It was a cool July morning, past 5.30AM.
I was in Chubi, Leh; on the road leading from the police station to Lamdon School and beyond that to Khardung La. Leh had been experiencing intermittent showers. It lowered the warm temperatures of July, added an occasional passing chill. A middle aged man in track pants and T-shirt slowly jogged up the road. I watched his uphill progress recalling my attempted running near Khardung village in 2011. My sea level-physiology had heaved and puffed like a steam engine. The jogger floated by smoothly, legs working effortlessly, a calm demeanour on his face. My flared nostrils and gaping mouth from four years before flashed past in the mind. Well! – I told myself; its one life and you can’t be everything, can you? Make your peace with what you got. Cool mornings are good for healing philosophies. Five girls jogged down from the Lamdon side. That was six joggers in fifteen minutes of standing by the road. A white SUV slowed down to pick me up. “ Good morning,’’ Chewang Motup said. Beside him in the front seat was one of Mumbai’s best known coaches for long distance running, Savio D’Souza.
Years ago, Motup, co-founder of Rimo Expeditions with his wife Yangdu Goba, did something memorable for Ladakh’s ice hockey. Located at over 10,000ft mean altitude and having a winter cold enough to freeze water to ice and keep it so for long, Ladakh has long been India’s ice hockey capital. Motup and Rimo Sporting Club (the outdoor company’s sports club), along with Ladakh’s Winter Sports Club, did much work procuring adequate ice hockey gear from empathetic sources overseas and reaching it to the region’s far flung villages. The sport, originally played to stay active during winter’s deep freeze, not only received impetus, it also acquired linkages into Ladakh’s interiors, home to hardy talent. Today, the majority of players in the Indian ice hockey team hail from Ladakh. The region has several teams, including teams from the military, not to mention annual competitions. As a sport, ice hockey has found its footing in Ladakh; it no more needs hand holding. Motup gave away all the ice hockey gear Rimo Sporting owned to its players and the club was transformed into a trust to seed new initiatives. What next?
In his school days in the Kashmir valley, Motup used to be a good runner. Back in Ladakh, aside from the armed forces running (Leh is a major military base), there wasn’t any established event for civilians; certainly nothing similar to what was going on elsewhere in India. This was despite Ladakh’s earlier brush with fame; in November 1995 Rigzin Angmo had won the Bankgkok Marathon in her category. In 2010, Ladakh received its first ultra marathon, when La Ultra-The High commenced. It was and remains a niche event. In July 2012, Motup approached the local hill council – The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Council (LAHC) – with the idea of a marathon. The community in Leh is small and tightly knit. On August 15, the local youth council announced at the town’s Polo Ground that youngsters should participate in the upcoming run. In September 2012, Motup and Rimo started the Ladakh Marathon. The event had four disciplines – a seven kilometre-run, a half marathon, a full marathon and a 72km-ultra marathon that ran over the Khardung La pass and was called Khardung La Challenge. The field included runners from elsewhere in India and some from overseas. According to Motup, overall in 2012, there were 1500 runners for the Ladakh Marathon’s half and full distances. In 2013, that rose to 2200. By 2014, it was 3000 and the estimate for the upcoming edition in September 2015, is 3500-4000. “ We will be preparing for 4200 runners,’’ Motup said. Figures have been climbing for the Khardung La Challenge too. In 2012, it saw 11 runners, going up to 33 in 2013 and 47 in 2014. The estimate for 2015 is over 100. Further, starting 2015, the Ladakh Marathon is certified by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) making it among select races in India to be so approved.
A few things contributed to the event’s evolution. Motup has kept the distances across the four disciplines, clear and tidy. He has a seven kilometre-run. a conventional half marathon, a conventional full marathon and an ultra marathon that incorporates the coveted Khardung La (prized by all as a milestone in altitude) but stays contained at 72km overall. This avoids confusion in how the event is perceived by potential participants. Over time, as the event stabilised and participation rose, local support for it has been more forthcoming. As travellers and hikers will tell you, life in the hills can’t divorce itself from community as in the plains because it takes a bit of everybody to get things done. Organizing a running event at altitude (Leh is 11,000ft up from sea level) is no different. Many agencies in Leh – from LAHC to village committees, medical services and the military – pitch in.
Given its cold winter, Ladakh’s tourism is seasonal. Commencing in summer, the season is into tapering phase by August. The Ladakh Marathon, set in September (fine conditions for running: 6-8 degrees centigrade when the race starts; 20-22 degrees when it concludes), helps to extend that season a little longer. And it is a profitable extension because visiting runners won’t be able to perform at altitude without acclimatizing. This means – they have to be around for a while; arrive several days before the event and stay in Leh. Motup believes, in terms of traffic, the Ladakh Marathon has grown faster than the government sponsored Ladakh Festival, which has been around for the last 20 years.
From the perspective of tourist traffic, there is another aspect. Traditionally, foreigners have dominated the inbound tourist flow to Ladakh (it has begun changing in recent years as Indians take to an active lifestyle). In 2012, Motup said, when the Ladakh Marathon kicked off, there were altogether about 120 outsiders participating. For the September 2015 edition, he was expecting 600. Similarly the 2012 debut edition of the Khardung La Challenge had 2-3 outsiders. For 2015, at least 50 per cent is expected to be outsiders. Needless to say, reflecting the old tourism trend, the foreigner component in the outsider segment is significant at the Ladakh Marathon, when compared to running events elsewhere in India.
All organized marathons and ultra marathons have aid stations set up along the route. In the Ladakh Marathon’s case, Motup said, the onus of managing aid stations is slowly being taken up by villages through whose area the course runs. Two villages – Chushool and Sabu – currently do this. Motup narrated a story in this context. In one of the editions of the event, a gentleman from Madhya Pradesh turned up to run. He was an alumnus of Doon School. After observing the land and people around him, he told Motup that he would like to fund the education of a student from Ladakh at Doon School. As it turned out, the gentleman could not finish the running race he participated in but the race he triggered to find a deserving student, progressed well. Eventually, a youngster from Sabu village, who was then studying at Lamdon School, was selected. He is there at Doon School now. Gestures like this have earned running and the Ladakh Marathon an amount of goodwill at the villages its course passes through.
Podium finishes at the Ladakh Marathon have been swept by Ladakhis. Altitude is easier to tackle for the locals; outsiders in comparison are running in unfamiliar environment. On the other hand, there are some good runners and great timings at the marathons of lower elevation. Opportunities to run are also more in the plains. Runners there gather experience. Starting January 2014, Rimo brought the winners of the Ladakh Marathon to Mumbai to participate in the annual Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), the country’s flagship event in running. A senior member of the Himalayan Club, Motup has friends in Mumbai. Since running in Mumbai required getting used to the local conditions, the Ladakhi team would arrive a few weeks ahead of the SCMM and stay in rented accommodation. In the run up to the SCMM, they ran and trained; Mumbai based-coach Samson Sequeira was associated with them in this regard. Some of the Ladakhi runners, I spoke to, mentioned his name. The cost of the team’s annual Mumbai trip is borne by Rimo. July 2015, I was in the middle of Ladakh’s visit to SCMM, playing out in the reverse. It was a case of Mumbaikar in Leh to coach after Ladakhi runners visiting Mumbai.
Beyond Leh’s main market, I saw a pick-up truck with a few youngsters in it coordinating its passage with Motup’s white SUV. At the junction of the roads leading to Choglamsar and Skalzangling, there were more youngsters waiting. They got up seeing the approaching vehicles. A few of them got into the SUV; the rest took the pick-up truck. On the Choglamsar road, we turned off for the bridge across the Indus River and the road to Spituk beyond. Here, next to a small clearing, an army truck from the Ladakh Scouts Regimental Centre (LSRC) was parked; waiting alongside were a group of soldiers, all ready to run. As with ice hockey before, the LSRC appeared to have enmeshed itself into Ladakh’s emergent interest in running. Some people I met in Leh felt that the concept of trained army athletes competing with civilian amateurs was unfair. But it is also true that in the past, those finishing well at the Ladakh Marathon and the Khardung La Challenge have been either noticed or picked up by the Ladakh Scouts. Savio is a former national champion in the marathon. Wards in place, he was his typical Mumbai self, wasting no time to get a stretching circle started. The soldiers joined in. Stretching done, Savio quickly got the day’s 10km-practice run going. The army truck followed the coach and his trainees. Motup had brought Savio to Leh to meet the Ladakhi runners and train them for a while.
Knowing that if I ran, my story would be sprinting miles ahead of me, I watched the runners’ progress from the comfort of the SUV. Motup who was driving, had taken on the role of a mobile aid station. We had water and oral rehydrants in the boot. With my middle aged, slow jogging pace as reference point, this was a fairly fast 10km-run at 10,000ft. The road was flat and inviting. Among the runners were youngsters who had popped up just that day after hearing of the daily coaching sessions. Everyone who reported was included; all of them ran. Savio’s first couple of days running in Leh had been tough. Then he had found his pace. It was evident that day as he ran along with his wards, the whole 10km. Rain and snowmelt had caused stream levels around Leh to rise. A part of the day’s course was adjacent to a major stream and its flooded banks. At one point a second stream, knee-deep (depending on how tall you are) and filled with the ice cold water of early morning, crossed the runner’s path. All the runners waded through it. Nobody complained. A few laughed. My city self couldn’t help reflecting on that. How many of us will wade happily, uncomplainingly through ice cold water? After the day’s run, the team was treated to a hearty breakfast. This was the daily format. The training was for free.
One of the Ladakh Scouts-soldiers attending Savio’s training sessions was 21 year-old Rigzen Norbu. In 2012, he had placed fourth in the half marathon conducted as part of the Ladakh Marathon. That year, in December, he joined the army. Less than a year later, in September 2013, he finished first in the Khardung La Challenge. In January 2014, he ran his first SCMM. In September 2014, he ended second in the Khardung La Challenge. At the SCMM of January 2015, Norbu running the full marathon, finished 15th among men and ninth in his category with a timing of 3:08.
Jigmet Norbu was a lone figure near Lamdon School, waiting in the sun to talk to me. At 20 years of age, he was a year younger than Rigzin Norbu but a promising runner in the team in his own right. Born in Tsokar village in Ladakh’s Changtang region, he used to go out with his family’s flock of sheep. His parents were shepherds in Changtang, a high altitude plateau. Later, as a sponsored student, Jigmet reached Leh to study at the Lamdon School. That’s where he got into running becoming a noted runner at school level. In the 2012 Ladakh Marathon, he placed second in the half marathon. Next year he shifted to the full marathon, earning second position. His first visit to SCMM was in 2013. He couldn’t participate; he was underage! At the 2014 SCMM he completed the full marathon in 3:13, pruning that to 3:10 at the 2015 edition.
Close on the heels of the men, on both the occasions I saw the team run, was 21 year old-Jigmet Dolma, the strongest woman runner around. Hailing from Igoo village, she used to run at block, school and state level. Around the time of tenth standard, she left running for about a year. In 2012, she ran the half marathon at the Ladakh Marathon without any prior practice and emerged first. At the 2013 SCMM, she was placed 17th in the half marathon. Her main problem in Mumbai was muscle-cramping. “ I had no idea of timing, I just ran,’’ she said. At the 2013 Ladakh Marathon, she finished first in the half marathon with a timing of 1:50. In 2014, she improved her performance at SCMM to fourteenth position. Same year she retained her first position at the Ladakh Marathon. In January 2015, she ran her first full marathon at the SCMM, ending second in the open category and sixth overall. “ I wish to become the best marathon runner in India,’’ she told me, 21 year-old Tsetan Dolkar by her side, a morning at a cafe in Leh. Tsetan hailed from Lamayuru. With no prior experience, she ran the 2012 Ladakh Marathon in the full marathon category and ended second with a timing of around 4:50. Travelling to the 2013 SCMM, she was placed 13th in the open category of the full marathon. That year, she finished first among women in the full marathon of the Ladakh Marathon. Next year at the SCMM, she was placed 26th. Same year, 2014, she participated in the 72km-long Khardung La Challenge; she was placed first among women and fifth overall.
The Ladakhi running team I met was very young in age. According to Savio, his Ladakhi trainees have good endurance and strength. “ There is tremendous potential,’’ he said. Where the trainees falter and where they had faltered at SCMM, was in maintaining a sustainable rhythm. They needed to learn how to settle into a comfortable rhythm and carry on at a steady speed. Savio’s plan was to coach them in the core principles and then leave them with training modules that they can independently pursue once he returns to Mumbai. By running regularly together (as they were during the coaching sessions), he felt they would gravitate towards appropriate sub-groups that may serve as ideal cocoons for continued training. Most of the students in the training group hailed from distant villages; they were in Leh thanks to residential schools. “ I realize that some of them may not be good runners. But the point is – they are getting an opportunity through running to know themselves better,’’ Motup said. Next morning we assembled at the base of the road leading to Leh’s Shanti Stupa. The day’s practice involved running uphill and fast, on that road several times. Motup had high hopes from the training process begun. In a few years’ time, he wished to see at least one Ladakhi right up there on the national marathon scene. And that – including the process in place to move towards that goal – was what stood between Rimo, which hosted the Ladakh Marathon completely by itself and getting a sponsor aboard.
Motup had divided the whole Ladakh Marathon effort into two halves. One was the event composed of the marathon, half marathon and the Khardung La Challenge. The other was the training scheme he had got underway including the running team’s annual trip to the SCMM in Mumbai. The training scheme is set to get bigger. After this year’s Ladakh Marathon in September, the team is planning to spend the winter away from Ladakh, running at various events in India including the 2016 SCMM. Running in different Indian cities will help them gain experience. Ice hockey was a way of staying engaged and warm in Ladakh during the deep freeze of winter. In running, the plan is to go out to warmer areas and run for you cannot do much running in Ladakh’s winter. Motup was clear – anyone wanting to sponsor the event-half of the Ladakh Marathon must spend to make the training-half happen for the period of sponsorship. Training brought running skills to Ladakhis; the event merely showcased running. That was the difference. Sponsors may want the showcase-half. But Motup will yield only if the training-half is promised sustenance. The search is on for a suitable sponsor. In Motup’s imagination, the training phase is critical. There have been requests from competent overseas athletes to run at the Ladakh Marathon, something that will go up with the event receiving AIMS certification. Motup said he would like to consider these requests only after some time. In that while he wants to improve the performance of Ladakh’s runners so that when the world arrives in Leh to run, Ladakh will be able to hold its ground.
Update: The top three runners from the men’s section of the Khardung La Challenge in 2015 were: Tsewang Tokden (06:33:41), Rigzen Norbu (06:41:25) and Tsering Stobgais (07:08:43). The winners from the women’s section of the Khardung La Challenge were Skalzang Dolma (10:58:56), Khushboo Vaish (13:39:12) and Tsetan Lamo (13:41:18). Top laurels in the men’s full marathon went to Fayaz Ali (03:02:01), Padma Namgail (03:07:30) and Tsering Tondup (03:12:49). In the women’s full marathon, the top three finishers were Tsetan Dolkar (03:40:37), Jigmet Dolma (03:42:47) and Katharina Leuthner (03:47:13). In the half marathon, the men’s section was topped by Tanzin Norbu (01:22:47), Nawang Tsering (01:23:26) and Tashi Paldan (01:24:50). The winners in the women’s section of the half marathon were Diskit Dolma (01:48:05), Tsering Dolkar (01:50:53) and Stanzin Chodol (01:51:30).
Here are some photos from the 2015 Khardung La Challenge:
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The timings and rankings mentioned in the article are as provided by the interviewees. The 2015 results are from the event’s official website.)