or How NOT to Celebrate Your Anniversary
To celebrate our 40th anniversary, Baiba and I decided to do something different. So, we went to Nepal and ran the world’s highest marathon. Are you tired of running the same old humdrum marathons? Looking for a unique run? Here are 12 ways The Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon is completely different.
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1. DIFFERENT STARTING LINE
To reach the starting line of most marathons, you simply hop into a car or bus, drive there, and then it’s a short walk to the start. The Everest Marathon is different. You still walk to the starting line, but it takes two weeks to get there. It starts at Everest Base Camp, high in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, and there are no roads, cars, or vehicles. So, you do a grueling trek along mountain paths.
Our route to Base Camp followed the same path that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay took in 1953, when they became the first men to summit Everest. As I was climbing up the steep, rocky hills, struggling to breathe, I thought, “This is really cool! I’m walking in the footsteps of those great mountain climbers. I wonder if they felt as miserable as I do?”
2. DIFFERENT ALTITUDE
Many marathons, such as Boston, take place at low altitude. A few are run at high altitude, like the Madison Marathon in Montana, the highest in America (9,000 feet or 3,000 meters). But, the Everest Marathon towers above all the rest. It starts at an altitude of almost 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) making it the highest marathon in the world. It’s also the only one where you’ll run at “extreme” high altitude, which means you can’t breathe and shouldn’t be there.
Another difference is the views. When running most marathons, typical views include the backs of hundreds of runners, police directing traffic, cars backed up for miles, porta-potties, pavement, and skyscrapers. The Everest Marathon is different. It has none of the above. Actually, it does have skyscrapers, but instead of buildings they’re some of the world’s highest mountains.
And they are spectacular. Well, I’m told they are. I was too busy crawling over rocks and trying to breathe to look up.
3. DIFFERENT HORNS
In a typical marathon, roads are often closed to traffic, so drivers are beeping their car horns and yelling, “Get off my road!” The Everest Marathon is different. There’s no problem with car horns, since there are no cars. But there is a problem with yak horns. What’s a yak? Picture a small bull with big sharp horns, wearing a fur coat. And, just like the drivers beeping their horns, these animals are in a hurry to get somewhere. They own the path, so you’d better stand aside or they’ll use their horns to butt you out of their way.
Yaks are the tractor-trailers of the mountains, carrying heavy loads on their backs. In theory they’re domesticated. In reality, their owners are nowhere to be seen, and suddenly you’re stopped in your tracks by a gang of uncontrollable animals charging towards you like locomotives. (Hence the term “yak trains.”)
Normally, runners in a race won’t stop for anything, but in this free-range “running of the bulls” there’s no choice. So when you hear the dreaded sound of yak bells, you quickly take cover behind a rock and count the precious minutes of time you’re losing until the yak train passes.
But what if you’re running along a mountain ledge and there’s no place to go except over the cliff? Then you should stand very still against the wall side of the ledge. If you stand near the edge, a yak could butt you into space and you’ll fall to your death. I left instructions that if it happened to me I wanted my epitaph to read, “He died on Everest,” and not “He was killed by a small bull wearing a fur coat.”
Note: Yaks do serve one useful purpose for trekkers and runners. The trail wasn’t clearly marked and a GPS (Global Positioning System) won’t always work in the mountains. But there’s always YPS (Yak Positioning Shit). Not sure which direction to go? Just follow the trail of yak dung.
4. DIFFERENT TAPERING
As marathon day approaches, many runners taper – run less and rest, in order to have fresh legs for the big run. But Everest is different. Instead of sitting around tapering, with our feet up having a cold one, we were slogging up high hills with thousands of steps, then struggling through obstacle courses with huge boulders, narrow ledges, and swaying bridges.
I thought we were going to Base Camp. Really, we were going to Boot Camp. The only thing missing was a Marine Corps sergeant yelling, “Pain is just weakness leaving your body.” My poor little legs were crying out, “Hey, we’re supposed to be tapering! By the time we get to the start line we’ll be dead.”
So Bruce, a good personal trainer in our group, explained to my legs that they just had to hang in there and keep going. He was very motivating. Then he collapsed from diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration and had to rest for a couple of days.
5. DIFFERENT CARBO-LOADING
The week before a marathon many runners carbo-load – consume foods rich in carbohydrates (mainly beer) to build up the energy reserves that will enable them to run 26 miles. But the Everest Marathon is different. Instead of carbo-loading, I carbo-depleted.
The problem at high altitude is there’s not enough oxygen for all your body parts. And for some reason your mind thinks breathing is more important than eating, so it takes away your appetite. And the higher you go, the less you feel like eating. Which is absurd, because the higher the altitude, the harder your body needs to work just to breathe, move, and not freeze to death, so you actually need more food and calories, not less.
But I had no appetite, and just when I should have been going back for seconds of pasta, I was hardly eating. Thanks to carbo-depleting I lost eight pounds, and Baiba started referring to me as “the lollipop” – a head on a stick. I’ll show her when I write my new weight loss book, The Everest Diet: How to Get High and Lose Weight at the Same Time.
On the plus side, the less you weigh, the faster you can run, and suddenly I was eight pounds lighter. Wow! I was ready for a new burst of speed. Then I realized I had no energy to actually move my legs. Carbo-depleting may not make it big in running circles.
6. DIFFERENT AIR
Runners consume great quantities of oxygen, and in a typical marathon there’s plenty to go around. The air is thick with it. But the Everest Marathon is different. It has thin air. The run starts at 18,000 feet, or 3.5 miles up in the air, where there’s only 50% of the oxygen that you breathe in a typical marathon. Usually it feels great to get “50% off,” but not when it comes to oxygen.
As I was running along, it was like having one of those bad guys from the movies on my back weighing me down, and his hands were covering my mouth so I was struggling to breathe. Legs need oxygen to run, so having only 50% meant I was at least 50% slower than normal.
Brains also need oxygen to function, so my IQ dropped by half, and I was 50% more stupid than normal. (Obviously I wasn’t very smart to start with, or I wouldn’t be at extreme high altitude.) The “50% more stupid” factor meant that, even though I took a book all the way up to Base Camp, I gave up trying to read it. I thought it was in Nepalese or some other language. Now I realize I was holding it upside down.
In my tent on marathon morning, the “50% more stupid” factor meant that getting ready to run took at least 50% longer than normal. I was sitting there like a baby, staring at a piece of cloth wondering what it was for. Then I realized it was my sock, and I had to put it on. I was puffing and panting just trying to tie a shoelace, and then needed a ten-minute rest before tackling the other one.
7. DIFFERENT HILLS
Many runners have bathmophobia. No, it’s not a fear of taking baths, although runners fear that too. It’s a fear of slopes or hills. Runners hate them because they really slow you down when you’re trying to run a fast time. That’s why many race organizers try to choose courses without hills, and then use the flatness to attract runners. The Oz marathon in Kansas brags about a “Flat, Wickedly Fast course.” But the Everest Marathon is different. I doubt the Nepalese even have a word for “flat,” and if there were truth in advertising the ad for this marathon would state “Humungous Hills, Excruciatingly Slow Course.”
But, that’s not what runners want to hear. So to attract more participants, the Everest Marathon should brand its hills with names, like the Boston marathon’s legendary “Heartbreak Hill.” Of course, in Nepal a hill as small as Heartbreak would be considered just a little speed bump, so what’s needed are names more suited to the monster hills around Everest. How about TimeBomb, since slogging straight up over thousands of rocks will destroy all hopes of a fast time.
Going downhill can be worse than up, because you fly down the hill to make up time and risk a pulled muscle or bad fall. So appropriate names for these steep, rocky downhills might be KneeWrecker, QuadKiller, CalfPuller, LegBreaker – or how about RunEnder!
During the marathon I caught up with Judith, from Britain, who was limping along with a big gash in her knee, after a nasty fall on a long downhill stretch. No roads or ambulances up there, so she struggled to the nearest aid station a few miles away, and that was the end of her run. Then I saw Peter from New Zealand limping along with trekking poles. He said he was running downhill, jumping from rock to rock, when suddenly he heard his knee crack. Ahhhhh! His partner ran back a few miles and found the trekking poles. Then Peter limped his way to the finish line, arriving in the middle of the night.
Judith and Peter deserve big awards for “Extraordinary Persistence!” Actually, everyone who ran the Everest Marathon should get a persistence award, no matter how fast they finished. Seventy-year-old Isaac from the US crossed the finish-line in 16 hours, as did Signy from Norway, who ran the marathon on her 74th birthday.
8. DIFFERENT WINNERS
Kenyans are the typical marathon champions. But a Kenyan will never win the Everest Marathon. They prefer heat, not cold, and when the temperature drops to 70º they put on warm hats. No way they’re going to run at extreme high altitude, where you freeze and even the animals wear fur coats. So, the winners of the Everest Marathon will continue to be Nepalese. This year there were 153 finishers, roughly half from Nepal and half foreigners (from 18 countries). The first 25 finishers were all from Nepal, and of the first 50 finishers only five were foreigners.
Of course, the Nepal runners have an unfair advantage since they live at high altitude and go up and down mountains with huge loads on their backs. The great runner Emil Zatopek, winner of three Olympic gold medals, used to practice sprinting around a track with his wife on his back. But in Nepal that’s nothing. As we foreigners were trekking along in superlight, high-tech, hiking gear we were continually passed by Nepalese men in beat-up shoes carrying loads heavier than Mrs. Zatopek.
Yes, those who live and train at high altitude will always have the “altitude advantage.” So to even things out, we low-altitude runners should invite the Nepalese runners to a “Zero-Altitude Marathon” at sea level. Then we’ll be the ones who are fully acclimatized and have the big advantage. The Nepalese won’t know how to handle low altitude. So with 50% more oxygen pouring into their lungs than back home on the mountains, they’ll start coughing and puking just like we do at high altitude. And they’re used to running on steep, rocky paths, so they’ll be tripping and falling all over themselves on our flat, paved roads.
So, come on low-altitude runners, this is our chance to gain back some confidence and self-respect. Sign up for the “Zero-Altitude Marathon” today – and don’t forget to invite all the Nepal runners who finished three hours ahead of you.
9. DIFFERENT PERSONAL BESTS
In a typical marathon, runners try to achieve a PB: Personal Best fast time. But the Everest Marathon is different. There you’ll achieve a PW: Personal Worst slow time. Yes, with its high-altitude, speed-inhibitors, and obstacles, this marathon will ensure you run a stunningly slow race. You’ll wait for yak trains to pass, make frequent diarrhea stops, crawl up unending hills, hunt for water when aid stations run dry, and backtrack for miles after taking the wrong path. But it will all pay off in the end, as you bask in the glory of achieving a new Personal Worst.
Personal Worsts have three advantages over Personal Bests
1.) Crowds are moved more by PWs than PBs. At the Everest Marathon when you finally drag your debilitated body across the finish line in the middle of the night and achieve a Personal Worst, the crowd will be so moved by your persistence they’ll break down and cry. When you run a Personal Best nobody cries.
2.) Another problem with Personal Bests is they have a “best before” date. We get slower as we get older, so now at age 65 I’ll never top the 2-hour, 43-minute PB that I ran when I was 30. But you can always top your Personal Worst, no matter how old you are. And I’m proud to say I just set a new Personal Worst record of 11 hours, 38 minutes, and 2 seconds. Thank you Everest Marathon!
3.) Sickness and injuries will prevent you from running a Personal Best, but actually help you achieve a Personal Worst. Throughout the Everest trek and run I felt tired and had a bad cough. I blamed it on high altitude, but when I got home my doctor said I had severe bronchitis the whole time. So a big thanks to bronchitis for helping me set my new Personal Worst. Hmmm… if pneumonia had set in, I could have run an even better worst time.
10. DIFFERENT FRIENDSHIPS
Running can be a solitary sport, and although you may run with an old friend or team, marathons are not on the list of “Best Places to Meet New Friends.” Sure, during the race you might say a few words to other runners, but if they’re in your age group you’d rather beat them, than meet them. And when it’s over you don’t know people’s names, just numbers, “Hey, congratulations 10,895. Great run!”
But Everest is different. You trek to the start line with the same group of people for two weeks and actually get to know them. You share running stories, laughs, and good times, but also bad times due to the high altitude and thin air. You get sick together, cough together, sneeze together, and freeze together. The website said we would “all get to run together.” It could add, “And all get the runs together.” Just about everyone in our group was feeling bad at some point and a few suffered from Acute Mountain Sickness and had to be flown back to civilization by helicopter.
But through it all, complaints were few and spirits were high. It seems the more adversity a group encounters, the more people are drawn together. As the challenge, the struggle, the pain increases, so does the sense of camaraderie. Whether you finish in first place or last, you’re all in the same boat, or running shoes, and that creates mutual respect and lasting friendships.
After the trip Norbert in Austria wrote, “The trip was far more about the people I got to know, than about the race itself.” And Michael in the UK said, “After the trip I tried to explain to my wife my sense of ‘bereavement.’ However much you love being home, you definitely do miss the heightened camaraderie of the trail.” So, if you want to make real friends, maybe set Facebook aside and get out and do something tough with a group of strangers.
11. A DIFFERENT PUSH
Marathons are all about pushing yourself. You have to push yourself out the door to train, push through injuries, and on run day push through those last six miles when you hit the wall and your legs just want to stop. Every marathon pushes you out of our comfort zone, but the high altitude of Everest takes discomfort to new heights. There’s the long trek up to base camp, thin air, altitude sickness, no appetite, no heat, freezing nights, fitful sleep, one shower in two weeks (a bucket of water I poured over myself), and a hole in the floor for a toilet. I was so far out of my comfort zone, even Google Maps couldn’t find it.
Baiba and I chose the Everest Marathon to celebrate our 40th anniversary, but on the trek to base camp I said to her, “Why are we doing this? We don’t even like heights and we’re at extreme high altitude. We’re cold, coughing all the time, and there’s no air to breathe. What a miserable way to celebrate our 40th anniversary! Whose idea was this anyway?” She said, “Yours.” Too late to go on a Mediterranean cruise, so we just pushed on.
Then, at last, came marathon day. Finally, we were running and it was great. Sure, it was incredibly tough and long, and you had to push yourself hard. But I was reminded of what Richard Branson said to me when I asked him the secret of his success: “I don’t like to get too comfortable. I like to push and see what I’m capable of, and I think people get more satisfaction if they live their lives in that way.” He’s right. When I pushed myself through it all and crossed the finish line, there was a lot of satisfaction. After I stopped puking.
12. SHOULD YOU RUN EVEREST, OR CLIMB IT?
If you’re going to travel all the way to Mount Everest, maybe you’re thinking, “Should I run the world’s highest marathon, or instead climb the world’s highest mountain?” Well, I’ve run marathons (more than 60) and also climbed high mountains (two of the world’s seven summits), so here’s my conclusion.
The good thing about running a marathon is you won’t die. In fact, more people die playing golf than running marathons. So, even though the Everest Marathon is extremely tough, and when you’re crawling the last six miles you’ll wish you were dead, the run won’t actually kill you. In fact, it might even help you live longer, since studies show that running can increase your lifespan.
If, on the other hand, you want to decrease your lifespan, then climbing Everest is for you. This year eleven climbers lost their lives on the mountain, and at Base Camp we sadly watched a helicopter bring one of the bodies down. So when you weigh all the factors, which option should you choose: climb the mountain, or run the marathon? There’s no question. Running the marathon wins. Because climbing Everest will cost you about $100,000 and runners are cheapskates.
So, looking for a different marathon, a new challenge that will push you a bit more, but not to your death? Try the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon. Looking for a way to celebrate your anniversary? Go on a cruise.
Wait! On second thought, now that we’ve recovered we’re thinking it really was an extraordinary trip, with wonderful people, and one that we’ll never forget. Hmmm… maybe the Sahara Desert Marathon for our 50th anniversary? As Baiba says, “If it hurts it must be a vacation.”
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Richard St. John