Many people with adventure in their soul dream of Everest, and I am no exception. I have devoured the stories of all those heroes and heroines who have made it to the summit and those who have lost their lives in the attempt. I am a realist, though, and I know that my mountain skills are not good enough, so I decided to see the mountain another way: by running round it in the Everest Trail Race ultra marathon (ETR).
ETR is a 153km ultra marathon that takes place over six days, in Nepal’s remote Solukhumbu region every November. It is divided into stages of 22, 28, 30, 31, 20 and 22km, which sounds very doable. But, what you have to factor in – and what makes this race so tough – is that it takes place at altitude. The highest point is over 4000 metres, and there’s a huge amount of climbing involved: 15,000 metres over the six days. If you think about it, that is like climbing a 10-mile ladder while depriving yourself of oxygen.
The race traces the path of Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, and you get to see the world’s greatest and most iconic mountains: Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Thamserku, Kangtega, and Makalu.
I knew that I could complete the distance, but this is a race and that means you also have to beat the clock and make the checkpoints (there are three every day where you get checked in, and are also given food and water) before the time limit. If you miss one cut off point, you are disqualified but allowed to finish the rest of the race. If you miss two you are helicoptered back to Kathmandu.
Every day was incredibly tough, but beautiful. Running along the narrow, gnarly trails up through the forests with the sound of birdsong and your own breathing echoing in your ears; dodging past hundreds of yaks slithering down the mountain rocks; clattering across the hanging bridges that sway over the gorges. The pain of the constant climbing was almost forgotten as my eyes drank in the new sights. The first three days of the race followed almost deserted tracks, and for hours I was on my own, racing through the glorious Himalaya. That truly felt like an honour.
The race also gave me one of the most special moments of my life. I was running along a flattish dirt track on the side of the mountain. There were forests above and below me, but the path was wide and not too technical so I could look up and around. The sun had lit the sky into a vivid blue, and the air was thin and sharp. It was very high and my breathing was harsh. I passed a small, white shrine with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. As I rounded the corner, my heart gave a huge leap because there, framed by the holy flags and standing in a blaze of dazzling white snow, was Everest. A feeling of true happiness and peace flooded through me and I stopped for just a minute to experience that moment, of seeing the world’s greatest mountain with my own eyes for the very first time.
If you want to experience the Himalaya and see Everest away from the crowds while doing something challenging and magnificent, I can’t think of a better way than the Everest Trail Race.