“La Ultra – The High” Ultra-Marathon 2010 Race Report: Day 2 and 3-July 25th and 26th 2010

Molly Sheridan: Gazing at Stok Kangri Range from the road to KhardungLa Pass

It was 24 hours since the first step was taken. 24 hours since the cars and the crew were on the move. 24 hours since the 1st edition of La Ultra-The High, India’s 1st and world’s highest ultra-marathon was underway.

Molly was declared fit in the morning and she started from South Pullu, the place from where she was whisked away to the hospital last evening. It was cold and the air above 15,000 feet altitude was as thin as ever. Molly’s run began and she was looking strong and good. The race was on!

60 km down the course Mark was now fighting fatigue, sleep deprivation and the terrain. But he was still on course! He had just another 100 km between him and the finish line.

Bill began from his last stopped point after a night at the hospital. He was at the moment the last guy in the race circuit.

Bill Andrews with his crew Nischal and Sabine....Noisy supportive crew 🙂

Bill’s vocal crew was back to business, supporting and cheering Bill at each pass.

However, it looked Bill was not at his 100%.

Finally, 7 km from Leh, Bill stopped. He was visibly in pain. He was again taken to the hospital and this time the prognosis did not look encouraging. Bill had contacted some gall bladder infection. He had to pull out.

Bill Andrews' challenge in 1st edition of La Ultra- The High ends with a gallbladder infection 80 km into the race

Bill Andrews is taken to SNM Hospital, Leh

It was heartbreak for Bill and his crew, but then it was impossible for Bill to get back to the race.

By 7 am Mark was at Upshi, the place where the Indus basin ends and the gradual ups and downs begin that would continue for next 40 kms till Rumptse where the final ascent to TangLangLa pass begins through some 30 odd switchback climbs.

Mark Cockbain: Now 24 hours into the race running through Tokpo valley near Upshi, 100 km from starting point

Soon it was warm. The sun was beating down hard and the temperature soared. At one point I noted 36 degrees Celsius (97 F)! At higher altitudes the thin atmosphere creates no barrier for the sunrays that seem like invisible needles going through your body. The lack of oxygen quickens the breathing rate and that accentuates water loss. It was therefore important to keep hydrated.

Runners’ nutrition is also very important. All the crews were keeping a tight vigil at what and how much the runners were ingesting. Like I said, being a crew is a tough job for any ultra-marathon and this was no different.

Sonali an avid mountaineer and Mark's crew for this race, cooking instant noodles- one of the many crew duties to keep the runner fulled and on the go....Sonali was greatly instrumental in Mark's success as was his rest of the crew

Molly was progressing nicely along the Indus basin and the mood in her camp was upbeat. 60 kms ahead, Mark was still going strong and he was now out of Indus basin and scaling heights albeit through some very gentle gradients. He was passing through the picturesque Tokpo river valley.

Mark continues in searing midday heat that went upto 40 degrees C (104 F)

Beautiful Tokpo river valley on way to Lato from Upshi. See the pirple hued mountains, the picture perfect river and a cute wooden river crossing

The midday heat was on and it was very warm in the sun.

By late noon Molly was now running through a searing 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) heat. It was talking a toll on her but she was brave and strong and continued. Her crew- Robert, Rajesh and Molly along with Susheel was greatly supportive and she kept her game up.

Molly Sheridan continues, now 30 hours into the race, 90 km from start point and not giving up despite scorching heat and a night at the hospital

At 1 pm, Mark and his crew reached Lato- the final campsite some 35 km from TangLangLa pass . It was the final campsite before the finishing point- still some 67 km further.

Lato camping site: see the local Ladakhi herdsman weaving yak wool near the pitched tents

As the crew stopped for lunch and Mark took a power nap inside the car, I wandered around. Last year during my cycle trip from Manali to Leh and then to Khardungla, we had camped at the very location and had fond memories of the place.

By 2 pm Mark was on his feet again. He had 67 km to the finish line but up ahead was a real uphill task. He was to scale some 4500 feet in next 35 km to reach the 2nd highest road in the world- TangLangLa pass at 17,500 feet. Then he was to negotiate a wreck of a road to scale down another 2500 feet to finish at the Morey Plains.

This was going to be one long-tough climb and Mark’s pace was conservative at the start. By now he was on the course for 32 hours with hardly 2 hours of sleep in between.

Mark Cockbain: Off from Lato campsite and on way to TanglangLa Pass at 17,500 feet

Molly was now on her way to Upshi and started to worry why Bill had not crossed her yet. She was unaware that a team of doctors in Leh hospital looked after Bill at that very moment.

Mark’s progress was getting slower every hour on the climb to TangLangLa pass . He was suffering from exhaustion and now the altitude started to take swipes. However, he just kept moving.

Mark’s crew was joined by Rajat’s vehicle that was until now playing the role of the messenger car, keeping a tab on all 3 runners spaced out by almost 100 km now!

However, Rajat decided to join Mark for the stint uphill to TangLangLa pass .

on way to TanglangLa Pass

Rajat joins Mark on way to TangLangLa pass

The road from Rumptse to TangLangLa pass is amazingly beautiful. It is flanked by tall mystic mountains, each over 6000 meters and had great views. Amidst this amazing natural panorama was an odd group of cars and people, silently putting one-step after another with one goal- reach the top of the pass! Will Mark have enough left? The race was entering its most crucial phase.

Winding roads up the TangLangLa pass

It was 7:30 pm now and the sun had set. Molly was now at Upshi. She was getting slower too and now fighting some anxiety of not having seen Bill go past her for more than 15 hours now.

Up on the mountain, it was now getting colder every minute. The cold mountain wind was picking up and to make things worse the surface was all powdery and even gentle winds would smear the runners with choking dust.

I met up a few BRO workers who have the glamorous job of upkeep of these crazy altitude roads. They spend 5 months half up in the sky, breathing nothing with just 2 pairs of supplied warm clothes for a measly 4500 rupees ($90) a month. These guys are from poor and backward states of India. It was sad to see such disparity so nakedly.

Yours truly with the extremely poor laborers from Jharkhand. The get $90 for a month, less than what my shoes are worth! Pathetic disparity....

At dark, the roads became dangerous. The surface was all dust, boulders, water, slush, snow-melt stream wades…It was very cold, temperature well below 5 degrees Celsisus (41 F) mark with howling cold winds. The 3 cars lined up with their beams showing the way for Rajat and Mark.

The runners used Respra facemasks to keep away from dust. Its excellent dust filter and activated Carbon filter stood up brilliantly and provided great help all through.

It was a great addition to the race and a must have accessory in case you want to run/ cycle in these altitudes. Read about Respra here.

Mark Cockbain running through the 2nd straight night....

Then the crew had their first scare. Mark was very cold all of a sudden. A frenetic race ensued to get Mark some warm clothing.

Just at the moment when Mark was loaded with warm clothing, Molly had reached Lato campsite and was preparing for a few hours of break. She was focused and optimistic about the last 60 km or so. Little did she know then that she would be pulling out in next few hours…… Yes, it was an unpredictable race.

At 16,500 feet, 1000 feet shy of the TangLangLa pass top the condition were bad. Mark was suffering from extreme exhaustion for he was now on his feet for almost 40 hours. He had trouble perceiving heights from depths and was veering to right all the time.

Riding on pure will and determination, Mark reached TangLangLa pass at 11:15 pm. He was far too exhausted to even manage a smile at the pass’ legendary milestone.

TangLangLa pass - 17,500 feet - World's 2nd Highest Road! Mark Cockbain reached the place at 11:15 at night with frigid temperatures riding on sheer determination and will!

If the climbing up the pass was tough, the descent was equally a painful process. The road surface was shocking- ready to suck unsuspecting souls into 1000-meter drop offs!

It was extremely cold; at 2 am I measured -6 degrees Celsius (22 F)! Add to that the bone chilling winds that felt like some invisible enemy stabbing at you with a sharp dagger.

I headed down some 12 km in our car with Rajat and Susheel from the TangLangLa pass and waited for Mark to catch up. At 2 am a passing by vehicle stopped and they said something that we could not deconstruct, but it felt like something was wrong.

We turned back and headed up expecting the worst and a few switchbacks later saw the most amazing sight one can see instead.

In the crisscross of light and dark of the headlights of the cars and the boulders was a tall shadow of man running. The footsteps were sure and lofty enough to suggest that the runner was back in his elements. There was Mark.

“How much more?” he asked as he stopped for refilling some water.

“18.6 km more”. I told him.

“Lets finish this….” He was off again.

We saw him slowly disappear behind another turn and it felt amazing to see the man nearing the finish line.

In the meantime, Rajat and Susheel turned back from here to Lato to check upon Molly’s progress. Rajat met Molly at the campsite at Lato at daybreak. Molly was told about Bill’s hospitalization and she decided to rush to Leh to be at his side. Everyone knew, she had it to complete the race but respected her personal commitments. She would come back here next year to settle her score with TangLangLa pass for sure!

Morey Plains: the 1st edition of the race is about to finish

It was a cloudy early morning. It had been 48 hours since Mark was on the course. The crew and Mark had a last meeting. Akhil told him that only 4 km separates him from the finish.

“We will see you at the finish line” and we drove off.

The point of finish was in the middle of nowhere. It was almost halfway into the Morey Plains, an accident of geography that has carved out a 40 km flat land strip at 15,500 feet!

The car stopped at the final finish point, 222 km from the start. We came down and unrolled the finishing point poster.

“Here he comes…..” Akhil exclaimed and suddenly all our senses were heightened. And then it seemed all magical. Mark appeared in our vision range. First it was just a silhouette, then slowly you could see more detailing and finally there he was! The finish line buoyed his spirits for sure and he took some nice confident strides to hit the finish line.

The finishing line of the 1st edition of La Ultra-The High: Mark Cockbain's 48 hour 50 minutes' hurclulean effort ends in the middle of Morey Plains

Here is the video of the finish line. It was in a way funny as I realized that my camera mode was garbled and therefore could not get the video first time right. So we had Mark come back again and retake the finish line video.

Mark joked that he had to run 222 km and 50 meters 🙂 Sorry Mark, we made you run just a bit more!

The race was over.

No there was no chest thumping, no fist pumping, no overjoyed beaming smile….

Mark just sat in the chair and as the crew wrapped up everything, he spoke in a tone as if he was just back from a morning stroll!

Then as we loaded him in the car and made our way towards Pang, the makeshift camp for finishers. Mark just dozed off.

I was far too overwhelmed by the man’s achievement to let it sublimate over a REM cycle. It was an incredible experience seeing Mark do the almost impossible. Just look at the stats below to fathom the scale of his achievement:

Total Distance 222 km
Time Taken 48 hours 50 minutes
Average Altitude 13500 feet
Max Altitude 17700 feet
Min Altitude 10500 feet
Max Temp 40 degrees C
Min Temp -6 degrees C
Min Oxygen Level 40% of Sea Level
Max Oxygen Level 65% of Sea Level
Total Ascent 11000 feet
Total Descent 8000 feet

I am no expert at running but my little experience of cycling in the same region tells me this is an incredible feat. It was greatly inspiring to see another human being push the limits, put himself through so much just to achieve the objective. You could brush past him, or for that matter Bill or Molly in a bus stop and you could never guess what these guys are capable of. It is physical fitness conjoined with extreme mental fitness that lets one complete such overwhelmingly difficult tasks.

Finally, that evening when all the team and the volunteers came together at the final camp at Whiskey Nullah, the award ceremony took place.

This time of course Mark and his team Akhil, Sonali, Hitendra and Manisha all had broad smiles. The cute trophy, designed by the Happily Unmarried group was a great result for the amazing journey.

Mark Cockbain: the undisputed victor

Mark with his crew (Sonali absent in the pic). There is Manisha, Hitendra and Akhil with Mark

And the 1st edition of La Ultra – The High, world’s highest ultra-marathon came to an end.

It was am amazing event, an event that many thought was impossible to organize, let alone for someone to finish. Yes, there were a lot of unknowns, lot of challenges, lot of room for improvements, but then now Mark has shown that it is doable- though in his own admission it was one of the toughest races he has done.

So, what happens next?

I am sure next year La Ultra – The High would be back with more runners from different parts of the world, all with one goal- push the limit, reach the next km, complete the next switchback, go over the next pass, kiss the finish line…..

Get inspired now!

Every step counts

Also read:

La Ultra – The High : An Introduction

La Ultra – The High : Prologue

La Ultra – The High : Race Report Day 1

-Manasij Ganguli




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7 Responses to ““La Ultra – The High” Ultra-Marathon 2010 Race Report: Day 2 and 3-July 25th and 26th 2010”

  1. Aditya Says:

    Wow. Hats off to the guts and determination of all the 3 runners. Running on such high altitude and inhospitable terrain is a testament to their will power and mental strength.

    Congratulations to all of them and their team. A note of thanks to the organizers as well for bringing this event down here. Hope it gets bigger and better in the years to come.


    • manasij Says:

      Hey Aditya,

      It was a great event to witness up close and personal.
      Very inspirational and really motivating…..
      I am sure it will get bigger and better

  2. Hrushikesh Kulkarni Says:

    Great blog post … it is really inspiring to read thought !!! 🙂

  3. headrest dvd player Says:

    this is really inspiring,thnx for sharing

  4. Saibal Chatterjee Says:

    Hey Manasij. Thanks for bringing the excelent, detailed report and the breath taking photos. At times like this I wish I had the physical fitness and VO2 max levels as these guys. Good work. Saibal

  5. heidy Says:

    wow the great beautifull post in blog

  6. bilt Says:

    Heh, nice post and nice pics. Made my day a little brighter.

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