From Derby To Dughla …and on

Amanda Heading

After running off-road ultra races for a number of years, I decided to do something different in 2011.  The Everest Marathon is a refreshing combination of 14 years experience and quirky, non-commercial organisation.  It’s the original Everest Marathon and under the guidance of Diana Penny and her highly skilled guides, leaders and doctors, I reckon it’s the best.

In April, I ran the Comrades, a 56-mile uphill road race and then wanted to concentrate on trail running in order to prepare for the Everest Marathon. Unfortunately, work got in the way but I took the view that this was going to be a much-needed holiday in a fantastic setting and the race was just a small part of the whole experience.

Having started to meet some of my fellow runners on the flights to Kathmandu, we all came together in the rather swish Shanker Hotel.  Runners, doctors, group leaders and support staff were all divided into three groups of around 30 and we were also allocated our room/camp mate.  This is the person I would share my personal space with over the next 26 days and we were either going to tolerate each other or get on like a house on fire.  Luckily, it was the latter and Jennie was both great fun and an inspiration.

We had about 24 hours to dash round Kathmandu, buying up ‘essential’ supplies (down booties and collapsible Nalgene ‘pee’ bottles) as well as visiting the Monkey temple and the Living Goddess.

A Fun Run in fancy dress was arranged to break the ice between us all, but unfortunately it nearly broke Jennie’s knee:  she fell and had to have 20internal and external stitches.  That would probably have been the end to her trek and race, had it not been for the fantastic work and support of our doctors Baz and Michelle, team leader Peter and her philosophical, determined approach (plus the promise of a bottle of champagne when she finished the race).

The last few hours in the Nepalese capital were spent packing our purple kit bags, which couldn’t weigh more than 12 kilos, as they had to be carried by the porters and yaks for the duration of the trek.

The stories of mayhem surrounding flights to Lukla lived up to expectation and we were delayed a day due to fog.  Once on the flight, I sat on the left-hand side and got the ride of my life:   the plane burst through the cloud to reveal the Himalayan range and the short, up-hill landing at Lukla was breathtaking.

So then the trekking began.   We met our sherpas, guides, porters and cooks and set off for Phakding (2652m), 200m lower than Lukla which helped acclimatisation.  The best way to acclimatise to the altitude is to go slow, slow, then slower. So the next two weeks were spent rather indulgently going so slowly I thought I would topple over: no Blackberry, no mobile phone, no ‘To Do’ list.  Just the massive silence of a landscape so magnificent, it’s hard to imagine.

Most days started at around 6am with ‘bed tea’ when the Sherpas brought hot drinks to each tent.  The tents had ice both inside and out, so this was a warming start to the day.  After a breakfast of porridge, eggs and toast, we’d start trekking around 8am, stopping at lodges for lemon tea to aid hydration.  The trail was quite technical with rocks, loose gravel and ice to keep you concentrating, as well as steep undulations.

After a filling lunch of potatoes, rice, chappatis, tinned meat and vegetables, we’d set off again until reaching camp around 3pm.  The days were warm, clear and sunny but once the sun went in the temperature dropped quickly.  By 4pm, we were all bundled up in warm clothing, huddled in a lodge waiting for tea and biscuits, and the stove to be lit.  There was little personal space, as wherever it was warm and light, so everyone else would be.  Another a filling meal and the next days’ briefing done, we’d be in our sleeping bags, along with our Nalgene hot water bottles, by 9pm.

We took the route up to Gokyo Ri (5483m) then back down to around 3500m before ascending again, this time up the Everest trail.  Acclimatisation can’t be rushed and it was interesting to see how people coped with this phenomenon outside their control.  I seemed to acclimatise okay due to walking slowly, drinking over 3L a day and eating a lot!  The only negatives were the need to pee around 10 times a day (boring) and not sleeping well (even more boring).  One highlight though, was around 2am, watching a shooting star which seemed to shoot forever in a sky littered with stars.

People were beginning to get the dreaded ‘Khumbu Cough’ due to the cold, dry air and dust on the trail; sickness and diarrhoea were also prevalent due to the tough living conditions, long drop loos and lowered immune systems.  We were constantly using hand gel and wiping drippy noses.  Consequently, cuticles split and bled, noses developed sores and lips chapped.  Everyone had good and bad days, both physically and emotionally.  My low day was at Lobuche (4930m), a couple of days pre-race, after I’d had yet another rotten night’s sleep and I read the wedding anniversary card Andrew had given me.  Tears, tissues and a big hug from Jennie, I decided to get my backside in gear and go up Kalar Pattar (5623m) to get my inspiration from Everest and the Himalayan range.  I was told the long walk in and back, as well as the climb, would detract from my race performance but decided I was here for the whole experience, not just 26 miles.  It was very tiring but well worth the effort: an amazing day.

After a night of relative luxury in a lodge at Gorak Shep (5184m), we lined up at the start, gulping the thin air in anticipation for the marathon to Namche Bazaar (3446m).  At 6.30 am, the Nepalese runners sprinted off and I shuffled along with the rest of the racers.  It was hard, strange and really rather amusing when I had to step aside on the first incline, bent over double gasping for breath!  Once I got it back, I soon settled into a pace I could sustain until I tripped and fell just outside Pangboche.  Bad timing, as I had a two long climbs ahead up to the temple at Tengboche and then to Sarnassa.

At Pangboche before the fall!
At Pangboche before the fall!

I was running with Frances, a young, fit Gurka officer who was stationed in Nepal.  After helping me up, I persuaded her to get going and leave me be as, quite frankly, I was glad of the excuse to stop trying to keep up with her!

At Sarnassa: I’m enjoying this, Frances!
At Sarnassa: I’m enjoying this, Frances!

I tried not to look at Namche as the route took us out to Thamo and back.  This was a tough, undulating 6 miles and I wondered why the extra oxygen of the lower altitude wasn’t having much effect.  I was told to expect twice my normal marathon time but after 6 hours and 24 minutes, I arrived at the Sherpaland lodge finish nearly 50 minutes quicker than expected and first Lady Vet.

Amanda placed 29th in 6.24.19
Amanda placed 29th in 6.24.19

Back at Kathmandu, we celebrated with a hot bath and a few bottles of champagne.  It was good to get back to relative luxury, warm climate and a comfortable bed.  But I loved the simplicity of the trail, admired the people, was amazed by the landscapes and most of all, had a wonderful holiday.

AMANDA’S KIT LIST

Raidlight ¾ Tights;  Performance Zip T;  Arm-warmers
Patagonia: Merino Hiking Socks;  underwear;  Capilene 2 Zip  Neck;    Merino 3 Zip Neck; UltraLight Down Shirt;  Nano Pullover;  Fitzroy Down Jacket;  Cool Weather Tights;  Liner Gloves
OMM Kamleika Waterproof Jacket & Trousers;  25L Pack
Buff Merino Wool buff and Coolmax/UV Headband
X Socks Sky Run
Montane Fleece-lined Trousers
Adidas Kanadia trail running shoes
Black Diamond Skully Beanie;  Spot Headtorch
Buffalo Mitts
Mountain King Trail Blaze Poles
Nalgene 1L Wide-Mouth Bottle
Packtowl (large)
Therm-a-Rest Prolite
Rab sleeping bag (borrowed from Andrew, rated to -40!)
Cocoon Sleeping Bag MummyLiner
Platypus 2L Big Zip
Polaroid Sunglasses
Annecy Factor 50 Sunscreen & Lip Balm
Buzz bars and Powerbar gels; Strepsils (lots of them, to keep the throat moist!)
Earplugs, carabiners and pegs (for washing); Nikon compact camera; water purification tablets and Iodine; trousers, t-shirts and sandals for Kathmandu.

Amanda and Andrew Heading run an online store called Racekit in Matlock, Derbyshire:   www.racekit.co.uk.