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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

http://www.redbull.com/in/en/adventure/stories/1331749034049/running-in-the-sky-laultra-the-high-2015

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Crash Course In Ultra Running

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I am not one of those guys who plan a lot. In fact a lot of who I am today isn’t a bit according to the plan. Life has been a string of chance encounters and impulsive decisions. Be it quitting a sizeable business after a quick chat with a stranger at a filling station or, riding solo 4000 kilometers across the Himalayas on a beaten up bike. Why? well… because I can. That being said, impulsive decisions haven’t meant half-hearted efforts or giving up easily. Rather, decisions have (almost) always been pursued to perfection like heartfelt grief, with the chaste of honest prayers.

Running a 76 kilometer ultramarathon in the Himalayan foothills was one of ‘those decisions’. Made at a chai shop over steaming momos and a chance sighting of a poster with a call to action for the Garhwal Runs.

I haven’t been much of a runner in all these years. In fact, I try to substitute running with skipping, as I really don’t like running empty distances much. However, the Garhwal Run was a qualifier to the LaUltra which I am really psyched about due to the difficulties it poses in addition to ultra running. It is a 111 km long race, run at an average mean sea level of 14000ft, in temperatures below freezing – justifiably known as the cruelest ultra on the planet.

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Barely Running! Still going strong. 

50 days prior to the event, I started training. A 5km run uphill made for a good start. In less than a week I graduated to running my first 10kms uphill under an hour. Since there wasn’t much time to train, I had to push myself to run a distance of over 21kms under 2 hours within the first 10 days of training. I never knew that this much endurance was already within me! Running a half marathon became a habit and I sustained it for almost the entire training period, coupling with a rest day or two each week. A fortnight prior to the race, I even ran a 30k and marathon distance on consecutive days. This was just to instill some self confidence.

I was a bit nervous before the race, though. This was due to two reasons. First, I had lost almost 7 kgs in training so I wasn’t feeling very strong. Second, I was going through a rough patch emotionally – if you’ve run distance, you’d know how the unoccupied mind can mess with your motivation and emotions. However, there I was at the start line, 6am in the morning on 14th of February – ready to take on the world.

The first 10kms drifted while I chatted with my running buddy Praveen. Then the road began to climb up and Praveen glided out of sight. It was ‘straight uphill’ from there both, physically and emotionally, as thoughts started filling my head and blood pumped into the calves. I endured for the next 15kms and halted for my first snack break at the 25kms mark reached in under 3 hours. I vowed not to halt before completing the marathon distance. But stop I did, when I caught up with Praveen again and decided on a quick five minute laze on the roadside.

The marathon distance was covered in five hours. The next 10kms were straight downhill, and here lied the crux of the race. At the 51kms mark, we lost all the altitude gained in the last 6 hours of running. However, I being the overconfident hare decided to nap for half an hour. This turned out to be a huge blunder. The body cooled down and all the muscles stiffened. In a matter of minutes my entire self was writhing with pain. It took a great deal of effort to get back on the road again. The next 5 hours and the last 25kms were some of the most torcherous moments of my life. I ran a bit, walked a bit more and crawled to the end – finishing second last, in 11 hours and 42 minutes.

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Salt settled on my skin. The ethereal pain sublimated into the cosmos. And all was good, again.   

There was no glory at the finish line, only the luxury of time to attend to our injuries. What might remain once this body has healed, is that faint feeling of satisfaction of having made it to the end. And the knowledge of qualifying for the LaUltra. Finally!