Mid-August, 2016

While the world looked towards Rio, endurance runners braved a start amid inclement weather conditions in Ladakh to complete the various distance categories of the seventh edition of La Ultra – The High, in record breaking time. Kieren D’Souza took the sting off the altitude’s scorn for plains dwellers, finishing the 111-kilometre segment of the ultramarathon in 15 hours and 30 minutes. That leg of the race took him from near Diskit in Nubra Valley, up and over the 17,582-feet-high Khardung La, and down to a finish point beyond Leh town. D’Souza bettered the time set in 2015 by Parvez Malik, a runner from Uttarakhand, who completed the same course in 17 hours and 57 minutes. In an earlier edition of the race, D’Souza, who now lives in Faridabad, had been unable to finish the distance. He subsequently trained for the event, spending much time running at altitude.

La Ultra – The High is an ultramarathon composed of three separate races on the same course — 111 km, 222 km and 333 km. As the distance increases, so do the difficulties. The average elevation of Ladakh is around 10,000 ft. The race is held on the road. Its highest elevations are mountain passes, with roads through them. In the 111-km segment, you get Khardung La; in the 222-km segment, you get Khardung La and Wari La (17,200 ft); and in the 333-km segment, you get both the aforementioned passes and Tanglang La (17,480 ft). Running this course, a runner will experience temperatures varying from 40 degrees centigrade to minus 10 degrees centigrade.

Depending on the altitude, atmospheric pressure will reduce to 50 per cent of what it is at sea level. This affects oxygen intake. Add to this progressive fatigue and susceptibility to adversities brought on by the elements — that’s what makes La Ultra particularly challenging. It is also an expensive proposition, given the mandatory acclimatisation schedule. You have to be in Leh days in advance, which makes it a serious commitment.

As some of the foreign athletes running the 333-km segment said, the race is little heard of in the global ultra-running circuit. Discerning runners are attracted by the fact that not everyone finishes it. In this context, it is to be appreciated how the organisers have not diluted any race parameters in order to attract more participants. Broadly speaking, this purity is a function of distance and cut-off timing. The whole race of 333 km is run at one go, with runners moving through the night. They have to cope with sleep deprivation, planning their rest as they wish. However, within this large single stage, there are cut offs (time limits within which sub-sections must be run) to respect. This introduces a sense of constant momentum to the race. Rest is typically eyes shut for some time, with the body consciously discouraged from fullfledged resting. The whole course is covered in a mix of running and power-walking, rarely dipping below that in pace. Seventeen runners reported for the 2016 edition, 12 of them (two foreigners, the rest Indians) for the 111-km segment.

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The medical team is very important for a race of this sort. The race director (indeed, its founder) is Dr Rajat Chauhan, who is a leading specialist in sports medicine. The 2016 medical team was composed of Tim Berrow and Nick Dillon, experienced in dealing with medical emergencies in remote locations. As they explained, the difference when working in an ultramarathon, in which athletes push their limits, is gauging how far a runner can push those limits safely and monitoring that appropriately. You don’t terminate their race without providing room for a stretch. While all runners were backed by support vehicles stocked with food and fluids for the first 111- km stretch, at South Pulu (before Leh), those running the 222-km and 333-km segments were joined by dedicated support vehicles with crew. These vehicles, sporting the athlete’s name and bib number, were always at hand for the rest of the journey.

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La Ultra debuted in 2010 as a 222-km race. Given its emphasis on prior ultra-running experience, it was partial to foreigners. Indians who qualified struggled to get past the race’s early stages. At the same time, some of the foreign runners who completed 222 km felt that a return to attempt the same distance wasn’t engaging. They sought greater challenges, which is how the 111-km sub-race and the extension of the overall length to 333 km happened. This year, the Indian Navy dispatched a team of six runners for the 111-km race, of which four completed. One of them, Hari Om, placed third. Second place was secured by Rahul Shukla, an engineer from Bhubaneswar.

However, what is of interest is that at the 111-km mark, the runners immediately following D’Souza were foreign runners from the 333- km category. The 333-km pack of four runners was led by Jovica Spajic of Serbia, a young ultramarathon runner and a member of his country’s special forces, and Grant Maughan, a 52-year-old Australian seafarer with a late start in ultra-running, but now among the most respected racers in his age category worldwide.

Maughan is also a mountaineer who has climbed in North and South America. During his acclimatisation phase in Leh, Maughan had been to Stok Kangri, the peak climbed by many for a shot at 20,000 ft. Yet, on race day at Khardung La, Maughan was in the grips of the early stages of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and was told to drop altitude after the pass as quickly as possible to avoid complications. Maughan and Spajic had met before at the 2015 Badwater Ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley; they subsequently found they had both registered for La Ultra. At Khardung La, when the medics detected early stages of HAPE in Maughan, the older runner told the younger one to carry on. But Spajic not only waited, he carried Maughan’s small backpack till he felt better. As the environment changed, Spajic seemed frustrated on some of the dry, hot stages of the race on roads featuring traffic and vehicular pollution. Maughan kept a steady head for the duo in these parts. On the punishing ascent to Tanglang La, where Spajic wondered if the combination of endless winding roads and sleep deprivation over twoand-a- half days of running, was a “scientific experiment”, it was Maughan who kept the steadier head. He said, in a composed voice, that the darkness of the night was denying them a view of the ridgelines above, causing disorientation. When the medics came by in their vehicle, the duo asked if they could follow the car’s lights to the pass.

Maughan reached the top of Tanglang La, pretty stretched. Yet again, Spajic waited for the medics to assess Maughan’s condition. 60 hours and 36 minutes after they left the start line near Diskit, the two crossed the finish line at Debring, together. It was a new course record. Roughly eight hours later (68:57 to be exact), Mark Steven Woolley became the third runner to reach Debring. This was Woolley’s third attempt at 333 km. In one of his previous two attempts, his body had gone into shock and he had collapsed some kilometres short of the finish line; on the other occasion, he completed the race past the overall cut-off time of 72 hours. The fourth person in was Bahrain-based German businessman, Alexander HolzingerElias, who cracked the 333-km challenge at his very first attempt. All four who reported for the 333-km race in 2016 finished it.

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Is this the toughest ultramarathon in the world? The jury is still out on it, not because La Ultra lacks what it takes to fit the bill but because, as some runners pointed out, the question is too clichéd, and the answer is ultimately what each one makes of a race. It’s certainly among the toughest — they seemed to agree on that. The organisers have been speaking of increasing the distance of La Ultra to 555 km and 666 km, running it as a multi-day, multi-stage race. “Such a race in the Himalayas will be interesting,’’ Maughan said.


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The author was invited to La Ultra – The High by Adidas

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