It is October 16, 2016. High on the Alpine plateau of Langothang, in Laya, a large crowd had gathered to watch the climax of the first Snowman Run in Bhutan. There are politicians and officials from around the country, scientists and professionals from various disciplines like agriculture, livestock, forests, parks, and the business community who have come to take part in the Royal Highland Festival. And there are hundreds of nomadic herders from Bhutan’s northern highland belt.

By late morning, runner after runner emerge over the ridge on to the 4,200-metre plateau, mostly gangly youth, men, and women, looking out of place in modern tracks suits and running shoes. They do not have the bearing of professional athletes. There is an awkward gracefulness in their movement.

For me, this brings back a flood of memories – like this story.

Nigel is a marathon runner who has taken part in races all over the world. He knows marathon runners from all major races but his hero is a young Layap herder whose name he does not know. The young man does not know that Nigel exists except as just another tourist who passed through the mountains. This is how it happened.

Nigel and Peter, a marathon runner friend from his British school days, decided to celebrate a reunion by conquering a treacherous trek in Bhutan. They asked me to find a guide who could take them off the beaten track on a seven-day walk/run adventure, over Bhutan’s majestic rugged ridges. We decided on a trek that crisscrossed the northern ridges of western Bhutan.

Early one morning Nigel, Peter, and their guide, Chhado, set off from Punakha and were camped below Laya by nightfall. They had arranged for their meals and camps to be prepared in advance. On the second day, the three set off at dawn, crossed Shingche-la, and stopped for lunch at about noon.

To his dismay Peter realised that he had left his camera behind, hanging on a branch, when they broke camp that morning. A Layap horseman who had organised the lunch stop said he would send his young helper back to get the camera. Not wanting to lose time, they ate a quick lunch and pushed on towards the next camp.

Just as they reached camp that evening, the Layap boy turned up with the camera. Dorji, barely out of his teens, in a simple black gho and gumboots with no socks, not perspiring or even breathing heavily, handed over the camera. Their egos a little deflated, the two marathon runners did a quick calculation and could not believe that this boy had gone back to the previous camp and caught up with them even as they were on the move at what they thought was an impressive speed.

Their first question: “Was Dorji the local sprinting champ?” The Layaps did not understand the question because they don’t have formal championships. Over the next few days the two British runners learnt that Dorji was an average Layap boy. But they heard the stories of Layaps known for their legendary physical feats.

In fact, Dorji’s uncle once ran to Gasa Dzong in winter, on the narrow ice-covered track, to deliver an important message and was back for dinner the same evening. It would be a four-day trek for the average person. There were a number of men in Laya who could do that.

So, a week later, we huddled at the Druk Hotel bar in Thimphu, plotting a plan. Nigel and Peter had run the Hong Kong marathon, a unique race run in teams of four runners, over the island’s fairly steep hill slopes. The Gurkha soldiers held the record of 13 hours. What if Nigel raised the funds and I gathered four Layap boys and send them to Hong Kong to smash this record, for the fun of it?

It never happened. But, looking at the slim Layap boys and girls who don’t know the concept of physical fitness as is popular gyms and race tracks, but run over Alpine ridges all their lives, I wish it had.

The first Snowman Marathon was a part of the Royal Highland Festival in Laya, held on October 16, 17, and 18, to focus on and celebrate the raw natural beauty and unique cultural identity that Bhutan’s northern highlanders have nurtured and preserved. The two-day marathon which started at the Gasa Tshachhu (hot springs) at 2,231 metres above sea level on October 15 ended in Laya, above 4,000 metres on October 16.

For me the story was not the race but this new experience for the 31 Layap herders and three from Lunana who took part. These herders chase yaks over the grasslands and high ridges all their lives but, ironically, they do not know how to run a race. For a start, these young men and women were not told that you are not at your best for a two day grueling race if you soak in the hot springs, drink alcohol, and flirt all night. But that is what Layaps normally do when they visit the Gasa hot springs. And that is what they did.

The first day of the race, 28 kilometres on the new motor road, was the most difficult for the herders. Even the October chill of Gasa was too warm for them, the road was too flat and smooth, the new shoes given to them were too sophisticated, and they were more used to running with animals than with other human beings.

Come Day Two, on the 25 kilometres of steep mule track covered with slush, horse dung, and sharp uneven stepping stones, they were at home. As the path rose higher, climbing a sheer 2,000 metres, they ran faster.

Professional competitors, mostly trained runners from the armed forces, and the herders marvelled at each others’ prowess. “These soldiers run like machines on the flat road,” one herder observed. “And the heat (perhaps 15 degrees Centigrade) didn’t even bother them.” Meanwhile marathon enthusiasts remarked about the herders: “As soon as the good road ended, these guys were off like deer.”

According to observers and judges of the race, it was a party for some of the herders who were more interested in having fun than racing. One was seen swigging bottles of beer all the way. The woman who arrived second at the finishing line, a 40 year old mother of two, ran in her rubber gumboots because the running shoes given to the participants were too large for her feet.

But there was one consensus, among the organisers and observers. If they were given basic training, it would be impossible to even get close to the herders on the highlands. Not a single Layap runner had ever run in a race of any kind before. Neither had they heard of the concept of training for a race. In other words the top runners in the race did not know how to run.

The end of the run was an eye-opener. The herders, particularly the women, were more shy than proud because of the crowd watching the race. Professional runners were being rested and treated by health workers for fatigue, cold, and high altitude problems. For the Layaps, it was still early in the day and it was time to go to work. There were horses to be loaded, yaks to be attended to. For the first Layap to finish the race, running from Gasa to Laya was the easy bit. Not having been to school, he had to now truly struggle, helping to write prices on the handicrafts and other wares for the shop that his father had set up for the festival.

But the appetite has been whet. Nine year old Yangzom wants to be a runner when she grows up. Ap Phuntsho, 67, wants to ask the government to organise a race for the senior citizens of Laya to challenge senior citizens of other dzongkhags.

However, all that had to wait for another day. There were three days of singing and dancing, drinking and other forms of revelry to be enjoyed at the Royal Highland Festival.

Contributed by

 Dasho Kinley Dorji 

(Dasho Kinley Dorji attended the Royal Highland Festival at Laya, from October 16-18)