By: Impi ambassador, Denise Sauriol
“Aim high! There is little virtue in easy victory.” Sir Edmund Hillary’s words are fitting for why I chose to compete in the Everest Marathon AND Comrades Marathon with only 11 days between the two adventures.
You see, I have always wanted to go to Everest Base Camp. It’s been a dream of mine for decades. I have hungrily read every book I could find on Everest and watched and re-watched every documentary I could find on Everest, too. I am deathly afraid of heights so I knew that Base Camp was the farthest I would ever go. I am so afraid of heights that when I read about someone climbing a ladder to get over a crevasse, I am afraid for them. It’s the same feeling when I see someone climbing the Hillary step, I am afraid for them. Would that be fear by association?! Even though I’m constantly finding myself afraid for others, I am also intrigued by what the human body and mind can do and more importantly the “why” that drives people to seek the summit. There is something so powerful and respectful about Mount Everest.
I have a huge circle of running friends who I’ve been marathoning with since 1994. Comrades was my 112th marathon. In this circle, I have only found two other runners who one, want to go to Everest Base Camp (EBC) and two, can actually commit to it.
Last year, in January 2018, my international travel mate, Michelle asked me about running the Everest Marathon in 2019. What?! Finally! Someone as crazy and adventurous as me. We booked our trip a few weeks later. Finally, my someday of going to EBC was becoming a reality!
Alongside my dream of going to Base Camp, I also had a goal of earning the “Back to Back” medal at this years Comrades Ultra Marathon. For those of you that are not familiar with Comrades, it is the oldest ultra-marathon in the world. This year’s race was its 94th year! The 89-kilometer race alternates each year - one year the run is “uphill’ from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, and the following year the race is run “downhill” from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. When you complete the uphill and downhill in consecutive years, you earn the coveted “Back to Back” Medal. Once I knew this flatlander from Chicago could finish the downhill last year, I knew I had to go back to run the “uphill” and earn that extra bling-o-ling!
I could have easily just focused on the Everest Marathon or even just running Comrades but that is not how I tick. Part of the human experience is to see what our body and mind can do when pushed outside of our status quo.
The Road to Everest Base Camp
One of the hardest, most stressful parts about the Everest trip was getting all the gear and making sure once my day pack and duffel were packed, they did not exceed the weight limit of 33 lbs. We had the weight restriction because of the flight into and out of Nepal’s Lukla airport, boasting the shortest runway in the world. If you overshoot it when arriving, you crash into a mountain! I was slightly freaked out about this flight, but fortunately it wasn’t as bad as I made it out in my head.
There were about 200 runners from around the world who were either running the Everest Half Marathon, Full or the Ultra (60K). The race is always held on May 25th, which is the anniversary of when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay successfully summited Everest. The morning after we landed in Lukla, our 10-day trek to Mt. Everest Base Camp begins. We hiked for 10 days, averaging about 4 to 8 hours per day. We did have some hike-free days to allow our bodies to acclimate to the higher altitude. Along the way we stayed at tea houses. Picture a cabin without heat nor plumbing, twin beds to sleep in and occasional wi-fi.
Once we arrived at EBC, we camped there for two days. When I look back on the experience, it’s really as if we had a 2-day taper before our marathon! Camping at EBC was surreal in that our tent was right next to thee Khumbu Icefall! One thing I wasn’t prepared for on the first night was being woken up by giant crashing sounds, similar to the sound of thunder. But it wasn’t thunder. It was an avalanche and there were three more of them the first night! I wanted to either helicopter out of Base Camp or start the marathon then and there.
I made it through the next night too exhausted to hear the avalanches again. Then it was May 25th, race day, and we were all lined up next to the Khumbu Icefall for the start of the race. The day of the race, I made the decision to do the marathon with my hiking poles and boots because I knew that most of the course would not be runnable for me. This was only my 3rd trail race EVER and the second one was just weeks before I left for Everest. I needed to protect my ankles as best I could from the crazy terrain. After all, I still had an ultra to run in South Africa. To give you an idea of how technical the terrain was, I normally run a marathon in about 4 hours. For Everest, I completed it in 12 hours and 15 minutes! Even the last 10K took me over 3 hours!
What made the trek and the Everest Marathon beyond epic was that I was finally creating my own journey to Everest, instead of reading or watching someone else’s journey. From the moment I crossed over the first suspension bridge, to hiking alongside yaks, and to getting my first view of Everest as we entered into the Sagarmatha National Park. From when we hiked through the Everest memorial, feeling a connection to the adventurous spirits of those who have passed away following their dream on Everst, to helping someone else fulfill their dream. From seeing the Icefall and Base Camp from the summit of Kalapatthar, to being moved to tears from the sheer magnitude and beauty of Ana Dablam, and dancing with our porters and Sherpas the last night in Lukla. This trip was bigger than a bucket list. It was a D.R.E.A.M. and in my opinion, dreams lie deep in our souls, eagerly waiting to be fulfilled.
When I called my parents on the way home, I told them how fortunate I felt. I know many people aren’t able or don’t fulfill their dreams. I have fulfilled two of my dreams in the past three years. Leaving my 26-year career in accounting to be a full-time run coach is my other fulfilled dream. I think the only way to top this trip is to either go to the moon or return for the ultra (though, the former I have no interest in). The latter, I am already looking at returning for 2020 or 2021. I left some of my heart in the Himalayas and they are calling me back. Next time though, I will pack lighter/smarter and actually train for altitude and trails.
Comrades Take 2!
I have to admit a part of me was a tiny bit envious that everyone else was heading back home after our Everest trip, but the other part of me was hugely excited to be back in Durban, South Africa. On the one hand, I was excited to see how my body and mind would handle a 54-mile hilly race after just finishing the Everest marathon. On the other hand, there is no race like Comrades. It is in a league of its own. I can only compare it to the Boston Marathon in that both races have so much history and prestige that it is truly an honor to be a part of. I also had my friend Kevin and Maria running their first Comrades. Aside from the mileage/kilometer difference of the two races, the hills of Comrades (even the downhill course) make the Boston marathon seem like a 5K!
Whenever I talked to someone who had run both the uphill and downhill routes of Comrades, I would always ask them which route is harder. So many people told me the downhill was harder. Note to self and anyone taking on the uphill route for the first time, “the uphill” is harder!!! They lied. My quads are my witness.
Comrades is also unlike most races in that there are sub-cut offs along the way and also there is a clock-time cut off of 12 hours. If you finish at 12:01 you are not an official finisher.
I think it was a sign that I was going to have a good day when I went to get on the hotel elevator on race morning and BOOM, there was thee Bruce Fordyce. He has won Comrades nine times! My energy turned from freaked out to so EXCITED! Of course, I had to take a selfie with him and the other runners in the elevator.
The whole race is broadcasted live on TV. It is equivalent to the Super Bowl. Out of the approximate 20,500 runners each year, about 19,000 are from South Africa. The start of Comrades is something every runner should experience. Right before the start they play “Chariots of Fire” and then the local song, “Shosholoza” and lastly the National Anthem. Everyone joins in for the last two songs. That is followed by a gunshot going off and a rooster crowing! Yes, a rooster crows. I don’t know how they get him to crow, but it happens every year. Maybe they tickle his feet!
The course is lined with spectators and the local running groups have huge aid/cheer stations set up along the way. The hills though, they are alive and never-ending. I was so excited to be running on rock-free and branch-free roads, as well as being able to run in my running shoes again. The uphill route has five well-known hills. Not knowing if I had gotten through all of them because I don’t memorize let alone look at course maps, I just follow everyone in front of me. I asked the runners around me, “was that the last hill?” They all chime in with, “yes.” They also lied. There were three more hills with one being as tough as Boston’s Heart Break Hill. I say this because no one warned me how much harder the uphill was compared to the downhill route and that there are actually more than five bad boy hills. At least I now know for next time!
I finished the race in 11:18 which was about 30 minutes slower than last year’s downhill run. I made the cutoff and I earned the coveted Back to Back Medal.
It is funny that shortly after finishing, I ran into my friend, Adriano, who I had met the night before last year’s race. We both were SCITED (that is a Denise-ism for Scared + Excited) about running our first Comrades and both shared that this was a one and done. Come July 2018, we both said we have to do that again! So, when we saw each other for the first time this year, we both talked about how much harder the uphill was and that now that we have our back to back medal we are done. A couple of days later after arriving home, Adriano told me that he’s ready to run Comrades again next year. Of course I also decided the morning after Comrades that it wasn’t so bad. Actually, that it was pretty awesome and I can’t wait to do it again.