Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Everest Marathon Trip Part 3

Oct 31 – Nov 28/05
Part 3

Photos may be viewed at www.maddog.smugmug.com

The final chapter! The race is about to begin and the MISERY and ORDEAL is almost over! All 56 runners had passed the medical check and trekked the three miles from Lobuche to Gorak Shep (5200 m/17,160 ft) where the Everest Marathon would start.

Gorak Shep was smaller and cleaner than Lobuche - except for the outhouses that were just as disgusting. Thankfully our Sherpas set up some latrine tents in the huge sand bowl at the base of Kala Patthar. All three camps were set up together near the start line in the desert sand – yes a huge desert of soft white sand at 17,000 ft? There were only two lodges in Gorak Shep – both located on a ridge on the edge of the glacial moraine. Fortunately they were large enough to accommodate all three groups for dinner so that we didn’t have to eat in a cold mess tent. Everyone was instructed (ordered?) to stay in their tents for the final night because it would be difficult to find people in the lodges at 5:30am.

Some runners climbed Kala Patthar for the magnificent view of ‘The Top of The World’ but most of us just rested and waited for a ‘practice’ run of the race start at 4 pm. At 4 pm all the runners (including 20 Nepali runners) gathered at the start line in the sand bowl to listen to instructions about the race and the start. Attila the Hun (the belligerent group leader) gave the lecture/instructions: 1) at 6:50 am on Mon 11/21 all runners would line up at the start line and Attila would shout “#1”. Race #1 would confirm he was present and then all subsequent race numbers would shout their numbers in numerical sequence. We practiced this difficult procedure. However the Nepalis had difficulty with this process because they are shy and don’t like to be loud or flagrant in public. Attila got very angry and I felt embarrassed for both him and the race organization because he made an ass of himself! 2) all runners must carry a minimum survival kit – 3 layers of clothes, a whistle, headlamp, first-aid kit, etc at all times during the race. Failure to do so would result in disqualification from the race! 3) every runner must wear a race number on the front and back and shout out his number at each check point and then verify that the number was heard. This would simplify any search for a missing runner. 4) if a runner came across a colleague that was injured or ill he must stay with that runner and provide assistance until another runner came by who would then go to the nearest aid station for medical help. Failure to do so would result in disqualification from the race. Any time spent assisting another runner would be deducted from the final finish time of that runner.
Everyone understood and agreed that these rules were necessary for the safety and security of all runners!

After the lecture I visited the team doctor because I felt like my ‘Himalayan cough’ was turning into a chest cold and I didn’t want to wake up on race morning with a terrible cold. He offered me some antibiotics but warned that they would probably cause diarrhea so I decided to decline the drugs and risk the cold? I then went back to our tent and changed into my race clothes. It was going to get very cold that night and it would be too cold to change into polypro tights at 6am on race day. I would sleep in my running clothes! Then I joined our team for afternoon tea in the lodge. I learned that we would not get pasta for dinner but fortunately the lodge had ‘spaghetti Bolognese’ (I believe the meat was minced Yak) on the menu so I ordered my traditional pasta dinner from the lodge. Later we were served a light ‘veggie’ dinner by the Sherpas that I passed on except for the desert. After dinner our group leader – a very nice gentleman (Bruce) from Troon, Scotland – read us a poem. Bruce was running Everest for the 5th time (why???). He had a special gift and love for writing poems. He recited a poem that was written by a friend in Scotland who worked in a Hospice for terminally ill patients. I have not yet received a copy of the poem (as promised) to include in this report but the moral of the poem was: nobody knows how long they are on this planet – so if there is something you want to do - or somebody you want to love – then “Seize the Moment”!
After that inspirational poem there was nothing to do except go back to the tent to check on our last-minute race preparations and go to bed. I wanted my running shoes to be warm in the morning so I stuffed them in my sleeping bag – also my water bottle because I needed to mix an energy drink in the morning. I had only two layers of running clothes on so I decided to put my down jacket on and sleep in it too. It got very cold on Sun night. I can’t say I was cold and I can’t say I was warm – but I sure as Hell can say that I was MISERABLE all night as I laid in the sleeping bag waiting – praying for daylight to come so the race could start and put an end to this MISERY and ORDEAL! I believe there were about 55 others in the same state of mind?

Mercifully I dozed off for a few hours and soon I heard the wake-up call (5:30 am) and a cup of hot tea was thrust into our tent. Francisco and I declined hot porridge because we wanted to stay in our warm sleeping bags as long as possible. Reluctantly we had to leave the bags and pack them separately so the Sherpas could carry them down to Namche – we would need them that night to sleep in Namche. The kit bags would probably not arrive in Namche until the following day. By the time we had finished packing we were freezing! I couldn’t even feel my toes! It was about –20C! At 6:45 am we walked to the start line and the race started a few minutes before 7 am!

The big dogs – the fell runners – raced across the desert sand and charged up the hill of glacial moraine (at 17,000 ft) as they ignored the burning in their lungs! The rest of us mortals jogged across the desert sand and struggled to walk up the glacial moraine while sucking desperately for air/oxygen and trying to get our frozen feet to navigate around and over the dangerous rocks! Unfortunately I found myself in front of a pack of about 10 runners so I felt obligated to push the old bod faster than it wanted to go because I didn’t want to hold anyone up on the narrow trails. I was hurting already! Fortunately we soon reached a short downhill section and I stepped aside to let the faster runners go by.
My feet were still frozen as I struggled across (and up and down) the two miles of glacial moraine. I also discovered that the water in my CamelBack was frozen when I tried to get a drink. Finally we reached a section of the trail that was flat and smooth and I started to run – well I use that term loosely. I figured with 20 pounds of survival gear strapped to my back and the thin air at 16,000 ft the fastest pace I could run without going into oxygen debt was about 12 min/mile! I was running with Bruce and told him we would be lucky to reach Lobuche (3 miles) under 1 hour? We reached the first aid station/check point in Lobuche in 57 minutes!

The sun was just starting to come up so I stopped at the aid station and removed one layer of clothes, drank some water and continued on. The next three miles of trail descended 290 m to Dughla (4620 m/15,246 ft). The trail was in good shape and I was able to run most of the flat and downhill sections so I reached Dughla in 1:35:38 – a blazing 13 min pace! I stopped and removed another layer of clothes. The next checkpoint was in Periche (4240 m/13,992 ft) – another 3 miles. That section of trail had a lot more rocks and was more difficult even on the flat sections. I was following a couple of runners from another group when one stopped and asked if we had missed a turn or junction? We were running on a high trail and could see a lower trail and bridge about 1000 ft below us? He thought we were supposed to cross that bridge. If we missed a checkpoint we would be disqualified! I knew Bruce was not far behind and he would definitely know the proper route so we waited on the trail for about 5 minutes and happily Bruce confirmed that we were on the proper trail and the checkpoint in Periche should only be about one mile ahead! We forged ahead and reached the 3rd checkpoint in 2:16:10. I stopped and removed my last layer of clothes – I was now running in polypro tights and a thin long sleeve T-shirt! But my daypack was starting to get heavy with all the clothes. The Camelback had finally thawed out so now I would have water available between aid stations!

The next checkpoint was in Pangboche (3930 m/12,969 ft) – another 3/4 miles with many hills. I walked all the uphill sections and tried to run the flat and downhill sections. As I ran the narrow trails on this section of the course I observed surprisingly that the trekkers on the marathon route were being very courteous and supportive. Almost everyone stepped aside and cheered us on when we met or overtook them. Only the Yaks were discourteous and a pain in the ass! Several times I got caught behind a Yak team and had to walk for 4/5 minutes before I could find an opening to scamper past them on the uphill side of the mountain – always the uphill side in case a Yak charged and tried to knock you off the mountain! Such delays had been expected so I did not get frustrated. Besides another few minutes would not make much difference in my finish time?

I reached Pangboche in 3:19:06. I wasn’t even at the Half yet – any thoughts of a 6-hr marathon were a dream? I pushed on to the next checkpoint at Tengboche at 14 miles. I knew that we would have to climb a very steep hill between Deboche and Tengboche. It was a bitch! I struggled just to walk up that BAH (Bad Ass Hill). I wanted to reach Tengboche (3867 m/12,761 ft) under 4 hrs but couldn’t do it! I reached the checkpoint in 4:02:12! No time to spend with the Monks at the Monastery – time to push on which meant running down the very steep and dangerous descent to Phunki Tenga (3250 m/10,725 ft). As I started down the hill I caught up with Justin (the one who had suffered serious AMS in Machermo but made it to the start line). We ran the descent together which really helped because we were able to push and watch out for each other. When we reached Phunki Tenga we were faced with a very tough section of the course – all uphill to Sarnassa (3597 m/11,870 ft). I pushed on and Jason wished me “Good Luck” and dropped back. I passed at least 8 runners going up that BAH and reached the checkpoint in 5:21:41. Unfortunately the pain was not yet over as the course climbed another few hundred meters before dropping down into Chorkhung (3520 m/11,616 ft) just above Namche Bazaar. I tried desperately to reach the checkpoint at 20 miles under 6 hrs but arrived in 6:01:09!

I was familiar with the last 10K of the course – the Thamo loop! I was pretty confident that I could run that loop under 2 hrs which meant a sub-8 hr race was in the bag! I thought about ditching my daypack so I could run faster but decided that was against the rules and I would probably need water before the next aid station so I kept it and struggled with the extra 20 pounds as I tried to push the pace on the Thamo loop. On the way out to Thamo I passed many of my teammates and other runners on the return loop. One was a competitor in my age group. He had at least a 10-min lead and I knew I couldn’t catch him. But I also noticed that he was not carrying any daypack or survival kit? I reached the checkpoint in Thamo (3446 m/11,371 ft) in 6:54:31. If the return loop took an hour I would be cutting it pretty close so I got worried and decided to push the pace as hard as I could. I crossed the finish line in Namche in 7:43:38!
It wasn’t fast – it wasn’t pretty – but it was finished! And I was alive – healthy – and injury-free!

I waited around at the finish line for a few teammates to finish and then decided it was time for a much-needed shower. Since the race finished in front of our lodge we were able to sit in the dining room, enjoy a beer and some snacks while we waited for everyone to finish. All but 4 runners finished the race! Unfortunately not without some controversy – some of the Nepali runners and one ‘white’ runner had run w/o the mandatory kit! The race organizers had a sad mess to handle and correct? (More on this mess later).

But now it was time to celebrate! The race was over! – the misery was over! – soon we would be back in civilization! – soon we would be back home! Some of the young runners still had enough energy to celebrate and party. Most of us just wanted to go to bed and sleep! And there was another problem – most of us were broke. The trip information had advised us to take about 100 GBP ($200 US) on the trek and leave the rest of our money and credit cards in Kathmandu. Unfortunately that information was outdated and the amount was not enough. As a result most people were broke or only had enough money to get back to Kathmandu. I had to borrow $20 to pay for food and a room in Lukla. Thus I had no money to celebrate or party!

Tue was a rest day in Namche for everyone to rest and recover for the 6 to 8 hour trek back to Lukla on Wed. Most people did that and a few did some last minute shopping – if they had any money left! Everyone was looking forward to going home! Miraculously many of the illnesses and ailments that people had been suffering seemed to disappear now that the marathon was finished and we were back at lower altitudes. Everyone declared that they would not stay in a tent in Lukla (I declared that I would never stay in a tent again for the rest of my life) - we all insisted on renting a lodge room. On Wed morning Francisco and I packed and left early so that we would be first to arrive in Lukla and be sure to get a decent room in a lodge. It would be necessary to stay one night since the planes normally left Lukla in the morning! We trekked the steep descent from Namche to Phakding in 3 hours and then made the climb to Lukla in another three hours to arrive at the lodge in Lukla by 2 pm. We rented a deluxe room with an ensuite bath (western toilet) – what luxury! Then we pooled our money to buy two beers to celebrate while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive!

By 4 pm most of the group had arrived – but not our kit bags? We began to worry because there is a curfew in Lukla. Nobody is allowed in or out of the village after 5 pm and nobody is allowed outdoors in the village after 6pm! Because of the airport and the strategic location of the village the Nepal government is very worried about Maoist rebels capturing the village. There are hundreds of soldiers and machine gun placements all around the airport and village. We were warned that the soldiers would shoot anyone violating the curfew first and ask questions last! Thankfully with our deluxe room there was no need for us to leave our room after dinner!

On Thu morning we had a very early teatime and after our final egg omelet breakfast we walked over to the airport at 6am to be ready for the first flights out. Unfortunately low clouds had moved in to Lukla Valley and no planes could land. However by 10 am we could hear the roar of a turbo prop and the first plane arrived from Kathmandu. Luckily I had a boarding pass for the first flight and soon we were screaming down the ski jump/runway and catapulting out into space. We arrived in Kathmandu 30 minutes later – wonderful/noisy/polluted/congested and WARM Kathmandu! As soon as I got to the hotel I went straight to the bathroom and stood under scalding hot water for 30 minutes and scrubbed the last remnants of Himalayan dust – and Yak shit – off my body! Then it was time to walk over to Thamel and order a hamburger – a real hamburger with real beef – and wash it down with a beer! It was great!

By early afternoon the rest of our group arrived from Lukla. Our team had decided to go to a popular restaurant – Mike’s Place, owned by a British expat – for dinner. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Mike had a special buffet dinner – Turkey/Thanksgiving Dinner! I must have eaten 5 pounds of turkey and mashed potatoes – it was soooooooo goooooodddd!!!!!!! After dinner I made the mistake of accompanying a group of young runners/mates to some bars to celebrate and then I made a bigger mistake of trying to drink with them! I finally conceded defeat around 3am and staggered to a rickshaw to take me back to the hotel. The resulting hangover was so massive that I missed a 9am excursion/tour of Kathmandu. I think I finally crawled out of bed around 3 pm and began the process of recovery to get ready for the Awards banquet/ceremony on Fri night. The awards and prize money were handed out at the ceremony. The race organizers had ‘handled’ the sticky mess of runners w/o kits by backing off their disqualification policy and assigning a penalty of 10 minutes to all guilty runners. This allowed the Nepali runners to still beat the crap out of all foreign runners and claim their prize money!

The first foreign/white runner was a fell runner from the UK who finished in 4:57:56. My friend from NZ finished second. The first ‘white’ female was a runner from the ‘Cuckoos’. In fact four of the top ten ‘white’ runners were from the Cuckoos – the lazy/no-good/laid-back wimps/misfits and party animals who stayed in lodges??? We were very proud of our lazy selves. The trophy for Super Vet (60+) was skipped/ignored during the Award ceremony? However the following morning as the main group was preparing to depart and I was getting ready to transfer to another hotel the owner of the tour agency/race organization approached me and handed me the trophy for the Super Vet Category. She simply stated “This trophy belongs to you since you were the first Super Vet to cross the finish line according to the race rules”! I accepted the trophy because I felt that if I hadn’t been carrying 20+ pounds of survival kit on my back I would have finished at least 30 minutes faster! So the trophy is proudly displayed in my trophy case!

That evening I decided to go to a popular Steakhouse and enjoy a real beefsteak. It was great - but I didn’t get to enjoy it for long. One hour after dinner I was back in my hotel – very sick. I wasn’t sure if it was food poisoning or just all the germs/illnesses I had successfully avoided during the trek catching up with me – all at once! I had bodily fluids coming out of every orifice in my body – all at the same time! It was not a pretty sight! I was sick all night! I had booked a private tour for the following day and didn’t think I could get out of bed to go. By 9am I started to feel OK so I forced myself to get up and take the tour. I wanted to visit the neighboring cities of Pattan and Bhaktapur. These cities were separate kingdoms in the 15th century and each has its own Durbar Square with royal places and temples. Of the three Durbar squares I liked the one in Bhaktapur the best. It was quieter and less crowded (maybe the $10 entry fee had something to do with that). But I was glad I had taken the tour and seen all three Squares because I knew I was never coming back!

By early afternoon I suffered a relapse and returned to the hotel. I was concerned because I had to depart at 8:30am on Mon and I was facing another 40- hour journey home. It would be a long miserable journey! I started to overdose on Imodium to plug up one end and decided not to eat (only sip water to stay hydrated) until I got back home. On Mon morning I crawled out of bed and dragged my sorry, plugged-up ass on to the first flight in Kathmandu. I was able to buy some medicine at a pharmacy in the Bangkok airport to settle my stomach. Fortunately I was able to sleep for about 6 hours on the 12-hour flight from Hong Kong to LA. I actually felt good enough in LA to eat some greasy fries at Burger King while waiting for a red-eye flight to Dallas. They stayed down!
I met up with my wife at 6am in Dallas since she had taken a red-eye flight from Seattle where she visited the kids for Thanksgiving. We flew the final leg together to Tampa and she drove me straight to our family doctor in Sarasota. I wanted a medical check up and tests to determine if I had picked up some strange parasite or bug in Nepal! I was also hoping that the doc would give me some antibiotics or drugs to make me feel better and speed up my recovery? No such luck! He refused to give me any drugs until he saw the test results. Thus I had to go home and lay in bed for 5 days – coughing and hacking and suffering from a high fever with cold chills/hot sweats and constant hallucinations that I was back in the Himalayans! And all the time never more than a few feet from a bathroom. I forced myself to eat for nourishment. Thankfully it stayed down but I was amazed at how quickly the body can change solid food into liquid waste?

It was one of the most miserable weeks of my life! But eventually I did recover and the test results came back normal. I still haven’t regained my strength and endurance but I seem to get stronger each day as I start back running. I remember writing a brief report during that sick week asking “Was it worth it “? “The Everest Marathon/adventure”?
If I focus on the memories of how cold and miserable it was camping in the tents or that week of illness when I got home the answer might seem obvious. However as those painful memories fade I can still remember the spectacular scenery along the trek – I still remember my pride of climbing two 18ers and the magnificent views of “the Top of The World’ – I still remember the warm, friendly smiles of the Nepali people –especially the children – I still remember the camaraderie and friendship of the many new friends I made during the trek and the fact that I became a member of a special alumni – less than 500 people in the world have finished the Everest Marathon – the highest and toughest marathon in the world!

So my answer is a resounding YES!

But then I will quickly add:


But when are you going to run Everest? The next race is in NOV 2007!!!!

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