“La Ultra – The High” Ultra-Marathon 2010 Race Report: The Prologue to the Race

The road to TangLangLa- worl’d 2nd highest road at 17,500 feet. It was dark, it was cold, it was windy and it was 40 hours and 180 km since the race was on…What an experience!

I stepped out of the car and immediately it felt like getting out into the hell. It was dark everywhere and strangely the high Himalayan peaks that surrounded from all directions, wore an inexplicable mesmerizing afterglow of the sunset. The wind was chilly and it was strong and the howl was unmistakable. I checked my watch and it confirmed the conditions. I was at 16,500 feet from sea level, 50 km from any human habitation and it was 2 degrees Celsius at 8:30 pm.

Just ahead of me was Mark Cockbain, the British Ultra-Marathoner- now in the final leg of the run. He had run 160 km by now and was on his feet for 38 hours at a stretch. We were 9 km from TangLangLa Pass, the 17,500 feet behemoth that stood as a blatant challenge to anyone trying to finish the 1st edition of India’s 1st and World’s Highest Ultra-Marathon!

We were a small contingent. Leading the way was Rajat Chauhan, a neat pack of the race director, an acclaimed sports medic and a veteran of many marathons and ultras. Close to his heels was Sonali Bhatia, a designer and a mountaineer who was more or less doing the piloting for Mark and there was Akhil Raina, an eclectic computer engineer.

Rajat Chauhan, the race director leading the way enroute TangLangLa pass

Sonali Bhatia accompanying Mark Cockbain. Mark had great help from his crew in the entire race.

We all had out headlamps and torches out and just one goal in mind- reach the TangLangLa Pass Top with Mark. Mark was in a bad shape (purely from my standpoint). Sleep deprivation, altitude, extreme exhaustion, cold and dryness taking a heavy toll on him. He was complaining of double vision. He had trouble perceiving the depths from the heights and was veering to his right all the time.

But whatever be the physical state, mentally he was as stoic as the mountains surrounding us. “I need to get off this mountain” that’s all he muttered and kept doing what he had been for last day and a half- just plant the next foot.

The nature fought back. One side of the mountain wall was now all packed snow; the road was a minefield of jagged boulders with ice and snow melt streams crisscrossing it like a board of snakes and ladders. The surface was all slushy and traction was tough to come by. But that was the last concern for us; the biggest enemy was the altitude. With only 40% as much air to breathe than at sea level, this was like a walk with your neck inside a plastic bag. And then it was cold.

It was scary.

Just a few hours back I had seen one of most amazing sunsets on our way to TangLangLa Pass. The scene was an ever-changing canvas with each minute being a new painter that would add another brush stroke of color.

Sunset time view of the sky near TangLangLa

More views from the same point

and the view gets better and better…

finally darkness sets in…..what a great sequence of views!

What was beautiful and enjoyable then was now a scary monster. Mark was exhausted but undaunted as he kept taking one more step after another. It was now a duel between the human will and the elements.

The road-ahead was illuminated by the headlights of the 3 cars following us. Finally after a 2 hours 45 minute marathon, Mark reached the TangLangLa Pass, 17500 feet from sea level- on the 2nd highest road in the world!

TangLangLa pass – 17,500 feet – World’s 2nd Highest Road!

Just as we crossed TangLangLa Pass, I jumped back into the car and breathed easy. It was warm, cozy and you need not fight the terrain to plant another step while breathing almost nothing.

As Mark kept taking more steps downhill and kept advancing towards the end, which was 32 km from the pass, I relaxed and looked back how this amazing high altitude ultra marathon spanned out.

For me, it began last year in November when I received an email from Rajat asking me if I would be fine him sharing my cycling photographs of this same region.

I have cycled this whole region last year from Manali to Leh via the TangLangLa Pass and then on to the highest road in world- the KhardungLa pass. Read my cycling blog here.

All vehicles getting ready to move to Khardung Village from Leh

So, I had the advantage of knowing the place pretty well. But when I first heard of the concept of running through this route, my thought was – “wow, this is crazy- running 200+ km in Himalayas in insane enough!”

Later, all pieces fell into their right place and a gang of 25 odd organizers and volunteers descended into the arid cold wilderness of Ladakh, a Northern district of Sovereign India.

The race that would unfold was to be an epic.

It would begin on July 24th 2010 from 12 km North of Khardung Village at 13,500 feet altitude. The course would then run through a 42 km brutal climb up to the highest motor-able road of KhardungLa pass (at 17,700 feet) and then descend to 10,500 feet on the Indus valley floor via the district headquarters Leh. Then the course would take a final dramatic ascent to TangLangLa Pass (17,500 feet) and descend to 15,500 feet into the Morey Plains.

This way the total course would be a staggering 222 km! Here is the route profile:

The Route

I reached Leh on 22nd July, as the last member of the volunteering crew and sensed a prevailing unease.

All were unsure.

This was the 1st time anything of this magnitude was planned. The organizers and volunteers were unsure of the unknowns.

The runners were unsure, as this was their 1st attempt at anything this high!

On July 23rd 2010 all the paraphernalia along with all the volunteers and participants started from Leh for our campsite at Khardung Village.

The campsite at Khardung Village @ 14400 feet

The campsite at the Khardung Village was set up at the nature’s lap. The logistics was looked after by Kaushal from Above 14000 Feet who had the dual responsibility of taking care of all the nitty-gritties and his two beloved doggies!

Kaushal, the fellow responsible behind the event logistics

Our lifelines, read guys with the driving duties caught up with their sleep so as to prepare for the next grueling 72 hours of labor.

Folks with driving duties: Jitin, Susheel and Hitendra AKA Bunty

By that time, the runners were busy dishing out their instructions to their respective crewmembers. The crewmembers were seen with laptops, gps, cameras, medical equipments, pens, papers, scissors and pretty much all sorts of stationeries for keeping track of all the vitals.

Bill giving instructions to his crew member Nischal. All runners have their likes and dislikes, do-s and dont-s and a pre race instruction file is the best way for the crew to remain apprised

The support cars, one designated for each runner, were first loaded, and then overloaded and then super loaded till the time they just had enough space for the crew to wriggle in!

Thats what the cars looked like. These big SUVs were filled to the brim. It was a contortionist’s job to fit inside the cars and the crewmen did that with aplomb!

It would be a full moon night in a day’s time. Thus the moon was brilliant and it shined like a real 200-watt bulb at night.

Next day was big.

Next day was the start of the 1st edition of the La Ultra – The High!

Lots of folks had said that this was an untenable plan, that it was impossible to run at these altitudes…And here we are 12 hours from testing the waters.

The first day would tell us if this was at all doable…

Read on to know about the Day 1 of the Ultra Marathon……

The full moon night at Khardung Village

Also read:

La Ultra – The High : An Introduction

La Ultra – The High : Race Report Day 1

La Ultra – The High : Race Report Day 2 and Finish

-Manasij Ganguli




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4 Responses to ““La Ultra – The High” Ultra-Marathon 2010 Race Report: The Prologue to the Race”

  1. Gaurav Goyal Says:

    Hats off to Mark and to the courage and enthusiasm shown by people… That’s what true adventure is all about…Thanks for bringing it up..!!

  2. devvarta Says:

    a spectacular race with oodles of endurance but i was wondering is there any prize money too for those completing 222 km and full marathon race?

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