Friday, 10 June 2016

The Last Secret 2016, BHUTAN : 200km

Amazing runners and volunteers of The Last Secret 2016

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float; to gain all while you give; to roam the roads of lands remote; to travel is to live.” 

                                                          Hans Christian Andersen

Beautiful landscapes of Bhutan

My choice of participation in races is almost always dependent entirely on the country where the race is taking place. If the country is in my bucket list, I will definitely find an excuse to race in it so that I will get to visit the country itself.

However, my participation in the Global Limit’s "The Last Secret" race in Bhutan was prompted by the persistent suggestion from my wife. For the longest time, she has been trying to convince me to visit this landlocked mountainous nation, squeezed between the two Asian Giants (India and China), and comparable in size with Netherlands. When she found out that there is indeed a race which is organized around the highlights of a trip in Bhutan and told me about it, I started taking her suggestion into consideration.

I have to admit that until that time, I knew almost nothing about this nation, apart from the fact that it is one of the most expensive destinations in the world! Bhutan's strategy of “low volume, high quality” tourism is implemented through a charge of USD250 per person (with an additional surcharge of USD30 if you are in a group of 2 persons only) per day, just to sample the charms of this isolated Himalayan kingdom (this covers land transport, government-standard accommodation, food, guide service and entrance fees).

The country became more well known to the rest of the world recently, thanks to a very clever ‘marketing strategy’ by its previous King, who proclaimed that in his tiny Himalayan kingdom, Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product, and a smile on your face is more valuable than a coin in your pocket.

Happiness and … Phallus seen in almost all houses in the country

After having read more about the country and having looked at the race’s photos from the previous years, I started getting attracted to the race and wanting to run in it. The concept of the organization is perfect - a total immersion in the traditional Buddhist culture, running through rice fields, rural villages, and vast forests during the day and spending the rest of the day in remote monasteries or farmhouses with the local people.

The organizer of the race, a charismatic German (Stefan Betzelt) had a vision to create a race which connects one of the most beautiful fortress of the country, Punakha Dzong, with the most emblematic place of the country, the Taktsang Goemba Monastery, more popularly known as the ‘Tiger’s Nest Monastery’. This much photographed monastery hangs precariously on the cliffs at an altitude of 3,000m, with an outstanding view to the Paro Valley.

The iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery

Successfully into its 4th edition this year, with almost 40 runners registered from 16 different countries (the maximum number allowed by the organizer due to the limited space available for sleeping in monasteries and farmhouses), the race is proving to be very popular among a group of people united by the same passion for adventure – traveling – and certainly, running.


On Sunday the 29th of May 2016, all the runners finally made their way to the start line at the majestic Punakha Dzong.

The magnificent Punakha Dzong

For me, this was one of the most moving moment of the entire race. About 500 students from the Punakha Secondary High had lined both sides of the Dzong, from the main entrance to the courtyard, in welcoming us on their off-day from school. When we had all gathered at the courtyard, they stood before us respectfully and sang the national anthem of the Kingdom of Bhutan. After that, the Lama of the Punakha Dzong blessed all the runners and wished us a successful race and good weather conditions.

I was very touched by this unique ceremony, and I felt like I have possessed a lot of positive energy from it. Together with that, I also felt a very strong determination to push myself to my limits. I knew almost nothing of my fellow runners at this early stage of the race and I was planning to give in my 100% from the first day, while trying to find out who will be nearest to my capability.

The first 20km was ideal for me, running on almost flat tarmac sections, which allowed me to keep a marathon pace until the start of the last 8km steep climb. I slowed down then, due to the steepness of the climb and also the high temperature. I managed to cross the finish line first in record time, but with only a short 6-minutes' difference from a Swiss runner, Peter Osterwalder. I found out later that Peter is a 52 years-old physician from Zurich who has been excelling in many races of different distances in the past 12 years (MDS, Atacama Crossing, Grand Raid de la Reunion, Grand to Grand, etc).

Peter Osterwalder

Judging from the results of the First Stage, I had a feeling that Peter was going to be the only one I had to race against to compete for the first position. I took time to contemplate on the following day’s stage, which was going to be one of the toughest in the race, with 2,430m of ascent. Considering how weak I am at climbing mountains, I was concerned that this Flying Swiss Man will scramble up the mountain like a Swiss mountain goat and gain a big advantage of time over me.

I tried to relax and enjoy the calm atmosphere at the Chorten Nyingpo Monastery, built in the 17th century and situated on top of a hill, which was where we camped that night.

Chorten Nyingpo Monastery

Our camp for the night


It was at this Monastery that I had one of the most amazing spiritual experience in our whole journey through Bhutan. All of us were invited by the Head Lama into the private prayer hall of the Monastery for a prayer ceremony to bless us before we start the race in Stage 2. What an exceptional experience it was, to find myself sitting among the young monks who prayed and chanted old Buddhist texts, with sounds of drums and other instruments accompanying them. It was such a unique atmosphere that I am lost for words to describe the feeling I went through at that point in time.

I closed my eyes and tried to isolate the sounds from the visual- distracting stimulus and I actually felt a kind of spiritual uplift, which I found to be extremely helpful in coping with some of the more difficult terrains along the course of the stage. The ceremony lasted for about 30 minutes but the calming effect on me lasted for the whole day!!

The village we ran through in Stage 2

The rain from the previous night had transformed the mountain paths into very dangerous terrains where a single careless step could lead to big trouble. Despite that, I was determined to give everything I have for another day, and thanks to my running poles, I found myself to be dealing rather well with the entire climb of 19km, leading me from an altitude of 1,700m to 3,400m!

The village we ran through in Stage 2

The village we ran through in Stage 2

During the whole climb, I tried to focus on my breathing and on the careful choice of rocks in between the mud where I could step on. Despite having to make an endless effort to concentrate on these, I was enjoying the whole experience. The scenery of the forest covered by fog and dense vegetation, together with the sounds of the chirping birds, did certainly help to distract me from exhaustion and kept me going.

The village we ran through in Stage 2

After having reached the highest point of the path, I found myself facing a steep downhill, which was easily three times more slippery than the uphill terrain. Most of the time, I had the feeling like I was skiing, while my body was sliding on the steep and muddy slopes. Despite a few falls, my running poles were helping me a lot to avoid any serious injuries. Not knowing how far or close Peter was from me, I kept pushing myself to my limits. When I finally crossed the finish line, I found out that I had broken another course record and gained another 40 minutes of advantage over Peter. I was so excited with this knowledge that I could not feel any tiredness at all. That was definitely one of my most memorable high performance, made more special by the very unique environment that I was at. It is something which I will find very hard to forget.

The rest of the day of Stage 2 was spent around the farmhouse which we were staying at in a village called Kabesa.

The farmhouse where we stayed in Kabesa
Kabesa Village

In the late afternoon, my wife and I decided to take a walk around the village, when we came across two mountain bike cyclists coming up a steep hill in very sophisticated gears (sporty sunglasses and fancy shoes). Initially, we thought they were foreign tourists like us, but when they got closer to us, we noticed that they were locals, and one of them was wearing the traditional Bhutanese costume for men called Gho. We waved and smiled at them and continued our walk, when my wife was stopped by a local man in a van who started to speak to her in rapid Dzongkha. This was not the first time she has been mistaken for a Bhutanese, by the way.

We could not understand a single word the man was saying and seeing our confusion, 3 of the drivers from the race organization who happened to be there, came over to translate what the old man had been wanting to tell us. He told us that one of the two cyclists whom we have just seen was the 4th King of Bhutan, who regularly rides his bike with his bodyguard around this Valley…! What an unexpected encounter it was, and in the most unthinkable place too!!! Till this day, my wife is still frustrated for failing to recognize and grasp what could have been one of the most memorial photo opportunity of this journey....!!!


This stage was supposed to be another tough one, with a climb of 2,000m, almost half of that in only 8km!! With an advantage of a 46-minute lead in the race over Peter, I told myself that I should take it easy and not push too hard. However, instead of adopting a careful strategy and saving my energy resources for the hard climb just before the end of the stage, I just could not stop myself. I had another fast run along the flat tarmac sections of the first kilometers of the race.

When I finally reached the start of the climb, I felt really weak. My legs were heavy and my breath was fast. I slowed down a lot at that point and Peter finally managed to catch up with me.

Being the experienced runner that he is, I guess he instantly knew that it was not my day and so, he moved forward to overtake me. At that point in time, facing his back for the very first time, I knew that if I give up the effort and let him proceed further, he will get a big advantage in time over me and definitely with that, a huge psychological uplift too. I decided there and then to give everything I have and try to stay not too far behind him. His pace was much faster than mine and I was suffering a lot, trying to keep up with him. The trail seemed to get steeper and more slippery. We were then above 3,000m and we had another 600m of climb to go. My heart rate was around 175 and I was almost sure I will faint if I will keep this pace.

Thank God, Peter seemed to enjoy the scenery and he decided to stop for a while to take some photos of us together while I was almost collapsing!! I think maybe he sensed my exhaustion and was just being really kind to me. We soon came to some flat sections, which gave me some relief before the final 4km with another nightmarish climb, with us being exposed to the rain and wind.

After what seemed like ages, we finally crossed the finish line together, at the entrance of the mystical Phajoding Monastery, one of the oldest, poorest but holiest monasteries in Bhutan.

Phajoding Monastey

 A very harsh and unpleasant weather suddenly descended upon us, and given the high altitude we were at (3,600m), the low temperature and wind made me feel really unwell. Our luggage had not arrived yet because apparently, Peter and I were faster than the mules who were carrying our luggage!!! I had to wait for about 45 minutes before I was able to change into warmer clothes. During the period of waiting, I started shivering due to the obvious hypothermia of my body. It took me almost 2 hours to control my shivers before I felt comfortable enough to come out from my sleeping bag and search for lunch.

I think I pushed myself the hardest during this stage and I was amazed again by the resources of energy that is hidden in our brain, leading me to this kind of transcendence!

Later in the afternoon, we all gathered at the football field of the Monastery for the annual football match between the monks and the runners. We have been told that the monks have been training for this event the whole year and that they were really looking forward to challenge all of us runners, who were struggling with our breathing due to the high altitude! This year, we were lucky that the runners’ team has many good footballers. So, not surprisingly, we managed to beat the monks for the first time after 2 years of losing!!

Briefing before the start of the match

Me tackling a monk

Man!! He was too good!!

We spent the rest of the day before dinner speaking to Lama Namgay Tenzin, the monk who was in charge of the monastery, to find out more about the lives of the monks in the monastery and his mission.

Lama Namgay

I was told that the monastery houses over 80 monks, all of them living in the most basic conditions, with 5 months of snow in a year, which makes their lives really difficult. They all come from impoverished backgrounds, where their families often do not have the financial means to provide for their basic needs. Many of them sent to the monastery have been orphaned and the selfless Lama Namgay is devoting his life and trying his best to help these unfortunate kids.

Apart from being a very good runner, Peter also showed us another trait of his exceptional personality today, by offering an unbelievable amount of USD 20,000 which he had collected in donations, for the needs of monks in this monastery!!!

Stefan making an announcement of Peter's (second from left) feat in collecting
USD 20,000 in donations for the Monastery
It was truly an unforgettable day for me, and I am sure, for the other runners too. Such a unique opportunity!!


Sleeping at 3,600m after a difficult run which required a lot of effort, definitely was not one of the most pleasant memories of this adventure, but when I woke up at 5am with blue sky and saw clouds floating effortlessly below me, I forgot all my pain and self-created misery and was ready to go again for another day.

Phajoding Monastery above the clouds 

Phajoding Monastery above the clouds 

The early part of this stage turned out to be a nightmare for some of us during the first hour of the race. A few of us on the fastest group got lost along the course due to someone messing around with the course markings!! Until that very moment, the markings of this race has been perfect and this has made my running the best experience ever in this aspect. For every 10 meters, we would see an orange ribbon to remind us that we were on the right track, making our run so relaxed and assuring. Manu, a Spanish runner and member of Stefan’s Team, has been doing a great job all this while. Now, we suddenly found the orange ribbons being taken out and placed at the obviously wrong places and arrows marked on stones being turned to the obviously wrong directions!!


For almost 30 minutes, the group of 15 of us were trying to figure out what was the correct route to run in the middle of the forest. Thank God this happened when all of us were together, as this would not affect the time difference between us in any significant way. After feeling really upset by what had happened, I started to run very fast once we finally found our way. It was a technical downhill part and I very quickly gained a difference from the rest of the group, which I maintained until the end of the race.

Me approaching the finish of this stage

Altogether, it was a beautiful run in the forest, where we crossed streams and rivers before heading to the top of the mountain. What impressed me more in this blessed country was the fact that most of the mountains are lined with thousands of prayer flags strung out like spiritual guards used to bless the surrounding countryside.

Prayer flags adorning the countryside

Prayer flags adorning the countryside

After having crossed another finish line with a 10-minutes' advantage over Peter, I found a wonderful surprise waiting for me and the rest of runners. The farmhouse which we will be staying on that day was located in the middle of a unique rural landscape with paddy fields (flooded parcel of arable land used for growing rice). All the runners were offered the traditional Bhutanese Hot Stone Bath to cleanse away all our muscle pain (and mud!!).

Picturesque paddy field surrounding the farmhouse

Picturesque paddy field surrounding the farmhouse

Our farmhouse for the night

The ‘bathtub’ itself was made of wood and constructed on separate partitions in a large shed at the back of the family home. Large, round river rocks/stones were set into a roaring fire and left to heat for hours before the runners’ arrival. After filling the bathtub with clean mountain water, the hot boulders were slowly dropped one by one into a cornered-off section of the tub—and so the bath began!

The heated boulders/rocks

Before we were allowed into the tub, The Lady of the House, who called herself Mama, began her ritual of scrubbing us clean from all the dirt and mud which has stuck to our bodies from our run. Only after she was satisfied that we have been decently cleansed would she allow us to step into the tub.

Me, being scrubbed clean by Mama

Me, being scrubbed clean by Mama

Cold, freezing water being splashed on me!!!
Cooked in a hot tub!!

As the water heated to an intense level, I got the sense of being cooked in a hot soup… It is believed that the heat of the water and the minerals released from the rocks produce medicinal benefits for joint pains, hypertension, stomach disorders and arthritis.

I am not sure about all these medicinal benefits of the Hot Stone Bath but I can assure you that after 4 days of running without a proper hot shower, this hot bath was the most luxurious treatment Stefan has to offer to his participants. Thanks Stefan!!!!! That was a fantastic treat!!


5th day of racing today and almost time to give all the last effort remaining in us for the longest stage of the whole race (53km).

We ran through a lot of tarmac sections in very hot conditions today, but also through a very beautiful net of local trails through paddy fields, connecting villages and valleys.

Start of the race - I was in the second group

Running through picturesque paddy fields

Running through picturesque paddy fields

The villagers we saw during our run

The villagers we saw during our run

After crossing a suspension bridge and turning a corner, I inadvertently missed the last check point as I did not notice it (being too tired and feeling very hot by now). Due to this, I did not have the chance to refill my bottles with water and ended up running the next 20 km without any water. Fortunately, I came across many water canals where I dived in, to cool myself down.

The finish line for today’s stage was at another amazing location, the Drukyal Dzong (once a monastery and fortress, which now lays in ruins due to a fire back in the 1950’s). I gained another 27 minutes’ of advantage, consolidating my first position.

Finish at Drukyal Dzong

Finish at Drukyal Dzong

Catching up with Manu

Beautiful view from Drukyal Dzong

Beautiful view from Drukyal Dzong

Beautiful view from Drukyal Dzong

I had another night of bad sleep today, because there was an orchestra of dogs that decided to perform all night long for us. I realized that since the start of the race, I have been sleeping for no more than 5 hours on average every night and I tried not to dwell too much on this as I know the end iswas drawing near …!


The last glorious day has finally arrived!!

We only have to run 14.6km between the last farmhouse to the iconic symbol of Bhutan, The Tiger’s Nest Monastery. We ran through 8km of ups-downs through beautiful trails and a final 6.6km of climb to the highlight of all visitor’s stay in Bhutan.

Last farmhouse at the base of Drukyal Dzong

Breakfast at last farmhouse at the base of Drukyal Dzong

View from last farmhouse at the base of Drukyal Dzong

Last farmhouse at the base of Drukyal Dzong

Almost reaching  the Tiger's Nest Monastery 

This is supposed to be the holiest site in Bhutan. Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, materialized some 1,300 years ago on the back of a flying tigress. Finding shelter in a series of caves, he meditated for some three years and then set about converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery that commemorates this auspicious beginning was built nine centuries later, in the 1600s, although the buildings we see today have been replaced several times, including major reconstruction completed in 2005 after a fire devastated the structure and its contents in 1998.

I arrived at the Finish in less than 2 hours with great emotions of completing a cultural journey more than just a run, despite all the efforts and my competitive spirit. For the first time in a running race, I had the opportunity to see so many other things beyond my running horizon.

Stefan has cleverly managed to emerge us in the local life of this unique Himalayan Kingdom, and to give us many opportunities to interact with the locals. All the routes were very well thought-out and carefully planned, in a way that all the runners will get to cross rural communities and villages while at the same time, running alongside local farmers cultivating their rice fields, or locals herding their cows through the mountain paths. With the perfect course marking by Manu and his assistant, Sonam, we all had the rare opportunity to run “free of navigation” in some of the most remote and picturesque countryside, where life has changed little for the last few centuries.

Credit should also be given to the amazing team of volunteers, both at the check points and many other local ones who worked quietly behind-the-scenes. All of them  gave their very best to us at all times, always with a broad smile and a very kind attitude.

I also find the meals to be really delicious and varied. We often had a mix of local dishes with rice or a choice of pasta, every day, for lunch and dinner. Breakfasts were also served daily, often scrambled egg, bread, cereal with milk, with a choice of tea or coffee. These meals definitely helped me recover after each stage and run faster the following day!!

As far as the substandard hygiene conditions in the farmhouses and monasteries, I will have to say that it is all part-and-parcel of the whole endurance test of one’s limit in this race. I would also say that Stefan compensated us very well after the Finish by offering us a post-race accommodation in a super-luxurious 5-star hotel, the ZhiwaLing in Paro. What a comfortable place to rest and sleep after one week of living out of our comfort zone!!

ZhiwaLing Hotel

ZhiwaLing Hotel
Even the Awards Ceremony was of the highest standard. Instead of being presented with merely medals, each participant was given an exquisite and beautifully crafted prayer wheel as a prize, a symbol of the Bhutanese Buddhism belief. Various cultural dances with beautiful costumes were also performed for us, all I find to be very interesting and something that a visitor to Bhutan will only get to watch at special festivals.

Me thanking Manu for his impeccable course markings


The exquisite 'trophies'

Me and Justice Sonam Tobgye

This is definitely one of the best few races which I have participated in. I simply cannot find anything wrong with the race and I also have not a single suggestion to make as to how this race can be improved upon, because for me, everything has been handled perfectly well.  I hope Stefan and his Team will continue with the excellent job they have been doing with this race. This is a real gem for every runner who wants to explore this Himalayan kingdom in a way that no other tourist will be able to do.

Our group photo at the Finish


Despite The Last Secret not being my most important race of the year, it has certainly helped me a lot as during the race, I had managed to try out some new diet regimes and materials which I plan to use in my next challenge at the Death Valley in July (The Badwater 135).

The Road to Badwater 135!!!

Of course, running non-stop for 215km in an extremely hot environment at the Badwater is going to be something entirely different from my Bhutan’s experience. However, the experience gained and the endurance tested from my Bhutan'a adventure will definitely help me push beyond my limits (again) and hopefully, I will get to cross the finish line at one of the most legendary ultramarathon race in the world! Fingers crossed!!!


  1. Great post, Argy! It you was a great pleasure to get to know you and your wife. I wish you guys the very best for the future and hopefully our ways will cross again. Dirk

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read, Dirk. It was great for us to have known you too and we really hope we get the chance to meet you again (and your family too) one day, in the sunny state of California, perhaps. Happy recovery and keep running, mate!!

  2. Enjoyed every bit of this write up amd super photography. Brought back memories of my time in Leh/ Ladak. Such an Amazing experience for you. Thanks for sharing .Maya

  3. Glad you enjoyed the post, Maya. Thanks for taking the time to read. Leh/Ladakh will be next on our list.

  4. Great write up and your adventure is my inspiration. I am going to run next year Bhutan Marathon. Best of luck to you

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read, Jimmy!! Good to now that you are running Bhutan next year. I am sure you are going to enjoy the whole experience, not just the running. All the best to you, too!!