FROM DOWN UNDER TO THE VERY TOP

A personal account of the Everest Marathon by Ray Brown, New Zealand

I first learned about the Everest Marathon in 1991 when planning my first visit to the Himalayas in the remote Kanchenjunga area. At the beginning of 1993, I was planning an extended vacation with my family later in the year and dubiously put my name forward for selection.

The receipt of a large brown envelope postmarked ‘Windermere’ brought with it the elation of acceptance into such a prestigious event, and the dread of all the gruelling training and preparation. It gave me a ‘goal’ which dragged me through many tortuous training sessions. I was already in training for two road marathons and opted to continue running my normal pre-marathon distances through to late October. I gradually changed the terrain and content of the sessions until I had progressed to the following typical week:

Sunday: race and training to complete 20 km
Monday: 15 km road
Tuesday: 15 km cross country, sandy dunes
Wednesday: 30 km cross country, hard surface
Thursday: 45 mins intervals on stairs
Friday: 8 km or 16 km with a group through parks
Saturday: rest.

I eagerly read all the literature I could find on the Everest Marathon, studying in detail participants’ accounts of previous races, comparing times, race splits and runners’ approaches. What was the mystical coefficient to multiply my road racing times to reach a target time for this unique race? In the end I decided I would be more than pleased with anything approaching 4 hours 30 minutes.

When to arrive in Nepal was the next dilemma, as I delicately weighed the advantages of acclimatisation against the risk of condition loss and illness. After observing that most of the highly placed runners in previous races had spent at least one month acclimatising in Nepal, I opted for an early arrival.

The stipulation requiring all runners to join the group in Kathmandu, rather than Namche Bazaar, precluded me from doing my acclimatisation on the course. A short ‘phone conversation with Diana, however, was all it took to arrange with her a two week tea house trek through Langtang, Gosainkund and Helambu. This turned out to be just what was required, not only from the conditioning point of view, but also as a trekking experience: it is a very pretty place.

After leaving Perth I found it difficult, and even counterproductive, to maintain a rigid running programme. I shudder when I think of the effect my runs in Bangkok and Kathmandu had on my lungs. In the hills I carried a full pack and walked everywhere at speed and occasionally breaking into a jog. I only went for three runs during the 12 day Langtang trek. One, from Kyangjin Gompa to Yala Peak and back left me with blisters under my callouses, a thumping headache and a worrying foresight of what lay ahead.

I returned to Kathmandu to join my group a little thinner but in excellent shape and spirits. I was buoyed up even more by the vibrancy and enthusiasm of the other participants. The trek from Kathmandu to Namche drained a lot of enthusiasm out of me as it was unusually damp and foggy for that time of year. Diarrhoea and stomach upsets were prevalent and, just before Namche, it finally caught up with me. With advice from our ever attentive doctors, I decided to fast completely for two days to clear out my system and that did the trick. I quickly regained my strength, but not weight, during the rest in Namche. During numerous conversations at the Tamserku lodge, our base in Namche, I heard various runners’ times for the Thamo loop and I was keen to see how my efforts would compare. I found it a good hard run and came back reasonably sure my goals were realistic.

By this time I had teamed up with Richard Grainger, a masochistic Pom with similar interests and outlook as my own. We travelled quickly and climbed a few peaks on the rest days but did very little running. It took us seven days to reach Gorak Shep and I was hoping to run back down that part of the course in 3 or 4 hours.

I resisted the temptation to climb Kala Pattar the day before the race and spent the day relaxing and getting prepared. I enjoyed a thorough wash and arranged the tent so that everything I would need would be close at hand. The meal we had on that final night was probably the best we had and was a credit to our cooks. During the night I had some sinus squeeze, which caused a dull headache, and a mildly upset stomach but managed to doze on and off through the night. A high fluid intake is a must, so numerous ventures out into the freezing night air were necessary. I ate a Power Bar at 5 am and another about 6.30 am, followed by rice pudding supplied by the camp cooks and an aspirin for my headache.

The walk across the sands of Gorak Shep was made deep in thought of what was to come. Well organised and effectively staged, the quick start was great for the nerves and body temperature. I have only hazy memories of much of the race due to the natural mechanism for forgetting pain. I slotted in amongst the first 4 or 5 runners and found the pace quite sustainable but had difficulty with orientation. Those who had run the course before were certainly at an advantage. After a couple of excursions off the main trail, which is not well defined across the glacial moraines, I decided to sit in behind the Gurkhas and rely on their guidance.

I arrived at Pheriche well within my expected time and gulped down a special concoction of grated Power Bar and Staminade which Nat had prepared for me. Just before Pangboche I rolled my ankle very badly and it took a kilometre before I could put full weight on it again. With ligaments stretched, I was to twist it again a number of times and it really hampered my downhill running. Fortunately, there are a few ups and mostly gentle downs until Tengboche and I was managing to hold my position. I lost the Gurkhas on the steep track down to Phunki Tenga and, in my frustration, took several spills which left me looking far worse than I really was.

I had always regarded the steep ascent to Sarnassa as the main challenge of the race so I was elated to find that, at the top, I had made up most of the ground I had lost on the descent. I had a special advantage now: my family, whom I had last seen a month ago in Perth, would be waiting for me at Chorkhung. It was an emotional moment when they came into view. A quick hug from my wife, and it was off out to Thamo.

The slightly downhill undulating nature of this trail draws the best out of spent bodies but leads to doubts about their capabilities for the return. At the turn around I had closed to within a few hundred metres of Hari Roka in second place but was feeling very lightheaded from the pain in my ankle and worried that it would give out completely. My pace dropped off but making sure of third place and breaking 4 hrs 30 mins was all that concerned me. The steep stony descent into Namche amid the hoots and whistles of the onlookers was made in dazed euphoria.

This was a once in a lifetime achievement and there was my family to share it with me.

Ray came third in 4.28.38, beating the Vet’s record, which he still holds, by 33 minutes. Throughout the race he was in the lead pack of 5 runners. His Chorkhung-Thamo time was a relatively slow 46 minutes but Thamo-Namche was completed in a spectacular 28 minutes.

Those who knew Ray will be saddened to learn that he died suddenly on the 6 September 2002 while out jogging with friends. Since running the Everest Marathon he had summited Everest, run in several exotic adventure races and had recently returned from an unsuccessful attempt on K2.