossed the Himalayas from East (Darjeeling) to West (Rawalpindi) in 101 days? OK, they cheated a bit by taking a plane across the Indian-Pakistani border: no other options in 1983. Look for the description of this run, minimally supported with new supplies at only a couple of places, 5-6 kilogram (11-13 pound) packs, and a live-off-the-land approach, in Running the Himalayas, only available second hand.
In 1988, Mary Margaret Goodwin took 90 days to run the breadth of the country. In so doing, she became the first female and the first solo runner to accomplish the feat. She didn’t go completely alone as she took along her dog. She enjoyed the back up support of a trekking agency.
Six years later (1994), two Frenchmen, Bruno Poirier and Paul-Eric Bonneau, were self-sufficient in crossing the country from East to West. The book written about this trek has not yet been published. This crossing was repeated in 2003 by Rosie Swale Pope, who went on to later run around the world.
Another mind boggling achievement deserving mention is Mark Hartell, Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Hawker, Stephen ‘Spyke’ Pyke’s 2007 run from Everest Base camp to Kathmandu in an unbelievable 3 days, 2 hours, 36 minutes.
The recent creation of the Great Himalayan Trail may entice other grand efforts, especially once the planned less alpine version (no longer requiring heavy gear for difficult pass crossings) is completed.
Nepal is home to quite a few trail races, but not many are well-known. The two big exceptions are the pair of Everest marathons. Most races are organized by trekking agents rather than professional race organizers. The events are often marketed by a single trekking agent, although sometimes a couple of Nepal-oriented travel agents tailor events to their particular local market. This often means that the race is only known to the French or British trail running communities, for example.
If you know of other races please let us know! TrailRunningNepal.org is being developed as a portal for up-to-date info on all these races and more, so check that site regularly if you are looking for a trail running adventure.
Multi-Day Stage Races (by definition package tours)
Nepal has a couple of multi day events. Most are organized by a French running Association, Chevaliers du Vent, chaired by Bruno Poirier of the 1994 East to West crossing, in collaboration with local trekking agency Base Camp Trek. Every year races in the Annapurna area (April), in the Everest area (November) and occasional extreme three week ‘Himal’ itineraries (October and November) are being organized. (One such three-week race was the 10-stage Everest LaFuma Sky Race III held in 2008.
The best way to get a feel for what these events imply is to check out some sites describing past events:
You can also take a look at the Solu Khumbu a yearly multi day stage race organized by the world-renowned Swiss-based Nepali mountain runner, Dawa Dachhiri Sherpa.
One Day Events (marketed as package tours)
Nepali Trekking agency Himalaya Expeditions organizes the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon every year in May.
UK-based Trekking agency, Bufo Ventures, also organizes an Everest Marathon, once every two years in November (next in 2011).
Nepali company Asian Trekking organizes the Beat the GLOF Action Run to raise awareness about the danger posed by the Imja Tsho glacial lake and the effects of climate change on the Himalaya. (GLOF quite obviously stands for glacial lake outburst flood.)
UK-based agency Reach Summit organized a Kanchenjunga Ultramarathon (49 km) for the first time this February 2010
Race organizer RacingThePlanet, best known for its 4 Deserts series, has an Annapurna area event planned for November 2011.
Race Only Events (not packages tours)
Nepali sports event organizer Ramesh Bhattachan and his English friend Jan Turner are behind two ultra races in Nepal, the Annapurna 100 (old website) – this year’s edition cut down to a 71 km trail race, next year back as a 100 km, all trail race – and the Everest Ultra (Gorakshep to Lukla). Neither requires a travel package, although the Everest one obviously requires a long acclimatization walk-in period.
Nepal’s running talent is amazing. The country’s uniformed forces (police, army, etc.) all have sports clubs. Their facilities are limited, but there is at least the possibility for talented runners to devote time to sport and it shows. Marathon times are far from world class; however, there are quite a few around in the 2:30 range.
As many runners grow up in hill villages, their trail running skills are exceptional and elite trail runners from elsewhere will find some serious competition here. And when the race is at altitude the outsider’s chances of winning are very, very small.
On top of that, the raw talent living at altitude – often not training at all – shows its face and regularly leaves the relatively well-trained Nepali club elite behind. Anyone who has spend time in the higher altitude villages in Nepal and watched kids run up and down or who has been overtaken by slipper-wearing porters bearing substantial loads will know that many mountain dwellers of Nepal are athletically gifted.
Running might not be official intangible heritage of the Nepali as it is claimed to be for the Tarahumara of Mexico, but the title of the book that recently made the trive famous, Born to Run (iRF review), is as proper a description for many of your Nepali competitors as any. To be able to run and have fun with such people is something special and is treasured by those who have discovered this country as a trail running heaven.
So already plenty going on, but what about those of you who want to do their own thing? Difficult? Need races to be able to run? No, and that is precisely what makes this country pretty unique. Any trekking trail that is feasible for a backpacker – and those are many – are feasible running routes. It’s a mystery to us why more runners have not hit upon this blatantly obvious idea, but some have, like these women (and a guy) who ran an Annapurna circuit in 2009.
The multi-day approach allows one to venture into absolutely fabulous mountain terrain, but that doesn’t mean that there is no scope for one day runs. This site lists both shorter and longer one-day courses in Kathmandu Valley and the Annapurna area with more routes to be added.
The historic runs followed trekking trails, and threw in some off-the-beaten-track sections. As long as one doesn’t go seriously alpine, those areas are often equally feasible, although requiring a bit of local route advice and basic spoken Nepali.
Tips for Nepal Trail Running Travel
Nepal is an easy country to visit and travel. The web has plenty of info, such as the Lonely Planet’s Nepal website.
One can fly airports like Lukla (2,700 m) for the Everest area, or Jomosom (2,700 m) or Humde (3,300 m) for the Northern Annapurna area. This give quick access to the higher reaches. But be aware that acclimatization is not an issue to be taken lightly, so one might as well enjoy – and run – the walk-in trails to the higher areas. Why miss out on the experience of moving through three climate and ecological zones in one day, on the incredible cultural diversity, on the feel for the great Himalayan mountain range beyond its alpine reaches, on the smashing views of the highest peaks from the south when their enormity is all the more evident than from close up? The longer approach also gives your body time to acclimatize and you time to get to know both locals and other trail users.
One can get around easily with English. You might also come across a French, German, or Japanese speaker in the wildest of places. It is only when one leaves the beaten track and gets into villages without any official trekking infrastructure that basic Nepali or having a Nepali guide along is necessary. On the other hand, even when you get by easily on your own, hitting the trails with a Nepali companion can give you insights and experiences otherwise unavailable.
Travel is quite safe for Westerners. The country is politically unstable, but tourists have never been targets. Obviously, one needs to use one’s common sense. Street crime does exist like everywhere else, but plenty of American neighborhoods are far more dangerous than Kathmandu, let alone Nepal’s rural areas. Dangers are greatest in the southern part of the country and, then, in districts very rarely visited by tourists.
Nepal, like most countries at its level of development, is plagued by serious corruption. That is a major headache for its citizens, but tourists are hardly affected. Rather the opposite, if anyone is sheltered from this nasty reality it is tourists.
Likewise, if you’re considering taking a trip to Nepal that involves trail running, ask away. Hopefully, someone will be able to answer your questions. Another spot to have questions answered is over at Trail Running Nepal.
[This is the fourth article in a continuing series of articles that profile trail running in various countries around the world. We’ve recruited local experts for each of the articles. Please get in touch if you are interested in helping develop a profile for your country.]
[Disclosure: The link above to the Crane Brothers’ book on Amazon.com is part of an affiliate program that helps support iRunFar.com.]