Saturday, February 23, 2019

Gender equality in Nepal: A marathon not a sprint

I arrived back in Tansen at the end of this week after a long journey to east Nepal, where Bimala and I went for the Bhojpur trail race. 

We broke up the very long journey to Bhojpur with an overnight stop in Kathmandu, where I spotted this. Adverts for races always catch my eye, despite Bimala's best efforts to hide them from me. But this is one race I've no interest in joining, with the incredibly sexist discrimination against women in the marathon (you can see clearly on the poster, the marathon is open to males only). This is a horrendous policy for the 21st century (or indeed, any century, but we should really all know better by now). Nepal is a country with some amazingly talented runners, male and female, and the most famous and successful runner the country has produced to date, Mira Rai, is, of course, female and wins ultramarathons all over the world!

After a night to recover from the 11-hour bus journey between Tansen and Kathmandu, it was time to join the other athletes on the race bus going to Bhojpur. This was a much more basic bus, for the 20-ish hour journey to Sanodumma, the village where the race would start. Not an easy journey, especially as we got closer to the village and the pitch topped road became rarer and gave away to jeep tracks. But traveling with some of Nepal's best up and coming trail runners, and (I'm fairly certain) catching my first glimpse of Everest, made the trip a little less unpleasant. 

To most readers outside of Nepal, Sherpa is a job description. In reality, it's actually one of the ethnic groups that make up Nepal. Most of the villagers in Sanodumma are from this group and while their village wasn't distinctively different from the Magar villages that dominate the area around Tansen, there were a few new words and some small differences in the food to be noticed. As with the villages around Tansen, Bimala and I received a very warm welcome and were made to feel at home.

Sanodumma is the home of Mira Rai, who organizes Bhojpur Trail Race annually, to encourage the locals to try running and to give talented runners in East Nepal the chance to compete in a competitive race. It's well supported by, and in turn, supports, the runners in the Mira Rai Initiative, who are some of the most talented up and coming female runners in Nepal. It really couldn't be more different from the army organized marathon at the start of this post! 

By the evening Mira has arrived and there were at least three well-established world-class trail runners in the village. Mira herself, Bhim Gurung (who won 4 Skyrunner World Series races in 2016-2017) and Brit Lizzy Hawker, a former 100km world champion and former world-record holder for 24-hour road running. Along with the talented up and coming runners, I was starting to worry I might be about to experience last place for the first time! 

Friday was the 8km short run, aimed mostly at the village school children but with a few adults also in the field, including Bimala! Although I wasn't officially part of the race, I ran with Bimala to give support in her first ever race, which she completed in a very respectable 1-hour and 5-minutes, with a tough climb in the first 3km. The kids we ran with were amazing. Mostly wearing flip-flops, they tore up and down the hills with dangerous looking speed. 

Saturday was the day of the 36km race. In true Nepali fashion, runners were still registering at 9am, an hour after the race was meant to have started. Many came to run in whatever they happened to be wearing, including the 2 men in the picture with me. There were also plenty of secondary school children, once again many running in flip-flops. My hopes of not finishing last were raised, although that would have been an improvement on my actual result. 

We had to wait for a government minister to arrive by helicopter and give his speech before the race could start, which meant it was almost 10.30 by the time we got going. It's something I'll never get used to, the casual indifference with which Nepali politicians treat their constituents, and even harder to understand is the lack of anger or any reaction this normally gets. Even so, there would be a few people feeling angry with this minister's lack of consideration by the time the race finished. 

The race finally got off, but within a few kilometers I was feeling some real stomach problems and looking for somewhere to make a toilet stop, finally finding a suitably secluded bit of jungle. But the time I'd run 10km I'd been into two homes to repeat this and realized it wasn't going to be my day. Another kilometer further on and I met 2 injured runners limping toward the next checkpoint and decided to join them in dropping out, after helping to patch them up with the few bandages and things I kept in my running bag. It was my first ever DNF (did not finish) and as disappointed as I am, I'm determined to go back next year and finish the race. 

From the checkpoint, we were able to catch a jeep to the finish area in Bhojpur town and see the runners coming in. Soon after, the heavens opened and we were covered in, first heavy rain, then hail. For the runners still on the high hills, with snow covering the ground, these were atrocious conditions that would slow them down a lot and mean many runners didn't finish until well after dark, very cold and very wet. It didn't go unnoticed that had the minister turned up on time, most runners would have at least been out of the high hills before the storm hit, and all would have been able to at least finish in the light. In the end, his late arrival hadn't only been an inconvenience, it potentially endangered lives. 

Bhojpur town is a lot like how I imagine Tansen to have been 20 years ago. The houses are generally much older and more traditional, although without the Newari architecture and carving that is so noticeable in Tansen. Most of the roads don't have good surfaces and the shops and restaurants make no attempt to be modern or fashionable, so much less English on the signs and less modern comforts to enjoy. But it was great to see a totally new part of Nepal for me and to be reminded that as poor as Tansen, and all of Nepal, is, there are still places with greater poverty in need of help. 

The bus back to Kathmandu took another 22 hours, with a fairly uncomfortable 6-hour sleep stop. Once there Bimala and I were finally able to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary properly, before finally heading back to Tansen.  

Manisha's work here is also proving to be a tough marathon, the current hill to climb being one made of banking problems and simply being able to send money securely from the UK to Nepal. However, unlike Bhojpur, DNF is not an option here and we'll keep persevering until the Learning Resource Centre is in operation. Running that, of course, will be a whole other challenge! 

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