So what did we learn from the first Snowman Race? That, when inspired with creative guidance, such a feat is possible… that Bhutanese athletes can compete with the best… that the traditional ngar (mettle/grit) has not yet been dilapidated by the so called development process.
Bhutanese runners – both men and women – dominated the race from the start to finish. But there is much more to learn from the phenomenon. The Snowman Race did not prove that Bhutanese runners are the best… it proved that they can be.
The circumstances of the world’s highest ultramarathon favoured our runners. Bhutanese, born and raised on this terrain, they had a major home advantage. The 21-23 day Snowman Trek is known to be the most difficult trek on earth. The Snowman Race covers the most difficult section of this stretch in five days. The international veterans struggled with altitudes where the average traveler requires oxygen tanks, and parts of the trail is not a trail in any sense of the word.
On the other side of the scale, Bhutanese athletes are less trained and less equipped for professional races. Some have erratic long distance running experience and trained full time for about three months before the race. None of them are full time professional athletes. Only days after the race, soldiers were back on duty, a herder back with her herds, a tourist guide leading her group. This means that, for the race, they largely drew on raw strength and natural physical and mental conditioning.
We recall another phenomenon, when Kenyan distance runners appeared on the scene to dominate international marathons and still hold on to the record. We also know stories of veteran marathoners who visited Bhutan and were amazed by the highland youth who carried their luggage and kept up with them.
The Snowman Race did not receive the media attention it deserved. It appears that we were better at hosting it than at selling it. This is another lesson as we revamp the tourism policy of high value low volume. But the reach of social media was picked up enough to tempt some big-time runners. Going by queries received in Bhutan from accomplished ultramarathoners, the Snowman Race promises new heights.
“The Bhutanese runners are extraordinary athletes,” said Luis Escobar, the International Race Director of the Snowman Race who predicts that this year’s success will draw the attention of the trail running world and keep attracting the best of the best. Those who were skeptical about a first-time race in such a remote place would be reassured by the safe and successful event.
None of the Bhutanese athletes suffer delusions of stardom. The first four men concluded the race with a click of the heels in salute and a respectful bow. During meals and other events for the runners, the Bhutanese athletes were always modestly last in the queue. This is reassuring at a time when television-influenced Bhutanese competitors are learning exaggerated celebratory gestures.
Gawa, the overall winner, is a Royal Body Guard who runs when he has the opportunity to join races – he trains in his own time out of interest. Pelpen (Sergeant) Sangay Wangchuk of the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA), who came second, is a physical instructor in the Military Training Centre. The third in the men’s race, Sangay, is a Gopa (Lance Corporal) in the Commando wing of the RBA. All of them are full time soldiers, part time runners.
The female winner, Karma Yangdon, can claim to be rich and famous by Laya’s standards, having earned the prize money and medals, but is more than happy to be a part of the crowd at the Laya Highland Festival. Karma’s profile is not different from the average Laya woman. The 40-year old has not been to school and speaks only Dzongkha. Like all Layap women, she is too busy to practice because she has to collect firewood, maintain the house, feed the yak herd, and collect cordyceps.
A not entirely unknown trend in Laya, Karma was previously married to an alcoholic who once stabbed her, leaving her completely bed-ridden for two months. Also not surprisingly, Karma was not able to sleep during the race so she watched Bhutanese movies on her phone at night. Not only does Karma run without pacing herself, she eats when she’s hungry and does not plan her meals in a long distance race. Asked if she was the runner who asked for food on reaching the finishing line in Bumthang “Yes”, she said, “I was starving.”
Luis Escobar said that it was time to enable Bhutanese runners to take part in internationally famed races, for example, the high elevation Hard Rock 100 in Colorado, the Western States 100-mile endurance run, and the Ledville Trail 100 in the United States.
This is a good way to strengthen Bhutan’s small voice in a big world.
Dasho Kinley Dorji