There is a reason the marathon is the last event held at the Olympics—that’s because it’s regarded as the pinnacle of all races. During those arduous 26.2 miles, the body is subjected to so much stress, that it takes a week or two for it to recover. For most people who take on this challenge, winning it is not the goal—just finishing is.
The Janapar Trail that runs between Vardenis in Armenia to Hadrut in Artsakh is about 178 miles, the equivalent of 7 marathons. Imagine subjecting the body to a run of such magnitude, with minimal rest and sleep. You would think it is impossible for any human to accomplish such a feat, right? The body is not designed for so severe a challenge. Well, you are wrong, and Telma Ghazarian Altoon is living proof of that.
Telma is a 42-year old superwoman who has run ultramarathons all over the globe, ranging in distance from 30 miles to 180. She is a working mother of two and perhaps the only Armenian involved in this daring sport. She has turned down numerous offers of sponsorship that would readily pay for her expenses only to have the freedom to display her Armenian heritage proudly during her races. The Armenian tricolor is visible on all her shirts and gear and it is her custom to wrap herself in it at the end of each race.
This June, Telma will be running in her ancestral homeland for the very first time, a dream she has harbored for many years. She will begin in Vardenis near Lake Sevan and will run through the pristine backcountry of Artsakh all the way to Hadrut, with minimal rest and sleep (to see pictures of the trail, visit www.janapar.org.) She will stop at towns and villages along the way to greet and talk to the locals. Despite those stops, she hopes to complete the run in just three days.
“I am running to fundraise for the Armenian Hikers Association-Armenia and contribute to the trail building projects they have undertaken,” says Telma. “It’s my way of giving back to my nation. I have run ultras all over the world, except in my motherland. It’s finally time for me to pour my sweat and tears on our soil.”
Telma has been running ultras for seven years and running the Janapar Trail is not the longest or hardest on her list, though it comes pretty close.
“Endurance races take an immense amount of mental strength, much more than physical,” she says. “Over the years I’ve dealt with severe fatigue, hallucinations, injury and other issues that I’ve pushed through to cross the finish line.”
Telma says she has suffered the side effects of dehydration, altitude, and low salt and sugar levels in her body. “Most of the endurance races I compete in do not allow sleeping and have strict cut offs, and this accompanied with fatigue and altitude causes many physical ailments.”
Telma discovered running at an early age. Growing up in Tehran, she was so good at it that she even beat the boys she ran against. After moving to the United States, she ran for the varsity teams of Glendale High School and the University of Southern California, where she got a scholarship for the Division 1 track team. However, track meets and marathon runs did not offer the kind of challenges she longed for. That is when she discovered the ultramarathon, a type of extreme running that can vary in difficulty, distance and altitude, and is especially taxing on the body. It requires extensive training and constant medical care. Actually, running weekly marathons is part of the standard training, as the race requires going over sand dunes in arid climates, climbing rocks, crossing rivers, running at night, in rain, cold weather, or extreme heat.
“I really enjoy the pain,” Telma says with a laugh. “I enjoy reaching the miles when the pain begins to set in. I thrive on pushing through it all and going against every God-given instinct in me to stop to relieve the pain. I feel a sense of immense gratification at every finish line whether I place well in a race or not. Pushing the body to extreme limits is very rewarding for me.”
Telma’s run is being sponsored by the Armenian Hikers Association-Armenia to raise funds for their “Armenian Highland Trails Project” initiative. She will be accompanied by Hans Keifer and Aharon Khachateryan on bicycle, as well as a support vehicle and driver provided by Gevorg Gasparyan of Arevi Travel, an ecotourism company based in Yerevan.
Hans is a professional trail builder based in Los Angeles and a nature enthusiast himself. He is Armenian on his mother’s side. As a professional involved in this field, he sees the huge potential and benefits ecotourism can bring to Armenia and Artsakh. He has been investing his time and money in making it a reality. “The economic benefits of trails have turned around many struggling post-mining and logging towns in the United States,” he says. “This initiative can do the same for Armenia and Artsakh.”
AHA-Armenia was specifically founded to help develop ecotourism in Armenia and Artsakh. The initiative comprises of several phases, all designed to be manageable in scale, each to follow the previous one completed before it.
Phase one is the installation of stone post markers along the most popular 36 trails throughout Armenia, displaying vital information about the trails, like direction, location coordinates and access to the nearest 911 call center. All signs are displayed in three languages, Armenian, English and Russian. This project is fully funded by AHA members and supporters and work is almost complete.
The installation is being done by an enthusiastic group of young volunteers assembled by Gevorg Gasparyan. To follow their progress and see pictures, visit AHA Armenia’s Facebook page.
Due to its spectacular nature and historic landmarks, Armenia is increasingly being discovered by nature lovers who travel the world searching for new locations. AHA-Armenia’s goal is to attract more of these tourists by raising the standards of all its trails to international levels. By improving the quality of the trails and creating new ones, AHA-Armenia hopes to revitalize the economy of rural communities. Through the creation of jobs and the improvement of living standards, it hopes to stop – or at least slow down – the rate of emigration, which is a serious threat to the existence of Armenia. By cooperating with governmental agencies and NGOs, AHA-Armenia is hopeful that its initiatives will yield positive results.
Phase two of the initiative involves building the “Armenian Highland Trail,” stretching from the border of Georgia to Iran. It will be built in stages, from village to village, eventually bringing all the trails in Armenia and Artsakh into one vast interconnected network matching the highest international standards.
AHA-Armenia is a sister organization of AHA-Los Angeles, which was founded four years ago. Since its inception, AHA-LA has grown into a family of over 1,800 members. It organizes several weekly hikes throughout Los Angeles, ranging from beginner to advanced. Some of its members have climbed Mt. Ararat and Pico de Orozaba, the highest mountain in Mexico.
To support Telma in raising funds for the “Armenian Highland Trail Project,” donations can be at AHAArmenia.org.
AHA-Armenia is a non-profit organization registered in the United States. All donations are tax deductible per laws of the Internal Revenue Service of the United States.