It was a dream come true for Dipak Raj Rai when he touched the finishing line setting a new record in the race billed as the world's highest altitude marathon.
"I have participated in three long distance races in the past and that experience helped. I've learnt that one should pay attention to time rather than just running to beat fellow competitors. That gave me an edge," the 24-year-old said soon after winning the third Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon.
Rai completed the 42.2 km race in 3:28:27 almost an hour faster than the 4:19:17 clocked by 2005 winner Dangima Sherpa. "I didn't think I would win. But soon after the race started I realised I'd be the winner," said the farmer from Gundel, Solukhumbu, who dominated the race from the start.
Rai took home a cash prize of Rs 50,000 while the second and third place finishers won Rs 25,000 and Rs 15,000 respectively.
The race, one of the toughest in the world, starts at Everest Base Camp (5,364 m) and ends at Namche Bazaar (3,440 m). Its route criss-crosses ice falls, glaciers and moraines, following the Highland Sherpa trails of the Khumbu Valley, which Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary climbed during their historical ascent on 19 May 1953.
"In areas closer to the Base Camp, we had to use our judgment as we had to cover tricky terrain such as glaciers and icefalls," said Karma Sarki Sherpa, a 20-year-old yak herder who came second in 3:35:39.
"The race was tough," added Lok Bahadur Rokaya, 22, who finished third in 3:39:46. The armed police force man is a middle distance runner who participated in the high altitude marathon for the first time.
Tom Perkins (6:01:24), Tris Kelly (6:11:21) and Ryan Miller (6:17:21) came first, second and third respectively among foreign entrants. They pocketed Rs 25,000, Rs 15,000 and Rs 10,000.
"The marathon is the ultimate challenge for sports and adventure lovers," said Bikrum Pandey, chairman of the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon organising committee. "The runners endure harsh weather and even altitude sickness during the run."
A total of 140 Nepalis and foreigners ran the race held to commemorate the 53rd anniversary of the first ascent on Mt Everest. "With the increase in the flow of tourists, next year's race is going to be a real big event. Nepal is going to be a happening place," predicted Pandey.
The race organisers are also hosting the Lhasa marathon in Tibet in September. It will kick off at Potala Palace and wind past various heritage sites in Tibet.
Money for school
A 35-year-old mother of three, Ang Domi Sherpa, surprised everyone by winning the women's category in 5:06:55. "I took part in the race for name and fame. But I hadn't thought that I would win," said Sherpa whose eldest son is 18. Her second son is a monk while her daughter goes to school.
Sherpa, who runs a teashop in Thame, pocketed Rs 25,000 for the win. "I'll spend the money on my children's education," she said. The second and third place women finishers won Rs 15,000 and Rs 10,000 respectively.
"I'll run and try to win the race next year as well," predicted the top finisher, who participated in the Namche-to-Thame Sky Race as a warm-up for the marathon.