Running a marathon can be a challenge under the best of conditions. Imagine doing so at over 11,000 feet.
I had heard of the annual marathon in Ladakh but I was not sure if they ran the full distance of 26 miles 385 yards or did they give concessions to the runners. So I decided to personally attend the 2008 edition and see for myself. Travellers to Ladakh are advised a day of minimal physical activity before they may venture out, so harsh can the high altitudes be. And here you have runners who could be running a full marathon.
And not a handful, but 250 of them. From all over the world. Vying for honours in the full and half marathons as well as the five and ten kilometer runs. Men and women, young and old, they all participate in the Great Tibetan Marathon (that’s what it is called) every year and set new standards in human spirit and endurance. Footballers often complain of an unfair advantage to the home team when they have to travel to Bolivia and play matches at high altitudes; they should seek inspiration from these runners.
While they are at it, they can also expect some holy blessings. The marathon gets flagged off at Hemis Monastery, the highest seat of Buddhism every year, near Leh. The 2009 edition takes place on Saturday July 18 – plan your travels to Ladakh around this date. Runners are greeted by rows of Ladakhis dressed in their local traditional dresses, giving you smiles to lift your spirits no cheerleader can match.
Of course, these runners are also the subject of a lot of curiosity. The residents from Hemis village and the resident lamas at the monastery do not quite know what to make of these athletes. Especially since most of the runners, especially those from overseas, are not exactly dressed modestly by the monastery’s and the region’s conservative standards. And we talking only running shorts and sleeveless tops worn by women. No one seemed to frowning though including the senior lamas who were all smiles hosting these guests.
Of course, they may have disapproved of one the runners, a tall curly haired one probably from Italy, who was trying to turn on his charms on any woman he could. He got a little rap on his wrist by one for guess what? For fingering her in the backside. Oops. He could have got into trouble. Not from the woman who just laughed it off but from some locals. But the action was too brief to have got anyone’s attention.
The boy lamas were having their share of fun, being playful even as a few were particularly pensive. There was a cop who could not help feeling amused at what was happening around him. He was also wondering why anyone bothered sending him to the event. Surely no one was expecting any law and order problem here.
An official ceremony included some prayers and music by the senior lamas. This was followed by holy water being distributed through an urn. Participants were given these in the cup of their palms and they were expected to touch their lips to it and then spread it on their hair. It is a common ritual for Indians, but some foreigners were expectedly clumsy about it. No worries; it is the spirit that counts.
The runners came from all over the world. Iceland, Italy, USA, UK, Germany, South Africa, Denmark, Mexico, Singapore, Australia and Canada to name just a few. The youngest were two girls, looking twins, aged around ten with their mother. The oldest could have been in their sixties. The Indian runners were there in full force too, many of them school children running the two shorter races. A default presence in any international athletics event for their prowess, this marathon was marked by the conspicuous absence of any African runners.
An announcement called for all runners to take their positions as the King of Ladakh was ready to flag off the event. The King of Ladakh? Only the previous night we were having discussions about unfair Ladakhi representation in the state Assembly and the national Parliament. What is a monarchy doing in a modern democratic set up? The erstwhile royal family still gets to maintain their palace but have no powers of any kind. They lost these to outside invaders long before even India attained independence and became a democracy. But is he the King of Ladakh? Click here to read a post on this.
And the runners were off – on a race where just participating and completing may seem victory enough.
The official website of The Great Tibetan Marathon: http://www.great-tibetan-marathon.com