It was January 2, 2016, when I ran my first trail race in Godavari—the Kathmandu Ultra 50K race. I spent about 9 hours on the trails, having lost my 27 km trail and instead following the 50 km trail marks, completing about 44 km in all. At the finish line, I found that I had accidently done an ultra (above 42.2 km distance). I was smitten, and it was a love that, unbeknownst to me, I would pursue for my future in Nepal.
I started showing up more frequently for the trail runs around the Kathmandu valley, and ultimately made friends with the race director of the Ultra races in Kathmandu. This friendship led me to volunteer to help him with his one-day races in Kathmandu, and led up to the moment when he asked me to compete in the Mustang Trail Race, a stage race on fascinating trails in Upper Mustang that covered about 175 km in 8 stages. I think it was finishing that race which opened the entire world of ultra trail running for me.
Nepal is a unique destination for nature-based outdoor activities, especially so for trail running enthusiasts. I met Mira Rai at one of the races in Kathmandu and attended her film screening, which brought me to tears when I acknowledged the hardships the children have to endure in the remote villages of Nepal. However, this is also a beautiful opportunity for Nepali villages at the same time to realize that the Western world needs a part of their experience, the experience of physical challenge on the foot trails of their ancestors.
As per the research on tourism in Nepal, a tourist, on average, spends about 14 days in Nepal and about USD18 every day. A deeper study shows that about 60 percent of the tourists come to Nepal for outdoor-related adventure activities like trekking, hiking, mountaineering, etc. Maintaining a hiking trail in every village is a huge opportunity, especially when there are so many more unexplored stunning destinations in Nepal still to be discovered.
I have raced and helped as a volunteer in the Mustang, Manaslu, and Annapurna trail races, Annapurna fast pack tour, Sindhupalchowk international trail race, and the world’s highest race in the Everest region, and I think I have returned each time with utmost ecstasy from the fabulous experiences, a stronger body and a more peaceful mind.
Trail races are races that take place on off-road foot trails and avoid vehicle tracks as much as possible. Ultra trail races go beyond 42 km, and there is no limit on distances or number of days—it’s up to the race. It is a harder race to organize in terms of logistics, and caters to the section of adventurers and runners who want an active challenge along with vacations.
But, the popularity of short trail races in the Kathmandu valley also surprised us. In 2017, I had an opportunity to direct the Kathmandu Trail Race series, a 10-race series of shorter distance runs, less than 20 km and 10 km. The response was surprising and overwhelming, with the number of participants, both Nepali and from the international community, reaching more than 300 in some races.
Why is trail racing is good for Nepal, you might ask?
Nepal is not an industrial country. It is popular because of its unique natural topography, which ranges from 40 m to 8848 m in just about a 130 km-distance. Every time I have taken a trek, or gone for races, I have marveled at the diversity of landscapes, the peace and calmness of the villages, and the spiritual experience that one gets when being watched over by the magnificent Himalayan ranges.
There are new kinds of tourists emerging in the last decade. People are now seeking fast, light, and challenging experiences during their vacations. They are runners, fitness enthusiasts, and health conscious people who want to spend their holidays with an equal component of rejuvenation and challenge.
Also, Nepali trail athletes are incredible, natural talents. I have been following Nepali athletes in international races for the past four years and have marveled to see their performance in the international trail championships, where they compete with seasoned, awesomely professional trained athletes and still bag positions in the top five.
Of course, everyone knows about Mira Rai and her achievements.
But, not many know about Bhim Gurung, who was the second world champion just a few minutes behind the legendary trail running hero Kílian Jornet from Spain. People need to know about Sunmaya Budha, from a small village in Jumla, who at the age of just 19, bagged the world skyrunning championship position in Hong Kong in 2017. These are just a few of the athletes whose accomplishments have surprised everybody, but have not been spoken about much. They are the natural ambassadors of Nepal, and they can go far if they are provided with the honest, efficient support that they need.
What does our future look like?
We couldn’t do much for the entirety of trail running athletes in Nepal that we knew of, but in 2017, post Mira Rai’s winning ‘Nat-Geo Adventurer of the Year’, we began to take more notice of the girls who were competing in the races, and winning.
In 2018, we were finally able to start a scholarship project called Exchange and Empower with trail runners in Hong Kong under the registered charity, Mira Rai Initiative. We selected five talented athletes through different races, and for the first time in any sports history of Nepal, gave them comprehensive training for running, English education, confidence building workshops, and trekking guide license training and professional opportunities. They were trained to compete in the Oxfam Trailwalker 100 km race, and for the first time, a women’s team was representing Nepal in the event. They did not disappoint. They ranked second in their first attempt, finishing just minutes behind a really strong professional team, Salomon Hong Kong.
Mira is very keen on supporting other Nepali girls and boys for this sport, and we also feel there is a huge potential for trail athletes in Nepal. That’s why it was possible to work with a shared vision. We have also started working on organizing races in really remote regions of Nepal, where commercial races couldn’t reach, as we think rural Nepal has more surprising talents if we make trail racing accessible there. In February 2019, we conducted the 36 km Bhojpur Trail Race in Mira Rai’s own village in eastern Nepal, and we were stunned with the performance of the kids there. The winners in the male category won with an impressive timing of 3 hours and 31 minutes and 3 hours 42 minutes, in a race that climbs up about 2600 m in 36 kilometers. That, my friend, is a really tough course!
What are our concerns?
We are really concerned about the changing face of the Nepali hills, especially after the new division of the state into Pradeshes; it seems everybody is blasting off hills and digging roads on what once used to be the foot trails between villages. The Annapurna trekking route was destroyed first for vehicle tracks, which were made right on the foot trails trekkers would walk on. Local businesses got hit harder, as the track was left dusty and took so much time to build, and made tourists reluctant to trek on those trails.
We do care about the development issues in remote corners of Nepal, and that accessibility would bring new opportunities to our citizens living in difficult regions, but we are also aware of the lack of efficient planning and accountability in infrastructure projects here. “We want roads till our doorsteps” was a political manifesto that made villagers happy, but caused us concern. I don’t know how it is possible to direct needed infrastructure projects into a positive experience, maintaining the unique identity of villages as natural beautiful serene heavens, instead of dusty and full of unnecessary junk.
Let’s see. We just organized a trail running camp for Spanish clients in Bandipur and learned that a policy has been passed to build only old-style Newari houses there, and the community is keen to preserve their rich culture, as guests are attracted to the bucolic scenes and the marvelous architecture and culture in that stunning landscape.
It is good news, coming after lessons learned from mistakes.
All we can do is be hopeful and spread the worth of the ancient trails and nature amongst people as boldly as we can.
Preeti Khattri is a Managing Partner of the Mira Rai Initiative. Contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos courtesy Preeti Khattri, Trail Running Nepal