There’s a long history in sport of people from underprivileged backgrounds performing brilliantly, and being exceptional. It’s inspirational stuff – what the Kenyans and Ethiopians have achieved with distance running in the last few decades; think Zola Budd and her barefoot running back in the 80s; or, Emil Zatopek who blasted his first ever marathon to win an Olympic gold. He even asked along the way if they were running fast enough….
These are all people who never benefited from professional coaching, modern training techniques and equipment, or medical support. Yet somehow they achieved greatness. To me, they also give a healthy challenge to our western methods of training and ideas of equipment.
Surely, particularly with running, something that we evolved to do, it doesn’t need to be complicated with training schedules, shoes, more shoes, gait analysis….. McDougall has really brought this debate to the fore with his book on the Tarahumara. (iRF review of Born to Run)
Running in Nepal
My example is in Nepal. Often this initially raises eyebrows with the subject of running. But when I researched what the Nepali do, I was amazed. I suppose few think of Nepal as a running destination, and it’s such a poor country that their athletes cannot afford to travel internationally to race in high profile events. Nepalis may not be the nomadic community that the Tarahumara, but judging by their performances there’s a lot to learn from them.
I looked at some of their races. The Annapurna 100, the Everest Ultra, even the Everest Marathon are very demanding races. The terrain is tougher, steeper, higher, more rugged than anything I’ve run in Europe. The hills go on much much longer. Yet any Westerner that races these is always hours behind the first bunch of Nepali runners.
Alpine Ultramarathons: Europe vs. Nepal
So what would happen if the best Nepali elite were to race the best European professional trail runners? The Davos Ultramarathon at the Swiss Alpine Marathon is a massive European race and one of the toughest mountain ultras. It’s 78 kilometers (48.5 miles) with 2,800 meters (9,000’+) of ascent and descent along rough mountain terrain. It’s a 6 hour slog for the best European runners, few have ever run it faster. I’m going to take two Nepalis to race!
How do the Nepalis compare to this? That’s a tough question – the terrain is different, the distances and ascents different, altitude higher…. But take the Everest Ultra – 65 kilometers (40.4 miles) ranging from 3,400 m to 5,400 m (11,000′-17,700′) in altitude. Five hours and 14 minutes is the best time along tough trails that require dodging yaks along the way. That’s pretty fast for someone who has never had any running training.
The Nepalis of Project Davos
Sudip is the guy who won this race. He’s a porter, and has been for a few years. He grew up working his family’s land, shepherding, and only runs to earn a little extra (and much needed) cash in prize money. He’s never had any specific running training, in fact he’s never had any training at all. He only found out about the Everest Ultra the day before after portering loads of up to 60 kg to Everest Base Camp. He had to run to get to the start line. All that, and he stormed the race! Don’t think many Westerners could keep up with that.
Bed (right) is my other runner. He has been part of the Nepali Army running team for a few years, although their training is more of a hindrance than a benefit. Yet he came 8th in the Annapurna 100, and three weeks later came second in the Everest Ultra. Many trail runners I know would not even have attempted two such demanding races so close together. Yet Bed, typical of the Nepali way, dealt with each day as it came.
Two talented runners, one high-profile race in the West. What on earth could happen here? Well, that what Project Davos is all about.
Project Davos on iRunFar.com
My time in Nepal has led me to reflect. What can we in the West learn from the Nepalis? They can run fast for long periods of time, up mega hills. They must be doing something right. Yet so many things seem to hold them back. For example, there’s Bed’s Army Running Club training and the fact that Sudip doesn’t like to eat or drink during his marathons. So two things that in our Western minds should really hold them back. Yet they run that well. Sometimes I wonder if what they do is actually possible. But it must be, because I see them do it.
Over the next few weeks, in the run up to Davos, I’ll be sharing what I learn about training and nutrition, as I spend more time with the Nepalis. What do they eat? What holds them back? What drives them on? What am I learning from them? What’s surprising about all this?
If there’s an interesting angle you’d like to find out more about, why not drop us a line…
Future Project Davos Articles
- Comparing training of the Nepalis with the Europeans
- What have I learnt about training people?
- What can they do that they really shouldn’t be able to do?
[Rob Cousins is a trainer & coach specializing in long distance and ultra distance (running, triathlons, polar trips). He is also a part time sports journalist.]