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Friday, June 8, 2018

The Mount Everest Marathon

The Everest Marathon is known for its extremes. Extremely high, extremely technical, extremely remote and, above all, extremely, breathtakingly beautiful.

To begin, what other race on earth takes ten days to get to the starting line? From Kathmandu it’s a 30-minute flight to the beginning of the trek which commences in the Himalayan village of Lukla. Sounds wonderfully idyllic. And it is, if all goes well. But this is Nepal and the clock ticks differently here.

Our 30-minute hop of a flight was delayed due to poor weather in the mountains. Then after finally taking off six hours later, only 15 minutes into the trip we were told that the weather window had closed in Lukla and a landing there wasn't possible. We’d be turning back to Kathmandu. Once back in the capital city, we taxied around on the runway till we pulled up next to a small building and the pilots jumped out of the cockpit to use the bathroom. The 15 passengers were also let out briefly to use the facilities while the plane was refueled, oiled and prepared for a second attempt.

An overloaded sherpa (porter)
We took off again and I was a nervous wreck during the trip while watching the pilots try to navigate through the cumulous clouds (yes, it was an open cockpit and I was sitting right behind them…so close that I could have helped out with the controls had they needed a hand). After nearly 40 minutes the runway was in sight. Though this was not necessarily prana for the eyes, since the airport at Lukla is reputed as being ‘one of the most dangerous in the world’ due to its ultra short runway, which is banked on one end by a mountain ridge and on entry the field drops off 600 meters to the village below. I said a brief prayer as we skidded to a halt. The trek was about to begin.

We were limited to 15 kilograms in gear. Our trekking bags contained not only our clothes, shoes, and personal items, but also our thermal mattresses, sleeping bags and liners. Most of us had clothing ranging from shorts and tank tops to hats, gloves and thick winter jackets. We’d need everything. Protein bars were also a major contributor to the gear list for the majority of us since no one was quite sure what we’d be served to eat along the way. These trekking bags were carried by the Sherpas (porters) or by the yaks. Each Sherpa carried two trekking bags plus his own gear on his back. The baggage was tied together with rope and the load balanced by a rope and band across his forehead. They walked severely bent over, like a table, and had to constantly strain to look up and forwards to navigate the path.

So, while the Sherpas suffered for our vanity, we each burdened ourselves with only a small day-backpack containing rain gear, water, cameras and snacks.

The rhythm was two days trekking then an acclimation stop. The weather was variable: Brief periods of sun interspersed with low hanging clouds that seemed to hauntingly creep up the valley.

The temperatures dropped as we climbed. The lodges were not heated, only in the dining rooms a wood stove was lit at 5pm to warm the guests a bit for dinner before sending them off to their cold rooms for the night. The facilities were atrocious. Dirty old toilets (sometimes only squatters) shared by dozens. Running water (when available) couldn’t be trusted to brush our teeth. We received boiled water at night to fill our bottles which we’d stick into our sleeping bags for warmth and then drink the next day.

The three meals a day were dominated by carbohydrates. Pasta, rice, potatoes, French fries, toast, and oatmeal. There was also always some form of eggs for breakfast, but I abstained. There were all but no vegetables.

Several in our group were experiencing minor symptoms of high-altitude sickness including diarrhea, nausea, loss of appetite, headaches and sleep problems. I had none, but we were nevertheless all encouraged by the group doctor to take Diamox, a medicine used to treat altitude sickness. Those without symptoms or only minor ones would take half the recommended dose while the others took a full. I was worried that the side-effects of the drug would be worse than any mild symptoms caused by the altitude. I was wrong. There was only one side-effect of the drug and it was marvelous: tingling toes and fingertips with temperature change. So, upon gripping that hot mug of tea in the morning, I soon felt a tickling tingle build until I felt like a sorceress ready to send lightning bolts firing from my fingertips!

During our last acclimation stop in Gorakshep, we woke early on our ‘rest day’ to  start a 5am trek up Kala Pathar at an elevation of 5,545 meters to view Everest and her neighboring peaks in the early morning light.
Khumbu Glacier Ice Fall

The following day, after 10 days in the Himalayas, we trekked to Base Camp Mount Everest, one of the most inhospitable places I’ve ever encountered (and I’m not exactly a home-body). The tents were scattered randomly about on the moraine field of the Khumbu Glacier. There was barely a flat area to be found as it was riddled with ankle-twisting rocks, ice, sand, ice-melt pools and streams. The world-famous popcorn field, or ice fall, of the Khumbu Glacier was directly in front of us. On our arrival that first afternoon we saw several climbers, just black specks in the distance, making their way down the glacier, bringing with them the equipment from the upper camps and the ladders to aid climbers over the crevasses, marking the end of the climbing season.

If I’d thought the toilets were bad to this point, I had no idea what bad could be. I’ll let it at that except to say that standing in shit while squatting over a bucket should perhaps be a prerequisite ability when preparing for this trip.

One pleasant surprise in BC was the appearance of vegetables! We had cauliflower and bok choy! I was so overjoyed by this turn of events that I forgot much of the carbs to gorge on the veggies! Which was a mistake, as anyone who has indulged too much on cauliflower knows, as my belly soon had more gas than a Texaco station.

That first night the temperatures dropped to nearly -15 Celcius. I had acquired an expedition-grade sleeping bag at one of the previous lodges since I realized that the one I’d brought with me, that I’d used in the desert, was not going to cut it. So I now had a merino wool sleeping bag liner inside a mid-weight sleeping bag inside an expedition-grade bag on top of a foam and a thermal air mattress on top of which I piled my jackets. And I was just barely warm.

The following night was a bit warmer, but sleep was difficult under the anticipation of the early morning race start.

The starting line atmosphere was ridiculously chaotic. My toes were frozen, but there was the promise of sun rising from behind the mountains and the weather was good. A starting line band was held between two organizers across a giant pile of rock and stones which we were all cautiously trying to stand on. An ice-melt river flowed on one side, a steep icy slope on the other. There was no visible path to follow ahead of us, but a few marker flags were seen randomly protruding from the rocks.

I tried to place myself as much towards the front as possible, of course behind the fast-footed Nepalese, but right behind them as not to get caught in a single-file slog over the first several hundred meters. Then before long we were off and it felt so good to run!

I was wondering how the altitude would affect me, but it was not as significant as I’d thought. Ascents are difficult at any altitude so I paced myself according to how I felt and my own experience.

It seemed that the field thinned out quickly and I soon got into that trance-like rhythm that long-distance runners crave.

At around kilometer 9 a Sherpa passed me going the opposite direction and he said to me “erste Frau”. Seriously. He spoke to me in German, telling me that I was the first woman. First international woman, of course. Wow. Cool.

At kilometer 17 we began the Bibre Loop, an out-and-back 6-km loop which gave us the opportunity to see where we were in the field, as well as to greet our friends. On the back side I noted that I was at least one kilometer ahead of the next international woman, buffer but not safety; we still had a long way to go.

I ran where I could, hiked where I couldn’t. At the first several check-points I drank a cup of water and bent over with my hands on my knees to try to catch my breath. But it never helped. So I never stopped anymore, except for the quick chip check.

At kilometer 35 I was surprised when another woman came up behind me, an Austrian who’d I’d met in base camp. Scheisse. Ok, I thought, well if she really covered that much ground despite me giving all I can, then she deserves to take over the lead.

That was my initial thought.

Then, I changed my mind.

Fuck that*.

I wanted to win this race and I wasn’t going to give it up after 35 kilometers!

So I ran with all I had. I don’t think I was all that fast…considering the conditions, the altitude, the insane ascents, but still, regardless of not being super fast, giving all I could was good enough. And with every last amount of energy I had, I fought it to the finish and ended up there as the first international woman, behind three Nepalese super girls, and six minutes before the nearest international competitor.

Just goes to show…

Believe in yourself and sometimes miracles do happen.

*I know I shouldn't curse, but this is the 'uncensored' version and that is exactly what I thought at that moment! :)

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