Running in the sky: La Ultra – The High

A newbie in ultra-running narrates his account of an attempt to take on the cruellest ultra marathon


Photo by: Priyanka Oberai

I felt like a lone star drifting in an infinite space. There were vistas of milky way to behold – way brighter than my headlamp – and its rays kept fading away in the unfathomable black of the asphalt.

I could have been dreaming, but for the GPS strapped to my wrist. Six kilometres still to go, for the first cut-off. The greatest difficulty at the world’s cruelest ultramarathon, La Ultra – The High, is not about the altitude or the distance. Those may be secondary. The primary hurdle is just making it to the start line.

For me, the road to this start, was a journey of nine months and several hundred running-kilometres long. From having never run a race at all, to making past a 76km qualifier, it took fifty days of gruelling preparation. Running half marathons, marathons and 80km runs became second nature. I even moved base to Nainital, to gain exposure of running at a high altitude. All was well until a month from the event. I felt a piercing pain on my right knee, which made me limp, and gradually brought me to a halt during one of the practice runs. Diagnosed with Iliotibial Band Syndrome (commonly known as ITBS), I felt devastated for a moment. However, too stubborn to give up, I committed to a crash-and-burn strategy.

The first few days in Leh were spent acclimatising to the sudden altitude gain. On the fifth day, I decided to sprint to the Shanti Stupa (14000 feet). Standing atop a hill, towering 1000 feet over the Leh city, the Stupa is a colossal structure built by the Japanese as a symbol of peace. It took me six minutes to climb 500 odd stairs leading up to the monument and another 25 minutes to regain my breath. With shaky legs, I returned to my homestay and slipped under the covers. It soon dawned upon me, that ITBS was too trivial an issue, compared to the monstrous altitude that I had to battle.

I committed the remaining days to practice runs, trail walks and acclimatisation hikes up to 5000m (above MSL) to enhance the production of red blood cells. This was imperative, in order to adapt to the thin Himalayan air.

start line

At the start line.

At 8 PM, on a starlit night of August, the race commenced. In a sea of blinkers and headlamps, we paced upstream, like a shoal of salmons heading home. The first leg of the race was a 63km arduous climb, going from 11,000 feet to 17,000 feet to Khardung La. Khardung La is known as the erstwhile highest motorable pass in the world.

But, you can’t take your own sweet time to get there. The race director mandates 9 hours, 18 hours and 24 hours to reach the 48km mark, 78km mark and the 111km finish line respectively. Similarly, one needs to finish the 222km and 333km category in 48 hours and 72 hours respectively, to earn the ‘Finisher’ title. The cut-offs add to the challenge as participants struggle to keep a steady pace. The onslaught of sub-zero temperatures, thin air, high altitude and sleep deprivation brings the bravest of the running gladiators to knees.


Photo by: Priyanka Oberai

I was running strong in the third position (in the 111km category) making the first cut-off in eight hours. After refreshing myself with a quick nap and a cup of tea, I decided to take on the steepest section of the remaining 15km to K-Top. The sun was slowly rising over the jagged Himalayan peaks, and so were my spirits. I took out a pair of hiking poles and started on my way.

LaUltra 3

Using Hiking Poles for the 15 KM Section leading to K-Top

The pass seemed well in sight all along the way. The never-ending road though, that kept on climbing one bend after another, wouldn’t let me reach to the top. The beautiful scenery of snow-capped peaks, streams and pastures below, was quite unfair in the treatment it meted out to its beholder. Beaten to the bone physically, I let my mind do the walking. Loosely strung on walking poles, I made it to the 60km mark. The doctor noticed something strange with my trot and ordered auscultation. His judgement was confirmed within no time. The stethoscope informed about the fluid accumulation in my lungs. Diagnosed with High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (or HAPO) I made past the second cut-off on four wheels, with an oxygen mask strapped to my face.

‘It’s over’, called out another fallen friend. The finality of the two words rang like a brazen slap across the face. I guess, this is what the race is about. There are no two ways to describe it.
Cruel. Or rather, the cruelest.

About the Race

participant 2015

Participants 2015. The author is seated on the left (chairs).

La Ultra – The High is an ultramarathon conducted in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir (India). Accepting participants in three categories (111km, 222km and 333km), the race climbs over three of the highest motorable passes in the world, reaching a maximum altitude of 17,000 feet. In its sixth edition this year, only 7 of the 15 participants could finish the race within time, braving snow blizzards and temperatures between -10 to 40 degree celsius.

This year, the race also witnessed its first Indian finisher – Parwez Malik. He was the winner in the 111km category as well. Penbin Chen (China) was the sole finisher in the 222km category and Sean Maley (UK) finished first in the 333km race.


This article was originally published on RedBull (dot) Com on 21st September, 2015.


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