Sub-zero temperatures, difficult terrain, running on snow and ice – and all the participants won. Those who finished the grueling race, trying hours to counter the changing running surface — snow that was firm early morning became loose as the sun came out — their faces lit up with the thought as they were the first of men and women to set their foot in Lahaul for India’s first-ever Snow Marathon.
The setting could not have been prettier. Snow-capped mountains in and around Sissu — only a few kilometers beyond the famous Atal Tunnel — and the 10km trail was drawn up in and around Chandra river. The challenge and the novelty of this marathon brought enthusiasts and runners from as far as Pune. The group of five friends drove all the way from Pune to this gig, because “we couldn’t resist the lure of participating in India’s first-ever snow marathon.”
It was the best thing I did in some time. Bahut acha lag raha hai (I am elated). —Tenzing Dolma
To be honest, I have run grueling 100km races, so this was not going to be that challenging for me. Nonetheless, the changing course troubled a lot of us. Morning conditions were different and as the sun came out, the snow surface changed. It was challenging but everyone loved it. —Shaswat Rao
Over 24 runners took part in the full marathon with the total number somewhere near 100. We would have happily taken a lot less. —Gaurav Schimar, Marathaon organiser
While it ended as a celebration as the awards ceremony, the marathon noted the end of a month-long snow festival, it was anything but that for the organisers, Reach India and Gold Drop Adventure. To rope in new enthusiasts, they even had a 1km run as part of the competition.
For starters, this race was years in the making and the dangerous nature of the track had the organisers working double over how to minimise risks. Importantly, no incident of any serious nature occurred and the ambulance never moved from its designated parking space.
“Over 24 runners took part in the full marathon with the total number somewhere near 100. We would have happily taken a lot less,” said Gaurav Schimar, who conceptualised the race five years ago.
The organisers had originally decided to use the old link road, which goes all the way to Sissu. But the snow started to melt, so they had to modify the route. “It is a trail route and not a tarmac run, where runners had to run on soft and hard snow. For this one we had a loop of 10 kilometres, so if someone ran the full marathon it would be four loops. For the next edition we may have a full stretch for the race,” Schimar added.
The nature of the race heavily favored locals like Tenzing Dolma, who won the women’s marathon with a timing of 5 hours, 5:30 minutes, and Shaswat Rao, an ultra-runner who has been living in Solang for the past six years.
The 36-year-old Rao, who hails from Mysore, has been living in a temple complex to pursue his passion. “To be honest, I have run grueling 100km races, so this was not going to be that challenging for me,” said Rao, who substitutes as a local guide sometimes, earning as little as Rs 100 per day for adventure sports in the region .
“Nonetheless, the changing course troubled a lot of us. Morning conditions were different and as the sun came out, the snow surface changed. It was challenging but everyone loved it,” Rao added.
Like Rao, Tenzing too is into trail running and has run 60km races in the past. She said being a local, she just had to take part in the race in order to soak in the experience. “It was the best thing I did in some time. Bahut acha lag raha hai (I am elated),” Tenzing, 36, said after finishing the race.
Not far from her was Diksha Thakur, a friend of Tenzing’s, who aced the half marathon in the women’s category in 2 hours, 52 minutes. Diksha is pursuing a master’s degree in yoga from Himachal Pradesh University and participated in the marathon as an enthusiast.
“I am not a regular like Tenzing or some others. I run twice or thrice a month but I took part because it was happening here. I could not have skipped this,” Diksha explained.
Then there were other participants such as Pawan Saini, a senior Northern Railways officer, who got hooked to running long distances to stay fit. “I have run over 50 half and 60 full marathons over the years. This was the most difficult,” said Saini, who is 54 years old.
“There is a difference of elevation throughout the route and then with time the snow became soft. As a result, we were getting caught. Some of us fell, even. But I go back to Delhi as a winner, knowing I will come back again,” Saini, who finished the race in over six hours, said.
If the end was a celebration for most, for the friends from Pune, it was just a start to the next big adventure. Shashank Pandey, Anand Padhye, Nikhil Pachaurgi, Uday and Satyawati took three days to reach Lahaul in two cars, including a BMW 330i. They hired a Thar from Chandigarh to escort their more expensive motor through the hills. “We had to hire what we call an escort car for the BMW. Once in the hills, we had to stop at regular intervals to guide the car,” Satyawati, who is a biophysicist, said, mocking her friends.
The friends are part of a running group and have competed in many marathons across India. “Since we take part in marathons, we knew about this event and we had to be here,” said Pandey, who is a software engineer.
“Events like this are a good way to break from our routines. I make sure we almost always plan a road trip for such races,” he added. For the group it was another tick on their adventure journeys.
For the rest, it was a pat on the back — they got to the finish line almost unscathed, and with the knowledge that they conquered the snow and their own fears and inhibitions.