Everest Marathon: Gobet in peak form on top of the world: Swiss 39-year-old retains his crown in one of sport's most breathtaking events. Rob Howard witnessed his triumph

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The Independent Online
AS THE Swiss athlete Pierre-Andre Gobet crossed the finish line of the biennial Reebok Everest Marathon in the Himalayan market town of Namche Bazaar at 11,200 feet, Tibetan traders, the Sherpa community and astonished tourists gathered to applaud. Having won the world's hardest and highest foot race, defending the title he won in 1991, he calmly acknowledged the crowd, and accepted his medal and the traditional white scarf of honour.

Last month Gobet beat the best Nepalese athletes on their home soil, leaving the second-placed runner Hari Rokaya, an Olympic marathon runner, a full 17 minutes behind and once again overcoming a strong challenge from the army's Gurkha Brigade team. His time of 4hr 03min 29sec was outside the record of 3:59:04, set by the Scot Jack Maitland in 1989, but he was the first athlete to win this remarkable race twice.

On a crystal-clear day, with the icefalls glittering in the sun, the exhausted runners crossed the line covered in dust, and sometimes blood-streaked and bruised from falls, but exultant at becoming one of the few to win a unique medal. Only one of the 75 starters from 12 nations failed to complete the course of the British-organised race.

All had paid pounds 1,725 for a month- long trip, arriving in the ancient Nepalese capital of Kathmandu to begin the 16-day walk to the start line. With more than 200 porters, cooks and guides, and 10 race doctors, they had crossed high passes every day, climbing a total of 30,000ft, more than the height of Everest above sea level, before reaching the mountain itself. With occasional outbreaks of dysentery, camping in temperatures as low as -15C and the constant fear of acute mountain sickness, reaching the start is harder than completing the race.

After 10 days of trekking they arrived at Namche Bazaar, then spent the next 10 days slowly walking up the course to the start, set on the Khumbu Glacier at 17,000ft, close to Base Camp. At any signs of altitude sickness doctors would evacuate them, and this was the constant fear of all the runners, to come so far and not be able even to reach the start. Only one runner, Kathy Crilley from London, suffered that cruel fate, but even after being carried on a stretcher down the glacier, she was spirited enough to start the race from the nine-mile mark, and completed the remaining 17.2 miles.

The race began at dawn and Gobet led from the start, running steadily across the ice-covered boulders that make up the first two miles and quickly establishing his authority over the Gurkha team. As he gained speed at lower altitudes, squeezing past yak trains on the narrow trails and crossing frightening rope and wire bridges, he was never challenged.

The second half of the race is lower, but harder, featuring a 1,000ft climb to the finish, but Gobet remained in control. The highest-placed Briton was 37- year-old Robert Worth from Cumbria, who was eighth in 5:02:31. He said: 'I was aiming to be first Briton, in the top 10 and for a time of four and a half hours, so two out of three isn't bad.'

Gobet, who is 39, is not planning to try for a third win or to break the veterans' record in the next race. 'I'm retiring from running now,' he said. 'I want to concentrate on other things, including mountaineering, so perhaps I will come back to climb Everest.'

(Photograph omitted)