By Tayte Pollmann for the American Trail Running Association
Original article posted on November 7, 2018. Reported for posterity!
In this interview, I speak with Jimi Oostrum, Dutch expatriate trail runner, race organizer, and UNICEF education expert, who shares his insights into the Nepalese trail running culture from living in Nepal for the past 10 years.
TAYTE: Hi Jimi! Tell us about your running background.
JIMI: About 8 years ago, I had a football injury and needed quite a bit of reconstruction on my left knee. I tore my ACL, PCL, meniscus and even something called a PLC, which I’d never heard of before. I had my ligaments replaced and started doing physical therapy while in Nepal. The physiotherapist I was seeing suggested I hadn’t been running properly so this injury was an opportunity to start from scratch and learn to run with proper technique. It was only after the injury that I became more conscious of my running form, was able to learn how to run correctly and run farther. Now, I can run ultramarathons, where as before the surgery I hadn’t raced further than a half marathon.
Currently I have a very demanding job, so I have to find time to squeeze in my runs in the evenings and on the weekends joined by my Nepali and foreign trail running friends in Kathmandu. Over the past few years, I started helping with local trail races by setting up logistics, marking courses and marketing events so they can become self-sustainable.
TAYTE: How did you end up living and working in Nepal?
JIMI: I visited Nepal for the first time in 2003 for about 4 to 5 months as I wanted to travel the world and to see the tallest mountains in the world (very important for a Dutch guy!). After visiting Nepal, I figured out I wanted to combine my education background with development work which motivated me to get my masters in international development studies. After that, I came back to Nepal for work in 2009 and by 2014, found a job with UNICEF in Nepal, which is the job I currently have. It’s a high intensity job, but I find balance by putting on my shoes and going for runs on the ridge trails around Kathmandu.
TAYTE: You work for UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), the United Nations agency responsible for the protection, survival and education of children in over 190 countries around the world. Could you tell us about the work you do?
JIMI: I’m very lucky. The experience of having worked with and in the Nepalese Government for a decade has given me a unique experience. UNICEF recognized that there was a need for strengthening a common approach on making sure every child gets the education it deserves, according to their needs and context and in a safe environment. Through this I ended up supporting the Nepalese ministry of education and the development partners in working towards that goal.
In Nepal, like in many other developing countries, the public education system faces a lot of challenges. As a result, we need to make sure the government uses its scarce resources to strengthen this system so we can get children into school, ensure they stay in school and eventually leave school with the right skills and knowledge.
When Nepal had a major earthquake in 2015, my job partly shifted to coordinating the post-disaster recovery and reconstruction. It was important to make sure not all the resources were going to the villages that had the best connections, but to those where the damage and need was the biggest. At the same time, we needed to ensure that schools were rebuild with resistant designs as the next earthquake in Nepal is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’. 5 years after, almost 7,000 out of the 9,000 schools that were destroyed have been rebuild, most of them by local communities.
TAYTE: What’s it like to facilitate these interactions between development partners and the government?
JIMI: We don’t compromise on the interventions from partners, but we also don’t move ahead without the government either. In some ways it’s much easier to do things without the government, but that’s not sustainable in the long term. For example, building a school is the easy part. The harder challenge it getting teachers who are going to be paid for the next few decades. That’s where the government really needs to be a part of the solution. In the end it’s going to be the government that needs to pay for and sustain the education system. That’s why cooperation between the partners and the government is so important.
TAYTE: I understand that the trail running in Nepal is growing in popularity. What’s been your experience?
JIMI: Every year we have more and more races in Nepal and we also see a lot of Nepalese regularly showing up at these races, which is great. For races or just going out on a long group run, the Kathmandu area is great for trail runners. Thirty minutes from the city there are plenty of hills and the valley is also a playground for trail runners.
TAYTE: The story of Nepalese child-soldier turned international trail running superstar Mira Rai, has helped put Nepalese trail running on a world stage. What is your impression of the local trail running culture and strength of the best Nepalese trail runners?
JIMI: I have many good trail running friends living in all different districts in Nepal, including the hilly parts where Mira Rai is from, which has a strong trail running culture. The Annapurna region also has many incredible runners who have never had much exposure beyond Nepal.
For many years there have been local races organized by the army or youth clubs that nobody ever heard about. It’s only now that races are getting more organized and well established that people outside Nepal are getting interested. There are incredibly high profile races organized to the max, and getting a big international marketing push like the final of the Salomon Golden Trail Series. We have about two or three of those very well organized races a year, but also small local races in villages. In general, there’s a broad spectrum of event sizes.
There’s also more demand from Nepalese runners who want to participate in races with a proper time keeping system, bibs, and other formal race requirements. That’s where the trail running scene in Nepal is going through a major transformation and becoming much more visible. It’s this transformation that is helping put local runners on a bigger global stage.
Mira Rai has greatly increased the visibility of trail running in Nepal. She recently started the Mira Rai Initiative, a trail running training group for Nepalese girls. I watched some of Mira’s trainees run the Jumla Rara Marathon, a challenging trail race which goes over two 4,000-meter (13,123 feet) passes and ends near Rara Lake. It’s beautiful but very tough and these girls ran the passes like they were in the flatlands. It was amazing! Mira is an incredible runner but she’s not the only one. There are districts full of girls who have the potential to run like her. Trail running in Nepal is now at the stage where we’re excited to see who the future stars will be.
This past November, I went to race Oman by UTMB in Birkat Al Mouz, Oman where Nepalese athletes smashed the 50 km course! In the women’s race, Mira Rai placed third, and her trainee, Sunmaya Budha placed first. In the men’s race Bhim Gurung placed first. As long as Nepalese runners are familiar with the trails and know what to expect, they’re going to be hard to beat.
We also saw incredibly talented Nepalese trail runners race against some of the best trail runners in the world at the 2019 Salomon Golden Trail Series final in Pokhara, Nepal. Several of Mira’s trainees were in the top 10 of the women’s race while on the men’s side, Bhim Gurung placed seventh overall. He would have placed higher except he took a wrong turn. Up until checkpoint 6, Bhim was running just three minutes behind race leader, Kilian Jornet. There’s a real push for these Nepali athletes to be more visible and have the opportunity to compete in bigger races so it’s a really exciting time.
TAYTE: Who is competing in Nepalese trail races? Is it mostly foreigners or locals?
JIMI: Some of the older races in Nepal like the Annapurna 100 and the Everest Marathon, traditionally get more foreigners to compete but other big races like the Jumla Rara are mostly locals with just a handful of foreigners. Overall, the majority of race participants are Nepalese. For the VonKathmandu Trail Race Series that local race organizer and photographer, Anuj Adhikari, and I put on, there are about 300 participants and only 50 to 70 are foreigners.
TAYTE: Trekkers are still Nepal’s largest group of trail users. What is the interaction between the trekking and trail running cultures? How do the two groups share the trails? What kinds of people do trekking and who does trail running, or is there overlap?
JIMI: There’s large user overlap between trekking and trail running in Nepal. Trekking is a major source of employment in the hilly districts of Nepal, which is also where Nepal’s best trail runners predominantly come from. Most of the competitive trail runners, if they’re not in the army, are trekkers or porters because that’s where they can earn a regular income.
Trail running alone is still something that’s hard to make a living off of for Nepalese. There’s more and more races and prize money, but in terms of sponsorships it’s still an under-developed market. The best Nepalese runners do come to trail races, but they’re porters for most of the year. It’s a career which keeps them fit for running trails!
As in the United States, Nepal also has an activity combining trekking and trail running called “fastpacking.” It’s traditional trekking reinvented for speed. Fastpackers run traditional trekking routes in Nepal with minimal equipment. Organized fastpacking adventures companies will ship clients’ heavy bags to each of their destinations while the clients run. On the Annapurna Circuit, trekkers complete the route in 20 days while fastpackers do it in only 7 to 10 days.
TAYTE: Who organizes fastpacking adventures in Nepal?
JIMI: There are Nepali companies, such as Freedom Adventure Treks, the Mira Rai Initiative and Pyrénées Nepal Treks and Trails, as well as the US-based Himalayan Adventure Labs. Another great resource for DIY fasterpackers is the Trail Running Nepal website which offers great tips for fastpacking in Nepal with the following articles here and here.
TAYTE: What is your favorite thing about living in Nepal?
JIMI: I love that life is very unstructured here. Nepal has so many logistical challenges, such as traffic. For example, if you try to get somewhere by bus and there’s been a landslide, you might arrive two days later. There can also be sudden blackouts. That’s just a daily reality in Nepal. The infrastructure is vulnerable in many ways, so visitors and locals have to come with a certain level of flexibility. I like that. You work with what you got and you adapt based on what comes your way. I also love coming back home to the Netherlands for the holidays, but it seems like everything has an app developed for it. It’s quite overwhelming coming back to a such a highly structured way of living after being in Nepal.
In Nepal, you see people taking on enormous challenges on a daily basis. Nepali society is dealing with really serious stuff such as floods in the plains, the irregularity of the seasons that leads to crop failure to name just a couple. Because of this, the Nepalese have a great spirit of resilience. The 2015 earthquake in Nepal was absolutely horrible, but then the way the society responded to it was incredible. I remember everyone gathering their personal resources and loading them into minivans to be sent out into the hills and find villages that were in need. Quite often there were stories where one of these vans came through a village and the people had been basically living under a tree. Someone from the village would say, “leave half of it here and drive a couple more miles because there’s a village up there that needs it more.” Their generosity is incredible.
Living here is a reality check on a daily basis. You’re constantly aware that there are things far bigger than your personal little problems, priorities and tensions. It pushes you think for the greater good. Nepalese people think as a community. They approach the world with positive curiosity and a laugh until proven otherwise.
TAYTE: One of my personal favorite discoveries from the Nepalese culture was their staple dish, Dal Bhat, consisting of rice and lentils. Are you also a fan?
JIMI: I don’t think there’s much better running food than rice and lentils! One of my friends living in Nepal did UTMB last year and we received text messages from him 20K into the race, where he wrote “All I need now is one dal bhat!” Especially for longer runs, it’s great energy. When you’re served dal bhat in someone’s home, you’re expected to keep eating until you can’t eat anymore. There’s an art to eating three mountains of rice and the fourth plate you finally refuse.
TAYTE: What is one of your favorite memories from the last ten years living in Nepal?
JIMI: One of my favorite memories was in 2015, months after the earthquake. We organized a race as a relief effort, the Sindhupalchowk International Trail. We were a bit worried if it was appropriate to come into a district where 90 percent of the buildings were flat or gone. We asked ourselves if we should we really come with a bus full of people and do something that’s fun? In the end, we decided to put on the race. Race day morning, the whole surrounding village showed up with a band to support the runners. We ran through these villages that had been absolutely destroyed and people were cooking and making things for the checkpoints and offering water. This year, we finished the 5th edition of the race. That first year was very special. Everyone had a break from the challenges of the earthquake and had a party.
TAYTE: How are trail races in Nepal different than trail races in other countries?
JIMI: There are many diverse landscapes along a Nepalese trail running course. Take the Annapurna 100 for example. The course climbs exposed ridges all the way up to high camp at 3500 meters and ends next Pehwa Lake on the edge of Pokhara which is just 800 meter above sea level. The diversity of landscapes is incredible!
Personally, I do two to three international races each year, depending on how much time I can get off work. I raced Oman by UTMB (Oman), PTL (France), Ben Nevis Ultra (Scotland, U.K.). These races were quite special, but I prefer Nepalese races because of their unique environments and interactions with locals.
TAYTE: What is something first-time trail runners in Nepal might not expect?
JIMI: Nepalese trails are very technical. Many times I’ve seen experienced international runners who are stunned that they’ve only covered a short distance in a given amount of time. The altitude combined with the highly technical trail surface make times slower. If you come out to Nepal, you’re going to have amazing races, but prepare yourself mentally. It’s going to be a long day. If it’s your first run in Nepal, don’t be too ambitious by expecting to finish in the time it might take at a race back home.
Races outside Nepal can be tough and technical, but somehow it’s still more straightforward. In Nepal you can come across obstacles, look at them and think “Well, how am I going to get through this?” In the end, you just have to be creative and make it work. That’s where the real adventure is. People who race in Nepal often do come back, so must be a good sign that people are enjoying the races.
TAYTE: What are some essential pieces of kit going out on a trail run in Nepal?
JIMI: Be sure to have enough battery power in your torch (flash) light! Also, I like to take a lot of dried food and nuts, which are easy to come by in Nepal. In Nepal, you still can’t get energy gels, so bring some from home if you need them for longer runs. Water purification tablets are a good idea for runners on more remote runs.
TAYTE: Tell us about your training and racing?
JIMI: When I sign up for a 100 km race or longer, I try to run 10 to 15 km of uphill every day for two months. I get up really early to go into the hills and valleys, or I run on a treadmill at the end of the day. To be ready, you have to wear your body out. The training starts when your legs get tired and your little stability muscles start to kick in. It’s those little muscles you really need to train. Then of course there’s the beautiful window of 10 to 15 days before the race where you just sit and eat and hardly do anything.
I also cycle everyday 20 to 25 km through the hills of Kathmandu to get to my work. That’s a good form of daily movement. Every weekend, I do one or two specific runs. Saturday morning I might run in our trail race series in Kathmandu or do a small group run. Saturday afternoon I do a social run with a large group. All the running and cycling to work keeps me fairly fit!
Trail running access is great where I live. My home is on the Northside of Kathmandu, 10 to 15 minutes biking from the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park. I can run up from the entrance gate to the top of a peak, which is about an 800 meter climb. It’s good training! Kathmandu is a very chaotic town, but once you’re outside the rim road, it’s beautiful.
TAYTE: Do the trails in Nepal get crowded?
JIMI: The trails aren’t crowded. People who live in Kathmandu do a lot of morning walks, but they all do it around and in the city. It’s crazy, if you get up at 4:00 a.m. there’s loads of people walking at fast paces in the streets, which lasts until about 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., then they go home and start their day. On the weekends, you see a lot more Nepalese and foreigners during the day, but in the morning there’s no one there. I also do night runs on Friday and no one is on the trails in the late evenings. The national parks at night are something special. There’s a lot of wildlife in them. I’ve seen some leopards, but it’s never led to any scary encounters. Fortunately humans are not on their menu.
TAYTE: Could you tell us about the races you organize?
JIMI: We organize the Kathmandu Valley Rim 100 Mile in March. Every month we have the VonKathmandu Trail Series, and the Sindhupalchowk International Trail Race race in June which is right before the monsoon. Also, we’re starting to work with Jagan Timilsina who organizes the Pokhara trail race series. This past December was the first race in the series, the Fishtail Trail Race, which offered 30 km, 10 km, 5 km, and 2 km race distances.
What we’re trying to do with our races is to make them accessible to everyone. People look at a race like the Annapurna 100 and say I will never do that. Our VonKathmandu trail race series is very approachable, with distances from 2 km all the way up to 50 km. We see runners who were running 7 km the first season, and are now running 15 km and asking about the 20 km races. People can do a lot more than they think as long as they work up to it.
TAYTE: What’s next? What plans do you have in the short and long term for your trail running work in Nepal?
JIMI: Right now we’re trying to work together on a number of local races across the country, such as Mira Rai’s Bhojpur Trail Race. Our goal is to set up a league of trail races, where local runners can get points that can be transferred across the races. Runners who do well will be given opportunities to enter into the other races. We have so many amazing talents who are following in Mira Rai’s footsteps, so this league of races would help give them visibility and a chance to participate in races abroad.
We’re also looking into getting a national trail running association going, but unfortunately that part of the government is especially tricky deal with. We want to make sure that the association would become a body that supports trail running and not exploits it. People like Richard Bull, who manages Trail Running Nepal, and who helped Mira Rai find success on the international stage, are amazing, but the problem is that Richard, and myself will at some point start doing something else or not being in Nepal anymore. Something permanent needs to be established in Nepal for the long term well-being of its trail runners.