Running against all odds

By Rob Howard

The finish line was a dusty field where a log pile had been moved to allow the runners a clear access, the yaks had been chased off, and the home made banner flapping in the breeze said ‘Everest Marathon – Ending Point’. Yet those who ran towards it down the stone staircase on the narrow, crowded streets of the Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar didn’t care. They were nearing the end of an epic journey of endurance, and as they crossed the line a traditional silk greeting scarf and a very rare race medal were hung round their necks.

Their journey to the start line, close to Everest Base Camp at 17,000 feet, had begun almost 3 weeks before, and the only way to get there was a trek which was as much of a test as the race itself. In fact, getting to the start line in a fit condition was the principal aim of most.

runner1In 3 groups, supported by nearly 200 porters, cooks and Sherpa guides, they progressed through the foothills in daily stages, camping out, enjoying the scenery, bathing in the freezing mountain streams and coming to terms with an alien culture. Most found the heat and steep hills so tiring there was no thought of training runs, and there were dangers too. In drought conditions one group watched the hillside across the river from their camp go up in flames, while Sue Exon was bitten by a dog and evacuated by helicopter for precautionary rabies treatment. (Fortunately, she managed to get another flight back to rejoin the group.)

The main risk however, was the dreaded D&V (diarrhoea and vomiting) and the 10 strong medical team were kept busy fighting the local bugs and their effects. There were no rest days, so after a night of being violently ill there was no option but to grit your teeth and stagger over the hills. At home you would have been in bed. Most runners suffered at some time, some for several days, but at any one time the vast majority were healthy and enjoying the scenery, the cheerful company of the Nepalese people or visits to the brightly painted Buddhist monasteries. There were no phones to answer, nowhere to drive, no distractions and plenty of time to relax.

After 10 days everyone arrived at Namche Bazaar, where the race finishes. From here they would spend another 6 days trekking very slowly up the course. On the seventh day they would race back down. The reason for the slow progression was the risk of altitude sickness which can strike anyone and can be fatal. This was the wild card in the pack, as medical science is still unsure of the cause and there is no predicting who it will strike. The fittest, best prepared athlete could get headaches, dizziness and nausea and be sent back down. Everyone feared it might happen to them and they might never even reach the start line.

Even at only 11,400 feet at Namche Bazaar some took to their beds and lean super fit fell runners were out of breath after climbing the stairs. There would be a rest day every other day now to help gradual acclimatisation, and by the time they reached the start most would be able to safely cope breathing air with an oxygen content only 50% that at sea level.

Even before setting off again some were unlucky. Wayne Warren was hit a glancing blow on the head by a brick thrown from roof and Sean Brown severely sprained his ankle ligaments in a fall. Any GP in the UK would have recommended rest for at least a month but the 2 physios on the race worked hard with him every day and he took a stout stick, painkillers, and in the spirit of the Everest Marathon headed up into the world’s highest mountains. It’s not a race to come on if you are easily stopped.

The mountain scenery now was now so spectacular some runners were stopped in their tracks and tears filled their eyes at the wonder of it. The ambition to set eyes on Everest was as much a motivation as the race to many and the realisation of this dream a moment to treasure for a lifetime.

The 7 mile point at Pheriche (the route runs from right to left)
The 7 mile point at Pheriche (the route runs from right to left)

Dawn Kenwright had seen Everest before, winning the race in 1989 and since then had become diabetic. When diagnosed she told the doctors as soon as she was stabilised she was going running again, and she is still a Welsh international fell runner. “I have been planning to come back for some years” she said. “I thought if I could do this race again it would serve as an example to other diabetics and I have prepared carefully. I’ve run ultra events to see how I cope with being out for a long time and how to adjust my insulin injections, and I also won the Mount Everest Challenge Marathon, which is a much easier ridge run at a lower altitude, but it was useful to prepare for this. My main problem has been that I can’t eat a lot of the food and the huge temperature fluctuations make it difficult to store the insulin, but I would not have come unless I felt I could keep myself stable.” She spoke with quiet confidence despite the fact that if things went badly wrong the worst case scenario was coma and death.

Four days before the race she collapsed unconscious on the trail and was carried on a Sherpas back to a lodge for medical help, but it was a severe infection, not any problem with diabetes which laid her low. When she came round she found her doctor, Adrienne Garner, beside her, but as a patient. She was just being put onto IV fluids and Kenwright said, “When I saw the size of the needle I drank for all I was worth!” The pair recovered enough to move up slowly, and Kenwright never for a moment thought of giving in, but so close to the race her chances seemed slim.

At the final camp before moving up to the start everyone awoke to find the tents covered in a few inches of snow. Dot Hand had been up much of the night with a splitting headache and as the camp stirred she collapsed. A form of altitude sickness called Cerebral Oedema, which is a swelling of the brain, was quickly diagnosed. She was immediately placed in a portable pressure chamber to stabilise her and then carried down rapidly on the back of one Sherpa while another carried the oxygen cylinder from which she was breathing. It was a sudden and acute attack and this action probably saved her life.

At the same camp numbers were only issued after final medicals, a nerve wracking time, where failing a simple heel-toe test along a line drawn in the snow could be the end of all your hopes and dreams. Steve Barnard was one of the 5 runners (out of 72) who received the devastating news he had to go down.

The snow cleared and race day was fine. In sub-zero temperatures the runners set off across a rocky glacial moraine for the first 5 miles, then began to lose height as the day warmed up. Soon it was blisteringly hot and the dust was rising. After the Tengboche Monastery at the half way point the course dropped steeply before a strength sapping 2000 foot climb back up towards Namche Bazaar.

Here the finish came into sight, yet it was still a long way off. From Base Camp it is only 20 miles to the town and the exhausted runners looked down on the finish as they passed above, starting a 6 mile out-and-back loop along another valley.

First home was Nepal’s top athlete and the defending champion, Hari Roka, who broke the 10 year old race record, finishing in 3.56.10, 20 minutes ahead of the second runner. The highest Briton was fell runner Garry Wilkinson, who was 3rd in 4.38.42, but the most courageous performance was that of Dawn Kenwright. Not only did she make the start and complete the course, she won the ladies race, finishing 16th in 6.07.29. It was a performance of pure guts and one which won the race charity, which supports aid work in Nepal, £2000. Bookmakers William Hill sponsored her for a £200 bet giving her odds on being first lady veteran (5 to 1), in the top 3 (3 to 1), or to win the race. Typically, she bet on herself to win at 10 to 1.

Only 2 runners retired on the day from 67 starters and all those who were sent down ran part of the course. Fully recovered, Dot Hand ran with her friend Sue Millican from the aid station at the 9 mile mark, as did Steve Barnard. Some were ill on the day and struggled round as best they could, Sean Brown’s ankle held out and he finished, and Wayne Warren was content to be last in the world’s toughest and most inspirational marathon in 10.32.06.

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