by Karen Michelson
In 1984, Bhutan participated in the Olympics for the first time, competing in archery (their national sport). The Bhutan International Marathon is run every year in March, with 100% of the profits going to the country’s youth and Olympic sports programs.
When I arrived at the airport, I was given a khadar (thin white sash) to bring me good luck for the race. Packet pick up and a mandatory race briefing were held in the new Punakha Sports Complex. Foreign participants were encouraged to donate energy bars. I got advice from my local Running Room staff about the most popular flavour to buy.
I offered to pay my guide to walk the Half Marathon course with me before the race. My guide, Pema, was not a runner but looked fit. He enjoyed the preview so much that he decided to register for the event. I was not aware at the time, but he did not have any running shoes or clothes with him, just a gho (a traditional knee-length robe tied at the waist, accessorized with dress shoes and knee socks). He managed to borrow running clothes and shoes, and finished in under 2:30.
The full marathon started in Gasa at 6700 feet and was downhill for the first half. Cows roamed the course in several places but were not bothered by the runners. Mudslides had taken out quite a few sections of the road. I saw a few waterfalls, ran over many bridges and passed Jigme Dorji National Park
displaying a few statues of Takin, the national animal. It was a beautiful rural run through the Punakha valley. The second half was fairly flat, with more spectators and volunteers cheering the runners. One of the highlights was running over a 300-foot long suspension bridge.
A total of 114 marathoners finished by the Punakha Dzong under the wedding gate for the fifth and current King of Bhutan. Pema greeted me at the finish wearing his finisher’s medal plus his event shirt under his gho. He looked great! I wore the Bhutanese colours (yellow and orange) and pinned on prayer flags for good luck. It was a unique experience and a great way to support Bhutan’s Olympic programs.
Photo: Karen completing the full marathon. Above: Karen and her guide Pema at the finish.