The morning air is cool and there is a slight mist hovering over the ground. I’m running downhill through ancient woodland with only the sound of the crows to keep me company. In the Himalaya, they say that the crow is the bringer of good news and I’m hoping its true. Then, I hear the sound of footsteps approaching. I move to the side of the path so that the faster runner can pass me easily. It’s Aleix from Catalonia, who shouts out, “ Aliiiiiiccceeeee,” stops mid-stride, kisses me and wishes me good luck for the day. Then he lifts up his feet and is gone. This is definitely my kind of ultra.
I signed up for the Everest Trail Race in June and since then it has been my sole focus. 160km running over 6 days, semi self-sufficient, with 15,000m of climbing at altitude. These numbers have been running through my head like that song you catch three bars of in the morning and then just can’t get out of your head. This ultra would be tough for anyone, but for me it was only going to be possible if I gave it everything.
So, I moved my home from the ease of the Moroccan coast to the thinner air of the Atlas Mountains in the small Berber (Amazigh) village of Imlil and I have spent the last five months doing all I can to get ready. Hours of training in the mountains, constantly fretting I wasn’t fast enough or strong enough and a constant battle against the voices of self doubt.
Then, suddenly, I’m on the start line on day one and there is no more time. It is now. I look round at the racing snakes who surround me ready for the off. I don’t know them yet but within a week, we will have shared such an extraordinary experience together, that we will be friends.
3….2….1 and we run under the arch, up through a field of blackened flowers and on towards the mountains beyond. Soon, I am at the back, the place I will stay for the rest of the race, going at my slow but steady pace, concentrating only on the next step, seeing only the path in front of me. My mantra, “Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop.” And I don’t. For the next six days I stop only to collect food and water at checkpoints, put on a jacket if I absolutely have to and to pee.
- Stage 1: Jiri-Bhandar. 21.5km. 1,975m ascent. 1,820m descent
- Stage 2: Bhandar-Jase Bhaniyang. 23.9km. 3,486m ascent. 1,796m descent (highest point Pikey Peak 4,068m)
- Stage 3: Jase Bhaniyang-Kharikhola. 37.4km. 2,521m ascent. 4,110m descent
- Stage 4: Kharikhola-Phakding. 27.5km. 2,479m ascent. 1,975m descent
- Stage 5: Phakding – Tyangboche. 20km. 2,224 ascent. 1,022m descent
- Stage 6: Tyangboche – Lukla. 29.5km. 2,105m ascent. 3,138m descent
That first day, my legs woke up to the steepness of the paths as I moved up through lush forest where sometimes the stinging in my calves would be silenced for a time by the scent of the wild lilies that grow amongst the trees. Robins and red-breasted jays flew up in alarm from the tilled earth where they were worm hunting as I passed. When I lifted my head up from the path, I could see terraced fields clinging on to the side of the mountains, providing pumpkins, cabbages and potatoes for the villages around them. One small, naked girl was being washed by her Mum in a basin and piped out a, “Namaste” then started to yell as the soap ran into her eyes. A red and black snake slithered past me in alarm and sweat dripped in a constant stream down my face.
For the first and only time of the six days it was a descent into camp and I ran down the last couple of kilometres happy in the knowledge I would make the cut off time.
In camp, we quickly got into a routine. Get through the arch, kiss and hug the Race Director, Jordi, who welcomed in every runner, then collect water supplies and find our tent. I was lucky enough to be put in with Lou Staples, who turned out to be Tent Companion of the Year 2018. She is fast and fit and so was in every day several hours before me but, even though she must have been tired, she was there at the end to tell me to get my wet clothes off, put all my dry stuff on for the night, wash down, roll out the sleeping bag and blow up my fluffy pillow and then into the mess tent for supper.
We were well fed on this race and it really made a difference. Soup, vegetable curry and rice or potatoes, pakoras, pasta and then fruit for pudding. There was also endless hot milk for hot chocolate or hot fruit juice. We needed it because in some camps it was cold: high altitude cold that gets into your bones and squeezes into your ears and between your toes.
Bed by 8.30 was the aim, with hopes for a good sleep which wasn’t always possible as my legs twitched from the day’s efforts but at least I was resting. Then up again at 5am, woken by the always-cheerful Sherpas with a cup of tea. Breakfast of cereal, eggs and spicy potato, followed by water and gel/bar collection, a race briefing for the day and back to the start line. 3…..2……1 and we run under the arch……
Each day brought new challenges, but day 2 was the one I had been dreading for months with 3500m of climbing straight up. There was no room for self doubt now as I just had to get this done. This was the day that we were to reach the highest altitude at over 4000m, but if we were too slow or the weather turned bad, we’d take a secondary route which was lower than Pikey’s Peak and incur a time penalty. It was one of those days when thinking ahead would drive you crazy. Like everyone else, I climbed for hours, through the forest with the occasional break in the trees for a view over the mountains. Dusk rolled in and the trees gave way to serried rows of bleak, blackened trunks, emerging ghostlike from the fog. My breath froze in front of me and the path turned to ice underfoot forcing me down onto my hands and knees for a crawl across one treacherous section.
As the last person in the race, I had the sweep behind me: Raffa, Roger, Ana, Alba at different points were my tactful companions. They stayed back so that I could do my race myself but usually came up to join me for the last couple of kilometres. I hated the fact that my slow pace was keeping everyone from a hot drink and supper but they never made me feel bad, just kept the encouragement going. Getting back into camp that night I felt the most overwhelming relief. Going into the mess tent felt like going home. Everyone had suffered. Everyone was cold. Everyone was tired. Everyone was laughing and bantering and talking to their neighbour in a mixed broth of languages, sharing the experience and the night suddenly felt warmer.
All through the race, I kept my head in a good space, but the last hour of day three was my biggest struggle. Our finish was up a final climb to a monastery and I started the climb in the dark. I didn’t think I would make it before the cut off. Ana, who was sweeping, was staying positive but I could see my efforts of not just the last days but the last six months coming to nothing. I picked up my pace and fought. I heard Ana on the walkie talkie to Jordi at the top and understood enough Spanish to realise she was saying that my beathing was bad. It was. The breath was hurting as it came in and I could feel my heart thumping as it tried to catch up. A toxic mixture of despair, shame and exhaustion was all I had for the next hour but oh the sweetness when I saw the finish. Writing that now, I can still feel the flood of sheer relief. That day, I was on my feet for a full twelve and a half hours and probably stopped for a total of 11 minutes.
Each day brought drama. Trotting along a path rolling along the side of the mountain, I caught my first sight of Everest, framed by prayer flags flying from a small temple. The blue of the sky and the white peak of the greatest of mountains. That was an, “I’m running the Everest Trail Race,” moment. A moment that comes around once in a lifetime and stays with you forever.
There was the effort of trying to overtake the yaks or fighting the mules to cross one of the long swaying, hanging bridges that link the paths across the rivers. There was the pleasure of getting to a checkpoint and being handed a bag of Spanish salami. There was the sheer clean sharpness of the air as we got higher. There were also the glimpses of village life where buffalo or yaks were pulling wooden ploughs and women with large, golden discs through their noses carried baskets of fodder suspended from woven ropes slung round their foreheads.
The mountains, the big skies, long paths, rocky descents are all parts of this experience but doing an ultra like this is ultimately about the people you share the experience with. You get a chance to be the best that you can and to see humanity at its very best. Every person I met was doing their utmost, whether as a runner or as a member of the crew. They were holding themselves to the highest standards and giving all they had. The environment was harsh and the days were unbearably tough but instead of creating an atmosphere of competition and aggression, it engendered the opposite. Kindness, compassion, good humour, laughter and love were the things that characterised this race.
This has been more than a race to me. It has been more than 160km run over 6 days with an enormous 15,000 metres of climbing, most of it at altitude; it has been a commitment to be what I say I am – an Adventurer. It has been a commitment to reach for a goal that was beyond me when I started, and to achieve it. It has been a commitment to just keep going through the doubt, the exhaustion, and the overwhelming sense of not being good enough — to finally cross the finishing line.
It’s also been fantastic fun.
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