For thousands of participants, this year’s Tel Aviv Marathon, on February 28, was a lofty target at which they had been aiming themselves for months. But for the group of runners that gathered the night before outside the offices of Icon Fashion Accessories in Bnei Brak, it was just the first step in a lengthy training regimen leading up to one of the sport’s biggest challenges: the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon, held every year on May 29 to mark the historic trek of Tenzing Norgay and Edmond Hillary to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953.
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The delegation of 15 Israeli runners to this year’s Everest Marathon is organized by Daniel Keren. After completing the 250-kilometer (150 mi.) Sahara Desert Ultra Marathon, participating in a marathon in Antarctica and running hundreds of kilometers in polar climates he saw the view from the top, after summiting Mount Everest. “I told myself, ‘I’ve already been to the summit, so let’s run a marathon up here,’” Keren says by way of explaining what gave him the idea. “I’ve already done so many crazy things, but I haven’t done this yet.”
The first to join Keren was Shmulik Itah, a 43-year-old building contractor, who is set to run 60 kilometers of the ultramarathon with Keren. Itah has been running since grade school, and he has been in many races, including a 200k ultraaarathon in France. Sometimes he meets up with friends for an all-night run. “On Thursdays we meet up around 10 P.M. and run until five in the morning. It’s incredible,” Itah says.
For Olfat Haider, also 43, extreme sports is nothing new. A former volleyball champion, she has been leading groups of Arabs and Jews on climbing expeditions in the Alps, part of the Breaking the Ice project that she directs. “Nature doesn’t judge us, it accepts us,” says Haider, about the logic behind the initiative. Aside from mounting climbing, Haider competes in marathons and triathlons. She has trekked up to peaks in the Alps, the Himalayas, in Antarctica and in Japan. “When I heard about the Everest competition, I thought it was awesome, because it combines my two favorite things: running and mountain climbing,” Haider says. “I want to break stereotypes and preconceived notions, and show that a woman can live up to a challenge like this. And that yes, it’s also possible to live together and make peace.”
Rut Shahaf, 58, an executive at Derech Eretz, operator of the Route 6 toll road, has three children and three grandchildren. She signed on for the half-marathon at Everest, for the experience.
“What’s interests me is the ‘envelope’ around the event. I think about the views of Everest, and get excited. I told my kids that for me, it’s like my post-army trip,” Shahaf says. She’s been running half-marathons since 2007, going at what she calls a “slow pace.” She crossed the finish line of the Jerusalem marathon after more than two and a half hours. “I asked Daniel if there was room for slow runners like me,” she says with a smile, “and he said that if I manage to repeat my Jerusalem time, I’ll probably stand on the podium.”
It’s unnecessary to point out that the challenge faced by the runners is a much tougher one. Not because of the distance, the hills or the ice patches, but rather because of the thin air they’ll be breathing: The starting line is at an elevation of 5,400 meters, or about 17,700 feet.
Dr. Eyal Shargal is the director of the Wingate Institute’s Ribstein Center for Sports Research and Medicine and the Netanya institution’s hypoxic chamber, which simulates high-altitude training. He says that at this altitude, oxygen levels are half of what they are at sea level, spelling out the risks: “altitude sickness, the symptoms of which include fatigue, headaches, nausea, vomiting, irregular sleep and loss of appetite. In severe cases, it can cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs and brain, and can even death.”
Shargal says there is no method that can prevent the condition, which can affect even fit athletes, and even after a period of accommodation, Drug treatments, however, are available.
Even if the runners are unaffected by altitude sickness, they will have to overcome many other physiological challenges. “Research shows that starting from 300 meters above sea level, there is a 6% drop in maximal oxygen consumption with every 1,000 meters of elevation. At 5,000 meters, VO2 max can drop by 30% or more, severely restricting aerobic ability,” says Shargal. “The respiratory system is most affected. Breathing frequency and pulse will sharply increase in order to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Because the anaerobic energy systems are much more active at such heights, muscles are producing a lot more lactic acid, which contributes to exercise-induced fatigue.”
While many have trouble simply walking at such altitudes, Keren’s group is planning on participating in half- and full marathons and marathons. Three members of the group are even planning on running ultramarathons at these heights, which includes a 10-kilometer, 11 percent-grade ascent – similar to Mount Adir, in northern Israel, and steeper than Mount Tavor.
To prepare for these challenges, the group’s weekly training regimen consists of four or five sessions, in which they run a total of around 120 kilometers. They are also planning on training ascents and descents in the mountains near Eilat, as well as at the Manara Cliffs near Safed and Mount Hermon, in the Golan Heights nearby.
After landing in Nepal, the group will set out on foot for the starting line, a trek that will take them about two weeks. They will ascend about 300 meters each day, in order to gradually acclimatize to the altitude. During the last week before leaving for Nepal, they plan to train each day in Wingate’s hypoxic chamber, to expedite the acclimatization process.
Judging by the results of previous Everest marathons, however, that won’t be sufficient to put foreigners on par with the locals. Since 2005, no non-Nepalese runner has been among the top 20 finishers. Last year, the winner crossed the finish line after three hours and 59 minutes. Gerrit Voortman was the first non-Nepalese to finish, with a time of six hours and 18 minutes. The Dutch runner’s personal best for a “regular” marathon is two hours and 21 minutes. The last time a non-Nepalese runner won the race was in 1989, when Jack Maitland of Scotland pulled off the feat. That year he also won the Mount Cameroon race, on the highest peak in West Africa.
Deepak Rai of Nepal holds the record for the Everest Marathon, 3 hours and 28 minutes. Rai, who won the race three years in a row, told local media that he does not train for the marathon, but stays in shape by working as a guide in the area.
Shargal says Nepalese have certain natural advantages that predispose them to such feats. “One of the significant differences between Nepalese people and foreigners is their adaptation to altitude,” he says, with blood hemoglobin concentration levels that are 10 percent higher, a factor that can be compensated for by spending a number of months in the place. “They have other physiological adaptations as well, like a greater number of blood vessels that supply more oxygen to muscles, efficient use of oxygen and the like,” Shargal says.
On the other hand, “there is no physiological record of acclimatization in a person that was not born at such heights. Even if someone lives at high altitude for many months, their body will return to its normal state just a few weeks after descending to sea level. But the physiological traits of the mountain residents seem to be inherent, a result of evolution and natural selection,” Shargal says. If that’s true, then Keren and his group have their work cut out for them.