THE ORIGINAL EVEREST MARATHON*
Regular OMM competitor and fell running doyenne, Wendy Dodds gives an insight into the World’s Highest Marathon
Combining 3 weeks of trekking and travel with one of the most scenic off-road marathons in the world, OEM has been wowing runners for over 30 years
*Please Note: The OEM is not in any way affiliated with OMM – Original Mountain Marathon!
Perhaps it is a quote from one of the 2019 runners that links the OEM with the OMM. When I asked him after the race how he found it, particularly the cold at the start (-15*C -compared with +15*C at the finish), he said that ‘After getting into wet clothes after a poor night’s sleep at an OMM and then going out into more rain on day 2, this was a doddle’. I am not sure that all runners would agree, but then most of them had not done an OMM!
The Everest Marathon is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest marathon in the world. It’s not just the race that is demanding: reaching the start line at 5184m, the original Everest Base Camp, is a challenge in itself.
It was first organised by Diana Penny-Sherpani in 1987 and she continued with this every 2 years (except from 1999-2004 when it was held every 18 months) until 2017.
For 2019, the 18th Everest Marathon, the organisation was taken over by Ali Bramall (first female to do a winter Bob Graham Round and previous organiser of the Lake District Mountain Trial) and it became the ‘Original Everest Marathon’.
The run goes across glacial moraine, down scree, along narrow tracks and wire suspension bridges, through rhododendron forest and along trails high above the river, to finish at the Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar at 3446m. Although there is a descent of 1738m it is by no means a ‘downhill’ race as there are numerous ups and downs.
Although there is a descent of 1738m it is by no means a ‘downhill’ race as there are numerous ups and downs.
The non-Nepalese participants meet in Kathmandu where there are 2 nights of luxury at the Hotel Shanker, when everyone has a chance to meet other runners, do last minute shopping, have medicals and reduce trekking luggage down to 10kg for the flight to Lukla. The departure to Lukla involves an early start to the airport but inexplicably includes a long wait before eventually flying out. A magnificent panorama is enjoyed before the ‘interesting’ uphill landing onto the short runway on arrival. The return flight is already anticipated as we watch the very rapid turn round of planes descending the runway, taking off over an abyss (this departure from Lukla airport can be found on Youtube for those interested)
To acclimatise safely and naturally, there is then a 15 day trek uphill to the start, with the opportunity of climbing Gokyo Ri (5357m) and Kala Patthar (5550m), or visiting the current Everest Base Camp. This follows the race route in reverse from Namche Bazaar, but there are two detours, spending 3 nights at Machermo, allowing visits to Gokyo and 2 nights at Dingboche (where there are 2 amazing cafes which not only had the best cakes on route -recommended by one of the doctors (!)- but also have afternoon film showings, which they switched at our request so that we could watch ‘Sherpa’) to aid acclimatisation and minimise problems with altitude.
The first day from Lukla to the overnight camp is relatively short allowing everyone to adapt to trekking before climbing to Namche Bazaar where 2 nights are spent. This allows short or longer outings to get initial views of Everest and final shopping to supplement kit.
To acclimatise safely and naturally, there is a then a 15 day trek uphill to the start
I was privileged to be one of 2 team leaders at the 2019 Original Everest Marathon. For logistical reasons (particularly camping, and eating) the group is loosely divided into teams mingling freely while trekking and running and the number of runners determines the number of teams. Two volunteer doctors are allocated to each team ensuring that any medical needs are appropriately looked after and that there is adequate safety on race day. There are also volunteer marshals who note intermediate times at checkpoints on race day, which are approximately 5-6km apart and provide refreshments.
Until Gorak Shep we stay in tents but this year it was much colder so there was a large exodus into lodges at Lobuche. Cooking is done by the team’s own ‘Cook Team’ to ensure adequate hygienic standards, but eaten in a lodge for comfort and warmth.
It is a truly international marathon with a record of participants from 16 countries in 2011 and the largest number of runners being 88 in 1997. As well as those trekking to the start at Gorak Shep, up to 20 Nepalese runners take part, going through the same medicals and kit check at Lobuche, the last habitation before Gorak Shep.
Nowadays the race is won by Nepalese runners though in the past the overall race records were held by non- Nepalese.
Jack Maitland held the men’s record of 3.59.04 from 1989-1999 and Anne Stentiford, 5.16.03, 1997-2007, Angela Mudge, 5.02 in 2007 and Anna Frost the women’s record of 4.35.01 from 2009-present.
In 2019 the first man was Suman Kulung in a new record of 3.39, first woman Rashila Tamang, 5.17, first non-Nepalese man Tom Gibbs, 5.23, first non-Nepalese woman Sabrina Verjee 6.51. Sabrina was obviously just using the OEM as ‘a warm up sprint’, going on to finish 1st woman and 5th overall in the Spine Race (Jan 2020) and explains why she regularly went off to do extra miles and altitude. OMM regular Barry Edwards also set a new V60 record of 6.37 and finished 2nd non-Nepalese man.
One runner was unable to start on account of illness, acting instead as a marshal at one of the check points; 3 started at Pheriche on account of illness and were able to complete a half marathon; a fourth runner was unable to complete the full course having started at Gorak Shep but managing more than a half marathon. It was only 2 of the Nepalese runners who were unable to reach the finish on account of injury, descending to the finish on horseback from Tengboche.
A night in a lodge (and a shower) in Namche Bazaar after the race was luxury. It was then generally downhill all the way to the final night’s camp before an easy day to a lodge in Lukla and a farewell meal before we left the Nepalese staff.
Next morning was an early start, with only a few tempted by breakfast, knowing about the downhill runway, before the return panoramic flight back to Kathmandu.
The return to the Shanker Hotel for 2 nights was another dose of luxury allowing everyone to get truly clean, fed and watered, with a final celebration awards evening where we were fortunate to have Mira Rai women’s winner in 2015 and now well known on the international mountain running circuit and Lakpa Phuti Sherpa from the Ministry of Tourism, speaking to us about their fascinating lives.
Well done to Ali, with a little help from Steve (Bramall), in keeping this marvellous race going and adding to the foundations built by Diana Penny-Sherpani.
The race will now be held annually with entries for 2020 already open, a perfect challenge for the new decade