It’s a well-known fact that Bhutan is the happiest country in the world. The phrase “Gross National Happiness” (“GNP”) was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Aside from this little factoid, my prior understanding of the country, nestled between China and India, was fairly limited, and I have always sought a reason to go and visit.
When I heard about the possibility of taking part in the Bhutan International Marathon, my reason was found. A plan was immediately hatched to get myself and three friend’s entries, and arrange for our tour of the country (you can’t travel alone in Bhutan, and must be accompanied by a guide). We stayed for 10 days in total, and all had one of the best trips we’ve had in years. I implore and encourage you to visit, and to take part in the next iteration of the marathon!
The winning time from the prior year was 2hrs 38mins with the top 5 places all going to local Bhutanese runners. We arrived 6 days prior to the race, which allowed us time to acclimatize, with the race starting at 2,400m above sea level and finishing at roughly 2,000 (a big delta when compared to my home town of Hong Kong, which is on the sea with its highest peak nearly touching 1,000m!).
We picked up our race packs the day before and attended a speech given by the organizers, and met the previous year’s champion who would be racing again. We conversed in broken English and I quickly realized he was a talented marathon runner, having competed in numerous overseas races, and cracking near 2hr 30mins in Berlin. Aside from being an extremely competent athlete, he was also an extremely welcoming individual, who was happy to discuss the course, and provide us with any tips he could as and when we asked.
Let the race begin!
Race day itself involved an early rise at 4.30am, with the quick breakfast on offer from the local hotel shunned for my usual mix of a protein bar, water, and coffee (everyone’s has a different preference and you get to know what your body wants before a race). We arrived at the start by bus in darkness, and upon arrival revealed our outfits, which we had managed to buy in the capital city – they consisted of the national football team strips.
The day was perfect running temperature, low humidity, light breeze and little sunlight. There was a ceremony lead by local figureheads and before we had woken up properly the race started. Having passed the half way point in the bus I knew roughly the terrain we were about to run over, so took the first 3-4km slowly in order to get myself warmed up properly for the distance. I then arrived at the conclusion that it would be a fun to see what happened if I pushed myself in the early stages of the race, not something that I usually look to do. The first half was a mixture of track, trail and road, with some breathtaking scenery as we ran past local farms, rice paddies, villages and people watched on in bewildered awe at what was going on.
Over half way!
I cracked through the half way point in sub 1hr 30mins feeling strong and continued to maintain pace, unfortunately the second half of the race was more road focused, and the sun had started to bear down upon us which slowed my cadence and ultimately time. Each stop was well stocked with water and nutrients to keep us energized and the local people lifted our spirits when tired. The difficult part of the race started at 30km to roughly 38km following the crossing of a spectacular suspension bridge, which was part of the course. The view, I’m sure would have been fantastic had it not been for the large bull that was being lead from the opposite side as I was about a third of the way across the single lane bridge. Narrowly managing to avoid getting attached to one of the bulls horns, I found my pace again and continued on.
The final 5km of the race lead us back along the road to the incredible Punakha Dzong where the race finished, I managed to pass two people on this stretch as I dug deep and found energy that pushed me through right to the finish line.
All in, I finished 5th and crossed the line in 3hrs 15mins which I was happy with taking all things into account. The experience itself, the people I met, and the course, made for a fantastic experience, insight and lesson into the true definition of happiness.
By Sam Guinness