Though the word "Kashmir" has become synonymous with international conflict and human rights violations, the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is also home to a Buddhist community perched at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet — the district of Ladakh.
Ladakh borders China and has a heavy military presence. Still, the land of passes and monasteries remains peaceful and attracts tourists from around the world. Recently, the city of Leh, Ladakh's capital, greeted a unique set of visitors — runners. Thousands flocked to participate in the Ladakh Marathon, which claims to be the highest marathon in the world.
"People thought it was the Everest marathon, but they begin at base camp at 17,000 feet and run down," said Yangdu Gombu, who founded the run with her husband, Chewang Motup Goba. "We start at Khardung village at 14,000 feet, and take the Ultra runners through the Khardung La pass [at 18,380 feet]."
Apart from the 72 kilometer ultra marathon (roughly 44.5 miles), the internationally certified event also includes a 7 kilometer "Run for Fun," a half marathon and a full marathon. While runners in the shorter categories run around the city of Leh at 11,080 feet, the ultra participants see a total altitude change of 7,000 feet while running through stunning and ecologically fragile terrain.
Local children collect before participating in the 7K 'Run for Fun' at the Ladakh Marathon | (Nimisha Jaiswal/Courtesy PRI's The World)
"Nobody goes to Khardung village to stay, so they don't know about tourism," said Gombu. Over the last five years, the villagers of Khardung have been encouraged by the race organizers to expand their homes and prepare meals for the runners, who acclimatize in the village for at least a day before the run. "It's for the benefit of the community also, we involve the whole village."
Even with the support of villagers, the race organizers have to mobilize a massive team to care for the ultra participants. This year, 14 mobile aid stations provide the 104 runners with water, sandwiches, soup, fruit, energy drinks, and oxygen supplies, while ambulances responded to medical emergencies along the route. A "sweep car" in the back picked up flagging runners, and organizers shuttled up and down the route, checking on weakening runners and sometimes running alongside them.
"All such runners, they don't want to stop, so we have to make them stop sometimes," said Gombu. Last year, they had to stop a runner whose oxygenation levels were plummeting to dangerous levels.
Taking care of runners is further complicated by the lack of telecommunications connectivity in Ladakh. Cellphone networks do not work at the highest altitudes, so the organizers depend on radio contact. At the finish line this year, organizers talked into radio handsets, arranging for medical support for a participant who had collapsed because of hypothermia.
"We couldn't bring him over the pass [because of the increased altitude], even a chopper was considered," said Gombu. He was eventually moved to an Army medical camp in the region where his vitals were restored.
The rise in tourism has added pressure to the region's ecology, with a rising number of hotels aggravating the water shortage in Leh Valley. Callous tourists wash their cars in the lakes and litter the valleys. Though the region recuperates during the harsh winter, a frozen river trek is becoming popular — and shortening that break. Yet, this tourism is crucial to Ladakh's economic growth. Unlike Khardung, the city of Leh is teeming with hotels, guest houses, local handicraft stores, and cafes, which shut down when the harsh winter sets in, usually in late September.
"A few weeks ago, there were very few people, everyone left because of the cold," said Milan Tamang, who runs a local café which will be closing for the winter in a week. "Now there are many visitors from around India and some foreigners because of the marathon, it has been good for business."
Because of a lack of manpower and resources, the support of local communities along the race route is crucial for the race. The runs also provide the communities with economic opportunities that would be hard to come by in the colder months.
"Over 2,000 people came in from outside Ladakh to participate in the marathon," Gombu said. This year's race attracted participants from around India as well as from Germany, Japan, Singapore, Israel, the U.K., and the U.S.
The organizers recommend runners arrive in Leh one to two weeks before the run, to acclimatize. Jun Fujita, 45, flew in from Tokyo two days before his 72-kilometer journey through Ladakh. "I was travelling in Ladakh three weeks ago and I shared a very nice picture from here on Facebook," said Yuko Fujita, his wife. "He saw it and decided to run the marathon."
Because of his busy work schedule, Jun couldn't take the time to acclimatize in Leh. Instead, he rented a low oxygen room in Tokyo for an hour every day after work, to prepare for what he would face in Leh. "I think the low oxygen room helped, but I wasn't prepared for the air pressure," said Jun, who is also conditioned for high altitude running as he visits and runs at Mt. Fiji every weekend. "But it was very nice, very beautiful."
Jun crossed the finish line in about 13 hours and 20 minutes, shortly before the 14 hour cut-off. To the surprise of spectators, Jun slowed to a walk right before the finish line. As he gestured, a very emotional Yuko ran out to hand him a flag of Japan to cross the finish line with.
It wasn't Jun alone in whom the grueling run evoked a sense of national pride. Shabbir Hussain, a 22-year-old member of the Ladakh Scouts, a division of the Indian Army, believes the marathon is a wonderful opportunity for the people of Ladakh. "Many people can attain great heights because of this run, and bring pride to Ladakh," said Hussain, who came in first in the ultra category with a time of 6 hours and 23 minutes. Rigzen Norbu, also of the Ladakh Scouts, came in second, two minutes later.
Both men have been running the Ladakh marathon since its inception in 2012, when they were still in school. According to Yangdu, the Army sought out the men after learning about their performance in the race. "[The Ladakh Scouts] have been absorbing all the winners, and they are keen on recruiting the winner of the half marathon this year," Gombu said. "It's good to see these boys doing so well."
Chewang Motup, the co-founder of the Ladakh Marathon, was an avid runner in school and is passionate about encouraging young Ladakhis to excel.
"With the physiological make-up and higher lung capacity of Ladakhis, Chewang is sure these kids can do very well in long distance runs outside Ladakh, too," Yangdu said. This is why the organizers provide financial support to Ladakh Marathon winners to enable them to participate in runs around the country. Race participants also volunteer to train young Ladakhis in Leh and in Mumbai.
In the past five years, the enthusiasm for running seems to have grown steadily among locals. This year, young students from Leh's schools milled around the race grounds, waiting for the 7K race to start. Of 2,800 participants in the shorter race this year, 2,500 were locals.
The top finishers in the half marathon were locals, too.