Global Limits Bhutan – A Magical Week of Running

It began in a Hotel in Thimphu

The hardest thing about running a 125 mile race at altitude in Bhutan, is getting to Bhutan. As you’d expect, there’s no direct flights from the UK, and flights into Paro only depart from Delhi, Bangkok and Kathmandu. I won’t bore you with details here, but there’s pros and cons with all three routes, so if you happen to be planning a trip to Bhutan, message me for details. We flew via Delhi, and despite a lengthy and expensive visa fiasco pre-flight, the flight itself was smooth and stress-free.

After the 60 minute journey from Paro to the pre-race hotel in Thimphu, we went through registration and kit check (where it became apparent that I was the only runner who’d brought such a vast array of running outfits!), before a pre-race dinner where we met our fellow runners. It was in part a reunion of previous multi-day races as we met up with Eric (Jordan 2014), Andy (Ecuador 2015) and Uwe and Magda (Ecuador 2015 and Patagonia 2017) again.

The race is capped at just fifty runners and is always over-subscribed (and Stefan, the Race Director, consciously won’t increase numbers), but seemed a particularly strong field this year – on the female side was Elisabet, an elite runner from Iceland, with a massively impressive mountain running CV; Angela, a German living in America, who was relatively new to ultras (although had won Atacama Crossing last year in one of the fastest times ever), but was phenomenally fast and naturally talented; Katherine, from Hong Kong, who was really strong on technical trails; and Magda, from Germany, who has incredible endurance with races like the Yukon Arctic Ultra to her name.

Although I’d had an absolutely brilliant week of racing in my last multi-day race in Patagonia and was delighted to take home the win, at times I felt like I barely had time to look up and appreciate that I was running through this amazing landscape in Argentina. I’ve wanted to visit Bhutan for what feels like forever, so this time I was going into the race thinking of it more as an ‘active holiday’, and whilst I obviously wanted to run it well, I planned to run the whole race with Tom and I was even going to break my hardfast ‘rule’ of no taking photos whilst racing!

Camp 1 – Tea and biscuits!

I’m always restless on the day before we start racing on a multi-day race, but the Saturday before stage 1 was taken up with sightseeing and making the journey to camp 1. I’d only ever run self-supported races before so my only experience of camp life was of communal tents, whereas here we had 2-person tents, so if I ignored the ‘poo-hole’ behind our tent, it essentially felt like me and Tom were ‘glamping’ in Bhutan!

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Basically a ‘glamping’ holiday in Bhutan!

If the excitement of our own tent wasn’t enough, Stefan then told us tea, coffee and biscuits were available, before dinner would be served at 6pm after the race briefing. As someone who is used to living on freeze-dried rehydrated food rations during multi-stage races and having to reuse a teabag three times, the prospect of unlimited cups of tea and ‘proper’ food served on a plate with cutlery, was almost too much excitement for me for one day!

Stage 1 – Fast, furious and finishing with a ‘shower’

Stage 1 departed from outside the Punakha Dzong, where several hundred local school children sang the Bhutanese national anthem to us, and then the Lama of the Dzong blessed all the runners – it was certainly the most novel race start I’ve ever experienced!

And with that….we were off! 125 miles and 30,000 feet separating us from the finish line. From the off, the pace was fast and furious (and this was pretty much the pattern of the week as both male and female course records were broken on almost every day). The first few miles were on tarmac, before we crossed over the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, and then headed onto gorgeous trails.

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Don’t look down! Running across the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan

The weather was a lot hotter and humid than I was expecting as we were only at around 4,000 feet elevation at this stage, but it was one of those perfect running days. The miles flew by as we ran past farmhouses where locals gave us big waves and cheers, and small children ran beside us asking our names and where we were from. It was one of those days where it was impossible not to run with a huge smile on your face.

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Running with the locals

The stage finished with a long climb up to Chorten Nyingpo Monastery, where camp 2 was sited. We crossed the line in 3:42 (9th/10th overall and me as 3rd lady). Angela and Elisabet had set a phenomenal pace at the front with Angela breaking the course record in 3:03.

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Approaching the finish line of stage 1

At the finish line, we were given a bottle of Coke….again I wasn’t used to such treats in multi-day racing! And whilst I never drink Coke in ‘normal’ life, after running lots of hot, humid and hilly miles, then believe me few things will taste better in life than the bottle of Coke we were given at the end of each stage!

We were also told that there were showers for us to use; now ‘shower’ actually translates to an outside cold water tap, but considering my personal hygiene for the week in previous multi-day races had consisted of a couple of baby wipes a day if I was lucky, this freezing cold tap felt like pure luxury!

Stage 2 – Fairying around on technical trails 

Every evening we were given a race briefing for the following day, and Stefan told us that day 1 had been a gentle introduction and the real running would begin on stage 2.

And he wasn’t joking. The day started with three undulating miles, but even here the terrain was challenging underfoot, so the poles came out as I needed every help I could to keep me upright.

And then we started climbing. Over the next approximately 8 miles we ascended over 5,000 feet (to put that into some kind of context, that’s the same kind of ascent that you cover in the full 50 miles of the SDW50!). It wasn’t just the steepness of the trail, it was also the technicality of it, and every step needed 100% concentration, as there was a rock, tree root or mud just waiting as an accident to happen. Although it was the steepest, most technical trail I’ve ever run on, it was exactly the reason you’ve come to race in Bhutan. And despite the difficulty of the trail and the 11,000+ feet elevation we reached, it was impossible again not to spend every minute of this stage with a huge smile on your face, thinking how unbelievably lucky you were to be running here.

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My poor calves – 8 miles and 5,000+ feet of this terrain!

Even when we reached the summit, it didn’t get any easier as the first few miles of descent were through rocky technical canyons, and it’s no secret what a fairy I am at technical descents!

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Standard descending like a fairy!

Finally we hit more runnable trails and for the first time all day could get our running legs on, finishing the day in 5:38 and 10th/11th overall and me as 4th lady.  Elisabet showed her pure running class on this day, as she missed some markings early on and lost 15-20 minutes by the time she rejoined the field towards the back; however she ended up catching and passing everyone apart from the top three men.

For our third night, we were staying in a farmhouse, owned by the parents of one of the local Bhutanese runners. Every year Global Limits sponsors two local runners to run the race (this year Zamba and Jigme). Zamba’s family home had been used as a host house for the race for the previous 5 years, and now 22 year old Zamba was getting the chance to run the race. About fifteen of us were packed like sardines into communal rooms like giggling children having a sleepover, where again we had the luxury of a ‘shower’ (translate as cold water hosepipe and bucket), but it did mean after two days of running, there was the novel feeling of being relatively clean!

Stage 3 – Running through prayer flags and playing football up high with the monks

After two days of running, our strengths and weaknesses were apparent – on the really technical trails people would overtake us, whilst on more runnable trails we were faster than a lot of the other runners. I regularly joked with Gudmundor from Iceland, who we were often running close to, that if we could combine his technical skills and my runnable skills, we’d be a dream team! Tom and I therefore decided to adopt the ‘make hay whilst the sun shines’ strategy, and motored on on runnable sections. Stage 3 started in this fashion, and after stage 2’s technical day and an average 17:45 minute pace, it felt great to get our running legs on and crack out 10 or so fast miles on runnable terrain as we skirted the city of Thimphu, before climbing high above it.

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Running high above Thimphu

This climb was even steeper than yesterday’s, but less technical so required less concentration; this was the highest point so far of the race as we reached 12,000 feet, and whilst neither of us were suffering badly with the altitude, the thinner air was definitely noticeable, but when you’re running through umpteen beautiful prayer flags, then it’s easy to forget that at times you’re half gasping for breath with each step. However, we’d capitalised on the more runnable terrain, finishing in 4:10 and 7th/8th overall, and me as 3rd lady.

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Check out the outfit/prayer flag on point colour coordination!
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Every race should involve running through prayer flags!

The finish line and camp 4 was at Phajoding Monastery, home to almost 100 monks aged 5-18, many of whom had been orphaned or given up by their parents as they couldn’t afford to keep them. It was freezing cold up here and we were sleeping in cold classrooms tonight, which was an eye opening experience to the harshness of the conditions the monks experience at life at 12,000 feet, as we were visiting in early summer, and conditions are much more brutal in winter. Again we were offered a ‘shower’, but when Sigurdur, one of the Icelandic runners, came back into our communal ‘bedroom’ and proclaimed the outside tap as the coldest thing he’d ever experienced, then I figured if it’s too cold for a hardened Icelander, then it’s definitely going to be too cold for this softie, so it was a baby wipe kind of day!

Every year Stefan and the Lama organise a football match between the monks and the runners – now you might think you’ve run 60 miles and 15,000 feet over the previous 3 days so the last thing you’d want to do is play football at 12,000 feet in the cold….but it was such good fun, with some runners (that would be Tom, Bobby and Marius!) almost needing to be dragged off the pitch when their time was up!

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It’s not every day you get to play football against monks at 12,000 feet! The monks were deserving 3-1 winners.

Stage 4 – A lot of technical descending ending in a traditional Bhutanese hot bath

We knew day 4 was going to be another technical day with lots of tricky descents, so our main objective was ‘damage limitation’ and to try and not be too fairy-like. The stage started with a short steep climb, up to where we reached the highest point of the race at 12,225 feet. And then we started 6 miles of mostly very, very  technical descending. However, we managed to stay upright and didn’t really lose any places, so our damage limitation strategy was working.

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More descending like a fairy on stage 4

I need to mention the course markings here. Pavel was the course director and in charge of markings with two locals. Every day I thanked him for his superb markings and they really were superb as if I can follow markings and not get lost then he really was doing a good job! Stage 4 particularly, was a mass of weaving trails through dense overgrown woods and trails, but even following those almost hidden trails, Pavel’s orange tape and paint marking was legendary.

There was one final long steep never ending climb, before some more tricky technical descents, and then a final lovely runnable descent down to the outskirts of Paro, where we were staying in another farmhouse. Before we reached the finish line though we had to negotiate fields of rice paddies, so we teetered through these windy narrow tracks, before spotting the familiar Global Limits finish line banner.

Upon arriving at the finish line in 5:48 (9th/10th overall and 3rd lady), Theresa (Stefan’s wife) asked us if we wanted to share with other runners or whether we wanted our own bedroom. Now I loved hanging out with the other runners, but if you’re offered your own room with a proper bed, as opposed to the floor in a communal room, then there’s really no contest!

Probably the most surreal experience of the whole race followed as we’d been told we’d receive a hot bath today. This involved standing in your pants whilst a Bhutanese woman scrubbed every bit of you clean, before you submerged yourself in a traditional hot wooden bath. After 4 days of running, I think few things in life will ever feel more pleasurable!

It was the day that just kept on giving – we’d had a hot bath, we had a bed for the night and just a short walk away there was a shop where we could buy crisps and beer. Today was a day we were definitely winning at life!

Stage 5 – Heat, poo management and ending the day very wet

A few runners had suffered with upset stomachs over the previous couple of days, not helped by 50+ people living in close conditions, and I woke up on the morning of the long day, feeling like it could be my turn. After a high-brow conversation with Dr Ryan over breakfast about whether it’s best for poo to be out or in, he gave me some tablets as I figured it’s one thing needing to go early morning on the South Downs, it’s a very different thing to need to go when you’re skirting Paro at rush hour!

The long stage was a staggered start with the top 18 runners starting at 7am and the rest of the field at 6am; this made for a lovely feeling of camaraderie as the day progressed as you’d get to see and encourage runners you wouldn’t normally see out on the course.

The tablets kicked in and the miles passed quickly on gorgeous runnable trails – I’d already been told that today’s stage would play into my strengths, and whilst we’d been told it was going to get very hot later, we had a couple of hours of relatively cooler, strong running. We passed through more rice paddies – now race paddies are absolutely lovely to look at, but believe me they are a bitch to run through, and every step felt like a disaster waiting to happen and that you’re a millimetre away from a leg knee high in water and mud!

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Doing my best to avoid falling into the rice paddies

The temperature rose dramatically as we descended down into Paro and skirted the airport and edge of town. Tom is reknowned for being awful in heat, and because we knew our overall positions were pretty safe, we could afford to back off the pace a bit and dropped in regular walk breaks on anything that resembled a (very slight!) incline. That and dowsing our heads in any running water we came across, kept us both cool and moving relatively well. Although at one point as we ran in blistering midday heat on scorching tarmac, Tom remarked that this is what Spartathlon will be like for me – so I decided to quickly park that thought for another day!

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Kind of what Spartathlon will be like, except for Spartathlon is a LOT longer!

With just a few miles to go we headed onto more technical trails, and it was at this point that I fell off the narrow river bank I’d been running on, straight into the river, much to the hilarity of Tom and Halldora (another member of the fantastically fun ‘Team Iceland’) who was running behind us. Although the river did serve to cool me down, I was now running in soaking wet clothes from head to toe, so with just a couple of miles to go (and Tom starting to feel sick in the heat) we made an executive decision that I’d run on ahead. I also passed Alan from France at this point; he’d finished in the top 3 all week and was 3rd overall, but had had an awful day in the heat suffering from dehydration, so I left him and Tom to plod the last couple of miles in, whilst I headed to the finish line. Fortunately Stefan had warned us that the actual finish line at Drukyal Dzong involved a steep ascent, because I got a huge cheer as I arrived at camp….but then had another mile or so of steep climb to go. The path wove round and round but I eventually reached the top and another memorable finish line.

Although I crossed the line as 9th day overall/3rd lady in a time of 7:00, on the results I’m actually 6th overall/2nd lady as three runners ahead of me had inadvertently taken a short-cut and subsequently received a 30 minute time penalty. Tom arrived just 10 minutes after me, and after his daily life-saving Coke was soon feeling more human again.

Our final night was to be spent in another farmhouse, and again this time we struck lucky with the sleeping arrangements, and there were just four of us sharing doing our bit for Anglo American relations, with me and Tom flying the flag for the Brits, and Eric and Matt representing the US. The outside (in full view of the restaurant opposite) cold water tap didn’t seem that appealing for a shower, so it was another baby wipe day, before our final evening in camp. Because the race was essentially over (apart from Alan and Michael from Switzerland, more on them later, all the positions were pretty much finalised) we could all put our feet up and have a few celebratory beers, before the final 10 mile push up to the finish line at Tiger’s Nest.

Stage 6 – The Victory Parade up to Tiger’s Nest

Our last night in camp didn’t bring about the best sleep as it felt like every single dog in Bhutan had decided to sit outside our bedroom window and bark at very regular intervals all night….the ironic thing was when we were all getting up at 5am, they decided it was time for them to sleep!

As with the previous day, there was a staggered start with some runners starting at 6am, some at 6:30am and we were starting in the final group at 7am.

I know I was going to finish in the top 10 overall and 3rd lady, a result which I was absolutely delighted with as there were some amazingly strong mountain runners on the start line and I’m the first to admit I’m not a mountain runner by any stretch. Alan had lost a lot of time the previous day and was now 3 minutes behind Michael in 4th so had everything to race for, so when we were set off, he flew off at what looked like his 10k pace; you’d never know he’d already run 115 miles and 25,000 feet over the previous 5 days!

The rest of us adopted a more leisurely approach, first on runnable trails and then onto more technical trails. We were caught by Juan from Argentina who we’d been running close to all week (he was another runner who was better on the technical stuff and then we’d overtake him on the runnable terrain). At this point, Tom started to worry he was going to lose his 9th place to Juan, so he decided he needed to ‘keep Juan in sight’. I told him to go off and I’d see him at the finish line as I wasn’t up to racing hard today as my stomach was still feeling a bit iffy from the previous day.

I teetered along narrow ledges with a sheer drop on one side and a river on the other, and on undulating forest trails, before starting the climb up to Tiger’s Nest at over 10,000 feet. There was just one checkpoint on this final day, and Dr Ryan told me Tom was flying and was about 20 minutes ahead of me. It’s a long steep climb up to Tiger’s Nest and I ascended in a line with Angela and Elisabet. It had been such a privilege to race against two such strong inspiring female runners. Elisabet is an absolute natural in the mountains and I’d watch her climbing, descending and pole technique in complete awe. And Angela is such a brilliant talent, that whilst she is the first to admit that she is still learning with regards to pacing and nutrition when it comes to ultras, her innate speed and natural talent, is going to take her to very high places. They were completely deserving 1st and 2nd place respectively.

Finally Tiger’s Nest came into view, but first we had to descend lots of steps, before ascending again. Global Limits were definitely making us work for our finish line!

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The final descent…..before the final ascent. Spot the little pink dot descending!
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Quite possibly the most impressive finish line in the world

And then there it was. 125 miles/30,000 feet, some of the steepest most technical trails I’ve ever run on, stunning mountain passes, dusty dirt trails, rice paddies, rocky river beds and so much more. I crossed the line in a total time of 28:49:29, 9th overall and 3rd lady. Tom had had a storming last day, finishing second to Alan (who’d broken the course record and reclaimed his 3rd spot), and not only that finishing 8th overall and pipping me at the post to ‘1st Sawyer’!

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That finish line feeling!
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Such a privilege to share a podium with these two amazing runners
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8th/9th overall, 3rd lady, 1st/2nd Sawyer!

After waiting for the final runners to arrive, there’s only one way back down from Tiger’s Nest (which is the way we came up!) and then we headed to our luxury post-race hotel in Paro.

It ended in a Hotel in Paro

As I hadn’t had to live on freeze-dried rations for a week and had even managed a couple of cold showers (plus the hot bath), there wasn’t quite the same hysteria you get when returning to civilisation after a self-supported multi-day race, however a room service pizza, a hot shower, a sit down toilet and a lie down in a huge bed, felt oh so good!

Out final evening involved a cultural show, dinner and an awards ceremony (where the top 3 males/females received the most unique Bhutanese prayer wheel trophy) from the former Chief Justice of Bhutan (I don’t understand Bhutanese politics but I imagine it would be similar to being presented your trophy by the likes of Tony Blair!).

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Global Limits Bhutan Top 3 men/women

I’m writing a separate blog post on some final thoughts on Global Limits, kit, equipment, nutrition and the all-important supported v self-supported multi-day race question, but I’ll leave you with these initial final thoughts on the race:

Global Limits Bhutan delivered in every way possible – Stefan can’t do enough for his runners, the organisation is second to none, the course is a mix of super technical and runnable, and Stefan makes every effort to introduce you to Bhutanese culture throughout the week. It’s a superb race, but also so much more. In fact, if you were to only do one multi-day race in your life, I would urge you to do this one. My words and photos don’t convey how truly special this race is.

 

 

 

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Global Limits Bhutan – A few final thoughts on kit, equipment, nutrition and the all important ‘to self-support or to go supported’ question

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