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The Epic Tale of the World's Highest Marathon in North Sikkim

 If you had asked me a few years ago where I envisioned running my first full marathon, "the world's highest marathon" in North Sikkim wouldn't have even crossed my mind. But sometimes, life throws you into the deep end of the pool—or in this case, to an altitude of 17,800 feet.

 The marathon started from the stunningly beautiful yet intimidating Gurudongmar Lake. Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, this serene lake sits at an elevation that makes your lungs want to pack up and go home. This run was organized by an enthusiastic group specializing in mountaineering expeditions in Sikkim, and it was their first attempt at organizing a marathon at this height. Back in June 2019, they claimed it was the world's highest marathon, a tag that was both a marketing masterstroke and a medical red flag.

Given the altitude and the novelty of the event, it wasn't surprising that the list of participants was shorter than the queue at a deserted amusement park. Sensible runners with a penchant for self-preservation were understandably wary of the risks. High altitude, thin air, and the possibility of freezing your extremities off were enough to scare away even the most adventurous souls. Several runners, including a doctor friend of mine who was initially brimming with enthusiasm to take part in the run, ultimately chose to stay away after carefully considering the risks and potential consequences.

Nevertheless, about 30 to 35 crazy adventurous runners from Sikkim and the Darjeeling hills along with a few others couldn't resist the lure of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

When we arrived at the starting line, I was met with a mix of nervous excitement and outright panic. Picture a group of people who had never been introduced to common sense. 

 After offering our prayers at the holy lake, we were about to embark on a 42-kilometer journey through some of the most challenging yet breath-taking terrain on the planet, and our pre-race prep consisted of nothing other than exchanging worried glances and awkwardly checking our fitness watches to record the route and timings. 

The good thing about our group in particular was that we gave a damn about consequences. We weren't bound by any strict exercise regime nor did we have anyone to compete with. Targeting a podium finish was a distant dream. We were just a bunch of crazy runners all in our forties, with a penchant for impromptu challenges. Our motivation was simple-stay healthy, travel together, and revel in the camaraderie of shared adventures. 

The perks of running for us included the chance to reconnect, travel together for outstation runs, and enjoy a refreshing break from our daily routines. Additionally, holidays often meant gathering for breakfast after our long runs, where we would share laughs, poke fun at each other and create unforgettable memories.

All that our group needed was an opportunity and a purpose to run. A spark could ignite from one of us with a simple message in our WhatsApp group in the middle of the night, throwing out the idea of attempting an Ultra 50 km run or something equally crazy the next morning. Without a second thought, the WhatsApp group would buzz with instant OKs. The next morning, every member of the group would be all geared up and waiting at the decided spot, come rain or sun. Nothing could deter us from starting the run.

Given our raw enthusiasm and a touch of madness, we suggested naming ourselves "GORUS," which means bulls in vernacular Nepali. It seemed fitting for our bull-like mentality. However, one sensible member pointed out that "GORU" sounded too wild and raw. After much deliberation, we finally settled on "Mountain Bulls." It sounded a lot more dignified and appealing. Imagine introducing ourselves as the “GORUS” today—not exactly inspiring confidence!

The Flag was raised, and we started running. Or more accurately, we started gasping for air while pretending to run. The altitude hit us immediately. Running at 17,800 feet is like trying to breathe through a straw while doing squats. Every step felt like an achievement, and by the 5-kilometer mark, I was reconsidering every life choice that had led me to this point.


The scenery, however, was nothing short of spectacular. Snow-capped peaks, crystal-clear glacial streams, and the vast, unending sky made the suffering almost bearable. Almost. Every now and then, a fellow runner would slow down, take in the view, and then remember that stopping might mean never starting again. We plodded on, driven by the promise of bragging rights and the vague hope that we might actually finish the run within the cut off time.


But let me tell you, the race was filled with uncertainties. No practice at that altitude, zero experience, and a group of novice runners driven by nothing but enthusiasm and craziness. And amid the seriousness and difficulty of the race, the entire episode had its share of fun and extraordinary funny situations.


Take my predicament around the 14-kilometer mark. My stomach suddenly decided it had had enough of this high-altitude adventure and began grumbling ominously. Before I knew it, I had an urgent need to relieve myself—my digestive system was clamouring for an immediate evacuation, not just a casual trip to the restroom. To my dismay, the entire stretch was like a barren land, an open field with just a motorable road in the middle. There were no bushes, culverts, or even large rocks to hide behind, unlike in other rural terrains where you have multiple options for emergency relief.


To make matters worse, in this high-altitude zone, you could see participants at a distance of almost 2-3 kilometres both in front and behind. There was no way to discreetly duck out and do my business without being noticed. The situation was more than just awkward; it was a test of endurance in the most literal sense. I had to keep running, clenching muscles I didn't even know I had, and hoping against hope that a miracle bathroom break would present itself. Spoiler alert: it didn't.


As my urge to relieve myself grew more desperate, I found myself trying to outpace the runners around me, hoping to find a secluded spot. Unfortunately, every potential hideaway was too exposed. Finally, at around 21 kilometres, I saw a sight that was more beautiful than any mountain vista: a small army barracks with a roadside toilet. It was like seeing an angel ready to bless me.


I rushed in, hurriedly shut the falling-apart wooden door, and yanked down my shorts. But as I settled in, I realized there was no water connection. In a panic, I pulled up my shorts and dashed outside, only to find an empty Iron bucket. The only option was to go downhill to a flowing stream to fetch water. Already fatigued and with 21 kilometres still to go, the thought of trekking downhill and lugging an iron bucket filled with water uphill was daunting. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Ignoring my aching body, I ran down, filled the heavy bucket, and finally relieved myself. What could be worse than this, I thought? Little did I know.


After finishing my business, the rest of the run felt surprisingly manageable. The toughest part had been holding it in until I found that toilet. 


In the evening, as we reminisced and laughed about the day's adventures, I learned that my ordeal was nothing compared to what a fellow runner, had faced. In a roadside toilet, in his desperation, he ended up cleaning his bum with diesel. Yes, you read that right. He had mistaken a bottle of diesel for water. Unable to control himself, he picked up the diesel, thinking it was water. My situation seemed like a minor inconvenience compared to his. The rest of the miles, I must say, he ran with his “Ass on Fire”.


But despite these challenges, every single one of us crossed the finish line. It wasn't just about the physical endurance; it was about the mental resilience and the sheer will to overcome obstacles, no matter how ridiculous they seemed. We proved to ourselves that with determination and a sense of humour, we could tackle even the most daunting of challenges.


Looking back, I can't help but smile. That marathon was a once-in-a-lifetime experience—the first and last of its kind. The organizers, perhaps realizing the sheer audacity of the endeavour, never dared to replicate it. But for those of us who participated, it was an unforgettable adventure that will forever be etched in our memories. As a group, we've conquered some of the toughest runs imaginable, including the gruelling Hell Race on the Sandakphu and Phalut Range, where runners endured 14 to 15 hours of relentless running. Compared to that, the Gurudongmar Run seemed like child's play. Yet, whenever someone asks me about the craziest thing I've ever done, I simply smile and recount the tale of the Mountain Bulls conquering a marathon at 17,800 feet.


Running that marathon taught me that life's greatest challenges often come with the most rewarding experiences. It's not always about winning or being the best; sometimes, it's about showing up, pushing through the hard times, and finding joy in the journey. No matter how high the mountain or how tough the race, with a bit of grit and a lot of heart, anything is possible.


So, here's to the adventures that push our limits, the friends who make the journey worthwhile, and the unexpected moments that make life truly unforgettable. Keep running, keep laughing, and never stop believing in the power of a crazy dream.


As we crossed that finish line, I realized that the real prize wasn't the medal or the bragging rights. It was the understanding that the human spirit is incredibly resilient and capable of extraordinary things. We faced our fears, embraced the unknown, and came out stronger on the other side.


So, whether you're facing a marathon at 17,800 feet or a personal challenge that feels just as daunting, remember this: you are capable of more than you know. Embrace the journey, laugh at the obstacles, and keep pushing forward. Because in the end, it's not the destination that defines us, but the journey—and the indomitable spirit that propels us forward.


"Here's to embracing life's highs and lows with a smile. Keep shining bright!" 





Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi