Everest. The name is synonymous with adventure, endurance and feats of daring. So it’s no surprise that the world’s highest marathon is in a league of its own.
“It’s unlike any other marathon,” explains Laura Jones of Monix Adventures, who completed the epic event in 2017 as part of her ICANRUN7 challenge to run seven marathons on seven continents within a year (she also ran the Kilimanjaro and Yukon marathons). “I’ve experienced a wide spectrum of marathons and the Everest marathon is unique. It’s a journey, not just a marathon."
The race, which normally runs on May 29 each year to commemorate the first Everest ascent by mountaineers Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, begins at Everest Base Camp at the foot of the Khumbu icefall, and descends through Gorak Shep towards the finish line at Namche Bazar (3,540m).
From terrain tips to kit, here’s what to you need to know.
1. It's one hell of a journey to the start line
Before you even think about pinning on your race number, you’ve got a 12-14 day trek from Lukla ahead of you. “The journey winds its way up through Sherpa villages on the classic Everest Base Camp trekking trail, and on through wet, lush forest trails, taking up to two weeks to get to Base Camp,” explains Laura. It’s a slow process that’s vital for acclimatisation and includes overnight stays at Nepalese lodges and tea houses.
2. You’ll lose your appetite
Whether it’s because of altitude or the limited menu of noodles (or cereal with powdered milk), you’ll probably go off your food. “Your body needs food at altitude but you often don’t feel like it. Don’t be afraid to go for that second portion if your body’s still allowing you to eat,” says Laura, who packed a whole kit bag of snacks from the UK. “Choose things that won’t melt when they’re carried in the sun by a porter. We went for jelly sweets and dried fruits."
Staying hydrated at altitude is vital, so drink at every opportunity. “Wear a camelback on the trek up so you can drink continually without stopping to take a bottle out of your bag,” advises Laura. “We brought some flavoured electrolyte tablets to help us stay hydrated and to spice up the water."
3. The terrain is mixed and terrifying
Expect to slip, slide and spend most of the marathon staring at your feet, warns Laura, who did just that for the entire 9.5 hours of her run. “At Base Camp (where the marathon starts), the ground is icy with loose scree on top, making it very slippy, and there are big ice crevasses and holes,” she explains. “You’re on a glacier which is constantly moving – you can actually hear it cracking and groaning.”
Further into the race, the path features very large boulders. “You have to hop over them using your hands. Then, when it opens out a bit, the ground is full of the tiniest little rocks that catch your shoes and make you slip. There’s also an area on the way to Gorak Shep which is known for rockfall later in the day, so I was really keen to get past this quickly – and avoid getting hit by a rock!”
In the first half of the marathon it’s difficult to get your breath back even by walking
4. Pack an eye mask and ear plugs – you’ll need them
As you get higher up towards Base Camp there are fewer lodges to house the numerous travellers, many of whom leave early for their trek. “You get disturbed a lot in the tea houses, and at Base Camp it gets light early and it’s noisy, so an eye mask and ear plugs really help.”
5. Prepare for the ‘secret’ loop
To make the race up to official marathon distance, the route includes an out-and-back loop, famed for mentally derailing runners, which sits off the main track roughly halfway into the race above Dingboche. “In Kathmandu someone recommended we stopped at Dingboche for a day or two to recce this bit, and I’m so glad we did because it’s not that clear where or how far it goes,” says Laura. “Everyone says they hate the Bibre loop. Technically it’s the worst part of the marathon, so it was fantastic to know what to expect.”
6. You’ll second guess every niggle
When you’ve invested so much in a race and have the cloud of altitude sickness hanging over your head, you can overthink how you feel. “A doctor at Base Camp has to sign off whether you can even start the race,” explains Laura. “So all the way along the journey, you’re desperate to acclimatise and constantly assessing yourself – do I feel sick? Does my tummy feel funny?"
Rushing to Base Camp is dangerous. “And actually, the journey up to Base Camp is a real highlight of the experience,” says Laura. “Taking our time also meant I was able to get in a small run now and then, which mentally reiterated that I was okay.”
7. Poles are essential
Crossing rivers, boulders and rocky sections means poles are pretty vital. “I wouldn’t recommend doing the Everest Marathon without them; it’s like having four feet instead of two,” says Laura. “With all the slippy little rocks, you constantly have your guard up. The poles really help.” Laura’s tip: invest in a really lightweight, foldable pair. “Mine were a bit too bulky so I didn’t pack them away when I wasn’t using them. Holding them up for 9.5 hours meant really, really sore shoulders at the finish line.”
8. Expect to walk – a lot
When you’re at an altitude where even walking can leave you breathless, running a ‘race’ goes out the window (unless you’re a Sherpa). “In the first half of the marathon, it’s difficult to get your breath back even by walking. You have to really play it by ear whether you can run, jog or walk it, depending on how much oxygen you can take in,” says Laura. Team this with the challenging terrain and you’ll be walking a lot.
9. Pack trail shoes with aggressive grip
Because of the slippy and unpredictable terrain, Laura opted to go with her Salomon Speedcross 4 shoes – as did most of the other competitors. “They were definitely the footwear of choice! The grip is incredible and they’re just so good for being able to move on rocks.”
Scrambling helps with training. You need to be able to move fast and keep your balance on loose ground.
10. It’s a narrow start (and often fast)
It may be the Everest Marathon, but it’s still a race start. “When the gun goes you may get carried away in the moment, as you do in any race, and start a bit faster,” explains Laura. “It’s difficult to manage your pace initially as the path is very narrow so you constantly have someone on your tail who wants to overtake you, which pushes you faster, or you’re desperate to overtake someone. You feel out of puff really quickly."
11. Pop some money in your race backpack
While you won’t be heading out on a spending spree mid-race, there’s a little shack after the final checkpoint just before the last steep hill – and it could be your saviour. “When I came down from the Tengboche Monastery to the really steep 600m climb, this little shack was selling refreshments. At this point they looked really good to me, so after a quick pit stop I rocketed up the hill – I was in 160th place at the last checkpoint before the shack, but ended up finishing in 120th place!”
12. Be wary of the cut-off time
If you don’t reach the last checkpoint by 4pm, you won’t be allowed to continue until the next day. “If this happens, you stay there overnight so nobody is out on the course in the dark,” explains Laura. “You then start the race at 6am the next morning with a three hour penalty.”
13. Train on scrambling routes
“Scrambling really helps your training,” says Laura who suggests heading to the Lake District with your poles to mimic the slippy terrain you’ll face during the Everest Marathon. “You need to be able to move fast and keep your balance on loose ground. Get your fitness up on roads or local woodland, but get used to replicating the terrain with scrambling routes if you can.”
14. Source the right kit
Pre-sunrise, it was -10°c on race morning. Laura wore inov-8 mitts, a long-sleeve base layer and inov-8 thermo shell jacket, and ran wearing a small, lightweight Ultimate Direction AK Mountain Vest. “It was incredible; it didn’t move around and had very handy little pockets everywhere so I could access my gel blocks, lip balm and sunscreen without stopping." Sunglasses, a visor and a sleeping bag liner (“It gets really cold at night; I bought a fleecy one from Namche”) are all highly recommended.
15. Finally, enjoy it
"Soak up the history and incredible scenery, says Laura. “It takes your breath away having all the Himalayan giants around you. You really feel the history of those that have gone before you and the magic that drew them in. Unlike my other marathons, there was no low moment for me during the Everest Marathon. I enjoyed every minute.”