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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Musings about Love

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(Sunset on Namik La top, J&K; Photo credits: Arindam De)

I have firmly believed that love is for all the reasons and none in particular. Riding to IMF today on the ‘saat taal’ of the short bottle this thought clung to me and I realised that I am falling in love with her all over again!

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(Carrying firewood for dinner enroute Nubra Valley, 60kms off from Indo-China border in Leh; Photo Credits: Arindam De)

My thoughts, of this affair, go back to that heart wrenching month of February 2011, when it all first started. On the 19th of that month I had been dumped in a first relationship. Puppy love as it were the break up left me heartbroken and shattered. In the days to come there was a lot of ruing over the ‘lost’. A lot of reflection was triggered, an introspection at the end of which I stood, a north Indian wheatish male, five feet six inches from the ground, abusively tanned by Delhi sun, wisdom spot on head (read: bald) and gross seventy two kilograms on Earth.

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(Negotiating Zozila; Photo Credits: Dilip Baba)

I had definitely lost a lot! – trying to fit into the equation of a society, I didn’t relate to (or cared for); Trying to chase the love that was never mine. And when the blindfold lifted, life had forsaken me.

In these times, on a chance night, a dear friend of mine took me to Khan Market for ‘winter bird watching’ (read: ogling at south Delhi girls) to uplift my mood – (this was October of the same year, and I was still lamenting). On a traffic signal, pillion riding that night, I was still pondering over the turn of events in my life when some notes, straight out of a double bass solo parked to our right. The beats were being played by a white lady from her Classic 500 – I was dumbfounded! Such uninhibited music came as a ripple of shock wave; the music was forcing me to consciousness from years of slumber. In no uncertain terms, I was perplexed! Was I even ‘allowed’ to feel that way? Was it acceptable? Where will it lead to? – I had no clue!

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(Atop Fotu La, J&K; Photo Credits: Dilip Baba)

In the parking lot of the market, that evening, a foundation was laid. My friend gauged my heart – he had a spare standard 350 – I, kind of, got it there and then!

The following November, I was in Dehradun to pick my bull. It had been stocked in a garage, for a year (of disuse) until then. All it took was fresh engine oil and a battery to get it roaring again. Though it still lagged a few critical part changes and mechanical help but nevertheless, it was thumping.

The same day, I took the bull out for my first riding lessons (first time on a geared two wheeler that too, a ’79 standard 350, right hand geared et al). I was scared to death riding a few hundred metres, and surrendered the controls to my friend. In my mind, I was revaluating the sanity of my decision. However, the deed was done, and I thought, I’ll somehow get rid of it afterwards.

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(Bringing the bull from Dehradun to Delhi – First long ride; Photo Credits: Pranav Manocha)

The next day, November 11th, 2011 (incidentally, World Mountain Day) we took the bike to the mechanic’s for the critical repairs that were needed. All work was done by noon except, the repair of the front brakes Doon being a small town, it was difficult to find the brake wire for the high handle on my bike. We decided to ride the bike without the front brakes (people who have never rode a bullet must note: having or not having the front brakes won’t at all make any difference, whatsoever in any situation, emergent or anticipated, requiring halting of the bike).

For the same day, I along with two friends (including the one who gave me my bull) had pre planned a night stay in Mussoorie; and each had sweared on sticking to the plan. Needless to say, I joined the trip – on my thumper, barely without any lessons (Funny, how we put our life on the line).

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The ride was destined to be everything but, forgettable. Initially, as we started out for the trip, I was shy, inhibited and AFRAID to ride the machine; so I stuck to the pillion or, rode the non geared scooterette that a friend had brought. A few kilometres passed, I avoiding the bull and the attention of my friends; should they discover that I was purposefully not riding the thumper. After a while, we stopped at a roadside dhaba for Maggi and chai,  then we stopped for a fuel refill and all was merry until my friend forced the standard under my command putting it out straight and simple, “your machine, you ride” – and I thought, “So it be”.

(The wall made out of Alex (Dilip and Abhinav’s Bolero) and Bull guarded us from many a beasts of the wild in Nubra Valley)

A hesitant I, kicked nervously – it won’t start. The 350 can surely tell men from boys. You can kick all day and get your calves ripped off but, it won’t start if you ain’t got no cojones! So, I was helped with ignition; that done, I put the bike in the first gear, released the clutch and simultaneously spinned the throttle. That day on a sharp incline of a hilly road, on a thirty four year old machine, I could feel gravity being defied and with such ease.

Down in the second gear it hugged the snakish turns; all I had to do was lean in and out of an approaching curve – the bull took care of the rest.  As I pressed down to the third and the fourth, it charged like Islero proceeding sharply, confidently, and desperately towards Manolete. I couldn’t help but feel like a helpless, weak and vulnerable gladiator who knows his fate and yet holds on to the earth, without giving in – until the body is reduced to mud and blood.

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(Yes! I love to do that)

I can’t really put in words, the overwhelming emotion surging through my veins at that point in time; breaking every shackle of fear, insecurity and inhibition. The sheer vulnerability of my body that evening, made me realise the worth of being. For the first time after two decades, I was living in the moment. All I cared about, the air I was breathing in – I could literally see it! How it rhythmically swayed in and out of my flesh, in tune with the note of the exhaust. For sure, I was enchanted by her beauty and character. To quote Roger Mc Gough, ‘she was so beguiling that I was running miles in mere seconds’.

In Mussoorie, we checked into a cheap hotel, bought a quarter and a half of Old Monk, and drank as if it were our last; until we dropped dead on the floor laughing and chatting, inebriated all the while. The next morning we strolled the markets, chirping and flirting around. The morning was fresh and clear and after a long while, the sun was warm. We ate at Chardukan and Sister Bazaar; and had an afternoon nap on the tarmac near the Christian cemetery in Landour.

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(Ready for the Delhi-Ajmer-Delhi ride)

The afternoon soon melted into the evening. A warm, bright, lit up evening, consuming all the energy and emotion of the day; and emitting it in the sting of the winter breeze of the Shivaliks – like the bitter sweet pain of longing felt by lovers who have just found their beloved! (And how unfair does fate play at times?! Even before their eyes have satisfied theirselves with the other’s look, it’s time to leave).

As the night claimed territory over the murky Mussoorie sky, we checked out of our hotel room. Riding on the Mall, towards the barricade at Picture Palace, shop shutters could be heard – going down – shouting and clapping, playing their warmest adieu songs.

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(Tantrums! Time and again)

Good bye it was for then but, the memorable journey hasn’t been our last. Her pursuit has taken me to the dunes of Alwar; and to the mighty Rohtang. In trying to woo her, I have failed, time and again. While I have been conquered and enslaved. She has often deserted me on dusty village roads in the middle of nowhere. At other times, she like a capricious young girl, has shown me her moods; but, all the while she has won me over with that little move that she does, that gentle massage for my fragile male ego (often pampering it with her love; at other times, mending it for another day when I have been hit by the blues). In her arms, I am a Superman!

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(Enroute Manali with Kshitij; trip through Sach Pass was abandoned as the engine died in Manali; of course its built now.)

And when I think of our relationship, I wonder what is it, if not love?!

A love, stupid and senseless, twice removed from reason. A love which has made me vulnerable to the moods of the beloved. Vulnerable to her each emotion. Alive to dejection and her acceptance. Alive to every little failure and success of this relationship.

A love, which has made me Human – and I guess, that is what it does!

That thing, called Love.