So now I have completed my first marathon, which just also happens to be the highest in the world. From Everest Basecamp all the way to Namche Bazaar, a little town tucked into the Nepalese Himalayas.
During my preparation I was convinced that if I was able to cross that finish line I could achieve anything in life, no matter how hard. I just had to work for it. And three months after succeeding in my goal, I’m still coming to terms with it. Every time I sit down to reflect and write a few lines, I get lost looking at my photos, wishing myself back to the mountains. Imagining walking through the gate just outside Lukla, the memorial of the first female Sherpa to climb Everest, seemingly entering some fairy-tale wonderland.
Setting out – Lukla to Namche
Reunited with Pasang, Bikash and Chandra (my guides from a previous trek) we made our way slowly but surely to Namche Bazaar, accompanied by beautiful sunshine. I was pleased to see little damage from last year’s earthquakes. To be fair, while there may not be much in terms of infrastructure around here (unless yaks and donkeys count as infrastructure), this could be the busiest area for tourists in all of Nepal. Makes sense that major efforts were directed towards rebuilding this region as soon as possible, so travellers, mountaineers and other freedom-seekers could return to the mountains. Villagers were busy hammering in renovated or newly constructed buildings, repainting mantras on massive rocks and tending to their fields, growing potato or barley, or drying juniper on their doorsteps.
I felt a strange familiarity to the places we were seeing. As if I’d been here many times before, rather than once. I was remembering little details of the treks and mountains and villages. After a year of training and being caught in the work bubble, I was welcoming an electricity and Facebook-free few weeks with limited connection to the outside world.
Truthfully, I was quite concerned about the whole marathon thing. I bombarded my travel companion, Joseph, with question after question. What happens if…? How do I…? And so on.
Shortly after Namche, and still about a 7-day walk from our destination, things became a lot real-er as we started bumping into other marathon runners. They were from all over the globe – a Singaporean multi-marathon runner with a blade for a leg who was raising money (he unfortunately had to pull out a day before the run due to the uneven terrain), a few Ironmen and women or the small and swift Nepali locals that usually blur straight past us. None of them filled me with confidence. I was panting with every step I took.
Everyone we met talked about the famous Polish guy who has come back every year for the past three years, trying to beat the Nepali runners. It started to feel like we were part of something exciting, something bigger than ourselves. Not many we passed were walking towards Everest. Most were coming down, as the season was coming to an end. Teahouses and trails were emptying of trekkers and filling with yaks and porters, all carrying full loads from the climbing expeditions who had conquered Everest in the past few weeks. So wherever we went, people asked us ‘You run marathon?’. When we said yes, they looked amazed (and a little disbelieving, in my case).
When we reached Thyangboche Monastery at just under 4000m, I went to the temple to watch a ceremony. It was bitterly cold inside and the monks were wrapped in heavy red robes. Their attendant shuffled around pouring steaming hot tea into their cups, while the monks were chanting their prayers, while we foreigners were sitting in one corner, fighting the cold, and also the not so pleasant smell of unwashed hiking socks (it’s polite to take off your shoes).
We also met a group of Nepali army runners who took part in a peace run from Lumbini – Buddha’s birthplace near the Indian border – all the way to Everest Base Camp. They lit their flare at the monastery. The next morning, we woke up to the most majestic sunrise: an incredibly clear panorama of all the mountains, including Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Nuptse and Everest. I took it as a blessing for the mission ahead of us.
We were in high spirits when walking on, getting closer to our final destination and further away from civilisation. We spent a day walking up to Ama Dablam Base Camp – a detour, but one I’ll never forget. We were the only ones around, apart from some crows and eagles who accompanied us on our climb up to 4500m. We reached the flat and grassy field that hosts so many adventurers each day. It was empty, and the sun was smiling at us. We had a well-deserved rest and enjoyed some chocolate Danishes from the bakery in Pangboche below. All of a sudden, the clouds closed in on us, a reminder to how unpredictable the weather can be in the mountains. It was time for us to walk back to the teahouse.
Base Camp approaches
The closer we got to Base Camp, the busier the teahouses became. In Gorak Shep, our last stop, the place was full of runners, and we had another race briefing.
The next morning, we all walked to Base Camp together, including my companions, Pasang, Chandra and Bikash. The day greeted us with glorious sunshine, and it felt more like a Sunday afternoon stroll then a trek to the base of the highest mountain on earth. We left our prayer flags at the Base Camp sign and bid the boys farewell – they would meet us again at the finish line.
The next one-and-a-half days might have been the most challenging part of the journey. The weather turned soon after we arrived at our camp. It got very, very cold. The altitude really got to me, and I felt as though there was a fever creeping up on me.
The altitude might have gone to our heads, but it didn’t take our sense of humour. We shared stories and swapped jokes with the other runners in the kitchen tent, giving encouragement and keeping each other warm. We were fed well and often, which is one of the pleasures of running a marathon. And the food tastes even better at altitude.
We slept on thick mattresses in wind-proof tents, and it’s times like that when you appreciate your expensive sleeping bags and every piece of thermal clothing you have. Right underneath our mattress was a giant glacier, and you could feel the cold creeping up from underneath creeping up from underneath. Sleeping was a farce anyway, as every now and again you’d wake up gasping for air, or sneezing, or just generally shaking from the cold. Getting up to trek to the toilet was the worst, although a pretty cool feeling to be surrounded by these gigantic mountains in the middle of the night with no one else around.
As much as we had discussed the weather pre-race, it came down to luck on the day. We woke to the crisp cold, it was dark, and cloudy, and to my dismay all my batteries were dead. This happens in the cold, even though I’d religiously kept my batteries in my sleeping bag next to a hot water bottle every night. I was now officially stressed out. It was cold as usual, and I layered up as much as I could. The skies cleared shortly before the start, and there was an excitement in the air, that would have blown any cloud away.
The moment had finally arrived. The gun fired. We started running! Well, the others did, including Joseph. I soon found myself a Mexican man and two Poles, and we made our way down together at a more sedate pace. It was a little comradely. We spoke only a few words, but they were my motivators and kept me going for the 30-odd kilometres we were together.
I can’t even remember whether the run was tough. I do remember saying to myself that I could not be doing this any faster. I remember it was cold, and the downhills were painful. I remember when I wanted to take a shortcut, down a particularly hairy part of the track. I’m very glad I decided against it. I cannot remember using a toilet at all. I remember the loop we had to take at about 21km, where everyone looked like they were struggling. I remember being so happy when I reached the cut-off point at 30km about an hour earlier than I’d planned. I remember a little bit of sun, rain, fog, wind and snow. I remember my running buddy offering me his jacket, even though he needed it himself. I remember thoroughly enjoying doing this on my own, for no one but myself.
It doesn’t take a lot to feel euphoric after finishing a marathon. But I was doubly happy when I thought about the $1800 I had raised for this project, mostly through the generosity of my friends, family and workmates. It helped to finances nine yearlong child sponsorships in the region. It made me think that we can make a difference in the world, even if it’s just a small bit at a time.
Before I left to fly into the mountains, I met the chairman of the Australian Himalayan Foundation, an NGO operating in Nepal. They specialise in sponsorships and teacher training in the lower Khumbu region – much of which I’d walked through on my way to Everest. These sponsorships mean they can support kids to go to school, rather than working on their parents’ farm or as porters in the high valleys. Too many of the boys choose carrying up to 100kg up and down the mountains for western tourists over getting a school education.
Before we flew back to Kathmandu, I met Shita, a girl from Lukla, who showed us her school: Lukla Secondary school. It could have easily been the school with the world’s best views, and she was so proud to walk back up the hill after her day was over, and show us where she studies. I was amazed at her level of English. She was only 12, and spoke almost fluently. When visiting Nepal, many tourists may experience more interaction with men at the moment, but meeting this little girl who was convinced she would become a teacher, showed me that things are changing. I was told that in this region, school attendance has risen to over 90%, and other, more remote areas, are next on the list. Who knows, maybe this will mean that we will all have to carry our own bags one day, as locals are too busy going to university and saving their backs. I think that’s a risk we can take.
So now I am back, my task is finished. I know that I can do it, and will continue doing it. Running amazing marathons, returning to Nepal, and doing my little bit to contribute to a cause that I believe in.
Thank you to all of you who have helped me get there by supporting, listening, training and donating. I couldn’t have done it without you.
Want to see Basecamp for yourself? (No marathon necessary. we promise.) Check out our Nepal small group adventures.
Feature image c/o The Common Wanderer.