Pakistan’s Khunjerab Pass Challenge

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by Karen Michelson

Organizing a one-time Guinness World Record race in September 2019 was a way to cultivate a different image of Pakistan. The Khunjerab Pass Challenge had three distances: 21.1K, 42.2K or 50K. They were the highest altitude road races ever held. Canadian Ziyad Rahim, who holds multiple world records in running, was the catalyst for this event.

Karen (centre) at the finish line

The international runners met in the capital city of Islamabad, with an elevation of 1770 feet. Next, they flew to Gilgit, where the elevation is 4921 feet. The hosts presented each runner with the gift of a traditional wool hat or scarf. Prior to entering our hotel, we were given a blessing for good luck. The next day, we travelled north to Sost, which has an elevation of 9186 feet. The numbers are climbing!

On the morning of the race, we were awakened at 4:30 by the morning call for prayer. We left at 6:30 for a two-hour bus ride to the race course.

The race began at the China/Pakistan border, at 15,396 feet. There were 154 participants from 17 different nations, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), the Pakistan Army and the Gilgit Baltistan Scouts. Pakistan residents were represented in all races. American world record holder and Para-athlete Beth Sanden would complete the marathon on a bike. In the Canadian contingent, Donna Wood and I were running the 50K, while Patrick Arsenault and Ziyad Rahim were in the marathon.

Hafiz Hafeezur Rahman, the Chief Minister, made a dramatic entrance by helicopter. He met with the athletes. In keeping with the theme of hospitality, the PAF insisted the international runners be positioned first at the start line.

It was -5°C, but sunny. The point-to-point course was downhill on the closed Khunjerab highway. There were a few switchback areas providing a unique view of other runners on the course.

My oxygen saturation was 67% before I began, meaning it could cause ill effects. After I started running, my hands and forearms felt like pins and needles. The feeling lasted for a few kilometres. Some other runners experienced the same sensation (but in their upper arms and chest) while others had headaches. I ran slower and took walk breaks. It got easier to run at a lower altitude. I felt confident that I would finish as long as I took it easy.

Uniformed members of the PAF managed the aid stations, patrolled the course and returned runners to their hotel very efficiently. A couple of unique items at the aid stations to help with altitude sickness were dried apricots and oxygen. A couple of runners were having significant symptoms but still managed to finish. They were using oxygen at the aid stations or had a doctor in an ambulance monitoring them.

It was a beautiful course. Seen during the race were the highest paved border crossing, the highest ATM, snow-capped peaks on some of the world’s tallest mountains and the original Silk Road. The snow leopards stayed out of sight. I ran through the half marathon and marathon finishing arch. Every finisher received a medal displaying the border start area, runners and the Pakistan flag.

Karen (left) and Canadian Donna Wood at the awards ceremony.

The next day was the gala, where everyone was dressed elegantly in Pakistan style clothing. The foreign ambassadors sat in the middle of the room along with the army and PAF senior officials. Speeches were given, videos shown, awards presented and then we ate a buffet dinner. Donna and I both received additional medals and plaques for finishing third and first respectively in the women’s 50K.

At some point during the trip, the media interviewed all the foreign runners. I was interviewed live on Pakistan TV with American runner Zakia Rubarb Khwaja and PAF Commodore Nausher Khan. It certainly was an experience I will not forget. I do want to go back and see more tourist sights, shop and run another marathon too.

Canadian race director Ziyad Rahim and Karen wearing Gilgit hats and scarves. 

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