Why run the Manaslu Trail Race? 

Here Roger Henke offers his views on why this race is special among all the other stage trail races in the world! Roger Henke was formerly Director of the renowned Summit Hotel in Kathmandu and its attached trekking company, Summit Trekking. While in Kathmandu, he explored hundreds of kilometers of trails which lead to the explosion in popularity of trail running in Nepal.

Among the many multistage events on offer, why run the Manaslu Trail Race

[This is a follow up to a post asking Why run a multi-stage race?]

There are many few multi-stage races, all over the world, and each will have its specific attractions. Anyone arguing for theirs being the best, the nicest, the hardest, the whatever is not describing a truth but simply marketing. As with most things in life, it all depends, and it depends mostly on what you as a participant are looking for. 

As my previous post already argued, those for whom figuring out ‘what they are made of’ by subjecting themselves to competition under extreme conditions best opt for different events than those for whom an outward focus of immersion in a particular environment matters most. These are not opposites and most multistage events have a bit of both but there are clear differences of emphasis between events.

Maximize your immersion

The Manaslu Trail Race is an example of a multi-stage race designed to maximize your immersion in an environment that is not only naturally, but also socio-culturally, quite overwhelming and different from what you are familiar with. It does this by:

  • having ‘reasonable’ stages, allowing most to finish with sufficient time to spare for exploring the surroundings of the monastery and villages you overnight in, and
  • to recover well, by transporting all you don’t need during the daily run to the next stop for you,
  • by building in rest days and walking days to aid acclimatization and avoid competitive ambition from creating dangerous havoc, and
  • even halting the stopwatch at places that merit a look around.

High altitude habitation

An important enabling factor for such a multistage is the pretty unique trekking “infrastructure” of Nepal. Unlike most mountain regions, Nepal’s higher elevations are (still…) inhabited, and transected by old trade routes. Many of the trekking trails are still in use for the transportation of goods by ‘porters’ (people carrying goods on their back, supported by a strap around the forehead) or animals, or are used by seasonal high altitude herders. Traditionally, those carrying goods on these routes were fed and lodged in the villages on the way (as the hosts in turn would be when they brought their own goods to the market), and the current dense network of lodges along many routes developed out of and on the back of this pre-existing hospitality custom. 

Yes, five+ decades of trekking has changed village life, but life in places that can only be reached on foot is still quite dramatically different. In an increasingly connected and ‘flattened’ world places like these are quickly vanishing. Also in Nepal motorable roads are eating into the middle hills of Nepal and increasingly into the high mountain areas and many treks that used to take three weeks or more are now shortened because the roadhead has moved ever closer. 

Fewer tourists

Within this context, the Manaslu region is as good as it gets in Nepal. Only opened up to tourists in 1991, until not all that long ago without lodges, and still requiring a special entry permit, it has seen way less foreign visitors than the Annapurna region or the Khumbu (Everest region). Its lodges are simpler, and the route resembles the Annapurna circuit trek of decades past. Like that most famous of treks, it crosses six climatic zones, which not only makes for remarkable natural diversity, but also for ethnic-religious diversity, the lower elevations being settled by Hindu farmers, the higher elevations by Tibetan Buddhist peoples. A difference reflected in language, dress, house and temple construction, cuisine, crops and more. 

Diversity of landscapes, climatic zones and people

For some, nothing beats high alpine terrain for mountains but if you, like me, are a sucker for diversity, nothing beats Manaslu, not in Nepal. By now, the classic for this, the Annapurna circuit, has roads going all the way to Manang on the East side of the Thorung La pass, and Muktinath on the West side, leaving a distance that a good walker could cover in a day in between. As crossing a 5400m pass requires proper acclimatization, trekkers still walk parts of the original circuit, take alternative trails avoiding the road, and take it slow climbing above Manang toward the pass, but the effects of direct road access to most villages,  and only a maximum of a couple of hours on foot for the remainder means that Annapurna circuit village life and the facilities available for visitors are much more recognizably modern than what you encounter on the Manaslu circuit.  

In summary, of all the countries that host multistage events, Nepal’s inhabited mountainscape is special, and of all regions in Nepal, for those that value diversity away from roads, the Manaslu area beats them all. 

Enough by way of answer to the title question, but there are two additional reasons that this particular Trail Race stands out. 

Reasonable stages are “enough”

For most, the ‘reasonable’ stages of this multi-day race are going to be more than enough, and whatever extra they might have in the tank most likely goes into racing the stages harder, aiming for a better placement. But just in case you wondered: quite some days offer opportunities to add small side trips, mostly from the village that we stay overnight in. Upping both distance and elevation, making for an overall more demanding event. So if reasonable isn’t ambitious enough for you, you can certainly make it harder for yourself!

And last but not least, a personal hobby horse of mine: nine days in the mountains sounds like quite the holiday but for a variety of reasons lengthening it makes a lot of sense. And the Manaslu Trail Race can be extended right from the finish line. 

Let’s get flight shame out of the way first: Nepal is a long haul away for most of us and when we fly that far anyway, why not spend some more time and make the most of taking a long journey? Especially, when staying longer allows you to extend your time in the mountains and gives you the opportunity to see more of Kathmandu valley’s sights, visit the South of Nepal with its large nature reserves, a world totally different from the Himalaya, and I could go on.

Keep trekking after the race

Enough said about possibilities for after the mountains, directly relevant for the Manaslu Trail Race is that if you want to stay up high, making full use of being properly acclimatized to altitude, there are possibilities right from the finish. I am going to explore one of them, the Tibetan Buddhist Nar-Phu area, with whomever wants to join, to see if a next edition of the Race could include this as a formal extension. This area is more akin to Mustang and Tibet than anything the current route traverses, adding even more diversity to the experience. 

I am fortunate enough to have trekked Nepalese trails when roadheads were still way further removed from the high country and an average trek was a minimum of two to three weeks. So I know from personal experience that more days on the trails is not just more days but makes a qualitative difference. Road building in Nepal has kept pace with us getting busier and busier lives, that don’t seem to have room for long holidays. I can assure you that we have lost something. It is going to be worth your while to use this visit to Nepal to find out what we’ve lost. Told you so, a hobby horse….  

Read part one of this two-part series, Why do a multi-stage race?

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