MIDDLE AGE MADNESS
By Lesley Taylor, Scotland
Madness Sets In…
I decided early in 2005 that I needed to find a suitably unusual event to celebrate my 40th birthday. I had to wait until May to find out I had a place in the race, then had six months to train, to panic, and to spend a small fortune on kit. I opted to split my sponsorship between the Everest Marathon Fund and the Yorkhill Children’s Foundation, and so far I’ve raised over £1800.
The whole trip has been truly fantastic – Nepal is a wonderful country, Kathmandu a brilliant city, the people amazingly friendly, and being in the Himalayas just an awesome experience. Being fit and healthy enough to climb the two trekking peaks, AND getting to the start of the marathon, never mind finishing it was just the icing on the cake!
There were around 70 of us on the trip: 57 western runners, friends or family accompanying as marshals, group leaders, and a team of medics to look after us. We all met in Kathmandu for team briefings and to be allocated to three trekking groups. The briefings really made us think about the dangers of altitude sickness, cold, and staying healthy, but at the same time stressing that the marathon was just one day, and that we were there to enjoy the whole trip. There were 24 in my trekking group designated the Late Birds, including a group of ten friends from Clayton Le Moors Harriers, who turned out to be our very own entertainment team!
The Adventure Begins
We left Kathmandu for the breathtaking flight into the Himalayas to Lukla airstrip, which is so compact (and steep) that only small 16-seaters can be used. There we met our trekking sirdars, and twelve cooks, twelve porters, and 5 yaks for each group. From then on we were in trekking country where only human or animal power is available for transport, and we set off for 16 days of trekking, camping, and acclimatisation. Each day consisted of an early start with the cooks bringing us “bed tea”, packing kit bags for the porters to carry, breakfast in the mess tent, and around 4-5 hours of leisurely trekking – leisurely to avoid ascending too quickly and incurring acute mountain sickness headaches, but also out of necessity – every step proved to be an effort at altitude.
The days were broken up with frequent stops at the numerous teahouses for pots of tea, hot chocolate, or hot lemon, an absolute necessity both to get enough fluid on board to counteract dehydration, and also to soothe the hacking coughs we all got as a result of the dry air. Our first night was spent in tents at Phakding beside the raging glacial waters of the Dudh Kosi River, and next day we trekked up the steep, winding path to Namche Bazaar, getting our first glimpse of Mount Everest through the trees.
We had a rest day in Namche Bazaar, where we stayed in trekking lodges rather than tents – the last luxury for a couple of weeks. Everyone stocked up with fleeces, wool hats, gloves and socks in preparation for camping at -20 degrees, and we had a recce of the last 6 miles of the race route, planning to walk uphill, and run the flats and downhills. The outcome was more like a shuffle uphill, walking the flats, and shuffle the downs, making us realise that rather than running, our training for the next two weeks was going to be just walking uphill.
The Gokyo Bit
From Namche we set off on the trek proper, firstly up the Gokyo Valley, where our first camp was at the village of Khumjung, where Sir Edmund Hillary has attracted god-like status for building a school and clinic, then on to a campsite at Dole. We were lucky to have clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine every day, but as soon as the sun disappeared behind a mountain – something which happened rather rapidly – you had to run and unpack kit bags to find at least three layers of thermal clothing! Although our cooks prepared food and served it in the mess tent each night, all our campsites were beside trekking lodges, so if there was room in the lodge dining room we would all pile in for a heat at the stove. Mind you, sometimes the mess tent was preferable to the smell and smoke from burning yak dung! We had a two night stop at Machermo, where there is a clinic to provide treatment for the trekking porters and staff run by volunteers.
The resident doctors gave us a hard-hitting lecture on the dangers of altitude – one we all took very seriously since one of our group had been evacuated the night before, and our photographer, Pete, was being treated inside a pressure bag while we were being lectured. (He made a remarkable recovery after 3 hours in the bag, and didn’t need to be evacuated.) Our final day ascending the Gokyo Valley took us up past glacier lakes to Gokyo, where I was lucky enough to summit the peak of Gokyo Ri. A few of us went up late in the afternoon but only two of us were willing to stay on the summit long enough to see the sun set over Mount Everest, which was so stunning it would have made the whole trip worthwhile on it’s own. To heat up, we ran back down to Gokyo. The moon was so bright we didn’t even need our head torches (although I did manage to fall off the stepping stones over a very cold river. Not the recommended method of washing feet!).
Everest Base Camp, Here We Come
Next day we descended back down the valley to camp at Machermo and Khumjung before we set off for the main trek up to Everest Base Camp. This took us past the Buddhist monastery of Tengboche, where we had enough time to visit the monastery and watch the monks prepare dances for the Mani Rimdu festival. The monastery is equipped with lodges, a bakery and campsite and sits on a hilltop with stunning views of Everest – which meant a long descent and even longer ascent – something which didn’t go unnoticed, since we were now on the race route. We camped below Tengboche, and began to notice that the nights were getting colder. Our next stop was Dingboche, where we were warned to be extra careful because of the suspect water quality: all our water was boiled and filtered, but you have to remember all the other ways we ingest water. Most of us had remained healthy, apart from developing coughs from the dry air and getting a few altitude headaches, but as we gradually ascended, more of us succumbed to stomachs bugs with varying results – not pleasant at -20 degrees, when you have to dress in 3 layers of outerwear to run to the toilet tents! I finally succumbed to the dreaded bug at Dingboche, and had a very unpleasant night, but the main casualty was my lovely knitted Nepalese rainbow hat which became an emergency sick bag! All through the trip our medical team were fantastic, and filled us with medication at the first sign of trouble to give us the best chance of continuing to the race start, but a night of sickness left me with barely enough energy to walk the couple of kilometers to the next village of Pheriche, where I had to leave the group to recover in a warm, comfortable lodge (it had western toilets!), accompanied by Kate, one of the doctors, who was just as ill. I wasn’t quite sure who was looking after who!
We woke up feeling significantly better, so we set off to rejoin the group at the bleak camp at Lobuche. It looked so miserable, we decided another night in a lodge was a good idea, so feeling somewhat guilty, we left everyone to the mess tent and the cold, and climbed into sleeping bags under thick quilts.
The next day saw the group finally ascend to the old Everest Base Camp at Gorak Shep, which consists of two lodges on a frozen glacier lake at the edge of the Khumbu Glacier. This was our final campsite, and definitely the coldest. I felt well enough to climb to the summit of Kala Pattar with John from the medical team and had another stunning experience sitting at the summit pole amid streamers of prayer flags, overlooking Pumori, Nuptse, Everest, Llotse, Makalu, and the Khumbu Icefall and glacier, which I’ve read endless stories about, and dreamed of seeing for myself. We had to drag ourselves down in time for a final race briefing, and then a very subdued supper and early night before a pre-dawn start at 5am to force down some porridge & chapattis. We were joined by around 20 Nepalese runners, included three girls, making a total of 80 runners.
The race start at 7am was surprisingly low-key; we shuffled over the flat surface of the frozen glacier lake before a brutal scramble up the steep sides of the glacier moraine to an extremely rocky path – it was eyes down for the next 26.2 miles for a marathon like nothing else on earth. My illness and resulting lack of appetite had left its mark and I found the first half of the race so hard I secretly hoped I’d miss the final cut-off at 20 miles. But the marshals and medics at each aid post were so encouraging (and so good at forcing down cups of Tang and bits of Mars Bar) that I gradually felt better as I descended to an elevation where my lungs weren’t struggling quite so badly (there is 50% less oxygen at Gorak Shep than sea level), and I began to enjoy the second half. I even managed to overtake some of the people who had left me standing earlier. I finally made my most ecstatic race finish ever 8 hours 33 minutes after starting. Most of the top runners were Nepalese (who in some cases ran in sandshoes), but Garry Wilkinson from Clayton was the fastest western runner in 4 hours 57mins. Garry can probably run a conventional road marathon in not much more than 2hrs 30mins, giving some idea just how hard the Everest Marathon is!
It was a tired but very happy group who gathered in the Ama Dablam Lodge in Namche to begin the post-race celebrations – and to have the first beer in over 16 days, and the first shower in about the same. We even managed to drag our weary limbs the few yards downtown to Namche’s “club”, where we punished our legs more by dancing to an ancient Boney M tape. After a rest day in Namche where we attempted various functions such as washing two weeks dirt out of socks, getting a wet shave in a Namche barbershop (the boys, not me), shopping for clean clothes, (and another energetic night dancing, fortunately not to Boney M this time), we had a long trek all the way down to Lukla, where the brilliant Clayton gang had sprinted ahead (or hobbled faster) to book our whole group into a nice lodge, and treated us all to cosy rooms and a buffet dinner and breakfast.
We had a long wait next morning for flights back while the fog lifted in the Kathmandu Valley, but when we got there, the most noticeable thing was the sound of the internal combustion engine, accompanied by a cacophony of horns! We had the following day to complete our shopping, relax, or do some sight-seeing. Instead, I persuaded an unsuspecting Dr John to go out cycling, so we hired mountain bikes, bought a map, and headed for the hills around the Kathmandu Valley. 20 minutes took us outside the madness of the city and into jungle-like forest, and tracks which contoured round steeply terraced hills, past groups of local children who crowded round us every time we checked the maps. Without their help we would never have found the most amazing single-track back to the city. The paths join local villages and are perched on the thin strip of ground which is left several feet above the paddy fields, and they took us past rural life which we would never have seen from a tour bus going to yet another temple!
Our trip culminated in a celebration dinner before our multi-national group went our separate ways on various flights the following day. Even without all the brilliant photos, the memories of this amazing journey will stay with me for a very long time.