The Everest Marathon in Nepal is not a road race sponsored by that well-known window company, but a gruelling 26.2 mile race through the mountains below Everest and is featured in the Guinness Book of Records as ‘the highest marathon in the world’. The race starts just below Everest base camp at 5184m and finishes in the Sherpa ‘capital’ of Namche Bazaar at 3446m. Experience of mountain or fell running is essential in order to be offered a place. The first race was held in 1987 and the ninth race in May 2002.
Normally the field is limited to 75 non-Nepalese runners but a number of events in 2001 resulted in a very low number this year. First of all, foot and mouth disease meant that UK runners could not train or race last year, so the number of UK applicants was very low. The massacre of the Nepalese royal family in June and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in September were followed in October by the violent activities of Maoist guerrillas in Nepal. A high number of people withdrew their applications.
In the event there were no security problems whatsoever but there were only 50 runners: 31 ‘foreigners’ from 12 different countries and 19 Nepalese who swept the field. Of the first 20 runners, 17 were Nepalese. A far cry from the early years when the only Nepalese runners were trekking staff who were on kitchen duties before and after the race! The Nepalese have at last discovered the benefits of training!
The winner was Pasang Temba Sherpa in 3.59.37, one second ahead of his rival, Nah Bahadur Shah. Elite runner Mark Hartell from Cheshire came in fourth. First lady was Claire Sykes from New Zealand in 6.26.50; first veteran (40+) was Dean Sewell from Edinburgh; second lady and first lady veteran was Ivone Souza Silva from Brazil.
Normally there is a 2 week trek from the roadhead at Jiri to the start line at Gorak Shep, just below Everest base camp. This year it was considered safer (because of the Maoist guerrillas) to fly into the air strip at Lukla, thus giving an extra week in the high mountains for training and acclimatisation in the Gokyo valley. This proved to be a successful move with fewer people suffering the symptoms of altitude sickness.
May was expected to be a hot month, with dehydration being a greater problem than altitude sickness. But there were frequent pre-monsoon showers and even snow on one day. At high altitude night-time temperatures in autumn races have fallen to as low as -20°C; this year it was a mere -5°. The wild flowers and flowering shrubs were in full bloom, the birds were all busy building nests and the potatoes growing rapidly in the terraced fields.