First another apology for the lateness of this - issues with wifi followed by me being sick in Kathmandu and coming home with a chest infection & laryngitis. Started writing it the day after the marathon but has been delayed somewhat! Resting up now and doing as I'm told, for a change, so can get back to normal soon...
So, where do I start? At the very beginning? That'd be months ago - and at the very least, 10 days ago when we landed in Lukla, rather starry-eyed and eager for the Everest Marathon adventure to begin. Since then our small KE group has had its fair share of ups and downs (no pun intended but if it fits....!), with some unable to start their dream run and medevac'd out for various reasons, but with the help and support of our wonderful guide Raj and his crew of Sherpas, doctor and porters, 9 of us found ourselves standing on the start line, at the bottom of the Khumbu ice fall, on the freezing cold morning of the 29th May. There was another - a nutter who had completed the marathon twice previously and had set out an hour earlier on the 60k ultra. No, really really not interested in that one!!
We'd witnessed a few rock falls and small avalanches in the surrounding mountains in the previous couple of days and as I stood on the start line in down jacket and looked around, I was overwhelmed by the majesty of the landscape and the comparatively insignificant band of people about to embark on one of the hardest runs of their lives. That said, we were constantly reminded of others' amazing achievements by the number of high-altitude Sherpas who were scurrying past having summited Everest, or climbers who would generously give their support as we started out on our own journey.
As the countdown began it all felt a bit more 'normal', like the start of most races. There the similarity ended. The Nepalese runners bounded off into the distance before the countdown had reached 5; we all politely waited then off we shuffled, one behind the other on the narrow stone-covered ice path over the Khumbu glacier. Shuffling was a good pace and about all I could manage at 5365m! The first 2 miles were across the glacier then up and over the steep moraine, a mixture of boulder steps to haul up and steep loose shingle to falter up. At that altitude it's an effort to walk, let alone lift your body up rocks - and this was only the start. My hope was that lower down I'd have more oxygen and therefore more energy. Even the short downhills in the first few miles felt impossible to run, so fast walking was the order of the day. Having to stop for yak trains coming through was quite a relief, though at times it was easier to move from the main path and take a porter track to speed up an already slow process. Pausing would also give a welcome opportunity to enjoy the stunning scenery that was an integral part of the whole route. The support from trekkers and their guides was hugely uplifting; as they gasped for air going uphill they would shout encouragement to the runners coming down - apart from the 'you're nearly there' at 4 miles (!) it was wonderful to hear and really spurred you on. Miles 3-5 were along the narrow tracks up and down the sides of the Khumbu valley; then until Mile 10, apart from one climb out of Thukla, the route covered the gentle downhill stretches of yak pastures where I was able to run a little (you can tell as it only took about 18 minutes per mile!!). I made the mistake of keeping looking at my watch, as I was worried I might not make the 11-hour cut-off at Tangboche at 20 miles; this was well within reach but in my tired brain, I might be too slow...
The worst part of the first half was by far the dreaded 'Bibre loop', a 3-mile out and back stretch beyond Dingboche which we had walked (and run the return leg) on a rest day. It broke me. It seemed far, far longer than it had done previously and the 1.5 miles uphill
(though only slightly uphill) took me 46 minutes! It was good to see some of our group, all inevitably on their way down when I was on my way up, and stopping for a couple of minutes to talk to Mike gave me a much-needed boost. The reward at the top was a band, to go with the electronic tag, that we would be disqualified for losing. The most hard-earned and precious piece of green ribbon on elastic I've ever possessed!! I managed a short rest and fuel stop at the half way mark; I'd been on the go for just over 5 1/2 hours!!
Somewhat refreshed by this and the fact that the route for the next few miles was now largely downhill (though never completely so - this is Nepal, after all!), I made relatively good progress and was able to run a little between the walking. Running really took it out of me; I was surprised at how difficult it still was even though I was now a whole kilometre lower than where we'd started.
Then the climb towards Tangboche monastery started. And the rain, to add to the headwind we'd been running into since the start. How to sap energy in one easy step! The climb isn't massive, but boy was it tiring - and I knew what was coming on the other side too. Apparently others had been welcomed by monks with friendly greetings and water at the top - they must've gone for their tea by the time I got there as there were only a couple of bedraggled-looking boys ticking off numbers as we went through, so I pushed straight on to the other side. I think the next 3 miles or so are the hardest of the whole marathon, just at the point where you need a bit of respite - first a steep path of downhill switchbacks all the way to the river at the bottom of the valley, which really takes it out of tired legs and plays havoc with your quads; then you have to regain all that height you just lost - plus some more - and climb for a mile plus upwards. My earlier hope that lower down I'd have more oxygen and therefore more energy was somewhat dashed....
The climb seemed never-ending, and I realised how desperate I was to get to the top when I felt a sense of achievement in passing a Nepali woman who was carrying a HUGE load on a top-line (a basket on the back fixed by a strap over the forehead, the way all porters carry in Nepal). Did I mention she was resting for a moment when I passed her?! It's these points when you think of why you're doing this, who you're doing it for, what support you've had and continue to get from friends and family. And believe me, it really does keep you going, makes you dig deep. Dig deep I had to, and at last I reached the top of that dreaded hill!! From then on it's a relatively flat couple of miles to the finish line (again, Nepali flat = undulating. A lot). With just over half a mile to go I heard a familiar voice and saw Mike at the top of another short climb; he'd long finished and had come back to support me for the final stretch - a most welcome sight! It still seemed to take an eternity to get there, but eventually I could hear the hubbub of those at the finish line and saw the tents in the school field at Namche that marked the race end. As one of the ultra runners (he was coming to the end of 60k!!) passed me, I 'ran' the last hundred yards or so into the village and down the stone steps to the red finishing tape.
What a feeling - achievement, relief, exhaustion. It was fantastic to be greeted by some of our team who had stayed at the finish line (one of whom had finished 4.5 hours ago!) and our guide & Sherpas, and to get the much coveted certificate which will have pride of place when we find a space on a wall at home. I think this is one of the few races where I don't actually have a finisher's photo - too tired to even think about it!
Was it worth it? The beautiful if difficult trek to the start line, the stunning scenery, the wonderful Nepali people, the camaraderie of the team, the feeling of achievement, and the awareness and funds raised for our 2 charities MNDA & Alzheimer's Research: most definitely.