From Capital to Country: The spiritual race that ‘combines UTMB and the Marathon des Sables’

Posted 27th December 2023

Last month, Wellingborough-based Go Beyond Challenge delivered their first ever international running event.

The inaugural five-day, self-sufficient, 123-mile race across Nepal took place in late November and early December. Starting in the sprawling capital city of Kathmandu, the course takes in severe climbs, jaw-dropping temples and holy sites, and remote villages.

Simon Hollis, the founder of Go Beyond Challenge which runs the event, described it as an “intimate experience combined with the breathtaking beauty of Nepal.”

Dharmesh, an experienced ultra runner who has completed a host of 100-mile races as well as the famed Marathon des Sables (MDS), went further.

“I thought this was like UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mount Blanc) meets MDS. A five-day, self-sufficient race with long climbs and huge distances. Who wouldn’t want to do that?,” he said.

“Yes, MDS is a similar distance and in the heat, but the climbs aren’t like this and the terrain isn’t as varied. The scenery is brilliant. The people are so friendly and the course lived up to all the challenges we thought it would bring.”

The ‘we’ Dharmesh talks about is himself and fellow Capital to Country competitor Tarne Westcott, who would go on to win the race. The pair have been running events together ever since a pub bet resulted in them doing the London to Birmingham 50-miler more than a decade ago.

“We’re comfortable running in different situations and different environments,” Tarne said. “A lot of that apprehension that might go with running in a new area or a new terrain didn’t exist for us.”

Tarne, who has attempted to run UTMB three times but been denied by injury and circumstance, said the relaxed nature of Capital to Country was something that proved attractive to the small group of seven runners who took on an event designed to be an adventure and experience as much as an all-out race.

“I think the opportunity to do something completely different with no pressure, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, meant we could enjoy the adventure, enjoy the experience, soak up the scenery and the views, and enjoy every day,” he said.

But the competitor in Tarne couldn’t stay hidden for long.

A relaxed, pre-race visit to Kathmandu’s Monkey Temple, where a blessing from local monks was punctuated only by a mischievous monkey grabbing a Sprite bottle as a souvenir of the trip, was swapped for day one’s 27-miles along jeep tracks cut in the mountain sides, taking in tree covered hills and breathtaking drops. And the start of the real race.

Capital to Country doesn’t mess around when it comes to either distance or elevation, with constant ups and downs testing runners quads, thighs and hamstrings.

Day two, from Kasibanjayang to Bhakundebesi via the spectacular Dukhiel viewpoint, saw the runners complete another 23 miles while the third morning arrived with a somewhat rude awakening from a chanting monk and barking Nepalese dogs. It’s 30-mile route passed through the historic home of the Tamang Empire, winding along cobbled roads, and past plentiful temples and religious sites.

A shorter 16-mile route on day four took in some serious climbs before finishing at the remote Lamaland village, where the runners were greeted with garlands of flowers and an array of prayer flags and flower bowls.

The final day’s 26-miles started and finished at Lamaland, with all seven competitors safely completing the race – and at least one finishing with spiritual as well as ultra marathon goals achieved.

Helen met Dharmesh and Tarne when completing the MDS, but it was a race she also ran alongside her father, Richard, who sadly passed away during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Running through Nepal proved to be a chance for her to say goodbye and complete one last race with him: “Part of the journey for me was about just having a bit of space to process what had happened.

“Running felt a very apt way of doing it. Being out in the mountains and having the headspace running gives you, to go through all of that was incredible.

“I know my dad was with me on my shoulder.”

She said there was a purity about the “melting pot of different cultures and different religions” found in Nepal and the people she encountered.

‘There was a moment where we’d been running for three or four hours without having seen anyone and I came across a bloke who had a massive piece of plywood that was a metre wide and three-metres long. He was carrying it on his head,” she said.

“We saw women bent double, carrying massive loads on their backs, and yet every single one of them stopped and smiled at us.

“We were doing this weird thing that they probably couldn’t get their heads round at all, but yet we were still having that human connection with people.

“I think that is incredible. It just brings you back down to a basic human purpose and puts life into perspective.”

If Helen and Tarne fell in love with Nepal while running, Emily Moore found a very different way to take on Capital to Country.

An experienced Ironman triathlete, Emily currently has her own plans to take on the Sahara and MDS – plans which shape the way she is currently training and running or, in fact, power-walking.

“I know the heat of MDS won’t allow me to run,” she said, “so I’ve been experimenting, spending the summer wild camping and sleeping on the North Northumberland coast.

“I power-walked Capital to Country and had a very different event than the others. I went to a Nepalese wedding, I went to temples. The guy who was with me at the back was very proud of his country and we have made friends. He showed me all the important buildings.

“On the last day, we went past his school, which is a charity school where his brother is the headmaster. The kids were at the windows looking at us, then they all came out and they blessed me. I smelt like Turkish Delight, which was an actual delight because I had been smelling like a dog for days.

“It is the trip of a lifetime. I feel privileged to have been there, to have seen the people, to have seen the country. And to have met friends for life.”

Simon Hollis said the “incredibly hospitable people” of Nepal helped make a trip which “was a pleasure to organise”.

“We were blessed with a great group for our inaugural event and were delighted with the level of care and support we were able to offer with our team,” he added. “Our photographer Adrian has some amazing photos so we will never forget our time there in 2023.”

Anyone watching, from the giants of the Himalayas to those awe-struck, cheering locals, are unlikely to forget it either.

Go Beyond Challenge and the Capital to Country Multi-Day Ultra will return to Nepal in 2024. The event runs from November 25 to December 1, 2024. You can find all the details HERE.