The ETR is one of the world’s toughest high-altitude ultra-marathons. It’s a 6 day multi-stage, semi-sufficient race covering 160 Kilometres (100miles) of trails in the remote Solukhumbu region of Nepal where athletes are required to carry all they need with the exception of food for meals and a tent. The race retraces parts of the route taken by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in their expeditions to became the first climbers to stand on top of the world.
Having arrived in Kathmandu early Monday morning, we were greeted by the race organisers and immediately briefed about the next few days leading up the race start on Thursday. The first few days gave us an opportunity to get to know our fellow athletes, understand each others preparations, question our own decisions and kit choices, and shop for any last minute purchases on the bustling streets of Thamel where you could buy every item of outdoor equipment imaginable... some more genuine than others. Kathmandu is vibrant and chaotic. The air is thick with dust, and in reality, while we all enjoyed the sights and sounds, we were being very careful in what we drank and what we ate as the race start approached.
On Tuesday we were taken on a morning tour of Kathmandu Valley including Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple) and Pata Durbar Square but the sightseeing would be short lived as once back at the Hotel it was time for mandatory kit check and weigh in. At this point we had to say goodbye to all our home comforts as any kit we would not be carrying during the race would be put into storage. We would be spending that evening in the hotel, race briefing and our onward bus journey to Jiri for the race start in the kit we would race in.
After many last minute deliberations, my bag weighed in at 4.8kg. I was happy to opt for comfort and carried a few items which I guess would be considered a luxury including a second down jacket, down tent shoes, a battery pack to charge my watch/camera and a full change of kit as I had no idea how comfortable my race jersey would be with it only being delivered the day before departure. I had packed my bag weeks before so was pretty content with the weight and knew it could be packed easily... Unlike my roommate for the trip and my newly recruited team mate Marc! Marc is an MDS veteran but also an exuberant 24 year old who came some what unprepared. After an hour of watching him struggle to pack his race bag and toss out any spare layer he was planning on taking, he finally took his pile of gear (unpacked) to weigh in. I think the average pack weight amongst the front runners was around 4 - 4.5kg, but there were a few weight weenies hitting close to the 3.5kg minimum. The race team could do a spot check on packs at any point of the race to ensure you were not under the minimum weight or had discarded kit into the environment, which would lead to disqualification. Our warm layers (sleeping bags and down jackets) were weighed separately to ensure we weren't taking any risks when it came to keeping warm at night.
After the race briefing which only went on to increase the feelings of trepidation within the camp, it was an early night and an early start for our onward journey to Jiri. Tales of just how terrible the next 9 hours of our lives would be filled the camp, motion sickness tablets being popped left right and centre. The reality was a fairly scenic, if not bumpy and certainly thrilling journey through the hills. We only had one crash (small bump) and blame was established and quickly resolved (it wasn't) by the crowd that quickly formed as we completely blocked the mountain side road. Welcome to Nepal!
Arriving in Jiri, we were welcomed by a few locals and made our way down to camp. The camps were amazingly organised with a huge dining tent, toilet tents (hole in ground), showers (bucket of cold water), medical and race organisers tents.
From here on I have included a few videos to try and give you an insight into the race, my daily thoughts, and well... suffering and general decline as the physical and mental effort began to take its toll. Each is no longer than 3mins, not the best of quality, but certainly informative if you are interested in the emotions and challenges of racing for 6 days.
ETR - STAGE 1
On the morning of each stage we'd be woken at 5.30am by a Sherpa who would offer a hot cup of tea to wake us up. Breakfast was available from 6am, usually a mix of potatoes, cereals, bread and eggs. Mandatory water and nutrition for the stage (1 litre of water / 3x gels / 1 or 2 energy bars) had to be collected by 7.30am with your race card stamped, ahead of the daily stage race briefing at 7.45am. Again, missing any of these timings could result in a time penalty.
Each stage would have 2 or 3 checkpoints where our checkpoint cards would be we would be stamped. Each athletes would be able to collect 1 litre of water and some snacks (usually figs, dates, nuts, sliced sausage or soup). The checkpoints were manned by a doctor and sherpa and gave us an opportunity to report any issues, as well as keeping us on route and ensuring we were adequately watered and fueled. We had great weather throughout with the temperature in the 20's each day. With the sun blazing, staying hydrated was important, more so as running at altitude.
STAGE 1: JIRI (1890m) - BHANDAR (2041m)
Elevation: 3795m (+1975/-1820)
Position : 9th
I described Stage 1 as a Snowdon day as it was close to what I had done in training in terms of distance and elevation, 2 up, 2 down... simple! With the adrenaline building, ACDC pumped over a loud speaker before we were welcomed by a local traditional band and the town mayor. We set off and after a short climb into the town, we were running along dusty roads, through villages before heading onto our first steep technical track. I found myself running quite quick and immediately questioned what I was doing, but as the first of many climbs began, I quickly settled into my rhythm and pace I knew I was comfortable with.
All the paths in the race would be marked with a bright orange circle. Arrows were used at key junctions, and a cross would hopefully catch you if you took a wrong track. I found myself in a group of four with Martin, Marc and Phillipe, but as we hit the first decent that wasn't too technical, I was able to accelerate and let my legs take me. That would be a theme for the whole race. I wasn't the fastest on steep technical descents, but If I was able to open up and run, I had a little pace on a few of the guys around me.
The stage finished with a long open descent where I opened up and over took Xavi. It was only Stage 1, but the scene was set and it was soon clear who we'd racing within the camp throughout the week. Racing over 6 days is obviously going to establish a natural order of athletic ability. We all had different strengths, but managing yourself would be key to consistency.
ETR - STAGE 2
STAGE 2: BHANDAR (2041m) - JASE Bhanjyang (3600m)
Elevation: 5282m (+3486/-1795)
Position : 11th
If Stage 1 was a prologue, Stage 2 was the first punishing test! Having camped at 2000m, we would climb to the highest point of the race, summiting Pikey Peak (4068m). Altitude sickness tends to make itself apparent from 3500m, so that would be the days unknown and the topic of conversation at breakfast.
At the briefing it was explained to us that if you were unable to make the summit due to altitude sickness or did not meet the cut off, you would have to go around the summit and take a 45 minute penalty.
I had a solid start to the day, losing a little time to my rivals on a technical, twisty descent to the foot of the climb. It was then I found my rhythm and began to make up ground, passing Eric and Xavi on the climb to CP2.
As we began the climb to CP3, I was joined by Ester Alves, a former pro cyclist and top ultra runner. We climbed steadily and kept our heads down as we picked up Martin who had made a wrong turn. As we exited a steep forest section at around 3800m, I began to slip behind as I lost energy and began to feel pretty heavy with a lack of oxygen. Progress was slow on the steep, short, exposed, climb to the summit and I watched Ester and Martin open up a gap. Looking back I saw Elisabet (twice MDS winner) exit the woods and by the time we summited she was close to passing.
Sadly in the 10 mins i'd dropped to Ester and Martin, the clouds had began to roll in. But hey... i'd just climbed from 1500m to 4068m in one go and didn't feel too terrible! The views were still amazing, and the prayer flags adorning the peak were pretty magical!
The final 4km were horrendous! All described in the videos below, but so close to the finish we found ourselves on a tricky and pretty sketchy traverse across rock and ice, before a super steep descent where after all that climbing, my legs just wouldn't function. Although we could see the camp from the peak, we then had a tough 200m climb to the stage end! Brutal!
ETR - STAGE 3
STAGE 3: JASE Bhanjyang (3600m) - Kharikola (2100m)
Elevation: 6631m (+2521/-4110)
Position : 11th
Stage 3 is a monster! After a stunning sun rise, we had a short climb before the first monster descent. After surprisingly catching and over taking Ester on the first technical descent through the woods, I was able to open up my legs, catching and passing Martin and Eric after CP1 where we caught out first glimpse of Everest at 15km.
After a short climb, we were quickly into another monster 1700m descent. I was with Michele for the descent which was a huge advantage. I had begun to realise that descending quickly was where the time could really be made during the race. If you were with another athlete, it simply made it easier to concentrate, focus, and keep your feet moving fast. Michele never broke his stride and was great to follow. We took one minor wrong turn towards the bottom costing us 5 minutes, before we hit our first Mule train of the race. Michele not following the organisers advice rushed round the outside (down slope) and was promptly bumped off the track. After a minor panic, we established he was okay and we continued. At this point with the track flattening and surface improving, it was time for me to take a minor tumble. With sheer mental and physical fatigue, I had a quick tuck and roll and I was back on my feet.
The final 600m climb was horrendous. I was dehydrated and out of fuel. While tempted to stop and grab a coke from a tiny trail side shop, with only 3km to go I was desperate to finish! I could see the race flags on the top of the mountain for what seemed like an eternity, eventually reaching final steep steps to Kharikola and a pretty special camp site!
ETR - STAGE 4
STAGE 4: Kharikola (2100m) - Phakding (2610m)
Elevation: 4454m (+2479/-1975)
Position : 13th
After a punishing Stage 2 & 3, on paper Stage 4 seemed fairly simple. After a long first climb, we would pick up the main Everest trail. Whilst tourist hikers, mule trains, yaks and sherpas would become a more familiar sight for the remaining three days, the trail as always was technical, up and down, steep and generally unrelenting. Each village or river crossing seemed to be precluded by a steep climb or descent, and even when the trail did improve, the nature of the surface meant you couldn't take your eye of the trail for a second or risk falling.
I had a bad day. I found myself on my own after being dropped on some of the more technical segments and that was that. As I mentioned, once your loose your rhythm and concentration, every set of steps or passing mule train becomes a reason to pause. I found myself clock watching and while on paper I didn't have a bad day, and didn't drop much time to my overall rivals, it just felt sluggish and arduous. I tried to enjoy the sights of every bridge we crossed, and every village we passed through, but I was relieved to finally reach the end of the day.
ETR - STAGE 5
STAGE 5: Phakding (2610m) - Tengboche (3860m)
Elevation: 3246m (+2224/-1022)
Position : 11th
Ahhh Stage 5. On paper short and well.. in comparison to the previous days, fairly easy. In reality it was fast and frantic. After a lonely Stage 4, I began the stage running with my close rivals in the overall standings, Xavi, Ester and Eric. The pace was good and we scurried quickly over the undulating first 7km. In a slightly flatter section, I pushed on and as we began to climb our group was whittled down to just myself and Ester. This stage quickly became my favorite of race as we relentlessly pushed each other. As we reached CP1 we hit a beautiful section of trail, traversing the valley between Namche and Sanasa. But this was not time for taking photos, as teamwork became the name of the game. I would extend the gap on the flowing stretches, Ester would press on the climbs and close the gap before barking at me to ensure we pushed on any incline that could be ran. When we hit the technical descents, I'd thrive off Esters energy and great footwork to stay on her heals, and as we approached the final slog up to Tengboche at 3800m, I'd reassure her of the distance left as we kept moving and slugged it out on the steep climb to the stage finish.
The stage was brutal and beautiful, and for me, epitomised the Everest Trail Race. Finishing with a backdrop of Everest, Ama Dablam and Lhotse, I'd buried myself deep, given it my all, and lived every second of the stage in the moment, my mind solely focused on each step and breath, my body fueled on the adrenaline of racing through some of the worlds most beautifull scenery. It was a pleasure.
ETR - STAGE 6
STAGE 6: Tengboche (3860m) - lukla (2840m)
Elevation: 5243m (+2105/-3138)
Position : 19th
After 6 nights of pasta, rice and potatoes, I tried to perk myself up with a burger from the lodge we were staying in. I regretted this decision, as I regretted letting Ester push me so hard the day before. As I headed to stage briefing, I was darting to and from the toilet. Once again, i'd barely slept, my body struggling to recover at 3800m. At this point, in all honesty, I wanted the race to be over. I was encouraged by my camp mates to chase Xavi who now only had 3 minutes on me for 10th overall, but I took to the start line feeling pretty bloated, tired, and was still struggling with the same tight chest as many of my camp mates.
I started hard and chased Xavi immediately down the steep 450m descent from Tengboche. However, my heart rate was through the roof and I was struggling to breathe. As soon as we hit the first and only major climb to Khumjung, I knew I didn't have it in my legs or lungs, and in reality, my head. While I could climb, I was struggling to run and every step hurt my stomach and chest. One by one my rivals from throughout the week passed. Ester, Marc (who was having a last day stormer), Phillipe, Elisabet and later Eric, Bex and Michele. I wasn't going to be first Brit home each day, but with 1hr 45mins advantage over Eric, I knew 11th overall was safely mine If I took it steady.
Rejoining the main tourist path back to Lukla, I found it hard to escape my head. I contemplated the weeks racing, what I had achieved, and whether I had got what I wanted out of the race. In all honesty, I still am. The trail was unrelenting nothing, and I mean nothing, is flat. I kept staring at my watch, a reminder of just how little progress I was making. 7km to go... that's twice round Sefton Park, 5km to go... that's just a Park Run, 3.5km to go, one more lap! But then, finally, the finish line was in sight and my suffering could end.
I finished with relief. For me, the race was a day too long, and I wish It could of ended in a better manner, but that is a lesson for next time. It's not over till it's over.
ETR - FINAL THOUGHTS
Elevation: 28,651m (+14790m / -13861m)
Position : 11th Male (13th Overall)
I really couldn't of asked for anything more. This race was a complete unknown to me, but as with all races, once you start, any panic about your preparations and ability in relation to your competitors disappear. The hard work is done in training, and if your sensible, the rewards will follow. I hadn't over analysed the results from previous years, and had no idea of the competition, so to be pushing for the top 10, racing against experienced ultra runners, sponsored athletes, brand ambassadors, and like minded enthusiasts who have tackled some of the hardest running races in the world was awesome. I'm informed my finishing time would of put me 6th overall in any previous edirtions of the race, a reflection of the quality of this years field. It was also great to fly the flag in a field dominated by the Spanish athletes and be the first Brit home.
I'll keep this brief, but if you are interested in what it's like to fly out of 'the worlds most dangerous airport', there are some pictures and a video below. It was sad to leave the mountains behind, but I think all of the field would agree that we were just as happy to be heading back to Kathmandu for a hot shower and clean clothes.
The race is incredible. Simple. The course, the environment, and camaraderie and community that develops in such a small field. But it is only possible thanks to the tireless work of a fantastic race team. The race is meticulously planned, and it has to be, because that is the only way you can race over 100 miles for 6 days, between 1500m and 4100m in a remote and inaccessible region. It is a HUGE logistical challenge, but from an athletes perspective, the team made it look effortless and it was easy to forget about the small army of staff and Sherpas who ensured our safety, comfort and enjoyment each day, always welcoming, and always with a smile. It was an absolute pleasure.
You've seen the pictures, you've seen the footage, and you've hopefully watched my videos giving you a little insight into running the race. It's been great for me to watch back myself and remember just how much I was enjoying running against great athletes, through beautiful remote communities, across mountains, along valleys, through forests, and over rivers, while wrestling past mules as tourist trekkers and locals often looked on bemused. Each day was an adventure, tackled at what sometimes felt like a thousand miles an hour, and eventually, it wore me down. On the final day I was resenting every step, but that is a reflection of how fatigue, tiredness and discomfort will affect your morale and mind in racing over such technical terrain for 6 days, and is all part of the challenge. The fact is, the Everest Trail Race is a race, and while I had entered the race as a huge personal challenge, seeking adventure with like minded people along the way, I had maybe forgotten that I would in fact be racing, and not just myself. What else did I learn:
I had tailored my training towards this race, and while I may not have had the volume in my legs of a typical ultra runner, I had endurance from long course training, strength from cycling, gym work, stairs and hill training, as well a natural pace from speed work that put me in a good position. All these aspects have made me a better runner over a variety of distances this year. I'd also go as far to say that triathletes have a great base for multi-stage racing, as they are used to the stress and load of daily training. Give it a go!
You have to train specific. I took comfort from the start knowing what it was like to tackle a +2000m / -2000m day on Snowdon. Training on technical, steep, rocky terrain is essential to develop your footwork, build your strength, and develop your concentration for running on such terrain. Time is won or lost on the descents.
Sleep is essential. I was playing catch-up from the start following a less than ideal month leading up to the race, and was physically and mentally exhausted before I arrived in Nepal. But over 6 days of racing, a lack of sleep will affect your recovery, attitude and moral. While I was comfortably warm each evening, I was still plagued at night by my usual anxiety and the endless barking of nearby stray dogs. I was often awake praying for it to be time for the Sherpas to wake us up with a brew so we could crack on with the day. Next time i'll be investing in a proper pair of molded ear plugs.
Whilst I was unable to justify the time or cost, if you are able to train at altitude close to the event, it would certainly be beneficial, for peace of mind, if not physiological adaption. I tended to suffer the affects of altitude from around 3000m up. Heavy muscles, high heart rate and general lethargism. Again, the biggest impact may be on your ability to sleep and recover as your heart rate remains elevated. I don't think it is a coincidence I slept the least on Days 2 and 5 when we were at 3600m and 3800m respectively.
So... That's it. Reflection over. It was a pleasure to meet, race against, and share the experience with a great bunch. Great ambassadors for the sport, valiant fighters, individuals of understated strength and wisdom, and larger than life characters, all of whom for me, were great source of support, encouragement and inspiration.