Clack! Clack! Clack! Steadily, we climbed up the steep single track, nearly a 25 percent grade. The wind blew with ferocity only matched by the intensity of the sun at 14,000 ft. With one pole in his right hand, 68-year-old ultrarunner Takumi Ueno decimated climb after climb. At this point, the two of us were approaching the halfway point of the Everest Extreme Ultra, a 70 KM mountain race in Nepal going from Everest Base Camp to Namche Bazaar.
The event, allowing 19 of 67 applicants to participate, stated the requirement for “extreme endurance”. During the event, one would deal with high altitude, yak caravans, fluctuating extreme weather, and more as they traversed five Himalayan passes. Yet, Japanese ultrarunner Takumi Ueno had done a 105K footrace just weeks before. Takumi had also trekked to base camp along with us. Slow and steady, Takumi marched forward. You can imagine my astonishment as a young but unseasoned ultrarunner. Watching Takumi and mimicking his style taught me things I would never have learned otherwise. Here are the lessons I learned from the 68-year-old mountain runner.
Slow and Steady is Better than Fast and Out
Immediately during our climbs, I realized Takumi was very intentional. If the climb was technical, Takumi maneuvered his feet to the step that would require the least effort. With his poles, he would have at least three points of contact before pushing into the next movement. Takumi would even maneuver diagonally in small cadences to avoid putting his legs up against an unnecessary load. To the untrained eye, that may not seem like a big difference. To someone who has done their fair share of ultras and experienced fatigue, big difference. Slow and steady will get you to your destination. Going out fast may work in the short-term, but can eventually lead to an absolute breakdown, especially in a race where oxygen is already a limited commodity. Just take slow and steady steps every day and you will eventually get to where you need to go.
It’s Ok to Rest and Enjoy the Moment
After a difficult series of climbs, I watched incredulously as Takumi said he needed a break. He sat down and I shrugged, not willing to disagree with 3 decades of experience. Takumi sat down, laughed, and pulled out a candy bar. Content, that is how he looked. Joining him, I ate my snickers and stared off into the horizon. The sun illuminated the white snow-capped mountains in the distance. Mountain goats walked by, looking like unrivaled masters of the steep. In that moment, I learned about micro moments of rest and why they matter. Within 5 minutes, Takumi was up and ready to go. Slowly, he started climbing again, a new vigor with the same intentional stepping as earlier. It’s ok to rest and recover. Enjoy the moment you’re in and be grateful for what you have.
Work Hard, but Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
One thing I noticed about Takumi that I’ve noticed about other seasoned runners is their sense of humor. During the last climb, Takumi and I stumbled up the hill. He laughed hysterically, making noises like OH and AUGH to encapsulate how absurd the climb was. Separated by our language barrier, this was his way of saying “why do we pay for this again?” Now, you’d have to imagine eating candy bars is gonna rouse up your digestive system. Well, Takumi beat me six loud farts to one. We laughed at each other, exasperated by the last stretch of the race. But we laughed.
When we got to the finish chute, Takumi and I clumsily stepped into the finish together. The race organizers understood the intention. The first thing Takumi asked for at the finish was a celebration beer with a toothy grin. Of all the lessons, the biggest one was to have fun because life is already hard enough. Work hard and play hard. Truly, one of the biggest honors I had in my finish of the Everest Ultra was to finish with Japanese ultrarunner Takumi Ueno, aged 68. Slow and steady, we made it.