Bhutan is a nation that seems to get one of two responses from Westerners when they hear the name. Those who have heard of Bhutan, or have been there before and share in a revel with a mutual interest in a unique Himalayan nation specializing in Gross National Happiness. Those who have not, nod their heads and, some amount of time later, ask where Bhutan is on a map. It’s difficult enough getting there, so when the opportunity arose to run a 25km trail race in an area of Bhutan that’s remote even for people who live there, I was hard-pressed to say no.
The challenges begin with getting there in the first place, from Visa approvals to hoping flights leave and land on time, to acclimatizing once you land at 7,500ft – which is a modest 5,600ft lower than the finish line of the race. The Laya Run is the kickoff event for the Royal Highland Festival, which recently celebrated its 4th year and is a cultural celebration of the indigenous Layap people taking place in the highest semi-permanent settlement in the country. It’s an area surrounded by the eastern flank of the Himalayas where if you happen to take a wrong turn, you could end up in Tibet. After a handful of days in Bhutan comprised of cultural activities, a hike to the Tigers Nest, and another group run, it was time to make our way to the race.
As a Westerner showing up you get quite a few looks from the locals during race check-in, which starts with checking blood pressure and blood oxygen saturation levels. If the former is too high, or the latter is too low, you’re not allowed to participate in the race for safety reasons. Looking around while waiting for my turn for health screening provoked a mild level of anxiety – everyone else looked so fast! I was the one being promoted as the “fast one” in our group of five western runners, and people were taking notice. “See that guy over there – he’s the physical trainer for the Bhutanese army, he won the race last year” or “Yeah, that guy is in high altitude combat” – not the kind of things that inspire confidence in your ability to run a race while some of those same runners are scoping you out.
The race and course prep session was something else entirely; I’ve never sat through a 90 minute PowerPoint presentation detailing the goal of a run, health and safety reminders, and some jokes about maybe not eating the four-day-old bananas at the first “feeding station”. Twelve hours late, I’m sitting in a Mahindra Bolera on a terrible road, a bumpy 1 hr 45-minute ride later and my stomach was feeling far from perfect at the start line. But there were plenty of friendly faces, and it was looking like the weather would hold up. With 92 runners at the start line the first wave – the women runners – were off, 2 minutes after that the males were off.
An advertised starting elevation of 3,200 meters turned into an actual starting elevation of 3,570 meters, with an immediate descent of 460 meters during the first four miles. None of this was mentioned anywhere, people are bombing it downhill, there’s an occasional car driving by, and I’m starting out slower than most people were expecting more of out a sense of self-preservation and knowing that it’s a long race for this altitude. I finally catch up, and pass, some friends at the 1st aid station 5km into the race and am off and feeling good. The Mo Chhu River finally creeps into eyes view about 10km in after bottoming out and crossing a few wooden bridges. That’s when the challenge starts. Heavy rainfall two days prior have created a difficult mixture of mud, rock, and due to the mixed-use of this trail system, horse shit. It’s everywhere, and it’s hard to know what’s solid and what’s going to result in a foot sinking six inches into the mud, or a rock rolling over and twisting an ankle. But during a quick stop at the 15km aid station, I’m told to hurry up as I’m “top 30” in the race – “how the hell is that the case?!” okay, let’s try running.
Unfortunately, that was mostly the end of my running. The course started to get progressively more difficult with some aggressive and steeper climbs, and the altitude causing heart-rate issues. Few things are more exciting that a spiked heart rate while trying to go up a 200m hill when you’re back up to 3,500m. In my mind, I developed the phrase “pain pace” to describe the sluggish pace and difficulty I was having at this point, but somehow, I was still keeping pace with most people and even passing some during a phase of what I can describe as very leisurely hiking.
At a certain point, I had absolutely had enough of the uphill climbing and was ready to run again, but it wasn’t happening. The elevation profile was too unforgiving for the altitude until reaching the settlement of Laya, at which point things become slightly runnable again. The town itself was gorgeous, beautiful wood constructions, cobblestoned walking paths, and animals scattered about. However, there was a huge downside – looking up past the town I saw the finish line another 150m above the settlement. For the sake of those reading this report, I’ll skip on repeating the words I said at that moment. More “pain pace” ensued until reaching a relatively flat area leading into the finish line and happiness over being able to run through it, and having reached the 4,000m high finish line. I was the 2nd place Westerner, mostly beat out by Bhutanese military and placed overall in the top-35. But more importantly, I safely raced at altitude and was finally able to enjoy the next day and a half at an incredibly unique festival – and may have partied with the locals and Prime Minister the next night. But that’s an entirely different story.
Run Organizer: Royal Government of Bhutan, Dzongkhag Administration, Gasa
Trip Organizer: Next Run LLC / Run Bhutan