Bhutan’s Snowman Race Raises Climate Change Awareness – PART 2


Continued from Part 1 of Bhutan’s Snowman Race Raises Climate Change Awareness.

“I found all my expectations surpassed.”Sarah Keyes, Snowman Race participant, Eastern Mountain Endurance coach, ATRA advisory board member and professional runner.

After a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, The inaugural Snowman Race was held successfully on October 13, 2022. The race began in Western Bhutan, at the historic and cultural site, Gasa Dzong. The course followed the historic 135-mile Snowman Trekking Route going east, reaching a high point of over 17,900 feet, and finished at Chamkhar Bumthang in eastern Bhutan. Most trekkers take twenty to twenty five days to complete this route. Participants in The Snowman Race finished in just five days.

Sarah Keyes is based in the heart of the Adirondack mountains in Saranac Lake, NY, and was chosen as one of only ten Americans who would compete in the inaugural Snowman Race. Keyes is an East coast trail running legend and her achievements include, 2016 US Skyrunning Series Vertical Kilometer (VK) and Ultra Distance Champion, 2016 Broken Arrow Skyrace 52K champion and 2017 Breakneck Point Trail Run champion. Additionally, she has acquired sponsorships from Julbo, The North Face, Leki, Coros Global, and Tailwind.

In 2019, she suffered an unfortunate bone injury that has kept her largely out of the competitive running scene, but in the last two years she has started to make a comeback (read about Keyes’ return to the 2021 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run). The Snowman Race would be another standout moment in her running career, but would also require a completely different approach than she was used to. As a self-described naturally competitive person, this race would be a shift away from her normal racing mentality. This race was not just about winning, but experiencing the culture, places and immediate climate crisis impacting Bhutan. She would return home with a message and mission.

Keyes describes her thoughts going into the race, “I knew this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and there was no question about taking it.” Keyes had actually applied for the race two years ago and was denied. She received an invitation in July 2022, less than three months before the race. “It didn’t give me a whole lot of preparation time, but it was an honor to be selected. The focus on the environmental aspects made it so it didn’t feel so much like a race, but rather an opportunity to do good for the community. I found myself shifting my goals from winning to embracing a life-changing experience. This was different for me, coming from someone who takes running very competitively and is almost self-centered about it. I certainly participate in trail running for the community aspect, but many of my races come down to what I can do, what I can prove to myself (winning a golden ticket to the Western States 100, setting an FKT (Fastest Known Time) ect. This race had a different feeling, more of an adventure and mission than a competition.”

Sarah Keyes. Photo: Jamie McGiver.

Keyes arrived in the country eight days prior to the race and had the opportunity to visit temples, meet heads of the Bhutanese government and climate action organizations, attend race briefings and come to appreciate the people of this country. Whereas most countries follow the metric GDP (Gross Domestic Product), Bhutan instead measures GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness). This allows the country to focus less on production (which often correlates with increased CO2 emissions) and instead on how to improve the happiness of its people and quality of life. Keyes confirms that there was indeed a certain joyousness and elation in the elevated mountain air, “I was surprised at just how welcoming the race organizers and Bhutanese people were. It is a Buddhist country and there was a unique focus on rituals to improve the quality of life. There were so many people smiling and sharing jokes.”

Keyes was also impressed by the quality of the race organization, “The difference between this race and any other that I’ve been to was that the government was running the event and not a private organization. I’ve never experienced something so organized. It was the most detailed race briefing I’ve ever been to. Working as a nurse, I have a very “risk oriented” mindset, and I found myself thinking of bad things that could happen to runners at altitude or out in the mountains, and I wondered what medical resources would be available at the various aid stations. I found all of my expectations surpassed.”

Keyes knew that making it through the Snowman Trek would be no easy feat, even for a runner as accomplished as herself. In the months before the race, she spent time training with a hypoxia system, as well as sauna/heat training, which has been shown to mimic the effects of running at altitude. She traveled to Colorado in the final two weeks before the event to acclimatize her body further and become better accustomed to running/power-hiking at elevations above 14,000 feet. She did everything she could, but like the majority of runners from the Western U.S. invited to the race, she was blown away by the challenge of Himalayan trail running. “Running” is a term that is used sparingly when the majority of the race course is above 14,000 feet.

On day three, Keyes found herself in the medical tent at an aid station in Geche Wom. She had suffered from altitude sickness. She was unable to think and breathe properly, and even move straight. Continuing was not an option. The medical professionals at the aid station, which included professional doctors in addition to a handful of volunteers, treated Keyes and called for her to be taken down to lower elevation immediately.

Snowman Race: Photo: Pablo Escobar.

Keyes shares her regrets on not finishing, “It’s never easy not to finish an event. I had to come to terms with the expectations I had set for myself. I also told the race organizers how I felt that I had let them down by not finishing after they invested so much in bringing me there. Their response was unexpected and wonderful. Everyone said safety and a good experience was the goal and they didn’t look at me any differently than the people who made it the full five days. We are their messengers and they were happy to share their race and country with us, so we can take that message home.”

Despite the pain of not finishing, Keyes found an even greater respect and appreciation for those who completed the challenge, many of whom were the local Bhutanese runners. Although trail running is not a large sport in Bhutan, many of the people (particularly those raised in the highland villages in the remote Himalayas) are well adapted to a challenge such as The Snowman Race from simply living their basic homestead mountain lives.

Keyes shares her impression on the Bhutanese running culture, “The local Bhutanese runners blew everyone away with their ability to run at altitude. As a culture, many of these folks expect to hike and move through difficult/high altitude terrain. They are raised to overcome these challenges. Even His Majesty The King told a story about when he was twenty and ran twenty miles to get home for his birthday dinner. It’s part of their upbringing to be active. The woman who won overall is from a highland community, and grew up at 13,000 feet. Her day to day activities involve hiking several miles searching for cordyceps (a type of mushroom). Running itself is a large part of their culture, but more in a utilitarian sense, or necessity, as opposed to a pastime or running for physical or mental health reasons like it is in the West.”

Keyes was also surprised how the Bhutanese runners fared so well without the knowledge and more scientific approaches of Western sports culture, “Blister care or nutrition (using gels, electrolytes, etc.) was unknown to the Bhutanese runners. They are used to running with real food (local honey and rice) and packing a lunch. They carry large thermoses with them because they like to have hot drinks and another cultural quirk is that they don’t take water straight out of streams. They believe that the glacier runoff causes altitude sickness and they carry most of their water. After witnessing their lack of knowledge about sports nutrition and their reliance on what seemed to me to be superstitious traditions, I found myself worried about these runners and their ability to make it through the stages of the race. I came in thinking I knew more, yet they all ran excellent.”

Race director Luis Escobar was equally impressed by the Bhutanese athlete’s performance in this race. Although winning was not the goal of this event, it was no question that this race showed the potential of Bhutanese runners’ ability to compete with top runners from around the world. The only problem: travel. Escobar describes this dilemma in more detail, “One challenge for the Bhutanese athletes is travel. It is difficult for them to get out of the country. They are a developing country and they don’t have the same resources that we have, making travel difficult and expensive. I’ve never seen a Bhutanese athlete at any trail running competition. I’d love to see the international trail running scene embrace Bhutan and invite or sponsor Bhutanese athletes to compete at races such as Leadville Trail 100, Hardrock 100 or the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run and see how they race. They are very talented runners.”

Sarah Keyes. Photo: Jamie McGiver.

The Snowman Race Message Hits Home in My Utah Snow
Down in the Salt Lake Valley, I often tilt my head skyward, staring up in wonder at the Wasatch Mountain peaks rising up to 7,000 feet above the valley floor. I tell people this is what most people think Denver is, a city in the mountains (unlike Denver that is actually a city in the plains looking at mountains in the distance). The peaks tower over the suburban setting around me. Every time I’m back home at my parents’ house where I grew up, I’m amazed at how I can be in such a typical urban neighborhood, yet so close to a world of endless trails and wildness to run in and explore. When I begin my runs in the suburbs, concrete sidewalks and asphalt roads direct me through the maze of well kept homes with mailboxes and front yards that fit neatly between each property line. Yet, within fifteen minutes of running east towards the mountains, I am lost in a different world. A world full of moose, deer, (wildflowers in the springtime) and singletrack trails that can take me to any peak on the Wasatch skyline and beyond it. It’s especially adventurous when it’s covered in snow like it is right now.

Utah snow is my favorite. After growing up here, I can tell you that the word “snow” isn’t specific enough to describe the many types of it that exist in Utah. It can be packed with moisture or dry, fluffy and soft. It may be hard, icy, and cold, or warm, wet, and mellow. The flakes may be large, or small with some varieties accumulating faster, while others melt away on impact. The snow that is falling now is here to stay, and I’m told it will keep snowing all day. After experiencing snow in other places such as in neighboring western states—Colorado and New Mexico— or places farther away such as Oregon, California, North Dakota, Alaska, New Hampshire or even France, I can say that Utah snow does have a few unique qualities that distinguish it from others.

These are the features that have convinced many to drop whatever life they were living and become Utah Ski bums. Hit rapper Post Malone was inspired to share how he was “wowed” by the “Utah snow” in one of his chart topping singles (“Wow”). The consistency of this certain varietal of Utah snow is the most similar to powdered sugar that I have ever felt. Unlike snow in many other places, it tends to remain light and powdered even several days after the snowstorm, instead of hardening or becoming icy. This gives skiers the rare sensation of “powder days” on almost any day at Utah ski resorts, allowing them to carve and sink into the soft sugary dust and soar more recklessly down the mountain without fear of falling. Falling isn’t something to be scared of when you have plush pillows of Utah snow around you all the way down the mountain. The most important feature for me: Utah snow is the best to run in.

I put on my low-to-ground aqua Vivobarefoot runners, so I can better feel the snow. Even in these minimalist shoes I feel like I’m in a pair of tall HOKAs, my impact with the ground cushioned by what I’d estimate to be at least a foot of snow compressing beneath me. For the entirety of the run, my feet rarely feel the hardness of the pavement or trail below. The few instances when they do feels odd. The harsher impact of a patch of road, dirt or rock makes my body rebound with increased speed and throws off my snow-adapted stride. The snow is too light to even make crunching sounds, silent as if I’m passing through clouds. Each foot strike sprays a wild flurry of white powder in every direction around my ankles and I lose sight of the aqua color of my shoes as they dip into the white abyss and reappear. They rise and fall and I imagine myself water-skiing, cutting through lake water with a controlled intensity. Water expels freely into the air for a brief moment before it falls again into the lake from which it rested calmly before I zoomed through it. When I return home, my shoes are dry, there’s not a flake stuck to them, as if the snow (like myself) wanted to remain outside where the fun is. These are the runs I grew up on. No wonder I still want to call myself a trail runner. No wonder the message of His Majesty The King hits home on the Utah snow.

The post Bhutan’s Snowman Race Raises Climate Change Awareness – PART 2 appeared first on ATRA.

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