There are certain legends about superhuman feats that exist in every culture. Some of these evolve and become myths themselves – think of Greek soldier Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens 2500 years ago. On the other side of the world, Bhutan has its own legendary runs.
Running in Bhutan is something of an anomaly. This country is not flat. In fact, after traveling here extensively, the only two flat places I have seen were in Paro and Bumthang, and both have runways and rice paddies on them.
Despite the geological challenges presented by the foothills and mighty peaks of the Himalaya, there is certainly a strong culture of walking. As a result, there is an amazing network of trails crisscrossing the country, seeking out mountain passes, and fording torrents. These trails make fantastic fodder for the adventure runner.
While in the 8th century, Guru Rimpoche visited from Tibet and came into the country on the back of a flying tigress, others must use their legs. There is a legend of Garpa Lungi Khorlo whose name means “Will of the Wind”. He was a court attendant who supposedly ran from Trongsa to Punakha before lunch, and back in the afternoon. Quite impressive when you realize it is over 70km each way!
Another, more recent tale of travel in Bhutan was started a bit by accident by His Majesty the Third King: the little-known Punishment Trail.
Nowadays, tourists can be whisked from their hotel in Thimphu to the airport in Paro in about an hour. This road, however, is not the only way to get between the two cities, as the traders and yak herders had long ago found a shortcut that crosses over two high mountain passes.
According to Piet van der Pohl, the author of Mild and Mad Day Hikes around Thimphu, “During the Third King’s rule this trail had a special function. If members of the Royal Body Guard failed in some task, they were sent by foot from Thimphu to Paro. The King would travel by jeep on the rough gravel road… and the Royal Body Guard who was sent by foot had to reach Paro before the King. Hence the name Punishment Trail.”
The book goes on to point out that this trail is normally hikes as a two-day trek. If one were to be seeking out extra punishment, it could be completed in one day, and there was a record set by some New Zealanders who completed the route in just under eight hours!
The opportunity to break a record was like waving a flag to a bull. A friend and I had been running together on a regular basis, and he suggested that we make an attempt as a final hurrah before he left. Logistics dictated that we would attempt to run the Punishment Trail only the day before he left the country. Neither of us had hiked anything but the first and last pieces of the trail, meaning that the entire middle would be a mystery.
When attempting an unsupported run in the wilderness like this, survival is the first priority. There are no water stations along the way, no cheering fans. Enhancing the challenge, there are no signs to point you in the right direction and not even any mobile phone coverage over most of the trail. We spent days discussing what we would bring, how warm or cold it would likely be, and what we were carrying for food. We certainly hoped to break the record, but we also had to be prepared for the worst, which might be up to 12 hours of wandering through the woods, or worse yet, sitting against a tree with an injury while the other runs for help.
We met at 06.00 on a chilly December morning, just as dawn was breaking. Andy’s watch was the official chronometer, and after requisite photos by the starting point, we headed off. Up the road past the Royal Compound where the King’s sister lives, and onto the sweeping trails towards Pumola pass.
Despite the cold, we were running steadily uphill, and soon we broke into a sweat. The goal here was to conserve energy as much as possible while keeping our speed up. In the steeper sections of the trail we would “stride out” by taking long steps and pushing with our hands on our knees. As we climbed higher, the woods around us turned from blue pine to firs and hemlocks. The air was colder and thinner, but we both knew this section of trail, and made good progress.
Crossing through a meadow frequented by yak herders we quickened our pace in case any guard dogs were present. The locals tell tales of bears and boar, but my biggest fear while running is a protective Bhutanese Mastiff. Loud barking and bared teeth are enough to make anyone hurry. Fortunately no dogs awoke, and soon we saw the shining white wall of the large chorten that marked our first pass.
We arrived at the pass 3,650m after only 1:30 and we were both feeling great. We stopped long enough to circumambulate the chorten, take a few pictures and stuff our mouths full of nuts and raisins. A quick check of physical conditions, stomach status and muscle cramps. All good, and we headed into the unknown, down a trail that gradually descended the other side of the pass.
At this point we could finally speak again. Running downhill allowed us enjoy the scenery a bit more. We came to a small field with some rather large and temperamental yaks in it. Despite targeting a record, we took turns taking pictures as we ran as close as we dared past the large, furry beasts.
As we approached the bottom of the valley that would mark our the halfway point, we started seeing signs of civilization. This was good because it meant that we had not taken any wrong turns, but bad because the logging roads offered opportunities to get lost that were not on the map. Several times we agreed to run “up to the corner” before turning back and looking for a better way. In the end we made it to the small village of Tshelunang and crossed the river to begin the third stretch: uphill again.
It was just after 09.00 and we had been running for three hours already. I realized that my GPS had lost satellite signal along the way, so we would never know how far we actually ran. At this point I broke out my secret weapon: folding carbon running poles I had brought with me from Europe. Running up was easier than expected for me, though as we neared the top, Andy suffered for both of us. Finally we could see Jili Dzong on the ridge. Just before we reached the top we passed some surprised yak herders. We signed that we had come from Thimphu that morning, and they seemed suitably impressed.
Arriving at the Dzong, the young monks we met were totally unfazed and unimpressed by our feat (and our smugness). Along with our humble pie we had peanut butter sandwiches and checked our watches again. Almost exactly 4.5 hours – barring an accident we were going to break the record!
The sky was covered which meant that we could not take in the views of Jolmohari that we had hoped for, so another drink and down we went. From this point, we both knew the trail again.
What Andy suffered coming up, he made up for going down. Like a deer he hopped lightly down the trail in long leaps, while I struggled to keep up. I used my poles for stability, but still could not match his grace as I tried to protect my knees from the pounding. Instead, I took a pounding on my toe, as I caught it on a rock and nearly cartwheeled down the trail. The sickening crunching noise told me it that I broken, but at this point I was least bothered. Pain is temporary; pride is forever. I knew from experience that there is nothing that can really be done for a broken toe. Except to keep running.
Finally we were onto a logging trail again, passing apple orchards, traditional farm houses and waving children. We caught sight of the iconic National Museum, and both smiled. We would make it. From the museum we asked locals for directions and found a trail straight down to the impressive Paro Dzong sitting squarely above the river. We arrived laughing as the monks gathered in curiosity at these two lycra-clad chilips.
“Where had we come from?”
“Where was our guide?”
As we sat down on the steps of the Dzong with the monks , Andy’s stopwatch recorded our own legend, or at least the fastest known time from Thimphu to Paro.
Run Distance: About 30 km
Height gain: +2000m, -2200m
Fastest known Time: 5 hours 38 minutes