The 4 am alarm sounded like a war bugle. Wriggling out of the warm sleeping bag was such an effort….
However, as I stepped outside the tent, the scenery seemed like that of a busy morning at a train station. People running, dogs barking, cars revving…. Amidst all the madness was a huge bowl of porridge lying on the grass while a few volunteers and runners feasted on it.
At 5:30 all was packed up in cars and we began a 12 km detour towards Khalsar, Nubra Valley. Finally, we reached the starting point of La Ultra – The High, world’s highest ultra-marathon. Where was it? Actually it was nowhere. One of the important aspects of the race is that it starts and finishes just anywhere, no landmarks required.
As this was the 1st edition, the entry to the race was strictly by invitation. There was of course qualifying criterion. Click here to see the profile of the runners and here you will find the qualifying criterion.
In a nutshell, we had 3 highly respected international ultra-marathoners. The distinguished running participants were Bill Andrews, Mark Cockbain and Molly Sheridan. All of them have participated in the other grueling ultra runs across the world and now testing their mettle in this extreme high altitude ulra-marathon.
They were the noisiest among all the other groups.
Molly’s group had Robert Wier, Rajesh, Sindhu and Susheel was taking the driving duties.
Mark’s group had Hitendra at the wheels with Akhil, Manisha and Sonali splitting the crewing honors.
At the stroke of half past 6, the 1st edition of La Ultra – The High began!
The cameras and videos had a busy time rolling together as the runners started the 222 km odyssey at a more or less brisk walk pace. Ultra –Marathons are never super fast events, but are events of endurance and conservation of resources. Anyway, we all knew this was probably our only chance to capture all participants in one frame and so did we!
The immediate goal was the campsite 12 km from start line. Mark quickly overtook Bill and Molly and reached Khardung Village as the race leader, a distinction that he would go on to hold on for the rest of the race.
Bill was not in his top form- suffering from mild chest congestion for the last few days. He started slow and steady. I was in Molly’s support crew car at the start and she was going well. Our vehicle would stop every 4-5 km or so and every time Molly went by, Sindhu or Rajesh would run up to her and find out if she needed anything.
At the Khardung Village, the camp kitchen provided packed lunch for all the volunteers – you don’t want to keep the volunteers hungry, do you?
In races like these, the crew is as important as the runner. It is also an endurance activity for the crews who have to be on their toes full time to cater to the needs of the runners. 48 to 72 hours in cramped car space, braving altitude, cold and still keeping the runners on the go – crewing is not a job for the faint hearted. Add to that the group dynamics of staying put with setting sleep deprivation and add the fact that each runner has a different personality trait. The crew has to keep a lot in mind.
Molly was just happy running and she would smile and wave past he crew on each pass.
However, for pure enthusiasm Sabine and Nischal had my vote hands down. Each time Bill would go past the support vehicle, these two lovely ladies would stand as cheer girls and chant:
“Bill will kill the hill….oh yeah….”
With an unmistakable Rajnikanth styled pelvic thrust!
It was just the kind of start a great race required!
The race had one more surprise up it sleeves- something no one had guessed so far. Molly and Bill had planned to get engaged and had chosen Khardungla pass, the highest road in the world, as the ceremony ground!
So it was no wonder see them run the distance together from North Pullu, 14 kms from Khardungla pass.
Meanwhile Mark was relentless in his progress. He was eating kilometers at a brisk pace. However now he had a new problem other than altitude to contend with.
The road conditioned worsened quickly as it neared the Khardungla pass These high passes are always a high altitude battle zone between man and the nature. It snows some 30 feet in a year and has numerous snow melt streams rudely flowing over the road surface. Thus the road surface sometimes completely gets obliterated.
Just as Mark was reaching KhardungLa pass, a snow avalanche struck. He crossed over the fresh snow to reach the KhardungLa pass in 6 hours 45 mins for a 42 km climb!
Watch the avalanche crossing video here:
At the Khardungla pass, Mark and his crew met up with a tribal woman from the far off Batalik who had walked all the way to this place for pilgrimage purposes. It was an interesting moment as one international ultra-marathoner met up with a local long distance walking pilgrim.
At Khardungla pass the race was put on the back burner for a while. Molly and Bill walked all the way up the ridge and stood perilously close to the sheer drop and took the plunge…. I mean exchanged the engagement rings while the crew applauded.
There are many worthy places to get engaged, but getting a slice of Himalayas, world’s highest pass and an impossible ultra-marathon is one crazy cocktail not available for made to order engagements!
The run continued again. By now it was getting to the evening hours. The golden glow of the sunrays was making the route look surreal and straight out of a picture postcard.
Bill was looking strong and was setting a nice pace.
On the other hand Molly started to struggle a bit. She was unable to ingest anything and was throwing up. However, she refused to call it quits and kept running.
The crew came in to support her. Rajesh and Sindhu took turns staying with Molly in her run. She was surely one tough gal as she kept the kilometers ticking despite being in bad shape.
At 6 pm Molly was at South Pullu, 57 km from the starting point when Rajat, the race director and the sports medic examined her. Rajat deduced that Molly was far too dehydrated to continue. He beseeched Molly to pull out for the evening and receive medical attention at Leh Hospital. Reluctantly Molly agreed and she was whisked away in the support vehicle.
Meanwhile it became dark. The temperature dropped dramatically and to compensate for the harsh surroundings, the full moon came out.
However, Bill had his share of bad luck just 5 km from Leh town. He was complaining of chest congestion and he was also taken to Leh hospital. Both Bill and Molly would start from their last position the next day.
Mark had reached the Indus river basin and was now more or less on flat land at an altitude of 11,000 feet. He had almost 80 km to cover in the Indus basin passing though Leh, Choglamsar, Thiksey, Karu, Upshi to reach Rumptse, the base of TanglangLa pass.
It looked like a long night. The question was, would Mark survive the long and cold night running through the crazy altitude? Would Molly get strong enough after a night at the hospital to get back to the point where she left of last night? Would Bill be able to tide over his chest congestion to challenge Mark the next day? The crew was tiring and the full day’s toil was now taking its toll. Will they be able to stitch together another day’s hard work?
While I battled these questions, Mark silently kept his game up. He was still running, it was near midnight- 17 hours on the course, braving the cold, the altitude and exhaustion there was one man still pursuing what he does always- put himself through a suffer fest and keep doing his best.
I wondered what was in store for the next day.