RUNNING AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD
By Peter Hobson
A small gathering of Canadian trekkers is huddled at the side of the track to facilitate my passing. They applaud enthusiastically as I execute a perfect triple lutz and an almost perfect back somersault on my descent of Tengboche hill, seeming quite oblivious to the fact that my complete loss of control is entirely involuntary and not for their benefit at all.
“Way to go, fella! Well done.”
“Keep goin’ number 19. You’re almost home!”
Almost home, my arse! I’m exactly fourteen miles into the Everest Marathon, with twelve more harder ones to come, and my body is reminding me that, as I must have lost my mind to be here in the first place at my age, then mind over matter is no longer a viable option. Consequently, my matter is feeling decidedly disillusioned with the whole enterprise. If the mind is missing and the body is weak, then it seems that God can’t be relied upon either! We are running from just below Everest Base Camp, Gorak Shep to be precise, at 5200 metres, down to Namche Bazar, at 3450 metres. I’ve just passed the official half way mark at Tengboche Monastery, which is supposed to be 3900 metres. I think God must have decided, in that jocular way of his, to redesign the topography overnight though, as I’m buggered if I can remember any downhill bits at all until this hill, which is rapidly taking on the characteristics of a cliff!
We arrived in Nepal, courtesy of Biman Bangladesh Airways, via Dhaka, three weeks earlier. For those of you who have not yet enjoyed the experience of flying with this particular organization, let it suffice for me to say that, whatever dubious concerns you might imagine, are probably absolutely true. Virgin Atlantic they are not! I am currently writing a book in which a whole chapter, litigation permitting, may well be dedicated to Bangladesh Airways, and so I will restrict myself here to saying that the two days of rest and recovery scheduled for the Shanker Hotel in Kathmandu prior to embarking on our great adventure, was a masterpiece of forward planning on the part of Diana Penny Sherpani, our host and organizer for the trip. The Shanker itself is well worthy of note at a more appropriate place and time. Kathmandu’s largest pigeon roost by night, and the local monkeys’ knocking shop at the crack of dawn, let’s just say that an early morning call was somewhat surplus to requirements. During normal hours however, it is an island of tranquillity in the sea of (apparent) chaos that is downtown Kathmandu, with an abundance of the old fashioned values of service and courtesy.
Our sojourn at the Shanker served a twofold purpose, in that it was recuperation from the long flight from London, but it also allowed us to brace ourselves for the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, high in the Himalayas, and the start of our trek through the mountains. Should you ever wish to play at being Indiana Jones, then the flight to Lukla, and its subsequent “controlled crash” into the mountainside airstrip, is highly recommended. Indeed, some of our group had the additional “thrill” of experiencing engine trouble immediately after take-off from Kathmandu and returning to base. Fortunately, half an hour’s tinkering and the skilled application of a lump hammer soon had the problem solved, and my colleagues were able to take off once more with happy hearts for their rendezvous with destiny. It may well be a malicious rumour, but I am told that at least one passenger on that particular flight re-wrote his will whilst the engine was being “fixed!”
From Lukla onwards, there are no roads in this part of Nepal, and so everything is carried either by yak or by porters. As the starting point for most of the trekking industry in the area, and with its busy little airport bustling with tourists, cargo, and police, Lukla is a relatively sophisticated and cosmopolitan sort of place. Relative, that is, to the settlements further along the trail; certainly not relative to what the average westerner might think of as sophisticated. At Lukla, we virtually waved goodbye to such “luxuries” as running water, sanitation, roads, toilets, baths, soap etc. Nevertheless, this was the start “proper” of our three week trek to Everest. The overall distance can be covered much more quickly, of course, but with a full distance marathon awaiting us on our arrival there, it was imperative that we ascend slowly and methodically, allowing everyone in the group the best possible opportunity to acclimatize to the altitude. Although, when talking to friends, I have likened altitude sickness (or AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness – to give it its correct title) to sea sickness, in that it is impossible to tell who will suffer and who won’t, there the similarity ends, as every year people die from altitude sickness simply by pressing on through the symptoms, and underestimating the danger.
No such worries at the modest heights of Lukla, however, as we met our team of porters for the first time, handed over our heavy baggage to their care, and set off on the rocky road (literally) to Everest. From this point onwards, there soon evolved a regular routine each day. Amble gently along the trail by day, gradually increasing altitude and inclination and decreasing oxygen. Sleep fitfully in the tents by night, gradually increasing the discomfort of the ground and the frequency of needing to pee, and decreasing the temperature and depth of sleep. A tough but rhythmical regime which, combined with complete isolation from news and “normal” life, soon took on its own comforts and semblance of normality. There was a brief interlude to the routine, as we enjoyed the luxury of lodges in the Sherpa “capital” of Namche Bazar for a couple of nights to aid the acclimatization process. This was where Diana set up her race headquarters, and where the run, for which we were all eventually destined, would finish. Namche is indeed a remarkable place, nestled into a natural bowl in the mountainside at almost three and a half thousand metres above sea level. It is amazingly sophisticated in catering for its abundance of western visitors, particularly when one considers that everything in the town has been carried there on the back of the numerous yak trains, which regularly punctuate progress through the narrow streets of the town.
But I digress. Back to the race itself. After two weeks of trekking, camping and generally acclimatizing, we are finally camped out on the eve of our great adventure in two neat rows of small blue tents on the dried up lake bed at Gorak Shep. There is a dusting of snow here, and a knife-like wind, but precious little shelter. A more bleak and inhospitable venue would be hard to find. It is indeed an awe inspiring sight to stick your head out of the tent before settling down for the long night, to see the immense shadowy outline of Everest towering over the camp.
6.00am, and we are woken by the porters with black tea and porridge to sustain us before the scheduled 7.00am start. I must confess that, even after two weeks of cold and discomfort on the trail, this is not the most auspicious start to my big day. I manage to resist the proffered feast and resort to stuffing a Frusli Bar in my mouth, almost washed down by a swig from my bottle of ice! I “layer-up” to resist the cold with two pairs of lycra running tights and four tops of increasing thickness. Coupled with the obligatory hat and gloves, this means that I will be starting the run with a virtually empty rucksack on my back, save for the emergency rations and a Mickey Mouse space blanket, a souvenir from the Disney Marathon, which I’d run in January. It is, laughably, supposed to keep me alive until help arrives should any disaster befall me.
7.00am, and fifty odd hardy souls are bouncing up and down in line like penguins, trying desperately to keep warm as we wait our turn to call out our number so that the starter can determine that everyone is present and correct. We are, and he does, and with no more ado we hear the roar, “GOOOooo!!” and there is a headlong dash across the lake bed. We are on our way. At last! It is so cold that I cannot feel my feet, my hands, or my face, and yet we need to be cautious about just how many clothes we wear, as later in the day it is likely to be in the mid 20’s centigrade.
Within three hundred yards, two things have happened. First, most people have slowed to a walk, having been reminded the hard way that there is only 50% of the normal amount of oxygen up here. Second, the flat sandy lake bed has come to an end and we are gasping and stumbling (uphill!) over the moraine of the Khumbu glacier. Try to imagine the seaside rocks that you played on as a child. Where they were made treacherous by strands of slippery seaweed, imagine shards of ice and snow. Now put something of an incline on them and imagine trying to run 26 miles over terrain like that. Oh, and just to make life a little harder, try to imagine that you are only allowed to breath through a straw! Whatever the aspirations in advance of the event, within half a mile of the start, most people’s mind set has switched from “race” to “survival.”
There are no pantomime horses or rhino costumes here. This is serious stuff, and my first goal has to be to make it safely and without using up too much energy to the first checkpoint at Lobuche, about three miles away. The Nepalese runners are away and flying by this point, but although, as I arrive at the checkpoint, I still cannot feel my hands and feet through the cold, I guess I’m about half way up (or down, depending on the way you look at things) the field. I have the choice once more of water or black tea, and though neither is particularly appealing, I force down some water, as dehydration is the secret killer at this altitude. One tends to associate dehydration with hot conditions, but the air here is so dry and thin that the body can shed moisture at a dangerous rate without you even realizing it. I also decide to eat another Frusli bar, as I am already realizing that I will be on the track for a long time. No three hour marathons here!
11.00am and all is well for the first half of the race, to the monastery at Tengboche. There is a feeding station every three miles or so, with excellent medical support if needed, and I manage to maintain my position in the field despite the fact that I am walking for two thirds of the time and only running one third. It is a case of running as best you can down the hills and occasionally over the very infrequent flatter sections, then walking very slowly, almost painfully, on the uphill sections, of which, there seem an inordinate number. At Tengboche, in addition to the still unpalatable black tea and water, there is also rice pudding! If anything is guaranteed to bring back my personal nightmares of childhood, it is rice pudding. Ugh! I chomp down yet another Frusli bar and enjoy ten minutes of sitting down and chatting with the folks at the feeding station before forcing myself out of the chair and back to the task in hand. It’s going quite well so far, I think. Now, back to that hill!
Like so many prominent Buddhist monasteries, Tengboche stands on a hill. As I leave the warmth and friendliness of the halfway checkpoint behind, I am about to embark on the most dramatic and the most gruelling section of the course. In order to reach Namche, we must cross a deep, deep valley to a little place called Sarnassa. This means “running” down the hill out of Tengboche, crossing the river at the bottom via a steel and wooden suspension bridge, and then up the notorious “Sarnassa Hill” on the other side. It sounds pretty straightforward, if tiring, when written down simply like that. However, both hills are almost 45 degrees in many parts, with the aforementioned horrific rocks underfoot and frequent switchbacks to maintain some sort of incline that the yak trains can negotiate. I haven’t mentioned the yaks yet, have I? It is on the backs of these great dozey animals that everything in this region is transported. They resemble highland cattle in appearance, and they are driven in trains of up to ten beasts at a time by the Sherpas. They move at just one slow, steady pace and each little group announces its arrival with the jingling of cow bells, which each animal wears around its neck. This is important, because, marathon or no marathon, the yaks take priority on the trail, and as their horns are so wide and the trail is usually so narrow, it is incumbent on the runner or trekker to keep out of the way as the beasts go past. They are largely docile, inoffensive animals, but many a tourist has been “spiked” by being impatient and trying to push past prematurely. At this stage of the race, I quite welcome an encounter with a yak train, as it gives me a valid excuse to stop for a while as they amble past.
The descent of Tengboche Hill is where the wheels start to come off my race. The levels of concentration required just to stay upright on this section take a heavy toll of my dwindling stamina. My toes are constantly crushed into the fronts of my shoes, my legs and hips in particular are starting to ache badly and, despite supposedly descending over a thousand metres, I am still finding it difficult to breathe properly. I fall several times, in addition to the acrobatics performed for our Canadian cousins. The secret here is not to get frustrated, but to simply push on methodically as best you can. It seems like an age, but I eventually do reach the bottom relatively unscathed and bounce my way precariously over the ramshackle suspension bridge leading to the daunting uphill “Sarnassa Hill” on the other side of the river.
12.00pm and we have reached the point that everyone has been dreading. Sarnassa Hill is around three miles or so of steep, steep climb with little oxygen to draw upon and fourteen miles already in our legs. Running is out of the question, and the walking is more akin to an asthmatic miner climbing a staircase than an international marathon runner. Although I have spent most of the race in glorious isolation from the other runners, I am now joined by Bill Thomlinson, an extraordinarily affable Aussie from Queensland, and we combine our mutual willpowers to crawl inexorably up the vicious incline. The sense of surrealism is compounded somewhat when we encounter a guy dressed entirely in lycra coming down the hill carrying a unicycle! Were I on my own, I would swear I was hallucinating. To this day, I have no idea who he was, where he was going, or what the hell he was going to do with a unicycle in the foothills of Everest.
2.00pm and the final psychological barrier. The twenty mile checkpoint is high on a hill on the outskirts of Namche Bazar. I can see the finish from here. I can see runners finishing, hear the crowds of Nepalese onlookers cheering. Sense the euphoria of completing the challenge, bringing to an end the pain, fatigue and sheer misery of running twenty six miles over rough terrain at altitude. But that is still a long way off for me. I must now embark upon the infamous “Thamo Loop.” No matter which route you take, Gorak Shep to Namche Bazar is “only” twenty miles in distance, and so a six mile out and back loop to the tiny village of Thamo has been added to the race to make it a true marathon. Psychologically, this is a real hammer blow, as to run past the finish line at such a late stage in the race is very hard. The loop seems to drag on forever, an undulating track where the ups seem too long and the downs too short no matter whether you are on the way out or on the way back. It is at the turning point, the twenty three mile mark, that I suffer my final trauma in this event. Checking in at this final station before the finish, the sirdar of our team of Sherpas asks me if I would like some chocolate. Chocolate? Chocolate!!! At this point in the proceedings, that’s like asking George Best if he’d like another drink. I sit recovering some strength on a convenient rock whilst he rummages in his bag for this belated treat. I wait with bated breath until he returns with……….. another bloody Frusli bar! Aaaaagh! Never pin your hopes on the word of a man with a limited command of the English language. His intentions are totally pure, and my thanks and courtesy never waver, but as I drag myself wearily off my rock for the final interminable leg of my adventure, I’m not sure if it is the Frusli bar or my sheer disappointment that is sticking in my throat.
2.45pm. At last! I am finally jogging down the hill to the finish in Namche. The small group of remaining spectators and already finished competitors have spotted me and are shouting my name, roaring their encouragement from far below. Annoyingly, the tiredness just falls away, and I pick up pace and move smoothly over the rough ground and into the town, racing through the busy narrow streets to the finish line in a potato field outside the Tamserku Lodge. Marsha, my girlfriend, is the official photographer for the event, and I manage a relaxed looking wave as I gratefully cross the line. It’s over! Another great challenge successfully negotiated. The relief and satisfaction of finishing is tainted slightly by an irrational frustration at my failing powers as the years take their toll. I came purely to take part and to finish successfully, but the second part of the race has been unduly hard, and I am left with a nagging feeling that I should have gotten around just a little bit quicker. I’m beginning to think that it’s time to give all this up and concentrate on my business and going fishing.
Not just yet though. I have an appointment with the Sahara Desert in April! Maybe I should buy a unicycle.