SkyRunning in Tibet


When the Fila Skyrunners called me to see if I wanted to run the Everest Marathon in Tibet, I could not say yes fast enough. I did not need to hear the details, as a running vacation was exactly what I needed. I got more than I asked for — no single running event has had such a profound effect on my outlook towards life. When I walked off the plane in Katmandu, Nepal, I stepped into another world — the Third World.

As we drove to what would be the first of four different hotels during the three-week trip, my mind could not absorb things fast enough. It was as if all my senses were fighting for an explanation of what they were sensing. Something was terribly wrong here and nothing could be done. There were too many people walking in front of too many cars dodging too many animals eating too much trash that smelt too foul to inhale that was covered with too much dirt that was on too many people that were too busy honking their horns to no avail because there were too many bikes and too many things that did not move and so many things that just did not belong. About the only thing I knew was that we were driving on the wrong side of the road — this only showed that I knew nothing.

It did not matter if the city was in Nepal or Tibet; the conditions were the same. A stomach-turning stench that was not unlike the smell of burning hair and drilled teeth filled the air. I saw people using the same river for baths and bathrooms, drinking water and drainage, fun and funerals. Sick animals, mostly dogs, with infected wounds roamed everywhere. I found out the dogs are believed to be reincarnated monks that did not quite make the grade so there is a “let them be” policy — the same policy seems to apply when the dog dies in the middle of the sidewalk.

The four hotel scheme was a smart move on the organizers part. Not only were we slowly acclimatizing to the altitude — the final hotel was at 14,200 feet — we were slowly being weaned from a live’s worth of things we thought we could not live without. Things like water you could drink, food that you would want to eat, and a toilet to dispose of the end results were hard to come by — if you came by them at all. By the last hotel the toilets did not flush and hot water, if available, was only so for one hour a day. Even this was first class, as outside of the hotel there were no toilets — let alone hot water. The cheapest of our hotels cost more for one night than most locals make in one year.

But as everything has two sides, so does the Third World. Once out of the city I saw things in small communities that were fascinating. Watching the barley harvest was like watching a giant machine. Every person had a job. Some gathered, some stacked. Some separated and others stored. Even small children carried baskets that looked twice their weight. An entire community worked as one to survive the upcoming winter. A sense of pride prevailed in all of the people that I met. After gaining a small feel for how people lived outside the city, I wished that I had had more time after the race to visit their homes and eat their foods.

Oh, yea, there was a race. The course was one big pancake flat loop on dirt, sand, and rocks with several stream crossings. Everest and Cho Oyu served as the backdrop to one of the most insane runs on the planet. Throughout the trip the runners were being monitored for blood pressure, weight, red blood cell counts, hormone and hematocrit levels. The before, during, and after results are being compiled by the Peak Performance Project to find out just what happens when a marathon is run in no air. At 14,350 feet, this race provided plenty of time to find out what altitude-induced hypoxia is all about. Nine of the 25 starters did not even finish — they had become no more than a statistic in a experiment.

On the long flight home I had a lot of time to unravel my overloaded brain. They say you do not appreciate what you have until you lose it. When I heard the pilot tell us to prepare for landing in the United States a calm feeling came over me. It felt good to be home. On this trip I had learned that you do not appreciate what you have until you find out that what you have, others do not even know about. It also helped me realize just how important running was — not in and of itself — but in the fact that we can run ... because we want to.

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