By Tayte Pollmann for the American Trail Running Association
Original article posted on August 3, 2023. Reported for posterity!
From April 19 to June 6, 2023 Tayte Pollmann, American Trail Running Association, “Trail Trotter” traveled to the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas, to discover Nepal’s trail running scene. He had traveled to the country five years prior, and was impressed by the talents of Nepali runners who moved with ease on some of the world’s highest and most technically difficult running trails. In this most recent forty-eight day Nepal trip, he set intentions of meeting local Nepali runners (elite to back-of-the-pack), learning about Nepal’s trail racing scene, and discovering what the sport offers to locals and foreigners. Pollmann’s mission was to highlight mountain running in Nepal, a mecca for mountain running, that is largely ignored by Western media. His travels took him to the remote Western region of the country where his blonde hair, blue eyes and American pronunciation of the local greeting “Namaste” were marvels to the locals unaccustomed to outsiders, as well as to central and Eastern regions more frequented by tourists, including the country’s most popular trekking trail, The Everest Base Camp Trek. The following article is a series of three articles, each focusing on trail races that Pollmann attended during his travels to better understand Nepal’s small but flourishing trail running community. This series intends to shine a light on mountain runners who challenge themselves on trails among the world’s tallest peaks and whose talents go largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.
Nepal’s Fishtail 100: Hard Races Don’t Ask for Attention
The inaugural Fishtail 100 held May 13, 2023, near the resort town of Pokhara, Nepal, could well earn recognition as one of the “world’s toughest 50Ks and 100Ks,” but by Nepali standards, it was just another weekend trail race.
In the United States, we take pride in bringing attention to the “toughness” of our races. Some think the gnarlier the better, especially when bragging rights are at stake. The Speedgoat 50K (Snowbird, UT) and the Rut 50K (Big Sky, Montana) are routinely debated amongst our trail running community as the hardest 50Ks in the country, and the Hardrock 100 (Silverton, Colorado) has earned an international reputation that lives up to its name as being “Hard.” In Nepal, locals don’t have the same desire to label or gauge their races on any sort of scale.
There’s grit ingrained in Nepal’s small but talented trail running community that allows them to accept “toughness” with certain normality consistent with their ways of living— long days spent working in rice or corn fields, twelve-hour bus rides over dangerous mountain roads in buses that are filled with twice their recommended capacity, children herding mischievous goats across mountainous passes without adult supervision, sifting sand and pebbles the old school way with shovels and fine metal mesh in scorching heat, or carrying bags of rice to villages 5,000 feet above into the great Himalayas Mountain range. Nepalis don’t expect life to be easy and luxurious, nor do they expect this of their trail races.
Nepalese Trail Running 101
Nepal is a country of thirty million people with an area roughly the size of the state of Arkansas. It is sandwiched between the world’s two most populated countries, China and India, and is a major access point to the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range, which includes Mount Everest at 29,035 feet. The country offers countless trails with breathtaking views and is home to a thriving trail running community with some of the most talented runners in the world. Nepali runners possess an incredible ability to run on challenging Himalayan terrain with ease, while most visitors of the Himalayas struggle to breathe at such heights, let alone run.
In 2019, the Salomon Golden Trail World Series Final, an event regarded as one of the premier competitions in trail running, was hosted in Nepal. This brought some of the top-ranked trail runners from Europe and America to the country and provided local runners the chance to showcase their home trails and go head-to-head with professional trail runners from the West. Nepalese runners held their ground, placing four in the top ten in the women’s race and three in the top ten in the men’s race. The field included such international stars of the sport, including Kilian Jornet, Stian Angermund, Sage Canaday, Judith Wyder, Ruth Croft, and Meg McKenzie. It’s rare to hear Nepalese people brag about the heights of their mountains, nor the strength of their running ability, but that they have already proven to be world-class.
The Fishtail 100 was a mere tuneup race for many of the hardcore Nepalese elite runners and an unexpected grind for the handful of international trail runners, including several Americans, who signed up for the race. The Fishtail 50K finish times were comparable to 100K finish times in the US (9 to 21 hours) and 100K finish times to 100-mile times (20 to 27 hours). For a comparison of difficulty, the Speedgoat 50K had 10,800 feet of elevation gain while the Fishtail 100 50K had 17,000 feet of elevation gain/15,000 feet of elevation loss and reached a high point of 12,000 feet. The Fishtail 100K had 25,000 feet of elevation gain/26,000 feet of elevation loss and the same max elevation. The combination of high altitude and significant elevation change, as well as the rooty, rocky, and often loosely maintained Nepalese trails, made for difficult running. Another challenging feature was the miles of stone steps throughout the course. The steps slowed downhill running due to the extra efforts of foot coordination and added to the accumulative muscular fatigue from the harsher impact on hard stones instead of the soft trail. It was a race course of challenging ups and downs without any flats.
High Demands, Higher Rewards
The race’s namesake, The Fishtail, known as Machapuchre in Nepalese, is one of the most iconic peaks in the Annapurna region of central Nepal. The Fishtail’s sharp, prominent summit is reminiscent of the Matterhorn in Switzerland—or, for those who view the world not by eyes but by their sweet tooth, the mountain on the packaging of Toblerone chocolates. The peak stands 22,900 feet, over 8,000 feet taller than the Matterhorn. Although the Fishtail is one of the tallest mountains in the world, it is not particularly tall by Himalayan standards, and its neighboring Annapurna I summit, the tenth highest mountain in the world, sits nearly 4,000 thousand feet above at 26,500 feet. However, the majesty of the Fishtail is about more than its height. The peak’s aesthetic beauty, prominence from the peaks around it, and spiritual nature as a “holy mountain” that the Nepalese government has never permitted to be climbed give it unparalleled respect among all of the mountains in the Himalayas—including the tallest Everest itself.
Read the rest of the article online at American Trail Running Association.