Teresa met Darryl Houghtelling last September at the Gorgeous Relay and, thanks to Facebook, has been able to stay in touch. This man is an inspiration in so many ways. He’s probably one of the most tenacious and supportive runners she’s ever met. Most runners dream of qualifying for Boston or running the New York City Marathon, Darryl sets his sights even higher, literally. He completed the world’s highest trail marathon last month and was nice enough to share his experience with us here at Run Oregon.
04:45: I was woken up by Sherpas as they handed us our morning hot washrag – time for a quick packing of bags and take our gear downstairs for the yak train to take it to Namche while we run. Daily porridge and hot tea is served while we all wait to meet at the start line. Its -4 degrees out on a beautiful, crisp clear morning in Gorka Shep, an area nearing 17,000 feet elevation near the Everest base camp. The starting line is an old dried lake bed of sand underneath Kalapather next to the massive Kumbu glacier iceflow. The previous day we were given final medical evaluations to receive our race numbers and check in our gear and backpacks at the start. The 30 of us international runners all had oxygen saturation levels of between 75 & 85% at this high altitude, while the 25 local Nepali and Sherpa runners were around 95-98%. (Mine was 81% and 54 pulse). We also had to endure a practice race start and photo shoot for a BBC crew doing a race documentary following a local Nepali woman who’s won this race previously and is coming back after the earthquake.
Jumping up and down awaiting the 06:30 start we were short 10 runners and had to wait an addition 3 minutes as Nepalese runners were sprinting in shorts, mind you, from their lodge. The gun went off and all the local runners took off like a bolt and sprinted through the sand to an uphill rocky boulder, the first 2k of the course. We international runners followed at a more reasonable speed, but I still felt like I might pass out and desperately was needing a third lung. I knew it would not be easy, but was honestly surprised at how labored my breathing was during the first two miles.
After coming out of the boulder field, I settled into a rhythm and reached the 3-mile checkpoint in good shape – no twisted ankles and lungs still intact. Slowly dropping altitude the next 2 miles, I stayed in a comfortable group with a tough young female sergeant from the British Army and an accomplished Danish triathlete who races Ironman triathlons, but was attempting his first trail marathon. At the 5-mile checkpoint I had crept ahead of these two and, in fine patented fashion, I wandered off on the wrong trail heading up on a ridgeline. People were shouting at me from below, but I assumed they were cheering. In actuality, they were yelling at me to come down to the correct path.
After finally realizing my error, I scrambled down and the next 3 miles had to get my position back, which I did, along with young Ben from Sydney, Australia. Ben ran with huge loping “daddy-long-legs” down hills, but slowed considerably on flats. By the mile 9 checkpoint we had dropped 2,000 feet and Louise, my French woman friend, caught me (she’s run an impressive 2:51 marathon). We ran together gently downhill to mile 12, warning each other of ice and yak trains on the trail.
The weather was now warmer and we were down to 11,500 feet and breathing was normal. We were acclimated from the three weeks of trekking and climbing that led up to the marathon. Miles 13-14 included a huge, steep, rude hill up to the monastery where my group leader was waiting at the checkpoint aid station with apple crisp pie and Mars bars. I had lost little Louise and was stuck for next hour in no-mans-land after the apple pie.
A massive downhill from the monastery commenced for probably 1.5 miles and we had to be careful so we didn’t fall or plummet down the cliff, all the while dodging trekkers, porters, and yaks. At the bottom of the hill, we crossed a line suspension bridge over a beautiful wild river gorge and then the pain truly began as we commenced to slog up a 2.5 mile hill to the mile 17.5 aid station.
I received a hug, mango juice, and a granola bar from Nikki there and headed around the mountain towards Namche Bazar, complete with amazingly clear views of the Himalayas. The view lasted this entire stretch, along a cliff-ridden, ancient trail. Between miles 2 through 20, I had only seen other international runners. This was sort of an unfair race, like when Kenya takes on America in cross-country.
Reaching the checkpoint at mile 20, we only had a 6-mile out and back loop left from Namche. Somehow I got lost leaving town and ended up in an old woman’s backyard. She didn’t speak English, but pointed me to go up above a helipad to the trail. I ended up on a yak path well above the race trail as I saw runners far below me a kilometer later. I started to scramble back down, dangerously, and finally made it to the correct trail. I lost about 15-20 minutes in the process.
As I hit the final checkpoint and turnaround with 3 miles to go, I discovered I was 10 minutes behind T.K, the young fast American from Manhattan. If I wanted to be the first American, I would have to suck it up and get a move on up the hilly last two miles towards town and a final mile decent into town. Getting high-fives from our trekking friends as I passed them in that loop, I caught him with a kilometer to go and didn’t look back as I finished the most scenic and hardest marathon anyone could think of. What a great experience.