Win chill factor: Behind the scenes at India’s first frozen lake marathon
It’s called The Last Run because, organisers say, the Pangong Tso in Leh may not freeze over as solidly again. 75 runners will make the trek to send a message, and to take a stab at a Guinness World Record.
Nomadic tribes once crossed the Pangong Tso in Leh with their herds of yak and sheep, on their way to winter grazing sites. Next month, a herd of a different kind will make the crossing.
The first Pangong Frozen Lake Marathon will be held on February 20, with 75 participants running a half-marathon (21 km) on the high-altitude saltwater lake.
The date has been chosen with care. This is when the yaks traditionally stomped across, and they weigh up to 400 kg each. In peak winter, as temperatures drop to -20 degrees Celsius, solid ice goes down to a depth of about 30 cm. More than enough to support the yaks, and marathoners.
There’s another reason the organisers chose this time and place. The first frozen-lake marathon in India and the Third Pole (the climactically critical Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalayan system) is called The Last Run, “as a reminder that we’re running out of time to stop the glaciers from disappearing,” says Chamba Tsetan, a founding member of the Adventure Sports Foundation of Ladakh (ASFL), which is organising the event.
Amid rising temperatures, increased human activity, erratic rainfall and snowfall, glaciers in the Himalayas are melting rapidly; land is subsiding, destroying entire towns such as Joshimath; and a way of life is under rising threat from floods, flash floods and a growing water crisis as groundwater levels plummet. “We wanted to have an event that would bring attention to the melting glaciers and how climate change is affecting this region,” Tsetan says.
The 30-year-old Ladakhi is a member of India’s national ice hockey team and an adventure-sports enthusiast. He and Dorjay Namgyal, 29, a businessman from Pangong, founded ASFL in early 2022. “We want to promote sports tourism in the region and do it sustainably,” Tsetan says.
It’s an unusual challenge they have set themselves. The Pangong Tso sits 4,350 metres above sea level (masl). Air pressure is so low, it will take a week for even experienced runners to acclimatise. Those who complete the Pangong run will automatically be part of a bid for a Guinness record for highest frozen-lake half-marathon in the world.
Other extreme winter marathons include the Arctic Marathon in Finnish Lapland, the Icebug Frozen Lake Marathon in Norway, the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland, and the Antarctic Ice Marathon. “I had to go deep inside myself; it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Ireland’s Sean Tobin said in a press release, after winning the Antarctic Ice Marathon in 2022. He was a national track champion, running in -14 degrees Celsius.
But it isn’t the temperature or the altitude that the organisers of such runs are most wary of. “It’s the logistics!” says Chewang Motup Goba, race director of the Ladakh Marathon, another of the world’s high-altitude marathons, held at 3,500 masl every September. “Unlike in a city, there are no suppliers or vendors one can hand out a contract to or rent equipment from. Finding manpower is a struggle. Everything has to be done by the organisers. Putting it together in our first year was almost beyond imagination.” To add to this, Tsetan says, Pangong is remote, about 230 km by road from Leh, across the Changla Pass (5,391 masl).
Even the run itself is far from straightforward. Runners will spend a week acclimatising in stages (four days in Leh, at 3,500 masl and a day at Khardung La, at 5,359 masl, arriving in Pangong on day five). Then there’s the matter of actually running on ice. There will be cleats on all shoes, for better grip. Medical facilities, including oxygen supply, will be provided by Leh’s municipal health department and supplemented by an Army medical team.
You don’t sign up for a run like this to improve your personal time, says Haseena Themali, 40, a yoga practitioner who completed the Ladakh Marathon in 2022. “You do it for the thrill of running a high-altitude marathon, in a place of such unique scenic beauty.”
To contain the environmental impact, only 75 slots are available at Pangong, with 25 of those reserved for Ladakh residents. (All slots have been filled.) “We’ll also have a staggered start. Runners will set out in batches of 10,” Tsetan says. Only runners with previous marathon experience have been allowed to sign up, and all runners will undergo a fitness check before the race.
Krishna Kishore, 45, an HR executive from Hyderabad, is among those setting out at 9 am on February 20. He’s a long-distance runner, and this will be his second high-altitude run. Still, preparing for it hasn’t been easy, he says.
Apart from his usual daily runs, training has included wearing ankle and shoulder weights while climbing to and descending from his fifth-floor home. He still expects to struggle. In addition to the thin air, there will be the weight of his clothes and supplies. The race permits no plastic bottles, for instance, so all runners will have to carry their own water, at least between refilling stations.
As part of his prep, Kishore will go on a one-week trip to Ooty, Tamil Nadu, where he will do a daily 5-km run on uphill roads amid the Western Ghats. He will repeat this in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, closer to the date.
Kishore is hopeful that he will finish the run. “This race is more than a test of my endurance,” he says. “I want to send a message to future generations that if they too want to run on a frozen lake, surrounded by beautiful snowclad mountains, we must all work really hard to protect our Himalayas. Otherwise there will be disasters, and they will upend life in the mountains as we know it.”