The morning of the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, I woke up freezing in my tent, just as the sun was rising. The night sky hung on the mountains, which glowed with midnight blue. As the golden sun rose behind them, light was cast on their outer edges. The contrast between dark and light, blue and gold, was breathtaking.
Although I was miserable after two nearly sleepless nights in an extreme environment, the sight of the Himalayas reinvigorated me. I headed up to the breakfast area for tea and to warm up a bit. It was still freezing cold, so I was nervous it would be a rough start.
As we lined up for the race, the clouds moved away and revealed the sun, which was beating straight down. It felt fantastic at first, but quickly started to burn. I shed my jacket and sweat pants at the last minute, knowing I’d heat up quickly once I started running. Then at 8 a.m., the other racers and I set out on our 26.2-mile journey down the highest mountain in the world. Our destination was Namche Bazaar, a small village thousands of feet below.
Right away, I realized how challenging the race would be. I was running along a thin, snowy path with a drop-off to my left and a steep gravel hill to my right. I had to watch my step while keeping one eye uphill because stones would break loose, roll down the gravel, bounce into the air, and careen across my path. I felt like I was in a video game dodging oncoming rocks while jumping over obstacles on the ground. But even as I was engrossed in this exercise, I looked out at the Himalayas standing vividly against the bluebird sky. I could see every detail of the mountains, every valley and every ridge as if it were right before my eyes. The beauty made the danger seem inconsequential.
A bit later on, I found myself alone running along one of many dirt paths making the steep, grassy hillside traversable. I felt a deep sense of freedom and playfulness, choosing my path through an open expanse of raw wilderness. I was doing what I love most: running and exploring. I passed a few stone houses and then ran along a cliff. Far, far below me, a train of yaks was being driven through a riverbed up the mountain. The scale of the Himalayas truly hit me at that point—the yaks looked as small as ants! For the next few miles, I felt invisible to the world, lost in a sea of mighty behemoths. I somehow ended up in a villager’s backyard and had to climb over a cobblestone fence to get back on the right path.
Then I hit a giant hill-climb up to the highest monastery in the world, Tengboche. The grade of the climb was challenging in its own right, but the altitude, still upwards of 15,000 feet, made the climb nearly unbearable. With no better option, I put my head down and slogged up the hill. The climb was so exhausting I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath. Meanwhile, the few Nepalese runners still behind passed me by. They seemed to have no problem with the thin air and took the hill on as if it were at sea level. After 30 minutes, I reached Tengboche, where race volunteers waited to greet me with water and snacks before sending me on my way.
After Tengboche came a long downhill section. I enjoy running downhill and was in heaven as I ran down a section of narrow dirt switchbacks, especially when there were logs and boulders in my path. I love when you have to focus on the path ahead so intently you lose track of time. It’s the ultimate state of flow when you know that you’ll fall on your face if you don’t stay alert. One obstacle I did not expect, though, was a train of yaks coming right towards me on a single-track trail. The train was long and yaks are slow, so I tried to run around them, but there was a steep cliff on my left and a sheer rock face to my right. I stood frozen for a moment, not knowing what to do. Then I saw a small ledge to my right and came up with a plan. I jumped up on the ledge and then leaped down between two yaks. I jumped onto the ledge again, advancing forward, and then down between the next set of yaks. Twelve yaks later, I was on my way again.
Once past the switchbacks, I encountered a gigantic gravel hill that was treacherously steep. The rocks were just big enough I found I could hop from rock to rock and not lose too much time. Eventually, I reached the end of the descent, crossed an icy blue river, and then looked up to find a terrifying sight. A mountainside of switchbacks rose almost straight up to the sky before me. This is going to hurt, I thought. The altitude left me feeling powerless against the mountain. As I feebly stepped one foot in front of the other, I grew hungrier and hungrier. Trying to conserve my limited food, I hadn’t been eating enough. Now that I was near the 17-mile mark, I indulged in a peanut butter PowerBar. The nearly-frozen bar kept me distracted as I continued making slow progress upwards. It was like trying to bite into a rock.
After an hour, I started praying for the climb to end. My stomach was growling and my attitude took a turn for the worse. I wanted to do anything other than climb another step, but the climbing continued. Two of my friends passed me – big German guys – and we walked together a while. This brightened my mood, but not by much. We were nearing a town where we expected the path to turn downhill. They offered me some cashews and told me to keep up with them for the descent. I was too fatigued, though, I told them to go ahead. I had nearly 21 miles behind me, but the end still seemed infinitely far away.
When I reached a turn in the path and saw the course turn back uphill, I felt mentally defeated for the first time in my racing life. I kept thinking, I don’t want to walk uphill anymore. I don’t want to walk uphill anymore. I kept moving each foot forward in sequence, as if on auto-pilot, but had lost any sense of urgency to reach the finish line. I just wanted to get through it.
When I crested the final hill, I pulled my head back into the game just enough to push on towards the end. I could finally see Namche Bazaar – the finish line – in the distance! I hit that moment in a race when you realize without a doubt you will make it. My pace picked up as I ran downhill, faster and faster. After reaching the base, I descended a short set of stairs, ran across a grassy helicopter landing field, then saw a crowd of cheering onlookers standing by the ribbon. I crossed the finish line with a time of seven-and-a-half hours, third amongst foreign female runners, yet far behind the locals. I was hungry, tired, sun burnt, and all sorts of uncomfortable, but the sense of achievement and gratitude my life had taken this turn felt fantastic.