The night before the race was spent in a large lodge at Gorak Shep & was in sharp contrast to the tent ‘ideal’ Dorina & I had been used to over the previous two weeks. Tomac who had crossed our path frequently despite being in the other team asked me to pair with him in a bunk. I was flattered but would soon learn why whilst Marcus seemed to think I’d be lodging with him. I’m a man of my word & so stuck with the Tomac option.
It was not a good nights sleep (where was my tent when I needed it) from the moment my head hit the pillow, creak, creak, creak. This modern lodge was basically a multi-story shed in which even if someone only thought about getting up for a pee the floors, walls & ceilings creaked. A lack of noise insulation meant that these creaks could come from several rooms away. This was added to by the wind picking up alarmingly during the middle of the night ‘are we going to race in that?’ presuming we weren’t blown away in the lodge beforehand. But the crème de la resistance was Tomac who certainly knew how to snore. Indeed I would find out over breakfast that this was a point of some renown in his teams camp, no wonder he’d sought out an un-suspecting me. Net result less than 2 Hours sleep did not help my pre-race nerves.
We were up before dawn at 6:00, a tight race start of 7:00 (for most) & 7:30 (for the ‘fasties’ & the Nepalese) was not helped by the dining area not being open but eventually breakfast was had & we stepped out into the -18C cold to watch the early starters get underway. I had chosen to start with the fasties, Marcus, Tom, Ben, Sabrina as well as the Nepalese who had arrived in camp sometime the day before. Having cheered the early starters on their way we headed straight back inside for some comparative warmth & awaited our turn.
At 7:20 it was time to brave the cold & head out towards the start which would give me the most memorable part of the entire race. I was dressed rather typically for the Westerners in my race gear of:-
Trail shoes & socks, Long leggings & shorts, Long sleeved base layer, Eryri running vest, Light weight waterproof top, Down Jacket, Buff (neck), Warm hat, Running gloves with all in finger mitts & Down Mittens. Add to this I also wore my Down Belay Jacket & Heavy Waterproof trousers which I would dispose of one minute before the start. Naturally with all this kit I was absolutely freezing!
We lined up ‘where are the other Nepalese Lakpa?’ called the starter (Simon), Lakpa soon trotted off to call them from their lodge (obviously hiding from the cold), one minute later approximately 15 Nepalese including a sprinkling of women came trotting over to join us. Several were in no more than a T Shirt & Shorts showing thigh muscles that had me drooling icycles with envy. The ‘fast’ Westerners simply looked at each other with smiles of wonder, what a moment to share. I then decided to man up & took off my Belay Jacket & Waterproof trousers, forgot about my frozen feet (temporarily, it would take more than two hours running for them to come back to life) ‘this start is going to be fun!’
We were off, in reality the Nepalese were off & we followed or more accurately they sprinted, we jogged ‘run your own race Paul, remember’. Well I did run back across the sandy plain & then began walking up the Rocky Moraine as planned. Now when you are in a race & then overtaken by a Porter going about his daily business carrying a heavy load you do begin to question yourself. To my credit I did overtake him again soon after but it did somewhat spell out the differences in class when it comes to dealing with energy at this altitude (5,200 metres or thereabouts).
Soon a race rapport developed between Ben & me as I believed us to be the last of the pack. We chopped & changed places, he would surge past (relative term between his & my pace only) on the flats & downs coping with technical terrain better than me whilst I would pull him in on the climbs & eek out a small lead. Of course the race has more downs (3,000 metres) than ups (1,200 metres) so keeping up with Ben was going to be a bit of an ask but I would try. As for the Nepalese they were long gone & I wouldn’t see most of them again until the finish.
Ben & I reached the first check point at Lobuche in a faster time than I’d expected & soon afterwards began to pick off the first of the early starters, that felt a bit better. From here to check point two (Dughla) Ben led me all the way but a climb allowed me to briefly close the gap & at least keep him in sight, we were now passing earlier starters reasonably regularly & gave/received cheers of encouragement as we did so. A technical Moraine (caused by the 2015 Eathquake) saw Ben stop (food, removing clothing or some sort) allowing me to pass & we ran closer together for a while until across a technical valley floor leading to check point 3 & Dorina at Pheriche saw Ben surge forward again. Using more energy than I’d intended I narrowed the gap as we entered the village only to allow it to open again as I stopped to receive a coke from Dorina. I used this time to look at Dorina’s log of other runners & got a wake up call, the two O.60’s Barry’s in the early ‘slow’ group were ‘race’ time one minute ahead of us!
I caught & passed Ben early on the next steep climb allowing yet another chat & indeed it may have been during this one that he mentioned Sabrina was behind us. I kept my thoughts to myself as they were simply ‘Ben must have altitude sickness to be thinking that!’
Another look at the Sherpa Marshall’s log at check point 4 (Pangboche), did the maths ‘shit the two Barry’s are now 10 minutes ahead, their going away from us’.
As we descended further it got harder to hang onto Ben but at least I now knew he didn’t have altitude sickness as Sabrina (Ben’s real life partner, soon to be Wife & runner up on the last Dragon’s Back race) had overtaken us both shortly after CP4 grumbling something like ‘this race doesn’t suit me’.
Before the long climb to Tengboche I took my first & only serious trip shortly after passing one of our team doctors David, a usual loss of concentration habit, several pumps of the legs just avoided a painful hitting of the deck as the supporting words of David ‘that was a close one’ rang in my ears. Thankfully it was my only near miss my race was run without a fall from start to finish.
The Tengboche climb was a turning point for the Ben & Paul mini race. Ben for the first time really seemed to be struggling as I re-passed him thinking ‘I’m going to have to stick into this one to see if I can properly shake him off’ as non-competively as ever. So I did & even began to re-close the gap on Sabrina, well a little bit at least.
I reached CP5 at Tengboche having dropped Ben but needed to drink the juice on offer. With the exception of a single jelly of Shot I had not eaten a thing by this race halfway point in well over 3 hours. To be honest I didn’t feel like I could eat anything (& didn’t the whole race) despite carrying several ‘nutritious goodies’ throughout the race so by now my only hope of survival were these juices or cokes at the feed stations. This inability to feed was being compounded by the fact that I wasn’t carrying any drink bottles so had none of my normal Electrolites on tap, this simply because I hadn’t packed the bottles in my final trek bag from Namche. NB. Several days later when back in Kathmandu I found the said missing bottles, yes you’ve guessed, in my final trekking bag!! Race nerves & old age combined to make this calamitous but serious mistake.
Moving into the second half of the race my mojo began to improve, despite soon losing the sight of Sabrina & also Mel (an early starter) on the long steep descent to Phungi Thanga I knew that only one major climb stood ahead & it was one I’d already practiced with Dorina on one of our earlier outings, it would hurt but led to easier ground. Add to this I stayed on my feet during this descent & was than caught & photographed by Keith (one of the race organiser’s who could easily have been in the race & doing very well). My euphoria continued as I ran onto the long cable bridge at the foot of the descent & ran with gay abandon across it until nearing the other side I realised my mistake. I had entered the bridge not taking the time to look to the far side so failed to realise a Shepherd & his Yak train were entering the bridge from the opposite end. Now as those of you who know Nepalese bridges & Nepalese Yaks will understand there is no room for anything else to pass. Keith came to my aid tackling the Yaks life threatening horns whilst I did my Mohammed Ali Impression of ‘rope adope’ & somehow found a way past. Thankfully the Shepherd had more foresight & having seen an Eryri vested kamikaze runner approaching decided to stop the other dozen or so of his Yaks from entering the bridge until after either I died or got to the other side. Yes I did take the time to thank him before I ran on with dented pride.
Next the climb, it was hard but I re-caught Mel & passed another of the early starters, these motivations eased the pain as the height gained. Once the ground eased I ran & fast walked into CP6 passing another two early starters as I did so. One of these, who is clearly a good runner, was sat on a wall looking pretty distressed but his mate waiting for him at CP6 would help him through the bad patch & he finished in better form than he could have believed at this low point.
Now the ‘easy’ running was upon me, flat or downhill all the way to Namche before the 6 mile out & back ‘loop’ to Thamo would lead me to the finish. In truth it wasn’t exactly easy or upwardly hill-less so some walking was still a must despite the lower altitude (3,550 metres). However the occasional look back to see that some of those I’d passed were running kept me moving forward with a fair degree of motivation & effort.
Namche finally came into view as did CP7, two good cups of juice, ‘you’re going to complete this thing now, just run it in’. Early on the Thamo loop Marcus came past the other way, his race nearly over, a high five & smiles. Next Barry 1 & then Barry 2, I congratulated them on excellent runs & then did the maths, they were well ahead of me so don’t worry about it. Then Sabrina (obviously ahead of me on race time), next Alys, Richard (my Everest B.C. companion) & soon after Adam (O.50) I again did the Maths & thought I at least had a chance of beating Adam but it was going to be a hard 4 miles to do so. At Thamo a final juice from the smiling Sherpa Marshalls at CP8, a final 3 miles with two reasonably significantly hills & a few minor ones before the final joyous descent to the finish in Namche.
On this return I would see some familiar faces as other runners I’d passed were on their own way down to Thamo.
Astrid who’d I passed on our way to Thamo clearly got a final wind & caught me on the final descent but had the initial grace to tag in behind me as we turned the final bend. We were then stopped in our track to let a Mule train pass the other way before I gracefully (or was it that I didn’t want a sprint finish) called her through & she led me into the finish line to cheers from an array of earlier finishers, organisers & our Nepalese support team.
Still struggling to eat it was coke, coke & more coke, glinting eye exchanges with other runners to the ringing chant of our Khumbu Coughs. Hopefully we were fitter than we sounded. Getting post run cold is easier than normal at this altitude, layers that had come off during the race were put back on but within an hour the inevitable dragging of feet to Dorina’s & my room soon saw me bury myself under the duvet from head to toe & shiver myself to a restful sleep. Dorina would find me there an hour or so later having walked her own 13 miles from Pheriche, her story told by me is much shorter than my story told by me so here goes:-
After waiting for the last of the fasties to come past her Check Point Dorina set off in the company of her fellow Marshalls & then at subsequent CP’s stopped to talk to other Marshalls. She could do this because she actually overtook two runners who had pulled out of the Marathon & had been given the option of doing a Half Marathon starting at Dorina’s CP & finishing at Namche (with no Thamo loop). These two runners (although to be fair I think one repeatedly waited for her friend) had set off over 2 hours ahead of Dorina & yet she not only over took them but talked to Marshalls at CP 5 & 6 & still arrived in Namche to ‘win’ the Half Marathon distance if not the Half Marathon ‘race’. Now who was it in the Whippets who first said ‘Dorina why aren’t you running’, Astrid maybe?
My time for the Marathon was 7:05, sounds slow but on a par with my expectations, I did win the O.50’s (beating Adam by just 5 minutes) & placed 7th out of the Westerners. Of course I should salute both of the O.60’s Barry’s who’d been good company throughout the trip. Barry 1 (who’d shadowed me on the way up to Tengboche several days before) came a superb 3rd overall & smashed the O.60’s record with Barry 2 (an also superb 4th overall a few minutes behind still well below the old record. Tom won the Men’s race in circa 5:20 with Marcus second in circa 5:35 (Marcus has won both the Dragons Back & Cape Wraith race, so you get some idea of how well Tom did. Sabrina won the Women’s race in circa 6:45 (& has just gone on to win the Spine Race) with Alys 2nd some 5 minutes ahead of me & 6th overall. Some days later O.60’s Richard & I finally found out who was fastest between us, it went to me by a minute, we smiled & put arms around each other as Dorina took our photo to my words ‘what’s in a minute’ (think I might have been holding up one finger, but possibly not as I’m a non-competitive kind of guy).
So what of the Nepalese I hear you say. Well I did overtake two rather fit looking Males at Tengboche which made me feel good only to find out days later that they had both taken tumbles & had badly sprained ankles, they had the hobbles to back their stories up. I also overtook a Female on my return from Thamo, this was a genuine overtaking manoeuvre of which I am going to make the most of for a while to come. However in general the Nepalese did give us the run away with their race winner breaking the previous race record by one minute, under 5 hours? YES. Under 4 Hours? YES. What then? 3 Hours 38 Minutes! WHAT, quite simply remarkable.
Too many thanks to everyone involved but to single out three, Pema, Ben for his company during ‘our’ race & of course that non-runner & Angel, Dorina. We have both struggled with life back in the real world since but hey we experienced it all together & are getting there.