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Running for Tibet: Kelsang Dolma Dodin Runs the New York City Marathon
Sonam G. Sherpa

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Kelsang Dolma to Run NYC 2004 Marathon, Tsering Passang, London

Kelsang Dolma Dodin runs the New York City Marathon at 7:00 A.M. of the race day, Sunday, November 7, 2004. Kelsang Dolma Dodin was met by representatives of the three major Tibetan organizations of New York, Tibetan Community of NY and NJ, Tibetan Women’s Association of NY and NJ and the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of NY and NJ who offered her silk scarves, “khatas”, and wished her well. The time had finally come. It was the day of the marathon, the New York City marathon, one of the most eminent running events in the world. All the practice runs, all the training and all that she had put for this race would come to reality in just a few hours. Kelsang Dolma Dodin, wearing a red warm-up suit with an oval-shaped Tibetan flag with “Running for Tibet”, emblazoned on the back of her suit as her reason for running, was indeed ready to run for Tibet. The weather was forecast as being great for the race day, although a bit too warm for some runners’ liking. After meeting with the officials of the different organizations, Kelsang headed towards 42nd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, where shuttle buses were waiting for the runners to whisk them to Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, in Staten Island, New York — the starting point of the race.

History of the New York City Marathon

The first New York City Marathon, in 1970, had 55 finishers and a total budget of $1,000. From this humble beginning, the race has grown to become a weeklong, worldwide celebration. On the guest list: 35,000 athletes, 12,000 volunteers, thousands of city employees, more than two million spectators lining the course, and tens of millions more television viewers around the globe, joined together by friendship, sport, and human potential.

In 1976, to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial, the marathon moved from the confines of Central Park to the streets of New York City's five boroughs: Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. The field continued to grow in size and diversity.

Source: New York City Marathon, retrieved December 2004.


Kelsang would join over thirty-seven thousand marathoners from 50 different countries for this race of 2004. The elite runners, the ones who had won races and shown potential to win here, would start their race before the majority of marathoners, so that they would not get squeezed in the melee. Those were the runners that were here to win, win the glory of New York City Marathon, prize money and a car that comes along to the winners.

But that was not what the majority of the runners were here for. For most, it was just to complete the race; a grueling 26.2 miles along the “mean” streets of New York City, an endurance test to themselves and a gratification that comes along in just completing the race. For some, it was about celebrating a milestone, a birthday, a wedding anniversary or a myriad of things one could conjure up.

Kelsang Dolma Dodin, with a personal goal to finish the race in a little over four hours, was not here to win the race, which is usually finished in a little over two hours by the winners. She was not running to celebrate any anniversary of sorts either. But she did have a bigger reason to run than to run just for the sake of running.

Kelsang, who was born in Ladakh in Northern India in 1976, has always been an athlete interested in various sports. Running from early on as a child in the Tibetan Children’s Village School in Dharamsala, her interest led her to run in marathons in Bonn, Germany and London, England. Running to raise funds for the London-based Tibet Foundation projects, she has raised over $3,000 to be used to relieve poverty and give opportunities for a decent standard of education and healthcare for Tibetans in Ladakh and inside Tibet itself.

Coming to New York ten days prior to the November 7, 2004 marathon, she had in mind not only to get herself prepared for the race, but also to speak with various Tibetan organizations in New York. Kelsang wanted to showcase her running of the NYC marathon and an attempt to educate spectators and runners alike of the plight of Tibet. What little publicity she would get with people or by appearing on TV, if that were to happen, she wanted to let viewers know of Tibet. She wanted to turn her running in the marathon for a cause all Tibetans believe in. In meeting with the officials from Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of NY and NJ, Tibetan Women’s Association of NY and NJ, Tibetan Community of NY and NJ, and other Tibetan Community leaders, it was unanimously decided by all that she would be “Running for Tibet”.

Kelsang started her race wearing a yellow tank top with the front printed with the Tibetan Flag. At the back was a picture of Tenzing Delek Rimpoche and a message, “Sentenced to Die” followed by a plea, “You can save my life”, and an internet address www.SaveTenzin.org. Two years ago, a Tibetan Buddhist monk and teacher, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was arrested by Chinese authorities and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Time is running out for Tenzin Delek Rimpoche and he could be executed by the Chinese government as early as December of this year.

Race organizers and police estimated the crowd cheering the runners to be about two million. But to Kelsang’s great delight, some of her Tibetan supporters were waiting to cheer her only into eight miles of the race. A group led by the Students for Free Tibet (SFT) cheered, “Go! Kelsang Go!” — followed by “Free Tibet and Free Tenzing Delek Rimpoche” — giving her a boost of energy at this early stage. Just as she approached the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Kusho Sonam Wangdu, leading a group of some twenty Tibetans waving the Tibetan flags, cheered Kelsang on. She was reminded of her purpose to run. It wasn’t only about her running a race. This wasn’t just a race but an event to inspire Tibetans and others to do anything they could to make everyone aware of the Tibetan cause.

Waiting to cheer Kelsang at the Queens side of Queensboro bridge was another group of Tibetans, led by TYC’s Ngawang Palden and Tenpa. As the little figure with a Tibetan Flag on her shirt ran with a sea of other runners, chants of “Kelsang, we’re proud of you” made her proud to be a Tibetan that warm sunny day, running a race in the streets of New York.

As she headed down on 5th Avenue in uptown, Kelsang spotted Domay, a Tibetan New Yorker waving a small Tibetan flag. Kelsang asked her if she could have that flag. Domay running along Kelsang passed the flag like a baton in a relay race to Kelsang, who would carry it to the end of the race, waving it along the way.

At the end of Central Park, where the runners make a right turn by Grand Army Plaza Hotel, Kelsang was greeted by Pawo Sonam Wangdu, one of the hunger strikers from this summer. Pawo Sonam knows first hand what it means to come and show support as it was the support from many Tibetans of New York and across the country that gave him strength to go over a month without eating in front of the United Nations. At the request of Kunga Thinley and Sonam Topgyal of the RTYC, Kelsang stopped there for some pictures to be taken while the crowd chanted her name and let her know how proud they were of her.

A Yak danced to the beat of a drum at the Columbus circle, near the end of the race. New York’s own Tibetan Dance Group, Cholsum, and other Tibetans cheered Kelsang as she ran into the Central Park, the last leg of the race.

Kelsang’s running for Tibet brought encouragement and excitement not only on the streets of New York, but in cyberspace as well. Many posted messages on Phayul.com web site’s discussion thread “Salute to Kelsang Running for Tibet”. A writer going by the pseudonym of ‘Mindfulness’ wrote,

What a joy and pride it is that Kelsang is running for Tibet! With her tender feet clapping on the concrete of NY amidst a swarming crowd who will glimpse ‘Free TIBET’ on her forehead, the long denied beacon of hope would be lighted at least for a fleeting moment. But that fleeting moment of patriotism means a lot to many of us.” And the writer concludes, “In her feet’s beating of the concrete of US, the whole six million Tibetans’ hearts will also beat with it…at least for the moment it truly deserves.

Another writer, going by the name ‘Six Syllable’ wrote,

…Interesting thing is, when you run, your whole body acts up and with it the beating of the heart and the combustion of metabolism. But in this case, her running helps in its own way to ignite the combustion of our dormant patriotism — that of a Tibetan. It is quite remarkable that patriotism could be displayed not only in our speech and writing, but also in the very sweat oozing out of our body and especially her, when we hit the ground with a mission in heart! Free Tibet!

As she finished her race in 5 hours 11 minutes and 42 seconds, official time, she was welcomed by another group of Tibetans who thanked her for her courage to run 26.2 miles and effort to bring attention to Tibet and Tibetans. But a humble Tibetan runner that Kelsang is, she was even more grateful that so many Tibetans came to support her in the streets of New York. More than a race, this was a symbolic coming together of so many Tibetans in their own effort to educate the world of a country called Tibet. No matter what a Tibetan does, Kelsang firmly believes, he or she must always do it to promote the just cause of Tibet. Every little effort put by Tibetans around the world will help in realizing every Tibetan’s dream of one day going back to a Free Tibet.

So this Tibetan woman, born in Ladakh, India and living in England, steals all Tibetans’ hearts in New York. She has inspired the Tibetan community so much so that there’s already a talk that in the New York City Marathon of 2005, many other Tibetans may join her to bring even more attention to Tibet. After all, it is only fair and the duty of all Tibetans, who ought to be, in any way we can, to be always “Running for Tibet”.