Lonely Planet Writer

Athletes brave cold, perilous drops and altitude sickness in world’s toughest trail race

Running 160 km would be arduous enough at sea level. Imagine running the equivalent of four and a half marathons in the world’s highest mountains. If that sounds painful, spare a thought for the runners braving the Everest Trail Race – a six-day, 160 km-long rough course race through the Nepal Himalaya.

Monks line the route to watch competitors in the Everest Trail race.
Monks line the route to watch competitors in the Everest Trail Race. Image by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

Often touted as the world’s toughest trail race, the Everest course charts the first stages of the route used by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary during the first ascent of Everest in 1953. Runners follow crude stone walking trails from village to village in the Sherpa region of Solukhumbu, with a breathless cumulative elevation gain of 5282 metres over the six day course.

To minimise the risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), the race sticks to the lower stages of the Everest approach route between Jiri and Lukla, but still climbs to over 4068 metres at Pikey Peak, the highest point on the trail, which basks in front of epic views of Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. Even the lowest point on the route is close to 2000 metres, and runners must overcome 2000 metres to 3000 metres of uphill climbs on each day of the course.

To reduce the health risks, the route is split into stages of 20 km to 37 km, with overnight stops in between, and medical teams stand by at checkpoints to monitor runners for symptoms of exhaustion and AMS. There is a prize of €1000 for the winning runner, but for most competitors, the challenge of taking part is the main motivation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering their experience of altitude, the race is usually won by a Nepali runner, with most coming from the Sherpa community, who have a genetic ability to metabolise oxygen more efficient than people from lower altitudes. Local runner Pasang Lama Sherpa took an early lead on day one, but with five days of gruelling climbs and descents ahead, the race is still wide open. Watch the finish line at Lukla on Tuesday for the final results.