Interview with Richard Ball on Trail Running & the Manaslu Circuit

Richard has been living and working in Nepal for the last seven years, and is a major force behind the trail running scene and the opening of the Manaslu Circuit as a teahouse trek. We caught up with Richard not long ago to learn more about how these initiatives gained traction.

Can you tell me briefly about yourself, how you came to live in Nepal, and how you got into trekking and trail running?

For seven years I lived in Amsterdam, and life was very enjoyable there. The city is almost perfectly organised, and if you follow the rules your existence can be very pleasant. I was looking for a new challenge and new work, so I took a few months off and went to Kathmandu (a place I’d been twice before) to sit and think about what to do next. Kathmandu is an affordable place to do that kind of thing.

After five months there, I’d made some contacts and started some different projects. After a few trips back to Europe, I’ve now been here seven years. And perhaps now I am starting to yearn for the calm of Amsterdam a bit. But Nepal is a very interesting country for an outsider. So much of life here follows different codes: religion, politics, business, power, and it has been fascinating to learn a little bit about how life functions here.

I read a post about a 70km trail running race on a forum I initiated here called Kathmandu Kathmandu. I made a good friend with a guy and together we worked to promote trail running here in Nepal. I learned about the Manaslu Trek through a guy called Dhir, who was organising a multi-stage race. He was building a tea-house that would open up the trek as a tea-house trek (where trekkers don’t need tents), and he was doing training courses in cooking and hygiene. I decided to help him and all of the local hotel owners with a website which would tell the world about the trek, and that it was possible to do it without camping. Most websites were still calling it a camping trek.

Compared to other treks, does the Manaslu Circuit trek receive much traffic?

It’s hard to get accurate figures from where I am now. I’d say something like 3-4000 people, mainly in the peak seasons, which is maybe 25% of the Annapurna Circuit, and a tenth of the traffic EBC trek sees. Two guys that really made a difference in opening it up were Dhir and Chandra. They put in an enormous amount of time, effort and money to make it work. But they did not know how to promote the area as a non-camping trek.

Manaslu Circuit trek
Passing through local villages on the Manaslu Circuit trek

How have the locals responded to you opening up a new trail and drumming up business?

People are pretty happy of course. There are always winners and losers in tourism. The people who had the lodges previously are doing very well. Some more people get portering or guiding work. Mule drivers also get a better income and there is a trickle down to traders in the villages. Another hidden boost to the economy is through charity donations. People make friends and sponsor children or schools.

Tell me about your work there with trail running.

It started as a hobby. I knew very little about trail running until I saw a post on a mailing list for a 70km race near Pokhara, the Annapurna 100. I met the guy who was helping turn it from a road race to a trail race, and decided to train for it. After endless discussions about the potential of local elite runners here and the country itself as a destination to run, we set up Trail Running Nepal as a portal for information. We started organizing some local events, and worked at getting sponsorships to get Nepali runners into races overseas. That has continued for more than five years.

lone runner on a snowy trail
Stephan Tassani Prell, Salomon Athlete, racing down to Sama village on the Manaslu Base Camp trail
trail runners starting a race
A small group of runners start the 6th stage of the first Mustang Trail Race in 2013, from the secluded Luri monastery
two runners on a trail
The start line of the Mustang Trail Race - just 13 runners started!
trail runners starting a race
Stage one of the Manaslu Trail Race, a kilometre climb from the river below gives views to the 7000m peaks of Ganesh Himal
Above photos © Richard Ball

We’ve had lots of small success and one huge success. Mira Rai turned up at a race two years ago, almost by chance, and went on to come second in the World Skyrunning Championships, a series of ultra trail races.

Mira Rai
Nepali trail running phenom, Mira Rai (© Richard Ball)

When do you think trail running really started to emerge in Nepal, and why do you think that is? Are you seeing more and more people from around the world attracted to trail running in Nepal? How are the locals responding to it?

Slowly yes. There’s a bigger selection of races, a growing local community of runners, especially around Kathmandu. Trail running in the surrounding countries is also getting very popular and runners from Thailand, Malaysia, etc. are starting to come here for short races. Nepal is still a remote destination and far from the main populations of trail runners, but it is picking up. Now that Mira Rai is in the news here, people are starting to understand what it is, through participation in sports outside of school-aged kids is still not very high.

Three Nepali trail runners
(In order) Sudip Kulung, Aite Tamang and Bed Sunuwar en route to 100km race in Hong Kong (© Richard Ball)

What are some expert tips you would offer people who are interested in trekking Manaslu? Aside from trekking, what is something else visitors can do in the area that isn't too touristy/hidden gem?

Get fit! Walk some stairs or hills if you can leading up to your trek. If your ankles are weak, practice standing on one leg for a minute with your eyes closed, then switch legs. This trains your ankles to react faster if they roll on uneven ground, makes them stronger and improves balance.

I’d say also hire a porter. You’ll be giving someone work. It is hard physical work of course, but pays relatively well and that money will go to support a family in a place with few opportunities for earning the cash needed to pay school fees, etc. So hiring a porter has a direct, positive impact on a family.

It also frees you up to enjoy the trek more. Who wants to do a 30-minute climb to a monastery with 15kg on their back? While your porter walks slowly and steadily to the agreed night stop, you can expend the energy you’d have used carrying a pack to explore villages or take side trips to the several monasteries off the main trail. Pungyen Gompa is a case in point. An amazing place, but few people take the time to go there. Make sure you do it and be dwarfed by the east face of Manaslu.

Finally, when in Kathmandu, wake up once before sunrise to visit Swayambhu, the Monkey Temple or any of the main temples. 5 a.m. and onwards is when the morning worship activity kicks off, and you’ll see the temple in action, so to speak. You can always snooze again later in the day.