“Mount Everest is something that a lot of people dream of conquering. But most times, it’s just too scary to go through with it,” Bengaluru resident Deepa Bhat tells TNM.
She was, at one point of time, also someone who this applied to.
On May 30, however, she and her running buddy Taher Merchant (35), decided to conquer their dream. The duo participated in the 60 km Extreme Ultra – Everest Marathon, the world’s highest running event; and completed it within the given time too!
“According to the organisers, we were also the first Indians ever to finish the race,” Taher shares. While he completed the race in 19 hours and 15 minutes, 41-year-old Deepa was not too far behind and clocked 19 hours and 50 minutes to the finish line.
The Extreme Ultra starts at the Everest base camp and passes through five Himalayan passes. With sub-zero temperatures and one of the most challenging terrains, the athletes are required to have extreme endurance too.
The duo faced several challenges on their trip. But the feeling when they reached the finish line after a gruelling journey made everything worth it for them.
Training for the race
Taher and Deepa got acquainted through the Jayanagar Jaguars, a running group they are both a part of. They also met at the Khardhung La challenge – a 72 km marathon in Ladakh. Taher, who had been running this marathon since 2014, told Deepa at the finish line in 2016 that they should do something more challenging.
“Initially I did not believe him when he suggested Everest,” Deepa says, “Then I thought that it's better to do these things along with someone you know. So, I told him I would support him in this.”
Taher started training for the Extreme Ultra a year in advance. He took part in several marathons, but it was in the last 12 weeks that the intensity of his training really intensified. He would start his days at 3.50am, finish his mileage and gym training in about three hours and then the businessman would head to work.
Deepa, the AVP at an e-learning company, focused a majority of her training in the months leading up to May from January 2018. She paid attention to body conditioning, stamina building, her nutrition and losing weight.
One thing both Taher and Deepa swear by is training their minds. Running is not all strength and speed, it has a lot to do with mindset and willpower too, they say. While Deepa took up meditation and yoga, Taher took paintings his nine-year-old and 11-year-old daughters had made for him at the race to give him mental strength and moral support.
The journey to the base camp
When the D-day arrived, both Taher and Deepa bade goodbyes to their tense but encouraging families. While the Extreme Ultra itself was on May 29, the duo left Bengaluru on May 15. They did an 11-day trek to the Everest base camp, which helped them acclimatize themselves to the extreme weather conditions.
They also had a mock run on the day preceding the race. “The idea is to give you a sense of how you should prepare for the actual race. Whether you need more layers of clothes, your pace and overall how your body responds,” Deepa explains. And despite the freezing weather, she chose to wear a saree over her thermals. “I wanted to do something very Indian,” she smiles.
“The two nights we were at the base camp were something else,” Taher recalls, “It’s even difficult to sleep… the base camp is literally on a glacier. And then in sub-zero temperatures, the exercise of getting out of your sleeping bag and going to your breakfast is an experience. I think parts of my brain are still frozen,” he laughs.
The Extreme Ultra flagged off at 6am on May 29 with the temperature at -6 degrees Celsius and ground frozen solid.
While Taher and Deepa came together, they competed separately. Both had a similar goal in the 20-hour cut off they had to finish it: to complete the race with their health intact, over winning.
Taher had planned to finish the race within 10-12 hours. However, after the first 39 kilometres, he could sense that his body needed some rest after going up and down several gruelling hills; and it had started snowing by 6pm. So, he decided to stay at a designated lodge for the night and risk the penalty of four hours.
He finished the remaining distance in the morning.
Deepa, meanwhile, decided to continue through the night. “I had my guide with me (each participant had one) and I felt up to it. I did stop for two coffees when it started snowing and to have some hot noodle soup. I couldn’t have made it without my coffee,” she laughs.
Both Taher and Deepa describe the feeling of reaching the finish line with excitement and disbelief. “I was in shock. It wasn’t sinking in… did this really happen? But the first thing I did was switch on my phone and send my parents a message, ‘I did it.’” Taher shares.
Deepa vividly remembers what she saw when she was approaching the finish line – “My trek leader, standing there with a smile and a glass of warm juice,” she gushes, “Honestly, it still hasn’t sunk in that I finished the race. It’s only when my sons, neighbours and colleagues congratulate me that I realise all over again that I’ve done this.”
Homecoming and plans ahead
Taher gets emotional when asked about how he was welcomed home. His daughters, who were initially very scared for him because they thought something bad would happen to him as it does in the film Everest, awaited his arrival at the airport with posters and bouquets. “They were so happy,” he says.
Deepa, meanwhile, is happy to be back with her 14 and 17-year-old sons. “They were my pillars of strength. The elder one did not even complain though I was not there for his board results and selection for college,” she says.
What’s clear though is that neither of them is done with running or challenging themselves. Deepa wants to take some time to work on her body and boost her immunity. She ultimately wants to run a 100-mile marathon next year.
Taher, meanwhile, is sure that he will be back to the mountains soon. “I feel very connected to the mountains. I think they call out to me. I know I am going to do more mountain races… Maybe Kilimanjaro is next.”