Could you take on the highest marathon in the world?
We interviewed the Race Director of the Original Everest Marathon
How did the Original Everest Marathon originate?
An English woman, whose job was selling holidays for the Ramblers Association, married a Sherpa with a trekking business. While they were trekking in the Khumbu, some of the group set up a race for fun and the idea of creating the highest marathon in the world was born. Despite dire predictions from medical and sports experts about the impossibility of running at high altitude, the 1987 event was a huge success and marked a first in athletic history. For the next event, the Everest Marathon earned a listing in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest marathon in the world. From the beginning, the event was used to fundraise for development projects in Nepal and over the years more than £200k has been donated.
2017 was Diana’s last event as race director and she passed the role onto Ali Bramall and Community Action Nepal became the owner. With this changeover, we’ve taken the opportunity to re-brand and are now the Original Everest Marathon.
How long has it been running and how many people have taken part?
Traditionally, the Everest Marathon took place every other year. Things got a bit awkward when the Maoists took control of the area and disrupted Diana’s plans for a yearly event. So the OEM this November will be the 18th over 36 years.
The valley has changed a lot over this time as a result of the amount of people wanting to visit these wonderful mountains. Travelling up the valley has become easier, with substantial bridges over the Duh Khosi, Tea houses have grown in number and provide wonderful food and drink and you can even buy internet time. But the higher you go, the less there is of everything, especially fresh water, so the number of international runners and trekkers will be limited to 100.
What’s the total ascent for the race?
Some races start low and run uphill, but the OEM start line is at Gorak Shep, 5184m, the highest habitation in the world and the site of the original Everest Base Camp. The finish is at Namche Bazaar at 3440m, so theoretically it gets easier the further you go as the runners are losing altitude, But mountains, like life, are seldom that straightforward - there’s a particularly tough climb of 980m after the steep descent from the Monastery at Tengboche.
Just getting to the startline feeling well enough to run is a challenge in it’s own right, which is why we allow 15 days for acclimatising naturally. Keeping everyone healthy is such an important aspect of the OEM that we’ve decided to add an optional extension to the trek by starting at Jiri xxm. This is the original route of the Everest Marathon that mountaineers on their way to Everest used, before the airport at Lukla was built.
What is the fitness benchmark for knowing you can take this on?
Even though this event is called a marathon, it’s not just about being able to run 42km with ease; imagine running with only 50% of the oxygen in your body, over glacial moraine, scree, rough narrow tracks, wire suspension bridges and steep descents and ascents. If you want to be able to do a fast time, having experience of running mountain marathons, ultras or long trail races is useful. The fitter you are the better although it’s just as much about being sure-footed and being able to look after yourself on the mountain - the sort of experience you get from walking over Scottish hills. Just as importantly, you need to ask yourself if you’re able to cope with living conditions at altitude, when the ice doesn’t melt until the sun comes up and you might not have a wash for 15 days.
How many people DNF?
On average about 5% won’t complete the marathon as they’ve felt too unwell with the altitude or been timed out. With the start at 06.30, there is plenty of time to complete the marathon, provided you meet the cut off time of 2.30 pm, at 20 miles, above Namche Bazaar. The finish is just below you, but the marathon continues for 3 miles along another valley to the turn round point, so anyone who’s finding the going tough, will have to dig deep here. But the bonus of the Thamo Loop, is meeting your mates on the out and back route and get a good lift from their smiles.
Why is this the ultimate marathon?
It’s really tough! There is no guarantee at the start of the trek that you’re going to make it to the start in a fit state to run. There are aspects of being in this environment that are out of our control – the weather and how our bodies deal with the altitude, which is what makes it so life-changing. In our everyday lives we’re used to being in control, having what we want, when we want it. But up in these big mountains, we’re stripped of all the comforts of ‘civilisation.’ It certainly helps to own some very good quality down gear, but basically, we have to rely on ourselves.
What makes it easier is the comradeship of the other runners and people become life-long friends from sharing this experience. In fact several marriages have been born on the Everest Marathon.
Keeping everyone healthy is our primary consideration. We take our own cook team to give us good, hygienically prepared food; we use good quality tents and insulation so people can keep warm and sleep well and we have an effective support system to prevent problems at altitude.
The group is put into teams, each with a team leader and two doctors. Both the team leaders and doctors are chosen for their ability as mountain runners and they will have completed the OEM themselves. As well as this we operate a buddy-system, with tent partners looking out for each other during the trek. Lots of people entering the marathon bring their partner or a friend with them for the trek, so that they can share their hotel room and tent with them.
The OEM is so much more than the highest and toughest marathon in the world – it’s a fabulous holiday and a spiritual journey. We get to visit 3 of the Community Action Nepal projects in the Khumbu valley and gain an insight into the lives of the Sherpa people and their religion. Tapping into their way of seeing the sacred in everything around them, gives us the opportunity of expanding our understanding our own lives. We are travelling through their culture, to gaze on their sacred Chomolunga, Godess Mother of the World – the mountain we call Everest.
The fabulous hotel we use in Kathmandu before and after the trek, used to be a Royal palace – it’s an oasis of calm in the colourful, exuberant capital city. On the final full day in Kathmandu, we've organised a tour of two of the most popular World Heritage Sites, the Hindu Temple of Pashupathinath and the Buddhist Stupa of Swayambhunath.
Read Reviews and get more info on the Original Everest Marathon