The Everest Marathon
Story by: Dave Barnett
Whilst trekking in the Khumbu region of Nepal during November 1997 1 came across a number of competitors and officials who were to become involved in the running and Organisation of the highest marathon in the world. I found, at that time, that merely trekking along the trails was difficult enough and from this experience alone, the race would without doubt, be ranked as one of the toughest marathons in the world. Simply to get to the start alone would test many of the competitors in terms of coping with the effects of altitude, freezing conditions, stomach ailments and a whole host of problems which come from travelling through a third world country such as Nepal. The following is an account, unconventional as it might seem, of the sixth Everest marathon which concluded in Namche Bazaar on 23 November 1997. Some of the overall commentary has been constructed through correspondence with others and also from personal knowledge of the terrain through which the event was conducted. It starts with my walk in from Lukla:
The climb from the suspension bridge over the Dudh Khosi up to Namche is tough and unrelenting. Close to the top I paused to quench my thirst with a "coke" I bought from a young girl at the side of the trail. I rested listening to the young girl and her smaller brother sing a lilting Sherpa melody. The sounds had barely died away when the clanging sounds of the bells on the slow moving yaks coming up the trail stirred me into action again and I continued on my way to Namche Bazaar, a collection of stone buildings in a natural amphitheatre perched high at the junction of two trails along which traders from Tibet had travelled for centuries. Arriving, I was glad to seek out a lodge and recover, stretched out on a bed in a small room, shared with two other trekkers.
Dinner that night was an interesting affair. At the table was a wiry American guy whose fit demeanor belied his sixty-nine years of age. Eckhart as he was known had just completed a six day trek into Namche Bazaar in preparation for the Everest Marathon. Accompanying him was a young Welsh guy, Mark, who participated in the more 'extreme max' type of sports such as climbing vertical routes on extremely difficult mountains. He was shortly to embark on a challenge over the next two years to become the youngest person to climb the highest peak on every continent starting with a direct ascent of Mt McKinlay in N America. Mark, however, was in Nepal principally to report on the Everest marathon for a magazine and to assist in the Organisation. He also had his sights set on a climb up a major peak in the Khumbu region whilst he was here. Conversation returned to running again and I listened with deep interest to Eckhart as he explained in more detail the nature of the Everest Marathon. He was the oldest competitor in this year's race which has been held biannually since its inception in 1987. Eckhart had competed once previously finishing in a respectable fashion and like most marathoners, regardless of age, was hoping to beat his previous best time. The owner of the lodge entered the conversation several times for his son had finished second twice and stories of hardships and triumphs of previous marathons were related in much the same way as mountaineers would talk of fighting the elements to reach the unattainable goal, the summit. Details of the race filtered out:-
The start at Gorek Shep(5160m/17,460ft) was still four or five days trekking away, more if one spent time adjusting to the altitude. The route from Gorek Shep proved to be a perilous journey along narrow tracks clinging to mountain sides containing steep descents and strength sapping climbs finally ending 42.2 kms later at Namche Bazaar (3446m/1 1,456ft). Applications had already been received from all over the world including the USA, LTK, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, NZ and a lone entrant from Australia. As one might expect, Nepal was well represented and a clash between the Sherpas and a team of Gurkhas was eagerly awaited by the locals. Mark indicated that competitors were chosen by invitation since the field was restricted to a maximum of 85 runners for this year's event. Each had to provide details of previous running history to ensure only those capable of finishing were considered. We talked for many hours before thoughts of an early start to another hard days trekking drove us to bed.
Over the next week or so I gained an appreciation of what the competitors would go through in travelling from Namche Bazaar to the start of the race at Gorek Shep. Each step upwards takes you into ever thinner air. Above 4000m the effects of altitude can hit home ... general malaise, headaches, loss of appetite and lack of sleep are common. Freezing nights and respiratory complaints can eat into your reserves so gradual acclimatisation is essential. A two night stop at Pheriche or Dingboche will aid the process - to compete, not to win. To stand any chance of crossing the line first a much longer period of acclimatisation would be needed.
Hitting the wall in a marathon is a common experience. On the trek from Lobuje through Gorek Shep to the top of Kalu Pattar(5548m/18,435ft)I personally hit the wall for the first time in my life and was in survival mode by the time I returned to the campsite at Gorek Shep. After recovering, a quick sorte around Gorek Shep revealed that little accommodation would be available for the competitors, now due to arrive in a few days time. The congestion could be imagined ... most would have to camp overnight. This would involve many having to engage a porter to carry their gear such as tents and sleeping bags up, break camp the next day and bring their gear back down to the finish whilst the race was being run. Even so I could sense the excitement the runners would go through as they lined up for the start. With these thoughts in mind I started my way back down the next day following along the exact route of the marathon. Energy literally started to flow into my legs ... going down was much easier than the hard grind of the ascent up to Gorek Shep.
Sunday, 25 November 1997, provided the worst possible scenario for the competitors. Snow, in the form of small icy granules had peppered their tents from the early hours and when they emerged, visibility, due to a freezing mist, was down to few metres at most. The scheduled start at 7.00am was delayed by 15 minutes in order that runners could add additional warm clothing to their backpacks. Yes, backpacks! Each runner carries a backpack, generally quite small, containing essential items such as head torches, whistles(in case you get lost), wet weather gear, supplementary food if required etc. Not your ordinary marathon ... failure to carry certain items can lead to disqualification if you don't have them on your person at the finish.
The night before the marathon got underway I managed to arrive back in Namche Bazaar. Here I met Rosemary Davies whose husband, Major Chris Davies, was leading a team from a local Gurkha army detachment. Rosemary was the official timekeeper of the race and subsequently forwarded the results on to me. Conditions at Namche Bazaar on the day of the race were far from ideal but Rosemary was adamant that there would be a riot by the competitors if it was called off. "Besides, there would be absolute chaos if everybody had to stay up at Gorek Shep for another night," she said. I agreed.
Start they did and. within seconds the runners were swallowed up by the mist. They were immediately tested by a sharp climb out of Gorek Shep over snow and ice covered I rocks. Many picked their way carefully over this section whilst others worked nimbly upwards at a respectable pace. 1 The next four or five kilometres tested all competitors as they scrambled down the rocky slopes along the edge of the lateral moraine of the Khumbu glacier. The menacing slopes of Everest and Nuptse were left behind as the roar of an avalanche, hidden from view, crashed down the flanks of Taweche. Conditions were ideal for the sure footed Nepalis and already one had established a small break on the field by Lobuje(4930m/16,750ft). Identification of the runners was difficult as their eery figures emerged for a brief second or two before immediately being enveloped by the snow and mist.
Conditions improved lower down and feeling the benefits of the lower altitude and the relatively easier descent into Pheriche(4240m/13,910ft) the runners loped alone easily. Pheriche is a small village at the entrance to the Khumbu valley and is the home of the Himalayan Rescue Association medical post specialising in high altitude medical problems. It is common for the medical post to treat Lip to twenty trekkers a day for high altitude sickness, including one of Our own party, who had symptoms of cerebral oedema. The marathon itself is well covered on the day by fifteen doctors who have voluntarily come to Nepal to service each checkpoint. Each checkpoint also dispenses drinks, muesli bars etc, and in some cases, wan-n porridge is served since some competitors can be on their feet anything up to ten hours before they finish.
From Pheriche the race is overshadowed by the perfect mountain, Ama Dablam. Unfortunately this day, it was hidden from view as the lead runner descended across the southern flank of Taweche into the deep valley of the Imja Khola. At this point Hari Roka had established a clear margin over two of his fellow Sherpa compatriots Bishant Sing and Dachhiri Sherpa. A British competitor, Nigel Holt, was well placed in the first six runners and was running strongly as he crossed the wooden suspension bridge over the swirling waters of the Imja Khola to start the steep climb up to the monastery settlement of Tengboche(3857m/12,650ft). The footing of the steep track, being in the perpetual shadow of Kantega, consisted of snow, ice and mud in combination resulting in many runners changing from joggers to boots in order to negotiate the slippy terrain more easily before changing back again at the top. News that the lead runner had passed through Tengboche reached Namche and an excited cheer went up from the locals on hearing that a Sherpa at long last was heading the field. Hari Roka then started the extremely hard descent to the Imja Khola before having to climb back up to an equivalent height on the other side. In a little over three hours twenty minutes he entered the high trail into Namche Bazaar with its prayer flags flapping gently in the wind.
|Yells and whoops went up from the crowd as Hari traversed the rocky trail above to commence a ten kilometre loop to Thame and back. The Sherpa was running rhythmically and one's feelings could only go out to the later runners who would, with the finish so tantalisingly close, have to continue on for another two hours before finally returning to cross the finishing line. Fifteen minutes after Hari Roka, Bishant Sing and Dachiri Sherpa went by together, with little more than a few metres between them. Another Nepali went through followed by Nigel Holl. Then, the biggest surprise! Hailed by war whoops from the race organiser, Diana Sherpani, the first woman in the race, Anne Stentiford from Britain, came through only a short distance behind in eighth place. A steady stream of runners then came by before Hari Roka returned from his out and back loop to breast the tape at the finish. He was in remarkably good condition. After a quick check of his backpack by the organisers he was declared the winner of the sixth Everest marathon ... no mean feat I can tell you.|
The enthralling struggle for second place continued and Bishant Sing held out Dachiri Sherpa in a sprint finish. I unfortunately had to leave to catch a flight out of Lukla at that point but Rosemary Davies promised to forward on the results to me, particularly of Eckhart Lemburg who came in 49th position with a time of 8hrs 9mins 3secs. Rosemary's husband, Chris, a sub 3hr marathoner, came in at the tail end of the field in 9hrs 8 mins after walking the last 9 miles assisting a runner who was struggling to make the finish. The last runner to finish was a Scottish minister in his sixties competing in his fifth Everest marathon in a time of 10hrs 40inins 20secs. The lone Australian, Fred Atkin, finished in hrs 43mins 6secs and the two New Zealanders, Winston Churchill and John Gluckman finished in 8hrs 11 mins 42secs and 8hrs 43mins 6secs respectively.
The Gurkhas, although not the match for the highly trained Sherpas, performed creditably with Dilip Rai coming in 6th in 5hrs 8mins and three others in the first twenty. Run of the day was Anne Stentiford who finished in 8th position and slashed the ladies record by over 15 minutes finishing not far behind Nigel Holl, an accomplished marathoner, who finished 5th overall in a time of 5hrs 6mins 24 secs.
The winner, Hari Roka overcome his disappointment of the previous year when he came second, to finish not far outside the race record despite easing slightly over the last 10 kilometres. He reportedly had trained at attitude for several months making it a difficult undertaking for any competitor to beat him. Never the less, in a discussion with the race organiser, she was hopeful that somewhere, in New Zealand or Australia, may reside a runner with exceptional capabilities who could perhaps take on the local Sherpas. She informed me that the next Everest marathon is scheduled to take place in the period 20 March 1999 - 18 April 1999. She left a forwarding address so for those interested in competing in this remarkable event please contact:
Mrs Diana Sherpani,
Bufo Ventures Ltd,
3, Elim Grove,
Windermere LA23 2JN
Diana works tirelessly for worthy causes in Nepal and the proceeds of the marathon support several charities including:
Britain-Nepal Medical Trust
Nepal School Projects
Water Aid (Nepal)
Namche Bazaar Dental Clinic
Nepal Leprosy Trust
Tuberculosis Leprosy Project
I met Rosemary and her husband later in a restaurant in Kathmandu celebrating with several other competitors in the marathon. True to her word she forwarded on to me much of the preceding information and results:
Final Placings were:
1. Hari Roka 4hrs 15mins 29secs
2. Bishant Sing 4hrs 25mins 4secs
3. Dachhiri Sherpa 4hrs 25mins 6secs
1. Anne Stentiford 5hrs 15mins 7secs
1. Nigel Holl 5hrs 6mins 24secs
1. Name not known. Nationality - Italian - 7th place in between Dilip Rai in 6th place in a time of 5hrs 8mins, and Anne Stentiford in 8th place in a time of 5hrs 15mins 7secs.
Cool Running Australia 31.07.98.