Chris Kostman has been running and hosting extreme endurance races in stunning destinations for decades. But when he first saw photos of a friend running across Nagorno-Karabakh, he was awestruck by the mountainous beauty of the place – and how little he knew about it. 

According to nearly all international protocols, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh is the Armenian name for the region)  is still legally part of Azerbaijan. It is not officially recognized as a sovereign state, and is considered independent only according to the Nagorno-Karabakh Declaration of Independence.

Telma Ghazarian Altoon stands beneath Umbrella Waterfall in the Republic of Artsakh in black running shorts, a white t-shirt, black socks, grey Nike running shoes  and trekking poles.
The new Artsakh Ultra isn't the only epic trail in the Nagorno-Karabakh. Altoon has also run the 284 km (176.5 miles) Janabarh Trail through the Caucasus Mountains, also favored by hikers © Telma Ghazarian Altoon / Lonely Planet

Telma Ghazarian Altoon is an Armenian-American and the first person to run 176-miles across Nagorno-Karabakh. The day after her run concluded, Altoon met the President of Artsakh, who told her he hoped her accomplishment would inspire more people to visit. When Kostman saw Altoon’s presentation of her journey, he knew they could do just that. 

As Chief Adventure Officer of AdventureCORPS, Kostman is no stranger to bringing people to challenging destinations. AdventureCORPS is best known for hosting the Badwater 135, widely considered the toughest foot race in the world. Starting at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in Death Valley National Park, runners cover 135 miles of dangerous desert known for the hottest temperatures ever recorded on Earth and finish at the base of Mount Whitney

The sun sets of the mountains in Artsakh, which is located in the Lesser Caucasus range
The Lesser Caucasus run through Artsakh, creating stunning mountain scenery that Altoon has compared to Switzerland © nielubieklonu via Getty Images

Organizing a race to Nagorno-Karabakh has come with its own challenges. But the Artsakh Ultra Stage Race won’t be about grueling conditions or dark, sleepless nights of running. Instead, Chris hopes the “stage race” format will allow runners to truly experience the sights and the culture of Nagorno-Karabakh, literally just off the beaten path.

Each day for six stages, runners will cover a certain distance, then sleep in tents among beautiful, remote landscapes, or stop at hotels in towns where they can fuel up on the local food, listen to music, meet the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, and recover for the next day of running. There will even be certain stops where they can pause the clock on their run to relax and explore. 

The grey stone exterior of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shoushi, Artsakh is framed by cloudy skies and a bright patch of chamomile flowers and grass in the immediate foreground
Ghazanchetsots Cathedral was completed in 1888, used to store missiles a hundred years later during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and was restored in 1998 as a church once more © ArmenIsk via Getty Images

Discovering Nagorno-Karabakh 

“Armenia is a veritable Switzerland,” Altoon recalls her parents telling her in a video of her run on Youtube.

“It’s even more beautiful than Switzerland,” says Altoon. “And it’s pristine.” 

Traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh is one thing, but a run through the territory would mean going much deeper than your typical day trips. 

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For outdoor enthusiasts seeking splendid alpine views without overly technical terrain or prohibitive altitude, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan have a lot to offer, like Mt Karabakh © Hans Neleman via Getty Images

“The whole country is mountains,” Kostman tells me. “It is largely forested, and none of the mountains are too dangerous or too high to go through or over. So it’s very hiker and runner-friendly. It’s also very quiet. Many days, unless you’re in a village, you won’t see anyone.” 

The Janapar Trail, which starts in Armenia and crosses into the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, is the perfect stage on which to access the remote wilderness and further reaches of the nation. Efforts have been underway to repair, connect, and mark ancient trails through Nagorno-Karabakh, making it increasingly accessible for adventures like this one. 

A statue in the shape of a groom's hand holding a wedding ring about to be placed on a smaller, feminine hand of a bride stands at the foot of a long concrete staircase leading the Presidential Palace in Stepanakert, Artsakh. On either side of the stairs are statues that look like brides and grooms, each with lampshades on their heads – a display known as the Alley of Lovers
The Alley of Lovers is a sculpture series along the steps to the Presidential Palace in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, depicting brides and grooms © NurPhoto via Getty Images

Highlights Along a 160-Mile Nagorno-Karabakh Journey 

Only fifty runners will participate in the Artsakh Ultra. But the route winds through many highlights of the the territory, which Kostman hopes will appeal not only to runners, but also future visitors who will be excited to learn about and visit.  

Highlights include quiet, mountainous stretches, towns full of music and local food, and dramatic cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls.  I asked Kostman about his favorite stops along the route, and these were some of his favorites: 

The monastery at Dadivank is situated on a rocky ridge with some green scrub grass covering the orange volcanic grown. In the background are more rocky ridges and hills extending to a cloud-lined horizon.
The monastery at Dadivank was built between the 9th and 13th centuries, and has been undergoing an extensive renovation process through 2020. © Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Dadivank Monastery

Armenia is the oldest Christian nation on Earth, and that ancient history is a big part of Nagorno-Karabakh, too. The Dadivank Monastery is one such relic from the distant past, built sometime between the 9th and 13th century. The collection of stone buildings is tucked among rolling green hills. It was restored and reopened in 2004 and restoration projects continue today. 

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Cycle through Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia on the historic Parenzana Trail

Bubbling mineral waters roil in a raised bowl of mineral deposits in the forested hills of the Armenian highlands in Artsakh
The Lesser Caucasus was formed by volcanic activity in Eocene and late Miocene–Quaternary periods, and hot springs like the one at Zuar continue to bubble up to this day © graphics.vp via Getty Images

Zuar Hot Springs 

Who doesn’t love a bubbling natural hot spring—especially when you’ve been covering at least marathon-distance mileage day after day? South of the Dadivank Monastery, the Zuar Hot Springs are not easy to reach, but visitors say it’s worth the trek (and you don’t have to run there). 

Two little girls, one in jeans and a denim jacket, the other in a skirt, white top, and knee docks, sit on a rocky set of steps near the Eclectic Hotel, shaped like a ship covered in mosaic tiles near a stretch of green and yellow bleachers
The iconic Eclectic Hotel was funded by a Vank native who was part of the Armenian diaspora that left Nagorno-Karabakh during the Soviet era © Matthias Schumann via Getty Images

Vank

This town of just 1,300 boasts personality for much more. “Vank is eclectic,” says Kostman (which is probably why one of the hotels is called Eclectic Hotel). “The two hotels are super fun. And there’s this one outcropping of rock that sticks out of the hillside and it looks like a lion’s face.” 

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The We Are Our Mountains statue is so beloved it's also included on the 5 Dram coin as part of Nagorno-Karabakh's currency © saleajean via Getty Images

“We Are Mountains” Sculpture 

A symbol of Armenian heritage and an intimate co-existence with the land, “We Are Mountains” was created by artist Sargis Baghdasaryan in 1967. It is also known as tatik-papik, which translates to “Grandma and Grandpa.” After crossing so many mountains by foot, runners will no doubt relate to that sense of close kinship with the peaks and valleys of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

zhengyalov-hats-artsakh-cuisine-stepanakert.jpg
There are plenty of delicious foods to discover as runners and other visitors fuel up on traditional dishes like these Zhengyalov Hats at a shop near Stepanakert © NurPhoto via Getty Images

A Trail Blazing Run for Tourism to Nagorno-Karabakh

Kostman hopes to bring representatives from at least ten countries in the pool of runners that will travel to Nagorno-Karabakh and traverse this challenging and culturally-immersive route. The Artsakh Ultra will take place from August 30-September 4. 

I spoke to the NKR Representative to the United States, Robert Avetisyan, about what this race could mean for Nagorno-Karabakh. “The general message is we want Artsakh to be known as much more than the [past] conflict,” he says. “It is a place of beautiful nature. It is hospitality; it is people. There is so much for us to offer the rest of the world.” 

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