By Pamela Burke
She went, she ran, she conquered! Brent Thomson took on what is called the hardest and highest race in the world, the Mount Everest Marathon, and accomplished her incredible goal this month. At 60 years of age, she finished in 8 hours and 12 minutes. Just completing the 26.2 mile journey down the rugged terrain was a feat in itself.
“I’m extremely thrilled that I did it and in a time I am very proud of…we pushed our bodies to the extreme limits.” Brent Thomson
We profiled Brent on this website before she left for Nepal to begin her trek to 17,200 feet. She returned earlier this month and gave Stacey Gualandi the first exclusive interview on the Women’s Eye Radio Show about her amazing race…
EYE: Brent, you are my hero. I can’t believe what you just did. You know I ran a marathon in Las Vegas with a bunch of Elvises, but I know that doesn’t quite compare. How are you feeling post race?
BRENT: I’m extremely thrilled that I did it, that I did it in a time I’m very proud of…8 hours and 12 minutes. I dreamed of being home so it’s good to be here.
EYE: It sounds like you’re suffering from a bit of chest congestion. How are you feeling health-wise?
BRENT: We pushed our bodies to the extreme limits. We trekked almost 100 miles in 21 days to get to the starting line, and in that time we climbed up 18,000 feet to get climatized. The food does not have the nutritional value of what we’re all used to eating. We were sleeping outdoors in the freezing cold, and by race day your body is pretty well shot.
I did pick up a chest infection which seemed to improve as soon as I landed in San Francisco. I went to the doctor right away.
“There isn’t a level ten feet in the whole country so you’re either going straight up or straight down.“
EYE: Tell what you had to go through just to run down the mountain. You’d think they’d just be a little nicer and helicopter you in. But that’s not how this works is it. Tell me what this race is all about.
BRENT: It’s billed as the highest and hardest marathon in the world. The terrain is extreme for anyone familiar with the country of Nepal. There isn’t a level ten feet in the whole country so you’re either going straight up or straight down.
Even though you are descending from 17,000 to 11,000 feet, you have an actual gain of almost 3,000 feet while you’re coming down. It was rugged.
EYE: Tell me who you are. You work in real estate. You’re a new grandmother with a two-year-old grandson and a two-month-old granddaughter. What was it that compelled you to want to do a race of this nature?
BRENT: I’ve always been a runner and have been to Nepal four times now. I love the Himalayas. I’m turning 60 next week. I thought I wanted to do something that was really meaningful to me on my own.
I had a ton of support from my friends and family and co-workers. But this was very much a singular endeavor.
EYE: You could have just bungee jumped or something.
BRENT: I have to admit I approached 60 kicking and screaming and dreading that senior discount getting closer and closer. This was something I thought was challenging and just felt right.
“Just trekking for 21 days alone with 80 strangers was another challenge.“
EYE: Again, you went 26 miles down Mt. Everest in just over 8 hours. To me that says age is just a number.
BRENT: I agree with that. Granted I might have done it a lot faster 20 years ago. But I might not have. I’m in pretty good shape, and I’m pretty pleased with my time and my physical ability. Just trekking for 21 days alone with 80 strangers was another challenge. I was one of only two Americans on the trip.
EYE: Were you the only woman?
BRENT: No, there were 27 women from all over the world. Fifteen countries were represented, and three Nepali women joined us on race day.
EYE: If I did something like this, I would just want to finish and not care about my time. Was it important to you?
BRENT: No, not really. The Nepalis finished in the 4 hour range. There were a lot of very elite athletes involved in this. They do everything from multi-day staged races where you go 350 miles, 70 miles a day carrying your own supplies. They came in in the 6 hour range.
“You have to have a singular focus of where you put your foot every time you take a step.“
EYE: This was not easy and quite dangerous. At any moment you could have faced death.
BRENT: Not to get too dramatic, but there was that potential every day on a number of fronts. My number one goal was not to get injured and not fall. There were several cases of split knees, stitches and people getting banged up. You have to have a singular focus of where you put your foot every time you take a step. When you’re running that becomes even more important.
EYE: I understand you have to hike up to establish what the trail is and sign an agreement that says you did that in order to go down.
BRENT: Yes, and it was not marked at all. Some of the lower trail was easier to follow. But up at the top with the glacial moraine and scree, it’s just a mass of grey rock and rubble. There was ice as well and frozen rivers you had to cross and make sure you hit the right stone. It was intense but wonderful.
EYE: Are you surprised at yourself for having accomplished it?
BRENT: I don’t think it has entirely sunk in. I finished, and then there was a lot going on just to get back to Kathmandu. I did become fairly ill before the race and was dealing with my health there.
Then I flew for two days to get home. I had a wonderful reception at San Francisco airport.
I’m just enjoying so much of the welcome that it’s hard to sit back and reflect upon it. I’m very happy that I did it, and it will stay with me forever. My family is very proud.
EYE: You have a son. Was he afraid for you at all?
BRENT: No, he’s a smoke jumper with the U. S. Forest Service so not much scares him. I’m sure he was concerned. He’s been over there with me before. He knew the area I was going to be in. He also has 100% confidence in me.
EYE: You started training seven months before you knew you were going, correct?
BRENT: I was accepted in April and immediately amped up my training. I’ve always been a runner doing distance running of 30 miles plus, but I started doing a full marathon every single Saturday. Two days a week I did CrossFit which is over all strength training and conditioning. It really paid off.
EYE: I read on your blog that when you were coming down the trail there was a point that you thought you were lost…
BRENT: I looked up because I was so focused and all of a sudden the pack had thinned out. I was alone. I looked way across many acres and thankfully I saw red.
It was one of the other runner’s jackets and that gave me a point and destination to run for because I had no point of reference. Everything looked the same. There it’s not like if you just head down the hill, you’ll get where you need to go. You need a point of reference all the time.
EYE: What was the toughest part? Coming down, going up, them telling you that you didn’t have the right sleeping bag?
BRENT: No, just having my health, and I think I speak for a lot of competitors. It was difficult having my health deteriorate so much between the day I arrived there and race day.
“We’re in tents; it’s bitter cold and there’s ice inside the tent.”
EYE: Did you fear you couldn’t even do the race?
BRENT: That was never a question. I would have done it regardless. We were all so incredibly fit and ready to do this. I had followed my own intense nutrition and exercise program. Then you get over there and you’re eating canned fish, potatoes and fried bread. Granted it’s hard to cook on the trail for 80 people, and they do the best they can. But there is very little nutritional value to the food. It’s is very unappealing.
We’re in tents; it’s bitter cold and there’s ice inside the tent. As you go higher, that dry cold air starts to affect your breathing. You’re trekking for hours every day increasing in altitude. There’s so much dust and dirt you’re inhaling. Yak trains go by you. It all takes a toll on your respiratory system.
EYE: Perhaps for some it might have been too much.
BRENT: Not in this crowd. This was a very accomplished group. Things like that don’t stop people with these kinds of backgrounds. There were a few cases of acute mountain sickness. A few pulled out, but overall everybody did it.
EYE: What’s amazing to me is that not only are you doing this, but you’re blogging there. You had technology before and after.
BRENT: It’s interesting that you can be in the most remote parts of the world now and get internet access even if it’s solar powered. I was noticing throughout the trip that Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. They have very little. But they’ve all got a cell phone. It’s becoming just like here. Everybody’s looking down.
“The lyrics from “Miles from Nowhere” were perfect for how I’d been feeling.”
EYE: One of your blogs talks about a song that got you through this race. Tell me about that.
BRENT: On the last day after the race, I was writing my final blog and this Cat Stevens song came back to me; I had it on my iPhone. It just hit me. The lyrics from “Miles from Nowhere” were perfect for how I’d been feeling–about being so far away with no one around.
It resonated. It was relevant. It summed up my experience.
EYE: It wasn’t just this desire to run, but it was a very charitable gesture as well. You had to raise money in order to do this.
BRENT: The organizing group, Bufo Ventures, asked that we raise money. I have raised to date over $15,000 for multiple charities in Nepal. Just to replace a dental chair that was destroyed in an earthquake is about $2,000. That was one of the reasons I was drawn to do this through this particular organization.
“It taught me not to get too bogged down in what happens in my day to day life.”
EYE: Did this extreme adventure change you?
BRENT: I think I raised the bar for myself again. Life throws more and more things at us the older we get. It’s good to always have perspective and be able to say I can handle this. It taught me not to get too bogged down in what happens in my day-to-day life. I can say that this situation is nothing like that was.
EYE: Are you plotting your next big adventure or do you take some time away?
BRENT: No, I think I’m going to let my body recover. I can honestly say that I pushed it to the limit, to the max, and I cherish my body. I want to give it some good down time. I will give it some food and rest and get my health back 100 per cent, and we’ll see if there’s something I want to enter.
EYE: Would you recommend this to someone else? Do you have to be a certain type of person?
BRENT: I don’t think it’s for everybody by any means. It’s a very tough trip. You are stripped of every comfort, any good food, and it’s lonely at times. It takes a lot out of you. You really have got to want to do it.
You can’t need a lot of things. You have to go with a blank slate and say I’m here for 28 days or whatever and whatever happens, this is part of it. Trekking in the Himalayas is quite difficult. The running is more difficult. The food is not going to be enjoyable.
EYE: What’s the one visual that you will remember?
BRENT: There were so many. When we started off going out of Gorak Shep, we started running across this fine white sand and we hit a hill and came to the top; it was just like a lunar landscape.
There’s so much rubble and rock and everything is grey. It starts you off. You say, “OK, here it is. I’ve just got to get through it.” There were a lot of miles like that.
Also it was the joy of seeing people at the finish line. We were ecstatic.
BRENT: I would definitely like to go on a speaking engagement. A book may be in the future. There are no accidents in life. I sat next to a wonderful woman on the flight from Hong Kong who is an author and is involved with a women’s group in New York. She and I connected.
EYE: I must ask you how did you have the guts to do something like this? Did you put the fear out of your mind?
BRENT: The only real fear that I have is fear of failure. I don’t fear getting hurt. I feel like I can control all of that. You pay attention, and you can go slower.
Unforeseen things can come up and can happen. I think I’m drawn to things like this because they are a challenge. It’s great fun while you’re doing it, and it’s almost more fun when it’s over. You can look back and say, “Wow, what an accomplishment!”
EYE: We agree…a once in a lifetime journey and much to be proud of. Brent believes in stepping out of her comfort zone, way out of her comfort zone. We’re looking forward to hearing more when she hits the lecture circuit!