The previous night’s snowfall and dense fog obscured the panorama surrounding our huddled mass. Were it not for our fleece caps, numbers pinned on bright windbreakers and running shoes, our shivering group could just as easily have been waiting for a morning train. We anxiously awaited the start of our journey down the mountain, shouting our race numbers at the marshal conducting roll call. A few hours earlier and 10,000 feet above, a dozen climbers started in the opposite direction for the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth.
Several years ago a friend convinced me to try the Chicago Marathon. What started on tree-lined boulevards eventually led me across Arctic tundra, through French vineyards, along African shantytowns and over glaciers in Antarctica. The joy of connecting with interesting people in wondrous places, combined with a self-indulgent “runners high,” had me hooked on marathons. I spent all my vacation time, money and countless hours of training toward a goal of running one on each of the seven continents.
As the starter shouted “GO!” 50 fearless runners bounded down the glacier. Like most of the other runners, I made it less than 100 yards before nearly collapsing, gasping for air, my head throbbing, heart pounding. An elevation of 17,000 feet, subzero temperatures, snow-covered boulders the size of cars and solid ice made walking a better strategy. Completely acclimatized to the elevation and terrain, the Nepali runners, meanwhile, disappeared gracefully into the freezing mist. Several miles down the mountain, I approached a boulder-strewn field dotted with stone cairns, connected by strings of colorful Buddhist prayer flags. These memorials had inscriptions eulogizing young and adventurous souls who perished attempting to summit the world’s highest peaks. A chill way beyond freezing shot through me as I was struck by the awesome power and danger of this high sanctuary.
The group came from all over the world — a deep-sea cable repairman from Portugal, oil platform operator from Great Britain, a postman from Scotland, a kayaking guide from New Zealand, and me, an environmental engineer from Chicago. We came to the Himalayas to trek through sheer, rocky glaciers and summit peaks with names like Gokyo Ri and Kala Pattar. Maoist insurgents had destabilized the region and hampered our progress, but the group’s incredible spirit and cleverness overcame all obstacles. We shared everything from tents and utensils to laughs and dreams in the weeks leading up to the day we’d race each other 26.2 miles down from the Mount Everest Base Camp.
The sun rose over jagged ridges as we descended through the Khumbu Glacier, which looks like a gigantic, elevated expressway of rocks. The sounds of buckling ice, distant avalanches, rockslides and glacial streams accompanied the rhythm of feet skidding and scratching along the trail. “Running” the Everest Marathon is a bit of an overstatement; it was more like a continuous series of slips, trips and falls. We used our hands, elbows, knees and sometimes cheeks to navigate the steep, slippery yak trails. Tiny villages offered tea shops serving hot tea and candy to weary trekkers, who shook their heads in disbelief as we strode past.
Below 14,000 feet, ice and boulders were replaced with dust and porters, some carrying almost 100 pounds of lumber or bricks balanced on their backs. The footpath tracked sheer cliffs overlooking rhododendron forests blooming brilliantly with pink and white flowers. It crisscrossed the Dudh Kosi river gorge on swaying footbridges suspended by thin cables over the rushing torrent hundreds of feet below. School children passed by (some going in the same direction!), introducing themselves in perfect English and firing off questions. As I approached the finish line, dozens ran alongside me, excitedly shouting and waving their arms. As they turned around to run back out to meet the next runner, I laughed — they were obviously hooked on the energy of the marathon as well.
Paul Ruesch is an environmental engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 5. Everest was his 10th marathon; in April he plans to run in the North Pole Marathon.