Very few people have visited Bhutan, the only country to measure gross national happiness rather than gross domestic product, and even fewer have run in a race there. The Last Secret allows competitors to see and experience this unique country in a way that the ordinary tourist never will. Race director, Stefan Betzelt of Global Limits, has made a big effort to ensure that runners enjoy not only the stunning and varied scenery of Bhutan, but also the fascinating culture. Runners stay in tents in monastery grounds, in farmhouses and in a monastery at altitude. They will play football against young monks, be invited to attend a Buddhist ceremony and enjoy a traditional hot rock bath.
The adventure starts before the race begins as the airport at Paro is often listed as one of the most spectacular to fly into; the approach is along a deep, steeply sided valley. There are only nine pilots licensed to take that route and flights are often delayed waiting for the right weather conditions. The airport terminal looks more like a temple than an arrival and departure lounge.
The race starts on the bridge of the Punakha Dzong after the runners have heard the beautiful voices of the local school children singing the national anthem of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Then it is out into the countryside to ran on dusty dirt tracks, cross suspension bridges and then up into the hills.
Day one is a modest 31km and finishes at the Chorten Nyingpo Monastery at 1756m where the runners have the opportunity to take part in the evening prayers.
Day two is a few kilometres shorter but involves a big climb as the runners go over the Sinchula Pass at 3,400m before heading down into the Thimphu valley and overnight accommodation in a farmhouse.
On day three there is more ascent; the day finishes at the remote Phajoding Monastery (3600m). Runners are advised to keep a little bit of energy in reserve as the young monks are keen to play a football match against the visitors. Accommodation is in monks’ rooms which are sparse, but comfortable, so the runners get a good night’s rest.
The descent on day four consists of some of the best trail running possible through misty rain forest, along streams, through pine forest and alpine meadows.
This is the evening that runners enjoy the traditional hot rock baths. Big wooden tubs of water into which rocks heated in a fire are place to warm the water and to release minerals with heathy properties. Ideal for relieving aching muscles.
Day five is the longest stage (54km) through the Paro valley. Much of the early part is on tarmac as you pass the airport, but there are some great sections through paddy fields and the views looking down on the airfield are good. The finish that day is at the Drukyal fortress, one of the most famous architectural sites in Bhutan. The fortress was built in the 17th century to celebrate a victory over an invasion from Tibet. In all its history Bhutan has never been conquered.
Day 6, the final day, is a very special day. It is only 15km, but it is not easy as it finishes at the most spectacular and mystic monastery on earth, hanging in the cliffs at an altitude of 3000m, the Taktshang Goemba, also known as “The Tiger’s Nest”. When you first see the monastery, you think it is impossible to get to, but there is a path. When the Tiger’s Nest was first built the path was only about a foot wide; now it is wide enough for two people to pass.
As with all Global Limits races the Last Secret is suitable for runners of all abilities provided they have put the training in. Stefan wants people to enjoy the experience of visiting remote and beautiful places, so the cut-offs are generous and the routes exceptionally well-marked. This event is fully catered so runners only need to carry snacks and a few pieces of mandatory equipment. Everything else is transported between camps.
By entering this race, which is held in late May, you will also be helping the monks in Bhutan. Global Limits sponsors the living and education expenses for young monks in the Phajoding Monastery.
Feature image of Taktsang Monastery ‘Tiger Nest’. Photo credit: Göran Höglund
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