La Ul­tra-the High: The secret to run­ning against all odds


The top event at La Ul­tra in Leh-ladakh is the 333km race that is to be run un­der 72 hours in ex­treme con­di­tions. Be­sides sync­ing the body, mind and emo­tions, one needs to stay hum­ble to go the dis­tance

Eight years ago I was telling peo­ple that I want to put to­gether an equiv­a­lent of Le Tour de France in In­dia. A foot race that In­dia would be proud of. Peo­ple laughed at me. Thought I was crazy. I guess they were right. This year, at the pos­trace cer­e­mony of La Ul­tra-the High, I was told that In­dia has Taj Ma­hal and La Ul­tra-the High.

That is a mega state­ment. Big­ger than just try­ing to em­u­late some bike race some­where in Europe. Where ev­ery sec­ond par­tic­i­pant is high on some­thing or the other.

La Ul­tra-the High, a crazy foot race in Leh-ladakh, came into be­ing be­cause I was told that my idea was im­pos­si­ble. In any case, if it was any eas­ier, it wouldn’t have given me a kick. There are enough peo­ple out there who want to do the easy or hard. That doesn’t ex­cite me. What ex­cites me is the im­pos­si­ble, push­ing fel­low hu­man be­ings to push be­yond what they think they are ca­pa­ble of do­ing. Push­ing the hu­man lim­its. Be­cause we say no too soon.

In 2010, when I went to Leh for the first time for the very first edition, I was told by a cer­tain com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of a par­tic­u­lar reg­i­ment there that they were strictly in­structed by the medics in-charge not to run in Leh as that could be fa­tal.

At La Ul­tra, the dis­tances that are run are dif­fi­cult for most to com­pre­hend what they mean, or how long they are. A full marathon is 42.195km. The flag­ship cat­e­gory at La Ul­tra is 333km that has to be cov­ered in 72 hours, then there is 222km and 111km to be cov­ered in 48 and 20 hours, re­spec­tively. As much as peo­ple get car­ried away by these num­bers, it’s not the dis­tance that is the deal here. It’s the con­di­tions—alti­tude, the ex­treme tem­per­a­ture vari­a­tions and weather—that par­tic­i­pants are ex­pected to run in. At the high­est points, the oxy­gen level is as low as 60% of what we breathe at the plains.

Re­mem­ber, oxy­gen is im­por­tant to keep you alive, some­thing that we all take for granted. The tem­per­a­tures can vary from plus 40°C to -10°C within a mat­ter of a cou­ple of hours. There could be a snow­storm fol­lowed by a dust storm. In this run, you can have frost-bite while hav­ing a heat­stroke.

No. You have no clue what I just said be­cause you have not been there, not in those con­di­tions. You sim­ply can’t get it sit­ting in the com­fort of your draw­ing room, sip­ping on your qhawa or chai.

This year we pushed the bound­aries of hu­man lim­its even fur­ther. Be­fore I get into the de­tails, I must ad­mit, this year was in­tended to be the last year of La Ul­tra-the High be­cause it sim­ply wasn’t mak­ing enough sense any­more.

When you blindly fol­low your dream and you make a lot of name for your­self, but when some­where down the line, the rea­son that got you started in the first place starts to go miss­ing, you won­der why you are still car­ry­ing on. For me it had been al­most a decade with this crazy project.

The big­gest learn­ing for me at La Ul­tra-the High has been that we are all so in­signif­i­cant and yet we have such in­flated egos. When you sit un­der the sky filled with a gazil­lion glit­ter­ing stars, where the only high­way you see is the mag­nif­i­cent Milky Way, it sud­denly dawns on you, you are noth­ing. Zilch.

For that rea­son, I don’t look for studs to par­tic­i­pate at La Ul­tra, but folks who can ap­pre­ci­ate this. Who are hum­ble enough to pray to the mas­sive Hi­malayas to let them pass rather than try­ing to at­tempt to force their way through. You never know which rock might be sit­ting there for a mil­lion years with a sim­ple task of mak­ing you into a star, too.

I look for peo­ple who re­spect other fel­low be­ings and na­ture. A rare com­mod­ity to­day.

For the first seven years, I had amaz­ing ul­tra run­ners from across the world, 22 coun­tries to be pre­cise, 77 of them com­ing to take on the im­pos­si­ble. No less. They weren’t in­ter­ested in 111km, a cat­e­gory I like to call baby run of La Ul­tra-the High. It is a cat­e­gory cre­ated to be a step­ping stone for the new­bies to ul­tra run­ning to get into La Ul­tra.

In the In­dian run­ning community some are un­der the im­pres­sion that this run is in­tended for for­eign­ers, but it’s not. It’s sim­ply for any­one who fits my cri­te­ria. It’s just so hap­pened that a ma­jor­ity so far have been for­eign­ers.

This year I sud­denly had 32 par­tic­i­pants want­ing to run 111km. Five more wanted to run 222km. All Indians. Only two had signed up for 333km. It made me ques­tion why I should con­tinue with the event. Run­ning in In­dia is sev­eneight years old and run­ners are try­ing to rush into do­ing too much. Most of the times end­ing up with in­juries. Mum­bai Marathon has only been on for just over a decade now.

We, as a so­ci­ety, don’t know run­ning well enough yet. I say so be­cause I also have a sports medicine clinic. I see a lot of run­ning in­juries just be­cause of try­ing to do too much too soon. I had de­cided to call it quits after I got over with this edition. Be­cause I thought we wouldn’t be push­ing the hu­man lim­its any­more.

I was proved wrong.

As much as I am no fan of any rank­ing sys­tem and be­lieve that we are all sim­ply rac­ing our­selves, some­times we do need to ac­knowl­edge some phe­nom­e­nal achieve­ments. Last year Kieren D’souza, an up­com­ing In­dian ul­tra run­ner, shocked the other sea­soned ul­tra run­ners by fin­ish­ing the 111km event in 15hrs 30min.

There was a buzz over how some­one could run that dis­tance in those con­di­tions. This year we had three In­dian Army per­son­nel from Ladakh Scouts not only beat that time but to­tally an­ni­hi­late it by cov­er­ing the dis­tance in 12hrs 32min (Tser­ing Sto­b­gais), 12hrs 36min (Rigzen Nurbo) and 13hrs 28min (Shab­bir Hus­sain). These are times that can hold their own in the in­ter­na­tional arena of ul­tra run­ning.

The ic­ing on the cake was when 17-year-old Jy­ot­sana Rawat, at an age when par­tic­i­pants aren’t even al­lowed to run a marathon, fin­ished the same dis­tance in 19hrs 46min. She was ac­com­pa­nied by her 54-year-old fa­ther Yash­want Singh Rawat.

Be­fore the race there were a cou­ple of par­tic­i­pants who had high blood pres­sure or low sat­u­rated oxy­gen lev­els, which would have made any sen­si­ble doc­tor not let them start, but then again, no sen­si­ble doc­tor would let this race ever start.

The prob­lem is that in med­i­cal col­leges we aren’t taught about how far we can get but about how soon to stop.

We are ex­perts in ill­ness and sick­ness, not in health or per­for­mance. These par­tic­i­pants fin­ished with amaz­ing times. As they said at the fin­ish line, it is about the body, mind and emo­tions work­ing in sync, and they man­aged to do just that and more. They stayed hum­ble through­out, be­cause with­out that they couldn’t have crossed the mas­sive Hi­malayas.

Twenty run­ners from around the coun­try, out of 32 who started, fin­ished the 111km dis­tance in the al­lot­ted time of 20 hours. More im­por­tantly, only one civil­ian par­tic­i­pant didn’t get to the fin­ish line. A phe­nom­e­nal feat for the In­dian ul­tra run­ning fra­ter­nity.

Amit Ku­mar Chaud­hary be­came the first In­dian to get to the fin­ish line of 222km in 38hrs 20min, no mean feat. Lt. Amit Ku­mar and Cdr. Sunil Handa, In­dian Navy of­fi­cers, made it in 43hrs 28min and 46hrs 21min re­spec­tively. Raj Vadgama, a sea­soned ul­tra run­ner, fin­ished in 47hrs 20min. Matthew Ma­day was the lone fin­isher for 333km in 69 hrs 45 min.

I am so glad I was proved wrong. In­dian so­ci­ety has come of age. At the end of the day, run­ners are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the so­ci­ety. Like run­ning in In­dia, the In­dian so­ci­ety is chang­ing for good at a far faster pacer than even the most op­ti­mistic folks would imag­ine. But we need to give it a chance. Rather than be­ing pes­simistic about it. No, we are not try­ing to catch up with any­one. We sim­ply are run­ning our own race.

Dr Ra­jat Chauhan, a stu­dent of Pain and Run­ning

Run­ners take part in La Ul­tra-the High race in Leh-ladakh. Here tem­per­a­tures can vary from plus 40°C to -10°C within a cou­ple of hours; there could be a snow­storm fol­lowed by a dust storm.

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