Having taken up the sport only 10 months ago, Pham Duy Cuong, a 35-year-old from Hanoi, managed to finish 71st out of 202 participants in the 42-kilometer, high-altitude marathon on May 29, completing the event in a time of seven hours 47 minutes and seven seconds.
Taking place 5,364 meters above sea level, where temperatures sit at around minus 20 degrees Celsius, the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon is the world’s highest and coldest trail running event.
By finishing, Cuong becomes the first Vietnamese to conquer the marathon distance in such challenging and elevated conditions.
The owner of a coffee machine business, prior to his achievement Cuong had not always been a picture of health.
From a heavy drinker
Despite his enthusiasm for sport, the businessman was also a big fan of drinking, whether he was having a few drinks with his business partners or joining his friends for parties in his free time.
Cuong used to play social football and often drank with his friends after games, resulting in gout and herniated discs.
The Hanoi resident only decided to change his life for the better in August last year, choosing running as his primary exercise.
Cuong began running an average of 13 kilometers around the city’s West Lake every day, and after a month of this, challenged himself by signing up for the Vietnam Mountain Marathon in Sa Pa, the mountainous town in the northern province of Lao Cai.
Despite its immense difficulty, Cuong was able to finish the 42-kilometer long trail.
He has since participated in more than 10 different marathons.
Recent races include a marathon in Barcelona, one in the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang, the IRONMAN 70.3 triathlon in Da Nang, and the Everest Marathon in Nepal.
Cuong looks a different man from 10 months ago, with a near perfect physique, vastly improved body-mass index, and most importantly, the will power to overcome hardship.
To an Everest challenger
Cuong, going by the nickname Dr. Deo (Dr. Elastic), is now widely admired by members of the Long Distance Runners club for his achievements.
Pham Duy Cuong (R) and his fellow competitors pose at the start of the marathon. Photo courtesy of Cuong
“I’ve always wanted to reach the top of Everest, which is 8,848 meters above sea level. Conquering the marathon at an altitude of over 5,000 meters brought me one step closer to that dream,” Cuong said.
To prepare for the running event, he spent three months performing specialized exercises to acclimatize his body to the sub-zero weather conditions and thin air.
Cuong wore a mask that limited his oxygen supply during training, and continued to wear it during the marathon in Ha Giang and the IRONMAN triathlon in Da Nang.
His commitment paid off in Nepal as his body adapted well to the altitude during the Everest marathon.
“Fear and doubt only existed before the run began. Once I entered the marathon, the finish line was my only focus,” Cuong recalled.
Leaving Hanoi for Nepal on May 15, Cuong kept a journal during the 21 days during which he was away.
“What a bad day! Annei [Cuong’s teammate] cried again, this time because of her insomnia and terrible headache, caused by the freezing weather,” reads one of his entries.
Each participant paid a US$2,500 entrance fee, in exchange for transportation from the airport, accommodation, food, and other necessities during the event.
Two days after arriving in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, competitors flew to Lukla Airport at the foot of Mount Everest, followed by a 10-day walk to base camp.
Hiking during the day and taking shelter from the frigid temperature at night, food and personal hygiene posed challenges.
“Each of us was handed a one-liter bucket of water for hygiene and a timer to take turns in washing ourselves. It was a strenuous yet once in a lifetime experience,” Cuong recalled.
Everest base camp, which sits at an altitude of 5,364 meters, was the marathon’s start line.
The race officially began on the morning of May 29, with a finish line 3,440 meters above sea level.
“I could feel electricity running through my veins as I crossed the finish line,” Cuong said. “I carried the national flag with me and I was filled with pride and joy after completing the race.”