What was I even thinking when I registered for the Everest Marathon?
At an altitude of 18200 ft, a mighty trek of 8 days across inhospitable terrain and temperatures reaching -10 degrees C, getting to the start point was challenge itself. Being partially sighted and nursing an old injury (broken cervical spine) didn’t help my cause either.
So, what did it for me?
Curiosity. I wanted to know how big a challenge this run was and did I have it in me to take this on.
An additional factor, I think is that I wanted to prove a point. We live in a world that does not necessarily understand or believe that a partially sighted ( or partially blind – depending on how you look at it ) person can go after his dreams and achieve everything that he wants to. Coming back from an injury that was nothing short of a miracle (nearly left me paralysed) acted as a catalyst.
So, with no prior experience of a trail run, trek or any high altitude exposure, I set a goal of completing the highest and probably one of the toughest marathons in the world.
What did I do first?
I thought that the most important part would be mentally preparing for this run. I gathered as much information as I could by talking to the organisers and one of the previous year’s participants. Knowing what you might have to deal with is always helpful in training your mind. I didn’t have a lot of time to train after I made the decision but I had a strong belief in myself and constantly kept reminding myself that I could do this and had to just focus on training both physically and mentally to overcome the challenges.
The hurdles that awaited me
- It’s not a run that lasts a few hours – it is a 2-week endurance event. You climb for 8 days to get to the start point of the marathon. Day 11 is the run day and the 9 days before that are by no means less challenging on the body and mind, given the harsh conditions. So I had to prepare to be on my feet for 6-10 hours every day for 14 days.
- Altitude – One of the biggest issues that people face is altitude sickness. Due to the fall in the percentage of oxygen levels, as we go higher, most people have various symptoms of altitude sickness ranging from mild headaches to severe breathlessness and nausea. A lot of people return from certain points while some others adapt and can manage it. Blood thinners like Diamox are usually taken to make it easier in these conditions. There is no real way to get used to this other than going to such altitudes. My hope was just to be fit so that my body copes with the lack of oxygen.
- Cold temperature – The temperatures can range anywhere between 10 degrees Celsius to -10 degree Celsius during the race and the trek. Carrying the right gear and mentally being prepared for this is a must.
- Terrain – The terrain comprises of ice, rocks, and gravel. There was no way I could train to run on ice but rocks and gravel, I did try and get a few runs in such areas. This was my biggest challenge given my low vision. I had to be slow and extremely careful not to injure my ankle or fall in this kind of trails.
- Food – This is also a very important factor. Getting used to the kind of food that will be available in the mountains. You must train your body to be able to endure the challenge while getting only basic rice and noodles as food. You can carry protein or nutrition bars but for two weeks, the body has to get used to the everyday food you eat.
I kept all these factors in mind and thought about them all the time to prepare myself. I did some other things that I think particularly helped me.
- I focused on strength training – 4 sessions a week for 5 weeks before the start of the trek. I believe that a strong body is capable of long endurance hours at a steady heart rate without actually having to put in those many hours of training.
- HIIT – 2 sessions of high-intensity interval training a week. These are my favourite sessions. Really quick 25-30 minute sessions that can leave you extremely exhausted. And it’s great to get your heart rate up at times so you get used to it and will be helpful on the excruciating terrain in the mountains.
- Resistance mask – I used a resistance mask for some of my runs and training sessions. I strongly recommend this to anyone who wants to run at higher altitudes.
- Of course, these are additional sessions apart from my running plan and mileage which also included running up and downstairs and mixing it up with some cycling and swimming.
Strategy to manage the run given my low vision
As the race date approached, I was feeling good about my body and my training but the only slightly disturbing thought was whether I will be able to find a guide for myself on a run like this. I didn’t want to write to the organisers as I feared they may not let me run. While this thought stayed on, I went about my training increasing intensity week after week.
At some point, I had to end this doubt, focus on my goal and figure it out as I go. And I did exactly that. I cleared my mind and all I could think was getting to those mountains!
Getting to the start point –
The trek starts from Lukla which is about 9300 feet above sea level and in the next 8 days we climb to reach about 18000 feet high to the Everest base camp (EBC) which is the starting point of the marathon.
The 8 days include two days of acclimatisation to the altitude and what we do is to climb higher on those days to a certain point and come back down to sleep at a lower altitude. This helps the body to gradually adapt to the lower oxygen levels at these heights. The climb on these days is generally quite slow and gradual but it takes its toll as you continue to do it every day for 8 days.
I had the help of a Sherpa and some other friends that I made who were part of a group that was doing the Everest base camp trek. They were great company and always ensured that I would navigate the rocks and surprises on the trail which I happened to sometimes miss given my low vision.
We arrived at the base camp two days before the race day to acclimatise to the high altitude and low temperatures that we would have to be prepared for on race day. The two days at the base camp are rest days and it’s a great chance to meet the other participants of the race. This year there were people from more than 30 countries! I still had a task to figure out a guide or someone who I could run with to ensure I could do the run safely without any incidents. I met a lot of other great runners but I was very hesitant to ask for help as I thought I might be putting someone in a spot and not letting them run their race. So then the strategy was to start the race and make sure to be with someone who might be around the same pace as mine and take it from there.
We started the race at 7 AM on the glacier at the base camp which is a very slippery surface. It’s one of the slowest sections of the race. Everyone was very slow in this part and so it wasn’t too difficult just to follow the other runners. It took about one hour to cross the glacier and reach a part which was not as slippery and comparatively flat. Most runners picked up the pace here and so I followed. The next one hour or so was slightly better in terms of the terrain and gradient. I just had to make sure that I was careful not to trip on smaller rocks or land wrongly which could result in an injury. This part was not too difficult with many runners to follow. It was only after about three hours at a steep downhill section, I realised that I needed some help and had to follow someone. I saw another runner just before beginning my descent and decided to follow.
I followed for an hour before I finally asked if she was ok with me trailing her and that I needed a little help given my low vision. She was very happy to help and I finally had a guide! Judie from the UK is a very strong and stable athlete and her plan was to keep moving at a constant pace. This worked well for me and stuck with her. We were soon joined by Annalisa also from the UK. So we were three of us together now! Judie and Annalisa understood what help I needed pretty well and were great guides making sure I stayed on track.
The steep downhills were the toughest parts according to me as they required more control and also because of the faster speed and momentum, the chances of a wrong landing were higher.
Our first target was to make it to the cut-off point which was at 32 km mark before 4 pm. This would ensure that we can continue beyond this point without having to stop for the day. The part just before reaching this point is a steep climb to the monastery where the checkpoint was.
We made it to this checkpoint by 3 pm. This was good for me also because this meant that we could finish the run before it got dark and my visibility would reduce further.
The last 10 kms of the race is probably the toughest because it has the steepest downhill of the race just after the checkpoint for 3kms followed by the steepest uphill of the race for 2kms. We took our time to finish these sections slowly and steadily. Once we were past this, the last 5 kms was mostly flat with a small downhill gradient. Now we had to just stay put for about an hour and we would be home!
It had just begun to get colder as the sun was setting and as we neared the finish line our jackets came on. I was carrying the Indian tricolour in my bag and had asked Judie and Annie to let me know a few mins before to get the flag out and cross the finish line holding it up high. At around 5:50 PM, the flag came out and I crossed the line holding the Indian flag proudly. It took me a total of 10 hrs and 57 mins to finish this crazy run!
At the finish line
It was finally over and I was relieved. It was very special just crossing the line and doing it with two wonderful people who helped me to the finish line was an extremely emotional moment for me.
Such experiences are great examples of why we can and should believe that everyone should take their chances and chase their dreams. The world is full of wonderful people and someone will always help you get to your destination.
I have never done anything to set a record but I realise that it could just be a starting point of a change in the thought process of many disabled people or even anyone who limit themselves. It makes me feel good that an Indian (myself) is the first-ever visually impaired runner to finish a tough race like this.
Your only limit is you.