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The highest marathon in the world

Fiona's Everest Marathon 2017

fionaI packed and unpacked many many times as you can imagine but left with a very civilised 13kg rucksack with everything I needed… I hoped! Having never done anything like this before I was a bit of a fish out of water but what’s the worst that could happen? While sitting at the airport I clocked someone in the coffee line who looked suspiciously like another runner and surely had to be on the same trip. He was wearing some serious gear with a fancy running rucksack and water bottles on each strap, straws sticking up ready for quick access… he looked ready to compete! And here’s me in my chequered shirt, comfy travelling trousers looking ready for a leisurely holiday. It was this point I text a couple of friends questioning whether I should be on this trip, What have I signed up for!?!?

Shortly after, Sally (fellow reindeer herder), found me. It was Sally who introduced me to the idea of doing the marathon, so ultimately she is to blame for all this.  I pointed out the other runner, told her how much I was bricking it, but in her usual bubbly, positive self she said ‘it’ll be fine… you’ll be fine’.

We arrived into Kathmandu Airport. It was absolutely buzzing. The smog levels were unreal, felt like I needed a buff over my mouth the whole time. Our hotel was a little piece of paradise in amongst the chaos of Kathmandu. We had time for some dinner and a shower but I think everyone was feeling the need to go to bed, knowing we had a fairly early start.

Sally and I delighted we had arrived in Kathmandu after a long day travelling.

FionaAndSallyThe next morning we were allocated to groups. This is where Sally comes into it, she was the yellow group leader so she got our group together in the hotel garden and we did the tedious but necessary introductions. First up was McKenzie, he was from the North of England. McKenzie was one of those people who, although dealt a harder card in life, really was an inspiration to everyone by picking himself up and ‘taking the bull by the horns’. He took on adventures for various charities supporting causes close to his heart. Now this is where first impressions were blown out the water because it was McKenzie who I saw in the coffee line only hours before and when I got to know him, he couldn’t have been more different from that serious looking, coffee drinking runner in Café Nero! Then we had an Aussie couple Travis and Kelly. They were setting off on a worldwide adventure and going for as long as money and time would allow, starting with the Everest Marathon… One hell of a start if you ask me!

The next group of people were fellow Celts… the four Irish! Tom, John, Frank and Daithi are all friends from a running group back home. As well as their great banter they were just the most genuine lovely people who I spent a lot of my time with while in Nepal. I won’t big them up too much or they’ll think I liked their company, and I’ll never hear the end of it.

Also in our group was Chris, an English guy now living in Thailand, he was here to be a marshal on race day, having done the marathon in the past. He was a real rock in the group and had a heart of gold as well as lots of good advice for us.

Steve was one of the oldest competitors, but this meant nothing in this type of event as he was certainly fitter than most of us and has completed some amazing races including an Iron Man. If you don’t know what an Iron Man is, google it, because it will blow your mind! Christian came from Guernsey… You can’t get much further from my Cairngorm home. He was a really great guy and always so positive. Even though Nepal dealt him the mean card when it came to tummy troubles he never moaned and always had a smile on his face and a toilet roll handy (sorry Chris!)

Bobby was our token Yank! A 23 year old that really has been there, done that. He was completing his last marathon on every continent… what an achievement at such a young age! I spent a lot of time trekking with Bobby, being a similar pace. Oh and not to mention kicking his ass at card games!  Sam lives and works in London….. again couldn’t get much further from my life but it’s amazing how different our lives can be, yet we are brought together in this adventure and get along so well. Working in the world of computers and technology I’ll never forget trying so hard to understand a conversation he was having with a friend during a trekking day about some software or app and my brain failing to understand any of it… I just don’t have it when it comes to anything technical! Sam was always game for everything, a real good sport!

Shauney was another Scottish lassie and my tent buddy… Do you think they planned that?!?! I couldn’t have asked for a better person to share this adventure with. She is the youngest person (aged 22) to complete the Everest marathon and having done some epic long distance races in the past already had some great stories. I’m not sure I would have taken on such a massive adventure when I was her age so I really admire what she has achieved. The best thing is she only lives over the hill and is a horse trainer…. future reindeer herder comes to mind!

Next are father and son Ross and Lachie from New Zealand. Ross is a mountain runner back home so this was his adventure and Lachie was coming along to be a marshal on race day. It all changed for Lachie as having been so strong during trekking days, he decided to give the full marathon a go. Read on to see how he gets on! Mark and Ulla were a couple from Northampton who are good friends with one of the Everest Marathon doctors. This is how they came to be sat in this circle of crazy people. Mark was to take on the marathon and Ulla was there to marshal. The two were such a positive couple and so lovely. They were actually the first ones I met back in Heathrow Airport when I was super nervous about the whole adventure and they were so relaxed and calm.

Ali wasn’t here as a competitor or marshal, she was here learning the ropes for taking on the organising of the Everest Marathon in the future so she was constantly jotting down notes and off with the Nepalese organisers trying to get her head around the ins and outs of the whole thing. Nishma was our group doctor and has been the doctor on the Everest Marathon before, so was all ready and set for the challenge ahead - such a bubbly lady who always had a smile on her face and great advice. Couldn’t have asked for a better person to look after us and she had skills when it came to card games!

Then last but not least, Sally. Some of you may already know Sally as she has been a seasonal reindeer herder on and off for about ten years. She is the most positive, smiley person I know. Having her as our group leader created such a great atmosphere and I feel our group gelled so well and looked after each other, which was also down to her great leadership. I wouldn’t have taken part in this amazing adventure and met these incredible people if it wasn’t for Sally, so she’s to thank!

As well as our group there was the red group. I won’t introduce all of them or we will be here all day, but I will mention Rich and Dr Mike who we adopted as honorary yellow group members over the course of the adventure. Both great guys, game for everything and super strong in the mountains!

Fiona Monistory

Sightseeing around Kathmandu visiting temples and monasteries

While we were still in Kathmandu we all took part in a fun run. We all hopped onto a bus which took us out of town to the top of a hill (thankfully) ready to run down in our costumes. We had Elvis, 118 118 man, Peter Pan, a penguin, four Irish Leprechauns and many more costumes. Everyone made a real effort to dress up. I wore a reindeer onesie which at the time seemed like a great idea until the Nepal sun came out and it turns out running in 25 degrees gets rather hot! As well as the fun run there was an excursion to the Monkey Temple and also other iconic spots around Kathmandu.

This then brought us to the morning we left for the mountains. It was all getting rather real now… eek! We hopped on a tiny 16 seater plane and flew to Lukla. The views were spectacular looking over to some of the worlds’ biggest mountains. Now this runway is renowned for its shortness. Luckily I couldn’t see it from my side of the plane until the last minute. It certainly made my stomach turn slightly but there was nothing we could do bar hope the pilot was on course. It helped that the weather that day was glorious, so no turbulence to contend with.

Once we landed, we grabbed some lunch and various instructions from our leaders and headed off on our first trek together as a group. We had about 4 hours walking that day through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, passing Yak trains, Sherpas carrying the most incredibly heavy loads, many tourists, plant life I’ve never seen before, traditional houses and hamlets, children running to school (which at that altitude, walking was tough enough for us), suspension bridges, and many more amazing things. What a beautiful country and the colour from prayer flags and the Nepalese clothing just brought it all alive.

Fiona porter carry

One of the huge loads carried by porters along the trekking routes

Our Yaks carrying all our gear

Bobby, Tom and Frank getting in on a photo opportunity with Everest behind

Over the next two days we trekked to Namche Bazaar which is the main village and last proper civilisation for most trekkers and climbers before heading onto other trails and Mount Everest itself. It was a lovely little place with cafes, bars and shops selling curios and souvenirs. Also for sale was lots of outdoor gear with branded names but not branded prices… We had a couple of days in Namche Bazaar getting last minute essentials but more importantly acclimatising. It is really important for your body to adjust slowly and properly to altitude or you can make yourself really sick. Some folk in the group were already experiencing some symptoms but luckily I was OK, so fingers crossed it stayed that way.

From Namche we did a couple of treks for good views but also to help with the altitude.T hen after a few days we headed off. This was for real now. We had our lovely Sherpas, a herd of yaks to carry the gear and lots of nervous but excited folk ready for this massive adventure ahead. We still had two weeks until the marathon itself, which at the time felt like ages away but it’s amazing how it seemed to fly by.

On leaving Namche we discovered the red group was very well trained and all had their assigned number, so when we were all due to leave they would shout out their number to make sure everyone was there. Needless to say we were rubbish and when put on the spot I’m not sure any of us remembered which number we were. So later that night, during our nightly meeting with Sally we decided we had to do better therefore we gave ourselves a letter, starting with A, B, C… etc and with our letter we had to think of an animal. So here goes… I think this was all the animals in our group and what ended up being our morning chorus before setting off on trekking days to make sure everyone was there –  Ass, Baboon, Cat, Donkey, Elephant, Ferret, Giraffe, Horse, IBEX (this was Bobby’s animal and always said with great volume!), Jaguar, Koala, Lemur, Meerkat, Nightingale (this was me), Orangutan, Pufferfish, Quail, Reindeer (of course), Snake, Tiger and Unicorn. It took a few days to perfect but it sounded awesome when we did get it right. Peter, the leader of the red group said he’d buy Sally a beer if we managed so I think he needs to dig deep cos we definitely got there!

Shauney and I ready for our first night camping

 

 

Fiona NBFrom now on we were camping. We would arrive at camp every day to our tents already set up and our Sherpas starting our dinner. Our kit bags would arrive and we set up camp for the night laying out our sleeping mat and bag then change into our evening attire (I had two sets of clothes, daytime and night time… that was it!), park ourselves in the lodge and crack out the card games. This happened most nights. Some folks would read, go for a wee walk, sleep and now and again Sally had organised a quiz so it was a real social time all round. Ulla had a birthday while we were there and amazingly the Sherpas managed to bake a cake. How? I have no idea but it was delicious. After dinner the Sherpas heated up water for us which we would stick into our water bottle and put in our sleeping bags. Worked as a fantastic hot water bottle, especially when camping in the minus’s. Ice would form on the inside of the tent, that’s how cold it was.

Our first few days after leaving Namche took us up a valley towards Gokyo. We camped at a place called Machermo for four nights which was great, it meant we didn’t have to pack up camp daily. One of the days we just did a walk up and run down for nice views and acclimatising. Then we headed up towards Gokyo and Gokyo Ri which meant we were gaining a lot of height. This was a big day and not everybody opted into doing the longer walk to the summit of Gokyo Ri. From here there is the most magnificent view of Mount Everest. The walk was super tough as we reached almost 5400m but every step was worth it. Bobby had a beer from one of his sponsors which he downed at the top… not sure how but I put it down to him having 8 years on me.  The blue water lakes were just incredible and we had great weather to top it off. Saying that, it was pretty chilly up there.

On one of our other days (meant to be a rest day), Bobby, Sally and I decided to go for a wander, taking us back to Gokyo because it had a good bakery. We took a massive cake order from both yellow and red group and headed off on our ten mile round trip… things we do for cake!

Fiona everestview

As days went by we covered lots of ground trekking and most of us acclimatised well. Depending how some people were coping with altitude meant their trip was altered but on the whole everyone was doing amazingly. Once dropping down again in altitude some folk decided that was as far as they would go and would meet the group again at the end of the marathon back in Namche Bazaar. For the rest of us we were starting the marathon route in reverse, trekking it over a number of days. It was crucial at this point to know where we were going as the next time we would see it would be on marathon day itself. There were a few big climbs and drops as we made our way up the valley. This was also the main route to Everest Base Camp.

We stopped at various lodges along the way, camping overnight. We even went to hang out with the monks in one of the monasteries in Tengboche. We passed many yaks and Sherpas and the further up we went the colder it got. One of the coldest nights was in Pheriche, a couple of camps before our last night in a tent.

Beautiful building and archways at the monastery in Tengboche.

Ama Dablam in the background. Despite its impressive stature it is “only” 6,812m and not even close to being in the top 100 highest mountains in the world!

We reached Lobuche for our final two nights camping and preparation for marathon day. It was a bleak wee place and the lodges were cold at night. When we were back in Namche Bazaar I bought myself a yak wool blanket. I think it’s safe to say this was my best purchase and every night I wrapped myself up in it and wore it like a skirt in the lodges. It was so toasty warm and some of the group commented on it being surgically attached to me… it wasn’t far off it that’s for sure! We had a rest day here, although there was also the option to walk up Kala Patar, which gives great views of Everest, but a few of us opted to go to Base Camp instead.

In 2016 a friend of mine summited Everest and while he was out there I would hear of his adventures and obviously he spent a lot of time at Base Camp so it was nice to go to the area I had heard so much about. Base Camp is also one of those places you hear people talk about so I’m pretty delighted I have ticked that off the bucket list.. The same day we also passed Gorak Shep, this was to be the start line on race day. I could see the first three miles was going to be tough though as it was mostly boulder field. This part a lot of people were dreading but I’m afraid to say it was the one part of the whole race I enjoyed the most. The rougher the better for me as I’m not exactly built for long distance or fast running. I am however built for hills and rough ground, whether it be up or down, so this part was fine by me, it was the flat runnable bits I was rubbish on!

Fiona gokyoRi

The last health and kit checks were done the day before the marathon in Lobuche and this was where we sadly had to leave Sally, as she was to marshal this first check point the next morning. That afternoon we trekked to Gorek Shep once again and stayed the night in the lodge there. It was pretty chilly and the yak blanket was out again for sure! We prepped our kit bags, got some food inside us and all hit the sack nice and early, ready for a 6.30am race start. Poor Shauney, my tent buddy, fell ill and she couldn’t manage any food that night. Not only that, but the sickness kept her from resting properly before the race. We made sure she had some sugary fuel through the night but that was real bad luck as she was definitely one of the strongest women competitors in the group!

Fiona preRaceTeam Yellow on the practice start line!

We all got up around 5am, had some porridge and tea for breakfast and also just to warm us up. The lodge didn’t exactly have central heating. We got onto the start line for 6.15am, all absolutely freezing and leaving our down jackets on for as long as possible. Minutes before 6.30am we reluctantly took our jackets off in preparation for the start whistle. Then…..we were off! The Nepalese runners were wearing hardly anything and they shot off at the speed of light leaving all us international runners behind. We plodded on but at 5,140m even plodding felt exhausting. Although you make some really good friends during this adventure, come race day I was always going to run my own race and if that coincided with someone else of similar speed, then great, but I wanted the experience to be my own however it panned out. I reached Sally after the 3 miles of rough boulders and she was our first check point. I did a reindeer call from afar so she knew I was coming. Seeing her smiling face was really nice… a real boost!

First check point, 3 miles in, on race day. Sally pouring us some hot juice.

We had another few miles before our next check point which was Chris in Dugla (4620), again it was so nice to see a friendly face and get a bite to eat. By this point in the race we were still seeing a few of the other runners but as the race went on folk dispersed more and more and I think this was the last time I saw the front runners of the international field, they were well and truly off ahead of me after Dugla. The next part of the race was all very runnable, this is where I’m not so strong but I plodded on. Where I gained places in the rough sections I definitely lost here.

Next check point was Pheriche which was where Dr Mike was based. We were now 7.5 miles into the race and it was still pretty cold, all my layers from the beginning were still on and weren’t coming off anytime soon. From here Bobby and I ended up running at a similar pace. He was much quicker on the flats though. It was really nice running with someone by this point and as we ended up trekking together most days a familiar, friendly face was definitely a boost! We ran together for the next 7 miles, through check point number 4 in Pangboche and onto checkpoint 5 in Tengboche. It took quite a lot of will power not to visit the bakery on route! We were given some rice pudding and another drink before the steep descent into the valley, all the time knowing we would have to climb out of it afterwards.

Bobby and I 14 miles into the marathon, topping up on drink and rice pudding. Mount Everest in the background.

It was also this check point that Bobby and I ended up on different paths but I knew I would see him again somewhere along the way. During the descent there was a yak train coming up so I stepped off the path and decided to use a wee path cutting the corner. Big mistake… immediately after stepping off the path I rolled my ankle. Gahhh!!! I could have kicked myself. I walked it out for a bit and once I got to the bottom of the valley and crossed the suspension bridge it seemed to sort itself out. Or at least it wasn’t hurting quite as much. It was down here I saw Lachie (the Kiwi who came to marshal the race but ended up running it). This was the first I had seen him since the start line. He was a couple of minutes ahead of me so I didn’t get to chat to him but I was so pleased he was going strong. The next check point was after the big climb and 17 miles in, so by this point I’m only a few miles off the furthest I’ve ever run. It was here that the marshal told me I was the first international lady through, which as you can imagine totally shocked me. I felt pretty good about it (who wouldn’t), but I was well aware I was getting to a point of the race where I may get tired quicker than some of the other ladies who have done lots of marathons. But what will be, will be. This race was always just going to be an adventure for me whatever the outcome so I plodded on with no pressure.

The next 3 miles seemed to go on forever. It was quite flat and very runnable, which by mile 18, 19 and 20 I wasn’t really feeling the running love anymore. Also by this point I hadn’t seen any other runners for quite some time and it was getting quite lonely. Usually when I’m home and out running I have the dog with me and having spent the past 2.5 weeks trekking there is always someone to chat to so this was probably the hardest part of the race for me mentally. The next check point was very welcome. Ulla was marshalling and she was the smiley face I needed to see. This check point was above Namche Bazaar, mile 20. Namche Bazaar was where the finish line was, right in the middle of the village, however we still had another 6 miles to complete which was a real kick in the guts, so off I set on the 6 mile Thamo loop. So, half a mile into the loop I see Franck running towards me. Franck is from France and he was always the strongest trekker and I was really gunning for him to do well in the marathon as he absolutely deserved it. So as we pass each other, we exchange a high five as he headed onto the finish line. The next friendly face was Rich, then Alistair and the fourth international runner was Chris from Guernsey. He was the first from our yellow group, so again a delighted high five exchange as he goes onto finish. Theses 3 miles seemed to be going on forever but being back in amongst some friendly faces definitely helped! I reached the turnaround check point with Nepali marshals. They clocked that I was the first international lady through so they tied a prayer scarf round my neck and I wore it as I ran back to Namche. About ½ – 1 mile on my way back I pass Kim. This was the first time I’d seen herthe whole race and now I felt like I needed to try and hold my position or the lovely prayer scarf they just gave me would be hers. We exchanged our high five and I just had to hope she was as tired as I was. On my way back I now knew this was the furthest I had ever run before, and I’m not going to lie, I was pretty knackered! But even if I walked the last couple of miles I knew I was going to finish so there was definitely comfort knowing this. I passed Bobby who sadly had been struck by the sickness everyone had a few hours before. He said he was OK and would see me back in Namche. Then I passed the Irish guys. Screw the high fives by this point it was hugs all round, but they weren’t for holding me up they wished me luck and told me to go get first international lady. To be completely honest I would have been delighted to have a blether by this point, it was just so nice to see them, but I plodded on. Every corner I turned, I hoped the next would be Namche Bazaar… Then finally there it was! The steep stony steps, narrow streets and locals ringing bells and shouting ‘Runner’!!! As I jogged through the street towards the finish line I couldn’t quite believe it was all about to be over. It was all quite overwhelming but I was definitely ready to have a sit down! Through the finish line I went in 6 hours, 56 minutes and 51 seconds!

Fiona FinishFirst marathon completed… Phew!

We were told that a rough guide to how long we would take was to double our marathon time. I couldn’t do this, so I was delighted with my personal best! Seeing the others who had already finished was really nice and hearing of their stories along the way. Lachie who wasn’t even coming to do the race finished a few minutes ahead of me. He looked way too fresh… or at least fresher than me, and was super happy as this was his first marathon. We then waited at the finish line for our other friends to come in. Kim was about 15 minutes behind me, but looked like she could have done another few miles, no bother! Then a few more came in over the next hour. The Irish weren’t far away, however it turned out that Bobby fell really quite ill, staggering, being sick and generally not in great form. The Irish group clocked this on their way back and they helped him back to the finish line. It was a real shame the illness got Bobby mid race but finishing alongside his good friends must have been pretty special too. He needed to see the doctor right away but soon got himself sorted out. I was now waiting for Shauney to arrive. Knowing she was so ill the night before I was really keen to see her finish. Sam from our group ran with her the whole day which was absolutely incredible of him and the two of them came in a couple of minutes apart. I absolutely take my hat off to that girl, she completed that race having the worst night and illness. I’m not sure I would have managed in her circumstances. We then welcomed home Mark who was still looking so strong and Frank, the last of the Irish to come through. Unfortunately he also wasn’t well but considering lack of energy and illness he plugged through and completed it. So out of the 46 who started the race, 40 completed the full marathon. The rest finished at the 20 miles mark above Namche Bazaar. Everyone did amazingly.

 Of course we had the support of the check points along the way with food and drink, which did heaps for moral, so a massive thank you to them as well. Sally and Chris who were the furthest away check points were the real heroes of the day as Mackenzie fell ill very early on in the race. They helped him home, first by walking, but he was so weak that they had to get him a horse to get back to Namche. So the real gold medal goes to them and the Irish team for helping others.

I think we were all ready for some comforts now after a pretty gruelling day so we headed to the Irish bar (of course!) for food and beers all round. It was, as expected, a fairly tame night but catching up with everyone on their day was really nice and everyone experienced a really different race, ultimately ending in their own massive achievements! I was shocked, overwhelmed, delighted… all the emotions, as I really hadn’t set out for any great achievement, I was just in it for the jolly and adventure, so to bag first international lady was as much of a shock to me as everyone else.

The next day was a rest day in Namche Bazaar and of course a bit of retail therapy… AKA buying presents for friends and family, and myself. My legs today were pretty exhausted and sore but a few celebratory beers later helped ease the pain. That afternoon Bobby organised the worlds highest beer mile, Google ‘beer mile’ for details, but at 3000+ meters and sore legs there was no way I was going to survive this so I watched from the side line. The next day we had to walk 14 miles back to Lukla where we were going to catch our flight the following day back to Kathmandu. This was the hardest walk I have ever done. My legs two days after the marathon were the sorest they have ever been. Stepping down was the worst but in general the body was just exhausted. We plugged through and made it to Lukla but I was very happy to see a bed that night.

The walk back to Lukla really was exhausting after the past few days so curling up with this wee fella seemed like the best option.

The flights from Lukla go in small aeroplanes so we were split into 3 groups to get back. Due to poor weather conditions the 2nd and 3rd group unfortunately didn’t get back to Kathmandu that day. This included me, however that is the way the cookie crumbles and it was out of our hands. We pushed hard the next day to get on one of the first flights going and much to everybody’s delight, we got back… Woo Hoo! The hotel seemed so luxurious compared to when we first stayed there. A hot shower was welcomed by everyone and a change of clothes meant we all transformed from that grotty hiker back to clean holiday maker. All the men were suddenly clean shaven again, they were hardly recognisable! As we missed a day in Kathmandu due to flight delays we all rushed around getting some extra shopping (more yak blankets), had a few more celebratory beers (can they still be called celebratory beer by this point?) and headed back to the hotel for the presentation of our certificates. The food and celebration was great and it was nice to have one last night with everyone before we all went our separate ways the next day. One beer of course leads to another which apparently leads to drinking card games in the hotel rooms so our heads the next day were a bit worse for wear… When in Kathmandu!

fiona amaDablamSo the adventure comes to an end, and what an adventure it was. We all caught our various flights back home - a few kilos lighter for most people as inevitably when you spend time at altitude you lose weight. Some folk lost a stone, I only lost 4kg, which was enough that my trousers looked a bit silly on me! The last of us said our goodbyes at Heathrow airport, I blagged a lift to the Lakes District where I then jumped into a reindeer lorry going back home to the north of Scotland. 12 hours later from Heathrow and after walking the reindeer back onto the hill after their Christmas tour all my family and friends were there waiting to welcome me back. Dogs went mental having not seen me for 3.5 weeks and after two days travelling it was sooooo good to be back. Especially back into my own bed!

So although this amazing adventure has come to an end, I am left with the most incredible memories and lifelong friends. Already there are plans to visit folk and a reunion up here in Scotland later in the year. This of course has to be based around a race of some sort so the Dramathon (marathon around the whisky distilleries) seems like the most apt.

The Everest Marathon is a charity set up to help the people in rural Nepal. As runners we were asked to fundraise to take part in the race. Friends and family have been super generous, as well as adopters from our reindeer support scheme and the general public passing through the Reindeer Centre. I managed to raise £2,431.23, which is just amazing. THANK YOU all so, so much.

Fiona

Fundraising for CAN

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