It’s one thing to summit Kilimanjaro as a hiker and battle altitude sickness and fatigue, but to run up it – and set a new world record in the process? That’s another level of crazy.
As yesterday saw ultra-runner Fernanda Maciel set a new women’s world record for the fastest Kilimanjaro summit and return (to the top and back in an amazing 10 hours 6 minutes), 29-year-old Sundried ambassador and ultra runner, Becky Shuttleworth, recounts what it was like to set her own Kili running world record two years ago.
In July 2015, Jon – a friend and professional mountain guide – offered me an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. To trek for seven days to the Summit of Kilimanjaro, return to the bottom and then, after a couple of days’ rest, run back to the top in a single day.
The offer wasn’t limited to me – Jon opened it up to two other ultra-runners, Michael and Paula who, equally excitedly, jumped at the chance. We brushed off warnings from friends who were doctors, friends who were mountaineers and even friends who were mountaineer-doctors. We ignored their concerns that this seriously might be the last thing we ever did as our hearts/heads/lungs would explode from the altitude (…or something). We put our trust in the hands of Jon who, having summited the mountain seven times and having plenty of high altitude experience, was aware of the risks and confident that this was not a bullish plan and with the correct approach and support it was highly unlikely to kill us…
The first ascent: Hiking
A slow, seven-day acclimatisation was of paramount importance as we were to reach the lofty heights of 5,895m. For this, we joined a larger group – 13 in total. We took the popular Machame Route, which lead us through beautiful rainforest, desert and glacier. While there were no showers or flushing toilets, we were spoilt with the support we received from our team of porters. They cooked for us, pitched tents for us, encouraged us relentlessly and entertained us with African songs and dancing in the evenings. Each night we would watch as the clear night sky above gifted us shooting stars and we gazed down on the millions of tiny lights illuminating the cities below. It was a wonderful escape from normality; no mobile phones, no internet, no work. A great opportunity to switch off.
The first five days were easy enough – a slow hike with plenty of good conversation and exchanges of jokes and riddles as we got to know one other. Summit day was a little more demanding. Having had just a couple of hours’ sleep, we were woken at 11pm and instructed to wrap up warm, force down some food and find our head-torches. We aimed to summit at sunrise which meant walking through the freezing night air that would get noticeably thinner with every metre we climbed. The pace was necessarily slow to allow for acclimatisation but also due to the inherently exhausting conditions. Six hours after leaving Barafu Camp (High Camp) a few of us reached our destination. The rest of the group, a few minutes to a few hours behind. For many of the group this had been the most challenging experience of their lives and every one of us has made a lifelong memory of summiting Mt Kilimanjaro.
Safely back at the base of the mountain, the four of us who were staying on celebrated with the whole group (a little too enthusiastically given our impending challenge) and then said our goodbyes as they wished us luck.
For the next two days we ate, drank, slept and played games by the pool; the conversation rarely digressing far from the challenge ahead. Together we watched, over and over, the video of Kilian Jornet’s speed ascent to the top of the mountain, which earned him (if only for a couple of months) the title of the fastest person ever to ascend the mountain (it has since been beaten by Swiss-Ecuadorian, Karl Egloff). We were nervous of course, but more than that we were excited for a huge injection of ‘type 2 fun’.
The second ascent
Our plan didn’t start with a desire to beat any records – just a desire to push ourselves, physically and mentally. Preparation was key. Jon organised logistics with his local agents, Ahsante Tours, which included arranging for halfway bags to be carried up the mountain ahead of us. What do you pack for a run that starts before sunrise on hard trails, extends through the strong midday heat on rocks and finishes at sunset on steep scree, surrounded by snow? We packed long-sleeved clothing, thick gloves, scarves, hats, head-torches and extra food. This left just a small bag each to carry a waterproof, water and some food (in my case: baby food, Shot Bloks and sweets).
Stage 1: Umbwe Gate (1641m) – Barranco Camp (3985m)
It was still dark when we arrived at Umbwe gate and the park guards were the only other people around – we’d pre-arranged for them to open early for us to allow us the maximum hours of daylight for our mission. We were joined by Bruno – local mountain guide and super-fit and delightful runner – who was to accompany us to the summit. We signed in and set off.
For the first hour or so we stayed in sight of each other. The reality of what we were doing slowly dawned on all of us as we ticked off the metres climbed and realised how diminutive they were against those still left, all the while knowing that it would only get harder the higher we got.
A mixture of running, power walking and scrambling over rocks and along beautiful trails got us to our first check point, Barranco Camp. By this point I had fallen behind with an injury I’d picked up a few weeks prior to the trip and I wasn’t feeling strong. Jon fell back to keep me company, keep my spirits up and keep me moving. The thought that I was miles behind the others proved psychologically very challenging for me. Part of me just wanted to give up and accept defeat, but another, more stubborn voice in my head pointed out that, for the time being at least, I could still put one foot in front of the other and so I continued. As we neared the camp, I spotted Paula only metres ahead and Michael a little ahead of her. How close I had been to them injected more energy into me than the food (I blame my competitiveness on being the middle-child of three similarly aged sisters)
Stage 2: Barranco Camp – Barafu Camp (4681m)
After a Mars bar, a couple of paracetamol and some mango juice we were off. Back in the pack now, I was determined not to fall behind. The next stretch was great – we put the Go Pro to use, dancing from rock to rock and making good time on the downhill sections – flying past groups of trekkers. Word had got around the mountain that some crazy people were running to the Summit and groups kindly stepped aside to let us pass. As we darted through we caught whispers about our sanity but also cheers and words of encouragement.
The group spread out again with Jon and me sharing the middle position while Michael regained the lead and Paula dropped slightly behind. There were tents, sleeping bags and food ready for a delightful collapse at Barafu Camp. However, it wasn’t an option as far as we were concerned. We had a bite to eat, popped a couple more paracetamol and packed up some extra layers – the sun was slowly setting behind us and the temperature would continue to drop as we gained altitude.
Stage 3: Barafu Camp – Uhuru Peak (5895m)
The next section was tough: the climbing switch-back paths were long and slow – we needed a more direct route. We decided to make our own path. Two steps forward, one step back as the scree rolled away from beneath our feet. There was no running by this point. No more chit-chat now, only exchanges of encouragement. Head down, right foot, left foot. Exhaustion from the day kicked in and the air thinned with every metre gained. Fears set in that we weren’t going to make it before it got dark and therefore too dangerous to continue. Failure was no more an option than it had been at Barafu Camp so we pressed on.
As we neared the summit, we passed Michael on his way back. Paula had stopped at Barafu Camp – there weren’t enough hours of sunlight left for her to carry on so despite an incredible effort on her part, her journey ended there.
As Jon and I urged our feet to keep climbing, Jon looked at his watch and informed me that the female world record ascent was within our grasp. We were even more determined to continue.
Our day had started at 6am. 11hrs and 34 minutes and nearly 5,000 meters of climbing later, we made it. Eight minutes faster than the female world record at the time*. At 5,895m Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa and the highest free standing mountain in the world. We were there, just the two of us, in complete peace and totally exhausted as the sun set on just another day.
What a day.
*My record was claimed by German ultrarunner, Anne-Marie Flammersfeld, who summited in an impressive 8hrs 32 minutes. And yes, I would jump at the chance to head back and attempt to reclaim my title.
Thanks for the write-up, Becky!
You can follow Becky via social media on www.instagram.com/bex213