They Ran, We Cycled

The day we decided to tackle our final challenge of cycling up the highest motorable road in the world, the Khardung-la pass (5600m) was also well-timed for the 2nd Ladakh Marathon. This year over 2200 runners took part in one of the 4 events: the full 42km marathon, 21km half marathon; the 10km fun run and the ultimate event of all, the 72km Khardung-la challenge.

The marathon itself  is certainly the world’s highest and arguably the toughest at an altitude of 3524m, while the Khardung-la Challenge can no doubt be the toughest high altitude race ever. An elite endurance race for anyone wishing to push their limits at oxygen deprived altitudes in beautiful landscapes, its not surprising that it only attracts a handful of runners (for the moment!), around 30.

The Challenge begins at a deathly 3am from Khardung village on the Nubra Valley side of the pass (4267m) and climbs, although steadily over 32km to the top of the Khardung-la pass at 5600m.  We met the runners as they came staggering down the 40km descent to 3600m in Leh and were bowled over by their determination, inexperience and friendliness.

No more need be said - Khardung-la Pass at an arguable 5600m.
No more need be said – Khardung-la Pass at an arguable 5600m.
On the way out of Leh, passing picturesque Ganglas village.
On the way out of Leh, passing picturesque Ganglas village.
Within the first 20km of riding up we met the first runners coming down, this was now at around 9:30am, these guys still had 20km to go. Here comes Stanzin Dorje, 3rd from the front.
Within the first 20km of riding up we met the first runners coming down, this was now at around 9:30am, these guys still had 20km to go. Here comes Stanzin Dorje, 3rd from the front.
As they came past one by one we shouted whoops of encouragement and offered them refreshments, no water tables on this run, at least we never saw any.
As they came past one by one we shouted whoops of encouragement and offered them refreshments, no water tables on this run, at least we never saw any.
I was completely bowled over to literally ride into Sonam Dorjay an 18 year old I met at Secmol School where I taught for a few days. The seeming unpreparedness didn't stop anyone from trying. There was something about these guys that reminded me of the Tarumara runnig Mexicans, from the famous book 'Born to Run'.
I was completely bowled over to literally ride into Sonam Dorjay an 18 year old I met at Secmol School where I taught for a few days. The seeming unpreparedness didn’t stop anyone from trying. There was something about these guys that reminded me of the Tarahumara running Mexicans, from the famous book ‘Born to Run’.
Ladakhi's are trying to keep ahead of the ridiculous bottled water game. What could be purer than pure glacial melt water?
Ladakhi’s are trying to keep ahead of the ridiculous bottled water game. What could be purer than pure glacial melt?
Views of the Zanskar range on this perfectly cloudless day just had us all dazzled in awe and made the 4hrs of uphill more bearable.
Views of the Zanskar range on this perfectly cloudless day just had us all dazzled in awe and made the 4hrs of uphill more bearable.
Ever cheerful and friendly, I just loved the uncontrived, matter of fact , joyful (although painful) approach to the challenge!
Ever cheerful and friendly, I just loved the uncontrived, matter of fact , joyful (although painful) approach to the challenge!
I always felt compelled to offer them my water bottle, poor guys were only to happy to have a good glug.
I always felt compelled to offer the runners my water bottle, poor guys were only to0 happy to have a good glug.
Exhausted and defeated. Winner of the 2012 race, Padam Limbu, from Assam had fallen during the dark on the way up and injured his knee. He was determined to finish none the less.
Exhausted and defeated. Winner of the 2012 race, Padam Limbu, from Assam had fallen during the dark on the way up and injured his knee. He was determined to finish none the less.
Padam who works as a mountain guide in Leh, won the inaugeral challenge last year in 8hrs 15m.
Padam who works as a mountain guide in Leh, won the inaugeral challenge last year in 8hrs 15m.
Gornam a good friend of ours who runs the fantastic  Jeevan Cafe in Leh, has run both Challenges and finished them too. Go Gornam!
Gornam a good friend of ours who runs the fantastic Jeevan Cafe in Leh, has run both Challenges and finished them too. Go Gornam!
Looking back down from where we had come and they had run. The final 10km are without doubt the hardest.
Looking back down from where we had come and they had run. The final 10km are without doubt the hardest.
One last runner, still looking strong....
One last runner, still looking strong….
Cat and I take 5 for a quick photo.
Cat and I take 5 for a quick photo.

Our winners getting the best of both. The climb took me 4hr 19min and the rewards are sweet, views of the Nubra Valley and the Karakorum range and Indus valley and the Zanskar range. Worth the schlep, I’d say.

So who won the real challenge? The first 3 places were not surprisingly taken by 3 locals, all from the Ladakh Scouts: 1st Rigzin Nurboo (6hrs55 more than 1hr faster than last year); Tsering Gyatso (6hrs 59) and 3rd Stanzin Wangail (8hrs 52). What is also noteworthy is that all three guys are under 25 years. There was only one foreigner who entered and dropped out early in the race.

For those interested in the marathon results the men’s winner, Shabir Hussain came in 3hrs 25 and the winning woman Tsetsan Dolker 4hrs54. Two German women took a tie 3rd place in the marathon and were the first foreigners in.  Race organiser Tsewang Motup said “the ultra marathon is known to few people but I hope in the coming years this marathon will become famous worldwide. As Ladakh is such a unique destination we hope this event will boost tourism too.” Besides this, he pointed out the importance that this event has in creating a sense of community and will become an annual event that is part of the Ladakh Festival. See www.ladakhmarathon.com 

Bridget Ringdahl

Pedaling has been natural to me since the tender age of three. Cycling is practical, fun, it gets you to the corner café, across countries, continents, keeps you fit and is by far the most efficient and environmentally friendly transport option around, being virtually carbon neutral.

I live in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal which is great cycling country, within 10 minutes I can be bouncing along some of the finest single tracks in the province.

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