John Percy – Last Man Standing
Endurance running brings many challenges and multi-day adventures bring many variables. The process of running day-after-day can push even the most trained and experienced runner to his or her limits. However, for many runners, a race challenge often combines many things – adventure, the unknown, an opportunity to experience a new place, make new friends and yes, a holiday!
Take any race, any race in the world and you will have someone who comes first and someone who comes last. It’s such an awful phrase; last! It sounds insulting, as though that person has failed… but let’s look at the positives. A journey has a start and an end, how one completes that journey is often down to personal motivations, passions and in the scenario of covering distance in a fast time; genetics!
In my most recent adventure, the Everest Trail Race in Nepal, I enjoyed the trails every day with the runners as they climbed, descended and endured the tough and technical trails that this region of the Himalayas has to offer.
Pasang Llama (Nepal) won the race ahead of Miguel Capo Soler (Spain) and Casey Morgan (UK) with a dominant performance, he completed the six-day journey from Jiri to Tyangboche and back to Lukla in 22-hours, 04-minutes and 22-seconds. His shortest day was 2-hours 50-minutes and the longest day 4-hours 50-minutes.
Now contrast this to John Percy from the UK. His shortest day was 7-hours 32-minutes and his longest day 14-hours 59-minutes. John, like it or not, became a hero of the Everest Trail Race in 2016. He inspired everyone with his relentless enthusiasm, grit and tenacity to push on, no matter how tough it got or how bad he felt.
“Regardless of the time, the distance is the same. A mile is a mile, and every mile matters!”
This quote is relevant in every race, day-in, day-out, all over the world. We often focus and concentrate on the front of the race but often it’s the back of the race where a true story and the real drama happens. I caught up with John Percy to ask about his Nepalese experience.
“I’ve done this. I’ve done that. I’ve achieved something that so many haven’t, I may not be the fastest, but I never will be the fastest. I’m not built to the be the fastest, and I’m certainly no Casey Morgan that’s for certain. I’m probably three times the size of him. But what I would say is that I’ve got a dogged spirit and a strong will. I say to myself, ‘Never, ever give up!’ and I don’t give up. Ever.”
Ian: John, ETR, what an experience, huh?
John: The most amazing experience I’ve ever encountered.
Ian: Well, I was just thinking about how I was going to talk to you about your race, and I have decided that I’m going call you the strongest man in the race because you were holding everybody else up above you.
John: Yes. I was certainly holding the wooden spoon at the back but it wasn’t through lack of spirit. Yes, I was the last person nearly every day but it certainly didn’t deter me from finishing.
Ian: Yes. One of the things that amazes me, and one of the things I love about a multi-stage race is the contrast. You have Pasang Llama finishing in three hours. You have you, finishing in 15 hours, and that’s just one day. I’ve often thought, the guys and girls at the front they have real natural gift. There’s a reason why they do what they do – they are good at it! Then, once you start to drift further and further, further back in the field, I always think to myself, “What is it? What is it that makes somebody put themselves on the line? Maybe they put themselves through hell to tick a box, to achieve something?” Do you feel that’s where you’re at, and there’s no disrespect in me saying that?
Casey Morgan who placed 3rd said he had the utmost respect for people like you John, who go out and struggle, and fight every day for a finish.
What is it that motivates you?
John: [sighs] Well, I’m a great believer that yet you only got one life, and you’ve got to live it the best you can, and when I do pop my clogs in the end of my life, at least I can go in and say, “I’ve done this. I’ve done that. I’ve achieved something that so many haven’t, I may not be the fastest, but I never will be the fastest. I’m not built to the be the fastest, and I’m certainly not Casey Morgan that’s for certain. I’m probably three times the size of him. But what I would say is that I’ve got a dogged spirit and a strong will. I say to myself, ‘Never, ever give up!’ and I don’t give up. Ever.”
Ian: That was completely on show here every day at the race. Coming into the race, you have commented on Facebook that you’re a little bit nervous and a little bit worried about the race. What worried you before coming out here?
John: I was a little bit worried about pushing my body to the limited at altitude. I’ve been at altitude a few times over the last few years at varying degrees of success and failure. I was a little bit worried about how my body would cope. Obviously, it is a tough race and there is a lot of climbing, a lot of technical descending. I can power through that. I don’t mind that. I didn’t particularly like the technical sections, not really tough on the legs, just tough on my feet and the whole body really.
Ian: Casey said that the descent on day three, which was your longest day, you were out there for 15-hours to get to the finish line. He said, “that’s one of the most technical and persistent descents that he’s ever been on.” What was your thought process on that descent because at that point, you’ve been out there a long time? You’re looking at your watch and your thinking, ” Am I going to get timed out?” There’s all sorts of processes going on within your own mind. What is that experience like for you?
John: Time wise, yes, you’ve always got that worry of being timed out and things like that. Really, as an individual, I just put it in the back of my mind. I’m the type of person who could basically get up first thing in the morning, and march for the next 50-hours and it wouldn’t make a big difference to me. Endurance-wise like that, it doesn’t affect me. But those downhill sections did take a toll on my human spirit. You get to a lot of dark places in these type of events but that day I would say was my darkest hour…
Ian: Of course, I understand that! Once you get to the bottom of the descents, you then had to climb all the way up to the monastery at Kharikhola, it’s already dark and that is tough. At the Everest Trail Race, they try and avoid people being out on the course in the dark because it can be a dangerous place, and the darkness brings its own darkness. It makes it difficult because the trails are technical, and twisty, and rocky, and gnarly. How did you find that climb up to Kharikhola when you had already been out on the course for 12+ hours.
John: Yes. I think the only good part about that, on the way up was that I knew the end was in sight which was a good feeling. I knew it wasn’t far away. It was a case of just power through. You know, just get through it. Finish it. We’re nearly there now. The end’s in sight. I could see the lights. I could hear people’s voices. It did lift my spirits, the last climb. When you think about it that last climb could destroy the human spirit but for me, it actually raised my spirit a little bit, you know?
Ian: Yes. You weren’t taken out of the race (missing the cut-off), which I think was a really, really good decision. I think always, the rules are in place to give some order and some control in a race. I think, rules are there to be broken sometimes, and effectively what you were given in the race was a second life but in that second life, you seem to have been revived a little bit, I don’t know whether it’s your body adapting to the altitude, maybe you were just getting into a rhythm, but after that, it seemed as though you got into a time zone and was able to then function within the time zones of the race.
What happened? Do you think that maybe that running over the terrain just became that little bit easier which meant you could cover ground quicker?
John: Again, you know, I can only thank the whole team for letting me continue in the race after that punishing hard day where I was out of the time limits. Time limits are there for a good reason. I’ve got to say on that long day, it was the technical descents in the dark which were very, very scary. In addition, I did take quite a big fall on day-2 which did impact on me for day 3. But after that day, I don’t know… something inside says, “Right. You’ve been at your lowest point now. Everything now has got to be a bonus. Just give it everything you can!”
I was quite lucky every day that my body seemed to adapt a little bit better, but I think I just passed that point of being at my lowest ebb, and then I just started to feel a lot better in myself and that lifted my spirits.
Ian: As you get past Kharikhola, you start to get into the more populated trails of Nepal, because you’re on the main schlep into base camp and the scenery changes, the whole atmosphere of the race changes. What has the Nepalese experience been like for you?
John: The Nepalese experience has been awe inspiring. It really makes you wake up and take a long look at yourself, you ask questions about me, as an individual, living in a westernized society, and everything that we’ve got as individuals, as opposed to how the Nepalese people live. I feel now, as if I’m a very lucky individual. You know, how I live my life compared to the very happy folk of Nepal. I mean, they’re just such lovely people. A smile. A handshake, no animosity, everybody was incredible. They see you as an individual.
Ian: You know what’s really interesting, I have spoken to many about Nepal and the Everest Trail Race, and each person has said that the people, not the mountains are the most important thing.
John: No, you’re right. It’s the people that make this race so special, and everybody that is involved with the race passing through the whole Nepalese countryside, and through the population and everything. It’s certainly for me, been the most enjoyable thing I have ever done. I’ve done a lot in my life, and seen a lot in my life, but this is probably going to be one of the highlights of my life.
ETR: When you get to Tyangboche on day five, you get that finish line, and for me it’s one of the best finish lines in the world. What’s it like seeing Ama Dablam, Everest, Lothse, Nuptse?
John: You can’t believe you’re there. I’ve been in mountains all my life. I’ve climbed all over the UK and quite a bit of the Alps. I’ve always wanted to see Everest. I’ve seen it so many times, as you can imagine in movies, looked at it in books etc.… To actually stand in front of it, at the most famous monastery in the world, no doubt about it, it’s just truly awe inspiring.
ETR: Final day, basically, a nice little parade lap home. You weren’t last. [laughs]
John: No, I wasn’t!
ETR: You saved a big effort for the last day?
John: Yes. I really pushed myself and I thought to myself, I had a little cheeky glint in my eye. When I got to the three-and-a-half km to go, I thought, “Sorry, Eusebio. Every man for himself now and I went for it.”
Ian: Race done, experience completed. Everybody has a new and personal experience, they are all so different, but your experience is maybe more rewarding? But I think what’s also quite important is your experience has affected everybody else’s experience because they’ve been able to see how you struggled, battled and succeeded. I think it makes people look at themselves and think, “Well, next time I race I’m not going to pull out when the going gets tough,” they will say to themselves, “John stuck at it at ETR and managed to survive and get through.”
You’ve been to some dark places in this race!
What’s the outcome now, you’re sitting here in the sun next to a pool? It can feel like a distant memory, when a runner finishes a tough race, they often say, “I’m never doing that again.” Then within 12-hours that say, “It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
Was it not that bad?
John: Yes, it was bad. That will not change in my head. Yes, it was hard, yes it was tough. Pain will go away. Leg pain, arm pain, whatever I have got, pain will go away. But the memories will never go away of this race. I will never forget it and I’ll always say, “Never ever, say never.”
Ian: Final question for you. There’ll be people listening to this thinking, “You know what? ETR sounds like a brutal race, I want to go next year or the year after. What advice would you give, Casey for example said that the most important things coming into this race, is not necessarily being a runner but being a great hiker and a great walker. Of course, Casey ran quite a great deal too. What advice would you give to people?
John: A mixture of both. I did a lot of hill work before I came to this race. You need a mixture of both endurance, speed and human endeavor. You need to be on your A-game to complete this race.
Ian: Where do you go from here? What’s next? Is there another race or is there another experience? Are you now tempted by Everest having gotten so close to it?
John: No. I’ve enjoyed seeing Everest but I’m not an individual who would dare to climb Everest. It’s never been my goal. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, K2 and quite a few of the big peaks in North Africa, Africa and Europe. But next from here? I have got something in my head that I really wanted to do. Whether I do it or not remains to be seen. There’s something there that I still want to do. It’s just like I said before, when I do leave this mortal coil, I want to say, “Well, I did this, this and this and this”
READ AND VIEW IMAGES FROM THE 2016 EVERST TRAIL RACE HERE