Exchange and Empower Athletes Shine at Sindupalchowk

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A huge thanks to Will Lloyd for bringing us this race report from the Sindupalchowk International Trail Race! Text by Will Lloyd, photos by Jeevan Lama.

Capping off their nine months with Exchange and Empower, the program’s four aspiring athletes took part in the 7th edition of the Sindupalchowk International Trail Race on Saturday the 24th of September, alongside Anita Rai of the Mira Rai Initiative’s Ek Paila Agadi programme.

The runners bound for the 28k and 60k races boarded two buses from Sanepa in Kathmandu to the peaceful villages of Jalbire and Thulo Sirubari, respectively, in the district of Sindupalchowk. While Padam Kumari Sunuwar and Anita Rai chose the 60k race, Sabina Rai, Sunkala Rai and 2021 E&E alumna Ashma BK tested their speed over the 28k.

With nine months of structured training under the guidance of Mira and Anita behind them the Exchange and Empower athletes readied themselves for a big mountain adventure. Upon arrival in the peaceful village basecamps the athletes enjoyed respite from the chaos of
Kathmandu. I (the author) was in Jalbire with the 28k competitors in a place where the stars are visible at night and the rushing chorus of the river lulls you to sleep.

In the morning we walked up from our tents to the start point, led by a group of village musicians beating drums and sounding their horns before we were blessed with khatas — the white prayer scarves of Tibetan Buddhist tradition. After a rousing countdown the fun began.

From my vantage point the frontrunners, led by Ashok Baram, disappeared into the mist on the first vertiginous climb. The course reared steeply skyward almost immediately before settling into a more moderate incline. Roughly 6000 feet were packed into the first half of the race.

Along the way the villagers (especially the children) were supportive as well as amused by the runners passing through. After the misty heights of the heart-rending first half the technical downhill was a mechanical struggle before giving way to the delights of verdant rice fields in the full sun. If racers were getting bored, a newly constructed bridge provided cinematic (or terrifying) views of the river below to revive flagging souls.

Eventually the race concluded in the Last Resort where tired competitors were rewarded with a wholesome dal bhat, a dip in a plunge pool and a bungee jump for those brave enough.

Impressive times were achieved by the most recent batch of Exchange and Empower athletes as well as alumna Ashma BK. Sunkala held a strong lead from the beginning and maintained a commanding pace throughout, but Sabina worked her way into first place as the race progressed, in the end finishing just a minute ahead of Sunkala in 3:18:32. Ashma BK followed not far behind in 3:31:21 while Anisha Rai
completed the event in 4:36:44.

I spoke to some of the athletes after the event to ask them about their future ambitions. This was Anisha’s first outing on the Sindupalchowk course — she says she would like to participate in more races in future, focusing especially on longer races. Prior to this she had competed in the 40k Mundum trail race in Bhojpur.

Sabina Rai has tackled Sindupalchowk once before and she says she would like to compete in more events in future and is looking forward to continuing to train while staying in Kathmandu. She would also like to compete in races longer than 28k in future, in particular those between 40 and 50k.

Sunkala aims to up the distance, taking on the Sindupalchowk 60k next year.

But while we 28k people were relaxing the distance-hungry Padam Kumari Sunuwar and her MRI teammate Anita Rai were still running, taking on the mighty 60k race with its 10,000 feet of climbing. The two tackled the course as a team, finishing within seconds of each other in around 8:37.

Other E&E alumni were present in support roles, including Anita Rai still fresh from her second place in the alpine Ultra Tour de Monte Rosa. Assisting with organisation were Rashila Tamang (first place at UTMR) and E&E 2022 alumna Rachana Rana Magar.

As well as a test of endurance, the race was also an opportunity for the athletes to meet other trail runners and make new friends including participants from Italy, the Netherlands, the US, the UK, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland.

The experience was richly rewarding for the athletes thanks to their hard and consistent training over nine months in the Exchange and Empower program. Despite their training block being frequently interrupted by heavy monsoon rains, the athletes of the Mira Rai Initiative made up the difference by improving their physical fitness with indoor aerobic training, climbing, self-defense classes, yoga and gym work.

As for running, their preparation for Sindupalchowk under the coaching of the legendary Mira Rai, third-place finisher at the Ultra Tour de Monte Rosa Anita Rai and Panchpokhari Winter Trail Marathon winner Suman Kulung Rai consisted of a mixture long endurance-focused runs and shorter speed sessions.

In the environs of the training centre in Gokarna, Kathmandu there are a wealth of trails for practicing mountain running skills and the athletes also benefited from a trip to Mira Rai’s hot and hilly homeland, the village of Sano Dumma in Bhojpur, eastern Nepal. This conditioning to running in mountain environments was joined to guidance on eating and drinking to maintain energy levels during long events and even first aid training in case of accidents in the hills.

The Sindupalchowk experience crowns the 9 months of training with the exchange and Empower Programme in Kathmandu. The athletes have now graduated and will continue their training outside of the programme. When I asked the athletes before the race how they motivate themselves during difficult long runs such as this, they told me that they think of their parents and their coach Mira Rai, while also using the power of motivational song.

They discussed with me too the obstacles they face as young women in taking on trail running in Nepal. They emphasised that participation in sport is easier for young men, telling me that they are expected to do much of the house and agricultural work which takes time and energy away from outdoor pursuits. Moreover, the Nepali government provides inadequate support for sport in Nepal in general, and none at
all for trail running.

The Mira Rai Initiative and the Exchange and Empower program are working to change this. Events like Sindupalchowk showcase the amazing potential of Nepali trail running. There is more, much more to come.

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