Women of the mountains make waves in Mumbai
With inspiring runs at the Mumbai Marathon, two women from Leh are putting Ladakh on India's athletics map
It was difficult to believe that the owner of such an enthusiastic and loud voice was a shy, tired and waif-thin woman. At the media event two days ahead of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, while she was being introduced as an elite athlete, the 24-year-old’s voice could barely be heard in the closed room—even though she brandished a microphone. Jigmet Dolma had kept her head bowed, refusing to look around a room full of reporters.
On the morning of 15 January, however, having secured a podium finish at the marathon, Dolma was beaming. Her hands itched to get at the microphone and declare to the gathered media: “This is the happiest moment of my life. I am very, very happy to have finished third and achieved my personal best."
At the back of the room sat Tsetan Dolkar, clutching the oversized cheque of Rs3 lakh that Dolma had won. Dolkar herself had finished fourth among the Indian women at the marathon, missing out on a podium finish by a mere 4 seconds. But she sat on gamely, genuinely happy to see her friend and training partner soak in the big moment. Dolma may have won the big prize on the day, but it was a reward for the long and defiant journey Dolma and Dolkar had started together in Ladakh.
On the face of it, their timings were not stunning. Dolma had finished third among the Indian women, behind Maharashtra’s Jyoti Gawte and West Bengal’s Shyamali Sing, with a timing of 3:14.38, while Dolkar clocked 3:14.42. But it was impressive given that they were debuting in the “elite" category and had proceeded to breach the 3-hour, 20-minute mark for the very first time. More importantly, they had put Ladakh on India’s athletics map for the day.
It felt like a piece fitting perfectly into a puzzle.
Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes have already shown to the world the wonders being born in—and living at—high altitudes does for human endurance. But Indian athletics scouts haven’t quite yet been able to adopt the theory and tap talent from the country’s mountainous regions. Dolma and Dolkar, who are being touted as pioneers from Ladakh, showed that it could prove to be a wealth of latent talent.
“These girls live at 10,000ft," says Savio D’Souza, the former India marathoner who has now been coaching them for two years. “Because the air is so thin there, their lungs and heart are already built for a great workload. They have the endurance for marathon, but I have been working on their speed, and they have improved with every marathon."
The Ladakh Marathon, which was established in 2012, has proven to be a game changer for a region more known for its stunning landscapes than its contribution to sport. The marathon has quickly achieved cult status among running enthusiasts owing to its elevation (at over 11,000ft) and all the challenges that it brings. The first marathon in 2012 was run right after floods had destroyed life and infrastructure. The race itself is one of the toughest tests of the human body, mind and spirit.
“The marathon is a great way to showcase not just the landscape but the hardiness of the mountain people," says Chewang Motup Goba, whose company Rimo Expeditions organizes it. “We have got a great response to it, and it has given athletes from the region something to look forward to."
Before running became her passion, Dolkar played ice hockey, which is also steadily gaining popularity in the frozen land. “But I gave it up because of the injuries," she giggles. She hails from Lamayouru, a village in Leh district, with a population of 667 according to the 2011 census. Dolkar was only a teenager then, but lined up bravely for a marathon, her first-ever official race over any distance, when the first Ladakh marathon was run.
“I ran that in about 5 hours," she says. Dolkar has been the most consistent female Indian runner in her home marathon, winning three of the five editions. She took gold at the 2013 edition with a timing of 4:54.05, in 2015 with a timing of 3:40.37, and in 2016 with a timing of 3:34.26.
Dolma hasn’t been quite as decorated—she came second in the 2015 marathon, trailing Dolkar by more than 2 minutes, and topped the half marathon charts in 2016, but she has shown enough promise and improvement to be treated as one of the leading runners in Leh. She hails from Igoo, also a village in Leh, with just over 1,000 inhabitants.
“These two are kind of trailblazers for Ladakh," says Goba. “Because they have seen and participated in the Ladakh Marathon now, there is a new wave of runners coming." Goba also sponsors Dolma and Dolkar and was the one who brought them to Mumbai to train under D’Souza.
“They have the natural attributes to make for good endurance runners," he adds. “In India at least, if not the world. They are only 24, which means they have another four-five years to peak. And with good coaching they can achieve that. Also, they come from very humble backgrounds, so they have that hunger."
Ladakh’s frozen desert lands have the ferocity to wilt plants and hope alike. The region, booming with tourists in summer, is virtually closed off to the world in the winter. Nothing goes, or grows.
“We have to stock up for the cold weather," says Dolma, “because the Leh highway is cut off due to snow. There’s nothing to do there in the winters."
Both the women come from families with a farming background. They have small patches of land to grow grains and vegetables but rarely produce enough surplus to sell it in the market. “During the summer, we work in the fields too," says Dolkar. “No one there can afford labour. So we help each other out with sowing and harvesting." While both Dolma and Dolkar are pursuing bachelors’ degrees in arts from the only college in Leh—Eliezer Joldan Memorial College—running is fast becoming their priority.
“For the past two-three years, I have taken up running seriously," says Dolma. “That’s what I want to do as a profession." Dolkar agrees. They have the support of their families.The pair meet routinely in Leh town to train.
When snow blankets Leh, the girls head for the warmth of Mumbai. They have been training with D’Souza for the past two Decembers. Despite the humidity that drains runners at city marathons regularly, the salty sea-level air comes as a refreshing change for Dolkar and Dolma. They had been running the Mumbai Marathon in the open category for the past four years, but got a taste of the VIP elite lane for the first time this year.
“And they almost missed it," recalls Goba. “They were staying about 100m from the starting line. They had left an hour before the start, but it wasn’t till 5 minutes to go that they turned up. They told me that because of all the road closures they couldn’t find their way. But I think all the running around warmed them up perfectly for the race."
Just like life in Leh has prepared them for the hard yards ahead.
A version of this story earlier appeared in The New Indian Express.