Nepali Times Asian Paints
Running in the mountains


"Mother Nature will fix it," said Bikrum Pandey, president of the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon. "If you're fit, she'll get you up to Everest Base Camp and then if you're in good health, you'll join the marathon."

I wasn't so sure. I could just imagine Mother Nature getting me slowly up to Base Camp but not in a million years could I see her getting me to run the marathon back down again. One-hundred-and-six men and women, however, 20 of them foreigners, are clearly made of sterner stuff. And on Sunday, they triumphantly completed the world's highest marathon.

When you know the runners have set off more than four hours earlier, from the foot of the deadly Khumbu Icefall and you are waiting in a village as noisy and animated as Namche, the prospect of seeing the first runners appear is somehow thrilling. Tiny schoolchildren waiting in the big crowd on the finishing line pointed upwards at three or four figures that had just appeared on the side of the cleft in which Namche sits. They were walking, clearly breathless, uphill, still to tackle a final loop through Phurte before returning.

Meanwhile the Namche cheerleaders raised a deafening cacophony of welcome: cymbals, drums, horns sounding like conch-shells, funny megaphone noises and vocals whose main quality was enthusiasm. Waiting for the athletes to reappear, race director and coach Khadga Ranabhat spelt out for me the terrain the marathon crosses. Ice. Icefalls. Lots of up as well as down. Rivers, forests, rocks, all of them very "interesting". As for the altitude, despite taking medicine, Ranabhat cheerfully admitted to having returned from Base Camp "like an old man".

But Nepalis do cope with the altitude better than foreigners. The runners reappeared, running this time. The waiting crowds turned delirious. And 26-year-old Dangnima Sherpa repeated his 2004 feat and came in first, although at four hours 19 minutes considerably slower than last year. Bhim Rai, 20, was just 10 seconds behind.
Dangnima, grimacing, bent double, clenched the arms of a chair and soaked up the glory. One of the uphill bits was really tough, he said. "But," he grinned, "I was really happy with the encouragement and cheers I got from villagers along the way."

One-and-a-quarter hours and a stream of Nepalis later, in came the first-placed foreigner. Robert Celinski of Poland, 32, slightly built and pallid, sank to his knees, made the Catholic sign of the cross and kissed the ground in the manner of late Pope John Paul. Pronouncing Nepal a beautiful country, he admitted that running this marathon was a little mad. "My dream was to win this marathon and get the Nepali government to give me a passport," he said, straight-faced, "then I could represent Nepal at the Olympics."

Yangdi Sherpa was the first woman across the line. Erika Kugel of Germany won a special "fair play" prize for going back round the loop after mistakenly coming early to the finish.

As the day wore on, later finishers were awaited by thinning crowds and dependable doctors. Meanwhile, the Namche afternoon was broken by the ceaseless clinking of builders' tools making new lodges and by re-echoing rehearsals for a rock concert promoted by the Namche Youth Club in aid of peace.

Even with the downturn in general tourism, adventure tourism was holding steady, Bikrum Pandey said. The marathon's organisers wanted to send the world a message: that for those seeking adventure, "Nepal is a safe place, a fun place, an enjoyable place. People are equally friendly, nothing has changed in the mountains."

Those sentiments were echoed that night at the marathon awards ceremony. Tourists need to come, said the French and German ambassadors, both present as special guests. "This is a country people always want to revisit," said French Ambassador Michel Jolivet.

Later, the medals all distributed, you could see one of the reasons why. Mongolian Band (Nepali, actually) were on stage at the concert. They were singing and yelling their way through a litany of favourite numbers. Marathon returnees gyrated and cheered. Middle-aged Sherpa lodge ladies swayed. A clutch of Buddhist monks stood, stock-still, in the middle of it all. If anything, the sprinkling of foreigners-Poles, Germans, Spaniards-cheered even louder than the locals.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)