Imagine yourself in the picturesque landscapes of Ladakh, not merely touring but running across the vastness of mountains, hearing the sound of fluttering prayer flags, passing monasteries that echo with Buddhist chants, and making it to the finish line of a marathon that’s 14,000 ft high. Sounds adventurous? Seems like a bucket-list item? Hell yeah!
Ladakh hosts a marathon in September every year for Ladakhis and people across the world. Certified by AIMS (Association of International Marathons and Distance Races) as the highest marathon in the world, it is undoubtedly one of the toughest, owing to its height and geography. Organised by Chewang Motup and his wife Yangdu Goba, the Ladakh Marathon was first conceived in the year 2012.
The starting line
Speaking of the conception of this idea, Motup recounts: “There used to be a marathon in Ladakh earlier. It was more commercial, and organised by a company from Denmark. Perhaps they had not imagined the challenges that came with high-altitude marathons, and therefore didn’t sustain for too long. But a woman from that running group etched her name on the world marathon map.” And this reinforced Motup’s belief in long-distance running.
“We wanted our local youngsters to become long-distance runners through this event, and excel in their own fields. We then began Ladakh Marathon as an annual event to give youngsters the platform to perform on a competitive level,” he explains.
The first edition, in 2012, witnessed a majority of Ladakhis running the races, and the subsequent editions were thrown open for everybody across the globe.
In 2015, the event was certified by AIMS as the highest marathon in the world. “And since then, Ladakh Marathon has picked up in a big, rather prestigious way,” he adds. Last year, the marathon witnessed a huge participation of 3,000 locals, about 2,800 non-locals, and international marathoners from 30 different countries.
The four races
The annual marathon, scheduled for September 6 to 8 this year, offers the running enthusiasts four kinds of runs – a 7 km ‘Run Ladakh for fun’, 21.1 km half-marathon, 42.1 km full-marathon, and 72 km ‘Khardung La Challenge’.
The 7 km Run Ladakh for Fun marathon is the shortest distance, open for all ages, and suitable for a beginner. The half-marathon spreads across the outskirts of Leh, and is as tough as the full-marathon. The full-marathon, of course, is only for those with prior similar running experience.
And as for the Khardung La challenge, it’s a test of sheer endurance. One needs to run about 60 km stretch at 4,000 meters above sea level.
“It’s not so much the length but the height that makes this race tougher. The thinness of air, especially in Khardung La challenge, can be extremely difficult to cope with. At that height, there is an utter lack of oxygen. One cannot run but only walk. Therefore, one must prepare for it from months together,” stresses Motup.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Preparation is the ultimate key word, Motup points out. “We begin registrations from March itself so that marathoners get enough time to train. I would say, the most crucial thing is to arrive in Leh a week or 10 days in advance for acclimatisation. Apart from that, train yourself harder for uphill, run on inclines on the treadmill, prepare twice as much as you would for other marathons,” he explains.
This year, it is going to be a marathon with a difference as Motup and his team are gearing up for an eco-friendly marathon.
“To protect fragile environment of Ladakh, from this year we will not provide bottled or packaged water for this challenge. Instead, there will be facilities to refill your bottles at the hydration points,” he states. Motup sees this as a practical challenge, but is determined to execute it.
The races are certainly tougher, but the experience of running amidst those arid mountains, soaking in sweat and pride makes the marathon special.
So, what are you waiting for? The mountains are calling, and you must run.