First ever Snowman Race dominated by Bhutanese athletes

Thinley Namgay | Bumthang

Home advantage – being Bhutanese, breathing fresh, clean and thin air and being used to the mountainous terrain – probably could have helped Bhutanese runners to dominate the first ever Snowman Race that crossed mountain pass as high as 5,470 metres above the sea level (masl).

Nine Bhutanese runners,  five men from the armed forces  and four women – two from the Royal Bhutan Army, a villager and a tourist guide participated and dominated the snowman race.

In the men’s category, Bhutanese runners dominated the race from the first day of the five-day race that started from  2,850masl. Among the women, an international runner Sarah Keyes came first in the first leg of the five day run.

At the end of the five-day run that covered 203 kilometres, only eight of the 20 international participants were left in the race.  Some of them withdrew because of altitude sickness.

International race director, Luis Escobar from the USA, said that Bhutanese runners had home advantage and were familiar with running on such difficult trails and high altitudes.  The director said the snowman race had top distance international runners, but they were at a disadvantage this week.

He said that the snowman secretariat is expecting more international participants next time. “We are happy that everyone was safe in this race.”

Gawa Zangpo, Sangay Wangchuk and Sangay, top three athletes, said that Bhutanese athletes are acclimatised and prepared for the race.  They said most of the Bhutanese athletes are experienced and the trainings helped them.

Bhutanese athletes trained for more than two months in Thimphu and also stayed for a week at Laya to acclimatise.  The Bhutanese athletes said that the third and fourth day leg from Lhedhi to Geche Wom and Geche Wom to Julay tsho was the most challenging because of the  altitude. They scaled more than 4,000masl.

“On the third day, I lost the way for one and a half hours on the way towards Gophula. I lost GPS connection, luckily, I saw a group of horsemen and followed them,”  said Sangay Wangchuk, 39.

Sangay Wangchuk took part in the snowman calibration run in 2019. “I was confident after that,” said Sangay Wangchuk, a soldier based in Gelephu.

Before the race began from Gasa on October 13, Sangay, 30, was not well. He came third in the first three days. “I got well and made up for the time I lost,” he said. Sangay came first in the fourth and fifth day.

Sangay said that he lost track three times in five days. He started running in 2016 by participating in local marathons. In 2017, he trekked from Sephu to Gasa in five days.

Gawa Zangpo, 27, from Mongar said that the second day was  the most challenging as the track was uneven.  “I have never been in such a difficult race.”

He said that Bhutanese participants have undergone intensive selection process. “I expected to be in the top three.” Gawa was among those who went to Lunana to mark the Snowman race track in 2017.


Home advantage?

For Karma Yangden, a villager from Laya, the race was a part of life. The 30-year-old participated in the Laya run twice and was confident of completing it if not ahead of all the participants.

“I had no problem running uphill,” she said. “Climbing down was a challenge,” said the youngest among five siblings.

A-23-year-old Lhamo from Lingzhi is a soldier based at  Damthang, Haa.   Running was a part of her life. Lhamo said that the Gophula trail was the most difficult.  “I felt restless, but didn’t give up. Some of my international friends provided me with energising jelly.”

Kinzang Lhamo, 24, from Trashigang was worried about wild animals. “I lost track and people in Lunana told me to give up, but I didn’t,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sangay from RBA is the first to reach Chamkhar, Bumthang yesterday from Julay tsho on the final day of the five-day snowman race. He took 4hrs, 50mins and 48secs. He was followed by Gawa Zangpo in 4hrs, 56mins and 5secs.

Sangay Wangchuk came third with 4hrs, 57mins and 37secs.  It takes two days to travel from Julay Tsho to Chamkhar for most people.

Kinzang Lhamo is the first female to reach the finish line at Chamkhar town yesterday. She completed the race in 6hrs, 57mins and 04 secs. Tashi Chozom came second. She took 7hrs,4mins and 59secs. Karma Yangden came third. She finished in 7hrs,10mins and 59secs.

Foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji graced the ceremony at Chamkhar multi sports ground as the  chief guest where hundreds of people came to cheer and welcome the runners.