A Strong Heart in Thin Air
May 25th, 2016 by Jody Foss
Running with a view. Mount Everest looms behind Darryl Houghtelling as he competes in the Mount Everest Marathon November 30, 2015, in Nepal. The Condon, Oregon, runner finished first among American competitors and 30th overall. “There is really no way to prepare for that high elevation,” Darryl says. In addition to training runs, his preparation for the event included a month-long regimen of high-altitude trekking in the Cascades, including jaunts on 10,000-foot South Sister. Photo courtesy of Darryl Houghtelling

Running with a view. Mount Everest looms behind Darryl Houghtelling as he competes in the Mount Everest Marathon November 30, 2015, in Nepal. The Condon, Oregon, runner finished first among American competitors and 30th overall. “There is really no way to prepare for that high elevation,” Darryl says. In addition to training runs, his preparation for the event included a month-long regimen of high-altitude trekking in the Cascades, including jaunts on 10,000-foot South Sister.
Photo courtesy of Darryl Houghtelling

It was a crystal-clear November morning in Gorka Shep, Nepal, at 17,000 feet. After three weeks of acclimating to the thin air, an intrepid marathon runner from Condon, Oregon, Darryl Houghtelling, was ready for the 2015 Mount Everest Marathon.

After the first few miles, Darryl, 46, says he was wishing for a third lung.

“We 27 international runners followed the Nepalese runners, who were sprinting through the sand—in shorts, mind you—to our first 2 kilometers uphill through a boulder field.”

At mile 5, Darryl wandered onto the wrong trail up a ridge line.

“I thought people were cheering me on, but they were yelling at me to come back down to the correct path,” he says with a laugh.

Mile 13, at 11,500 feet, was a steep hill up to a monastery where Darryl’s group leader was waiting with a big piece of apple pie and Mars chocolate bars.

“The massive downhill from the monastery went on for 1.5 miles, and I had to be careful I didn’t plummet off a cliff or twist an ankle while dodging trekkers, porters and yaks,” Darryl says. “At the bottom of the hill, we crossed a long suspension bridge over a wild river gorge and then up a steep hill to mile 17.5 station, where I received a hug, mango juice and a granola bar and headed around the mountain toward Namche Bazaar with amazing views of the Himalayas along a cliff-ridden ancient trail.”

Darryl got lost again and ended up in an old woman’s backyard, then on a yak path well above the trail. It cost him a good 15 to 20 minutes.

“I discovered I was behind TK, the young American runner from Manhattan,” he says. “If I wanted to be the first American, I would have to get a move on up the hilly last 2 miles towards town and a final mile descent.

“I caught him with a kilometer to go and didn’t look back as I finished the most scenic and hardest marathon anyone could think of.”

Darryl took 30th overall and finished first of the three American runners.

A 1987 graduate of Dufur (Oregon) High School, Darryl was a state champ, and ran a 4-minute, 13-second mile.

“It’s hard to break 6 now,” he says. “In the marathon, I averaged 7.2 minutes a mile.”

In 1987, Darryl joined the Marines and served in the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91. After leaving the service, he gained 144 pounds while driving truck for a living. He underwent lap band surgery, lost 121 pounds the first year after the surgery and was inspired to get back into shape.

“I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “It wasn’t pretty, but I did it.”

In August 2014, Darryl was diagnosed with kidney cancer. After partial kidney removal, he is cancer free.

“When I was in the hospital, my wife got me a book called ‘Extreme Running,’” Darryl says. “I saw the Everest Marathon and thought it would be neat to do it. Cancer makes you think about what you want to do in life.”

Darryl flew from Seattle to Dubai, then over the North Pole to Kathmandu, Nepal.

“It’s crowded, poor, old,” Darryl says. “Even without the earthquake, everything is crumbling. It’s a lot different than Condon.”

They flew into Lukla, one of the deadliest airports in the world—there is a cliff on one side and a mountain on the other—in a 20-passenger plane.

“Then it was just a primitive trail, where you have to carry everything on your back,” Darryl says. “That is, unless you have your own yak. If you have your own yak, then you are in the big bucks.”

Before leaving for Nepal, Darryl trained on South Sisters Mountain, which is 10,000 feet at the summit.

“I was gone an entire month, trekking and getting in shape for race day,” he says.

Darryl ran the Boston Marathon last April, and now has his sights set on running a 7-day, 250-kilometer stage race in Pantagonia in the Andes Mountains in November 2017.

Darryl says hanging out and running with the Mount Everest group was an experience he will never forget.

“They all have such great stories,” he says. “They have run the European marathons, the Antarctic, the North Pole Marathon. Some have run the Wall of China Marathon and the Four Deserts Marathon, across the Sahara. Everyone swapped stories.”

One of the highlights of the trip was the day before the race, when Darryl summited 18,300-foot Mount Kalipathar with a Green Bay Packers pennant.

“Even though I was at 18,000 feet, I was looking up at Mount Everest, which is 11,000 feet higher,” he says. “It was incredible.”