Bhutan: The Endurance Athlete’s Paradise

Bhutan’s unique terrain and developmental status make it into a paradise for any endurance athlete.

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Whether it be cycling, running, swimming, or trekking, Bhutan’s unique terrain and developmental status make it into a paradise for any endurance athlete.

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Cycling

While you may not want to bring your new road bike valued in the thousands of dollars here, the rough roads and trails are meant to be ridden on an aggressive mountain bike. Biking gives you access to Bhutan in a way that is otherwise not possible. The few paved roads in the country connect to a network of dirt, farm roads which lead to the more traditional villages. These rocky, washed out roads are often impassible by cars throughout much of the year due to monsoons and landslides, but on a mountain bike they are transformed into a challenging network of dirt trails complete with park-like obstacles and jumps. Following these switch-backing dirt roads deep into the most remote parts of the Himalayan foothills gives you unique glimpses of village life in Bhutan which seems to be frozen in the past.

If group riding is more your style, there is a growing base of Bhutanese mountain bikers who are forming clubs and organizing events in the country. The most active of these is the Thimphu Mountain Biking Club which is responsible for arranging group rides and races in the Thimphu (Bhutan’s capital) area. Such clubs are also beginning to create a network of designated mountain biking trails which are perfect for honing your skills.

In addition, the Bhutan Olympic Committee has organized what is arguably one of the most challenging single-day mountain biking races on the planet: The Tour of the Dragon. This 268km (166 mile) race begins at 2am in Bumthang (Eastern-central Bhutan) and travels on high elevation roads over four mountain passes to end late in the evening in Thimphu. If the sheer distance wasn’t enough to deter you, perhaps the elevation will. The Tour of the Dragon has over 7,800m (25,600ft) of elevation gain and tops out at a maximum elevation of 3430m (11,200ft). Such opportunities make Bhutan a truly unique and challenging place to bike.

Running

Whether you are trying to get in shape for your first 5k or preparing for your next ultra-marathon, Bhutan will get you there. Starting a run from any given point in the country will give you many route options for either roads or foot trails depending on your mood. One thing that is inescapable however, is the persistence of elevation gain. While your quads may loathe you in the beginning, running up (and down) the mountains in Bhutan will get you in the best shape of your life. It is nearly impossible to find routes in the country which will not leave you at least a little sore, but the views and physical gains make each run a joy.

Similar to mountain biking, the trend of running is catching on the country. With the locals taking more of an interest in it, more running events are beginning to appear. The most notable of these is the Bhutan International Marathon which takes place early in March each year. This race offers both full and half marathon variations to participants and draws the largest international crowd of any running event in the country.

Swimming

WWF Bhutan 

While it does not have nearly the traction of mountain biking or running in the country, Bhutan has great swimming (if you know where to look). Pools are virtually nonexistent, but each valley has at least one river flowing through it. Many of these rivers are wide and slow flowing for much of the year and offer a refreshing workout. As a developing country, it is not advised to swim in the rivers near the population centers of Thimphu and Paro, but once you reach more remote sections of Bhutan the crisp, Himalayan water is divine. Winter and spring are the best times to swim as the summer monsoons tend to leave the waters muddy and can create dangerous undercurrents because of the increased volume of water flowing. If you choose to take the plunge, these rivers offer a great escape from the mundanity of swimming laps at your local gym.

Trekking

Photo/Bryan Gensits

If you are a serious trekker, adding Bhutan to your bucket list is a must. There are treks for every skill level ranging from a couple days to over a month. Many of the routes follow nomad routes and are in pristine condition because so they are so infrequently traveled. In addition, the crisp mountain air and views the Bhutan Himalayas have to offer are irreplaceable anywhere in the world. The many, nearly unheard of, routes in Bhutan will give you a physical and cultural experience that you are sure to value for the rest of your life and is a little less cliché then a trek with the masses up to the Everest base camp.

See the Jetset Time’s full report on trekking in Bhutan here!

Have you ever been to Bhutan? Share with us in the comments.

Bryan Gensits

Contributor

Bryan is currently based in Punakha, Bhutan where he's completing his M. Sc. in Natural Resource Management at the Royal University of Bhutan. He enjoys mountain biking, trail running and trekking.

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