The night is pitch dark – only the jagged edges of the Karakoram mountains are faintly visible against their vast, celestial backdrop. The rhythmic sound of footsteps crunching gravel. The distant glow of a headlamp illuminates the bend as a runner approaches – his breathing heavy, his face a portrait of grit. This is not a scene from a noir thriller but a glimpse into one of the most grueling foot races on earth. Starting at an altitude of 10,700 ft at Kyagar in Nubra Valley, the 122k Silk Route Ultra goes past the Khardungla Pass at 17,618 ft all the way down to Leh at 11,562 ft. Its sister race, the Khardungla Challenge, takes off from Khardung village at 13090 ft and traverses the eponymous pass on its 72k course to Leh. Both these ultra-marathons are held under the umbrella event of the Ladakh Marathon, which takes place in the city of Leh, and together, these are the highest altitude distance races on earth, certified by the Association of International Marathons (AIMS).
The sight of these long-distance runners, dressed in windproof jackets, wearing headlamps and carrying hydration packs, as they battle the extreme variation in altitude and temperature, harks back to the days of the historical Silk Route, when caravans of traders and explorers walked these crossroads that linked Ladakh to the Central Asian highlands. This rugged land of high passes has been a gateway for the exchange of men, material and ideas through the ages.
Chewang Motup Goba, the founder of the Ladakh Marathon, has always believed in the sporting potential of Ladakhis. “Most of our youth are not exposed to good education and cannot compete with people from other parts of the country, but being born at this altitude, with our god gifted big lungs and hearts, we have a natural potential to be good at endurance sports.” Proof of this came in the early 1990s with the rise of Rigzen Angmo, a female marathon runner from Skarbuchan. Scouted through the Special Area Games – a Sports Authority of India programme to find sporting talent among remote tribal, rural and coastal communities – Angmo became one of the top female marathon runners in India, securing podium finishes at marathons in Delhi, Kathmandu, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. With this precedent in mind, Motup started the Ladakh Marathon in 2012, to provide a platform for Ladakhi athletes, with the hope of finding the next Angmo and perhaps a future Olympian.
Though the Ladakh Marathon is high up on every runner’s bucket list today, running at high altitude is not for the faint-hearted. The brain doesn’t get enough blood and one can get disoriented and nauseous. Hypoxia – the absence of oxygen in the tissues to sustain bodily functions – can set in rapidly. Acclimatisation, therefore, is the biggest concern for the organisers, as many participants, coming in from hectic schedules in the cities, can’t spare enough time to acclimatise (recommended 7-10 days), and put themselves at grave risk.
Altitude, however, is no problem for Ladakhi athletes, who have dominated all categories of the event since its inception. Most male winners in the ultra-marathons have come from the Ladakh Scouts, a highly decorated infantry regiment of the Indian Army. Nicknamed the ‘Snow Leopards’, the Scouts specialise in mountain warfare, guarding India’s high altitude frontiers in the region. Naik Shabbir Hussain of the Ladakh Scouts has turned into a local celebrity over the years, winning the Khardungla Challenge three times. This year, he won the Silk Route Ultra with a time of 15:27:53.
Until 2022, the difference in winning times between Ladakhis and the rest was upwards of four hours, in the ultra-marathons. But a different story unfolded this year, with Amit Kumar Gulia of Chandigarh putting in a strong performance and reducing the gap to under an hour, with a time of 16:21:25. This is testament to the growing popularity of ultra-marathons in the country. The Silk Route Ultra, with 47 athletes, had runners from Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Darjeeling, Jharkhand and Assam, all eager to test their mettle against the brutal Trans-Himalayan terrain. The Khardungla Challenge, now in its 10th edition, saw a record 261 participants, most of them Indians. All the race categories included, the event saw participation of runners from 19 countries and 29 states in India.
Maik Becker from Switzerland has been coming to the Ladakh Marathon since 2016. This year, he ran the Silk Route Ultra and brought along two friends, Igor Kirsic from Croatia and Marco Max Kuehhirt from Germany, to run the Khardungla Challenge. They spent two weeks acclimatising, with a trek in Markha Valley and cycling and biking trips around Leh. Disillusioned with the European fixation on timings and personal bests, these runners are looking for a more holistic and culturally enriching experience which Ladakh provides. “Things changed in Europe during the pandemic when there were no running events and people took to the trails themselves, and realized that they didn’t really need a bib number to run,” says Becker, who has run in numerous ultra-distance races across India – in the Rann of Kutch, the mountains of Darjeeling and the windblown desolation of the Leh-Manali highway.
The impact of the Ladakh Marathon on the local community is most visible through the boost in tourism. With 6,000 registered runners arriving a week in advance along with families, the event provides a shot in the arm for the local economy towards the end of its short tourist season, which runs from June to September. But given Ladakh’s fragile ecology, tourism comes at a heavy price. The city of Leh, with about 40,000 permanent residents and a floating population of four lakh people during the tourist season, puts immense pressure on the civic administration of the newly formed Union Territory.
On July 22, a cloudburst in Nubra Valley resulted in the destruction of a reservoir, known as a Zing, in Kyagar. The Zing was built in the 19th century to collect glacial water for the use of irrigation in the village. The cloud burst triggered a flash flood that carried an immense volume of glacial sediment that choked the reservoir and made it defunct. As part of the Ladakh Marathon’s commitment to the local community, the water partner of the event, a leading mineral water brand, donated the money for the restoration of the Zing, bringing much needed relief to the farmers of Kyagar.
Sustainability is something that Motup feels strongly about. One of the first changes he made was for the event to go bottle-free in 2019, replacing plastic bottles at aid-stations with biodegradable glasses made from sugarcane waste. From next year, he plans to introduce re-usable glasses that will further reduce waste generation. This year, the event took its first steps towards charity, supporting the People’s Action Group for Inclusion and Rights (PAGIR), an NGO that works for a just and inclusive society for the differently abled; and Riglam School, which educates under-privileged children from the remote regions of Ladakh.
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The event receives the bulk of registrations for the 42k full marathon and its affiliate races – 5k, 11.2k and 21k. Once again, the full marathon this year was dominated by Ladakhis, the star among them Jigmet Dolma, who has more than 30 podium finishes in marathons across the country. In just over a decade of distance running, Dolma has stacked career earnings upwards of 15 lakh, a respectable amount for the daughter of a subsistence farmer from Igoo. She now works on contract with the Ladakh Police where she hopes to find permanent employment.
In January this year, Ladakh got its first open synthetic track and football turf at Spituk, under the Khelo India Programme. Though the facility has certainly benefitted the athletes, there still exists a lack of good coaching. Says Dolma, “We have reached the present level purely on talent but we can perform even better with the necessary support.” With the Ladakh Marathon firmly established as a world-class event and the growing infrastructure push from the government, all that remains is a professional coaching programme to produce quality athletes from Ladakh, who could take Indian distance running to the world stage.
Sidharth Singh is a Mumbai-based writer, filmmaker and live-sports producer