Above: Photo by: Himalayan Trail Running
From April 19 to June 6, 2023 Tayte Pollmann, American Trail Running Association, “Trail Trotter” traveled to the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas, to discover Nepal’s trail running scene. He had traveled to the country five years prior, and was impressed by the talents of Nepali runners who moved with ease on some of the world’s highest and most technically difficult running trails. In this most recent forty-eight day Nepal trip, he set intentions of meeting local Nepali runners (elite to back-of-the-pack), learning about Nepal’s trail racing scene, and discovering what the sport offers to locals and foreigners. Pollmann’s mission was to highlight mountain running in Nepal, a mecca for mountain running, that is largely ignored by Western media. His travels took him to the remote Western region of the country where his blonde hair, blue eyes and American pronunciation of the local greeting “Namaste” were marvels to the locals unaccustomed to outsiders, as well as to central and Eastern regions more frequented by tourists, including the country’s most popular trekking trail, The Everest Base Camp Trek. The following article is a series of three articles, each focusing on trail races that Pollmann attended during his travels to better understand Nepal’s small but flourishing trail running community. This series intends to shine a light on mountain runners who challenge themselves on trails among the world’s tallest peaks and whose talents go largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.
Nepal’s Fishtail 100: Hard Races Don’t Ask for Attention
The inaugural Fishtail 100 held May 13, 2023, near the resort town of Pokhara, Nepal, could well earn recognition as one of the “world’s toughest 50Ks and 100Ks,” but by Nepali standards, it was just another weekend trail race.
In the United States, we take pride in bringing attention to the “toughness” of our races. Some think the gnarlier the better, especially when bragging rights are at stake. The Speedgoat 50K (Snowbird, UT) and the Rut 50K (Big Sky, Montana) are routinely debated amongst our trail running community as the hardest 50Ks in the country, and the Hardrock 100 (Silverton, Colorado) has earned an international reputation that lives up to its name as being “Hard.” In Nepal, locals don’t have the same desire to label or gauge their races on any sort of scale.
There’s grit ingrained in Nepal’s small but talented trail running community that allows them to accept “toughness” with certain normality consistent with their ways of living— long days spent working in rice or corn fields, twelve-hour bus rides over dangerous mountain roads in buses that are filled with twice their recommended capacity, children herding mischievous goats across mountainous passes without adult supervision, sifting sand and pebbles the old school way with shovels and fine metal mesh in scorching heat, or carrying bags of rice to villages 5,000 feet above into the great Himalayas Mountain range. Nepalis don’t expect life to be easy and luxurious, nor do they expect this of their trail races.
Nepalese Trail Running 101
Nepal is a country of thirty million people with an area roughly the size of the state of Arkansas. It is sandwiched between the world’s two most populated countries, China and India, and is a major access point to the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range, which includes Mount Everest at 29,035 feet. The country offers countless trails with breathtaking views and is home to a thriving trail running community with some of the most talented runners in the world. Nepali runners possess an incredible ability to run on challenging Himalayan terrain with ease, while most visitors of the Himalayas struggle to breathe at such heights, let alone run.
In 2019, the Salomon Golden Trail World Series Final, an event regarded as one of the premier competitions in trail running, was hosted in Nepal. This brought some of the top-ranked trail runners from Europe and America to the country and provided local runners the chance to showcase their home trails and go head-to-head with professional trail runners from the West. Nepalese runners held their ground, placing four in the top ten in the women’s race and three in the top ten in the men’s race. The field included such international stars of the sport, including Kilian Jornet, Stian Angermund, Sage Canaday, Judith Wyder, Ruth Croft, and Meg McKenzie. It’s rare to hear Nepalese people brag about the heights of their mountains, nor the strength of their running ability, but that they have already proven to be world-class.
The Fishtail 100 was a mere tuneup race for many of the hardcore Nepalese elite runners and an unexpected grind for the handful of international trail runners, including several Americans, who signed up for the race. The Fishtail 50K finish times were comparable to 100K finish times in the US (9 to 21 hours) and 100K finish times to 100-mile times (20 to 27 hours). For a comparison of difficulty, the Speedgoat 50K had 10,800 feet of elevation gain while the Fishtail 100 50K had 17,000 feet of elevation gain/15,000 feet of elevation loss and reached a high point of 12,000 feet. The Fishtail 100K had 25,000 feet of elevation gain/26,000 feet of elevation loss and the same max elevation. The combination of high altitude and significant elevation change, as well as the rooty, rocky, and often loosely maintained Nepalese trails, made for difficult running. Another challenging feature was the miles of stone steps throughout the course. The steps slowed downhill running due to the extra efforts of foot coordination and added to the accumulative muscular fatigue from the harsher impact on hard stones instead of the soft trail. It was a race course of challenging ups and downs without any flats.
High Demands, Higher Rewards
The race’s namesake, The Fishtail, known as Machapuchre in Nepalese, is one of the most iconic peaks in the Annapurna region of central Nepal. The Fishtail’s sharp, prominent summit is reminiscent of the Matterhorn in Switzerland—or, for those who view the world not by eyes but by their sweet tooth, the mountain on the packaging of Toblerone chocolates. The peak stands 22,900 feet, over 8,000 feet taller than the Matterhorn. Although the Fishtail is one of the tallest mountains in the world, it is not particularly tall by Himalayan standards, and its neighboring Annapurna I summit, the tenth highest mountain in the world, sits nearly 4,000 thousand feet above at 26,500 feet. However, the majesty of the Fishtail is about more than its height. The peak’s aesthetic beauty, prominence from the peaks around it, and spiritual nature as a “holy mountain” that the Nepalese government has never permitted to be climbed give it unparalleled respect among all of the mountains in the Himalayas—including the tallest Everest itself.
“Don’t climb the Fishtail, ok?” jokes race director Jagan Timilsina, accomplished race director, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructor, mountaineer, and jack-of-all-trades adventure athlete. He is briefing runners about the first climb of the race: 8,000 feet in just over nine miles. That’s just the first climb. In almost any other mountain range around the world, climbing 8,000 feet would allow you to reach the range’s highest summits or ridgelines, yet here in the Himalayas, that earns runners one of the closest views of the Fishtail, which rises 10,000 feet above them from the race highpoint. The race course also includes sections of Nepal’s classic Mardi Himal Trekking Route, which attracts thousands of international trekkers each year. Runners reached “Low Camp,” “Forest Camp,” and “Rest Camp,” all traditional stops along the classic Mardi Himal Trekking Route. While trekkers spend days resting and acclimatizing along the Mardi Himal route, runners sampled many sections of the route and surrounding areas in a single push.
It Takes A Village To Build A Sport
Himalayan Trail Running, regarded as one of Nepal’s leading trail race organizations, hosted this inaugural Fishtail 100. The organization has also managed several of the country’s most prestigious events, including the Annapurna 100, Everest 135, Annapurna Mandala, and 2019 Golden Trail World Series Final, as well as three previous editions of the “Fishtail Race,” which included 42, 21, and 5-kilometer distances.
Timilsina is interested in creating professional and organized races, as well as growing his company’s reputation internationally. The 2023 Fishtail 100 awarded both UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and ITRA (International Trail Running Association) points, both of which give credibility to his events for recognition globally and not just in Nepal. Timilsina shares his thoughts on the future of his race and international involvement, “Offering UTMB and ITRA points will help our local runners earn some international recognition and give a few of the top runners more potential to race internationally. No race is perfect, especially given that this race is in its first year doing the ultramarathon distances, but we wanted to try to grow our event in new ways. We want especially for our participants to give us lots of feedback and tell us what we can do better. Even now that we’ve put on many races across Nepal, there is always more to learn.”
The most difficult challenges for race directors in Nepal are resources and logistics. This applies even to Timilsina, one of the country’s most renowned race directors. How to get supplies up to remote villages that have only Jeep or singletrack trail access, organize partnerships with local tea houses who can provide food, drink, or potential shelter to runners, double check if village children have taken down course markings, as well as how to coordinate funding, are just a few of many common challenges for trail race directors in Nepal. Large brand sponsorships similar to what one might see at US races, such as The Broken Arrow Skyrace, sponsored by outdoor space companies, including Salomon, Garmin, and Sierra Nevada, don’t exist in Nepal. The country is overrun with fake gear, off-brand Nikes or The North Face jackets, and these cheaper knockoff items have far greater sales than actual brands’ products. Furthermore, Nepal’s international status and poor economy don’t encourage investment. What little resources and funding are available to races comes from the government’s sports commissions if the race is well-established and lucky enough to earn government attention, donors, local businesses, and race entry fees. For these reasons, race participation numbers and race organizations are smaller in Nepal than in most countries where trail running exists. But even if the participant numbers and race funding are small, the experience of trail running in the world’s tallest mountains is anything but small.
Unexpected Difficulties, Expected Results
A total of twenty-six runners toed the line for both the 100K and 50K of the Fishtail 100. The smaller field allowed Timilsina and his team the opportunity to work out race logistics with longer distances, as well as test the impact of awarding UTMB and ITRA points. There was a mix of international runners and Nepali runners, and as one might expect, race results were dominated by Nepal. The top three male and female in the 50K were as follows:
Arjun Rai Kulung, Nepal 9:11:16
Man Kumar Roka Magar, Nepal, 10:03:06
Niroj Bhatta Chhetri, Nepal, 10:06:41
Anita Rai, Nepal, 11:46:23
Anita Rai, Nepal, 12:13:28
Aigul Mockba Ganieva, Russia, 14:21:36
Late evening monsoon season rains added difficulty to the already challenging 100K course. Out of seven participants in the 100K, there were only two official finishers:
Ashok Baram, Nepal, 20:10:55
Bhimiraj Roka, Nepal, 27:58:13
Fun fact: Baram not only won the 100K race but also helped mark the course only days before the event.
50K race winner Arjun Rai Kulung, who became sponsored in the weeks leading up to this event by The North Face Adventure Team, a team based in Hong Kong that supports and trains a handful of Asia’s top trail runners, was excited to take home a win in his home country for his first race as a professional runner. Kulung describes his race experience, “Before the race, my strategy planned with my team was to run as smoothly as possible so I could feel not too tired with my body destroyed at the finish. The 85K World Mountain and Trail Running Championships is in just four weeks’ time, so this was a training race for me. Everything went perfectly, and I even had some energy to dance last night when celebrating with my team, but it was still a very tough race for me because of the huge elevation and high altitude in the first half. So much of the course you could not run with endless stairs making the time much longer for everyone. I’m so happy to win the first race with my new team…I feel like my life has already changed so much in just the last few days. I want to thank The North Face, Coros, and Asia Pacific Adventure for believing in me.”
Trail running’s largest participation and fanbase is in Europe and America, but that doesn’t mean it will always be this way. Currently, most Western media focuses its attention on the large crowds of France’s UTMB or America’s iconic races such as the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. There are household names in the American trail running community, such as Courtney Dauwalter, Jim Walmsely, or Scott Jurek, who provide runners with inspiration, someone to cheer for or to watch for entertaining memes (@yaboyscottjurek fans anyone?). Race crowds are growing, and new technologies, such as race live streaming and “Freetrail Fantasy” make viewership, fan engagement, and sponsorship deals higher than ever.
The weekend of the Fishtail 100 was the same weekend as the Golden Trail Series World Series Race, Zegama, which meant the news of the Fishtail 100 was likely lost in the whirlwind of Zegama content published by most major trail running media. By no means do I discourage the growth and excitement from our races in the West, but I do encourage readers to consider how our sport is practiced in countries on the other side of the world, such as Nepal, and recognize that the people doing this sport are every bit as excited and serious about it as we are.
American trail runner Charles Hornbaker, who traveled to Nepal to run the Jumla Rara Ultra Marathon and the Fishtail 100 race in preparation for the Hardrock 100 later this summer, had to say about his experiences trail running in Nepal, “Races in Nepal were some of the most challenging courses I’ve ever seen, and also some of the most inspiring seeing how talented many of the Nepali runners are. Despite not having many resources, they put a lot of effort into putting these races together and making it a good experience for everyone (even those who don’t finish!). It definitely feels like early days for the ultrarunning scene here, and I’m excited to see how it grows in the coming years—I think once the word gets out to the wider running community, a lot of people will want to come here and experience this crazy beautiful and challenging terrain.”
Nepal is not a place that asks for attention. Yet, when you do see its mountains, they will keep you staring. The Himalayas, including the sacred Fishtail and the wonderful community of Nepalese trail runners, don’t brag about how exceptional they are, yet for those of us lucky enough to travel there, we come to understand what this place and these people can offer to the global sport of trail running. I encourage thinking outside of our Western-framed mind of numbers and labels. Forget words and phrases such as the “toughest” or “most participants” and “more sponsors,” and look to the Himalayas for the pureness of the sport that’s about completing exceptional challenges in beautiful places with welcoming people. It may still be some time before Nepal reaches the full attention of mainstream trail running media it deserves, but similar to climbing a Himalayan mountain, the reward of reaching the highest peaks will be like nothing you’ve ever seen. You’ll be on top of the world in ways you’ve never felt.