It was early August 2011, Khardung village in Ladakh.
I stole out from the camp housing race officials, support staff and runners and walked in the direction of the 17,700ft-high Khardung La. Next day, six people would run 222 kilometres at an average altitude of over 14,000 feet. More walker than runner, I wanted to taste the effort. Couple of turns on the road later, the camp disappeared from sight behind me. I found the privacy needed to confront my physical limitations. Out of sight, I commenced jogging. The first minute, perhaps two, were fine. It was magnificent landscape, morning traffic was as yet mild and the winding, open road appeared a mythical tarmac for the lone runner. Slowly my breathing became pronounced. A mild headache manifested. I slowed down. It was a relatively flat stretch of road, rather a gentle gradient. What would it be like on real uphill? I wondered. I was gaining my first insights into running at altitude.
Eventually I balanced my breathing and running and struck a rhythm. As trekker and amateur mountaineer, I was frequent visitor to altitude and therefore aware of what rarefied air meant. But 222 km of such running? In a small way, I understood what the runners would experience during La Ultra-The High, billed as the world’s highest ultra-marathon. That morning, I was the only person out running on that stretch of road. With news of the race known in Leh, passing vehicles thought I was elite runner, out practising. They slowed down. I revelled in the attention and essayed my brief role as impersonator, as convincingly as I could. Once vehicles and tourists went by, my stoic expression collapsed to gasps and groans. I sat on a rock for a while; then, walked back. Roads here were built and maintained by the Border Roads Organization (BRO), an outfit affiliated to India’s military. It was famous for its sign boards, some sporting thoughtful messages, some amusing. There was one such board near our camp. Its message: `Failing is not a crime but lack of effort is,’ had become the Ladakh ultra marathon’s tag line.
Meanwhile at camp, personalities were unravelling among the athletes. People approach challenge differently. And challenge exposes people as different personalities. Rains the night before had made a mess of the originally selected camp site. In the time lost to setting up new camp, four of the six athletes elected to stay at a guest house. Only Sharon Gayter of UK and Samantha Gash of Australia stayed at the outdoor camp. Sharon was the most composed of the runners; her kit being all of three bags amid teams lugging duffels by the dozen. Some had their own film crew. Sharon’s support team was mainly one individual – her husband. She looked uncomplicated and pared down to essentials; ready to run. Sharon was among Britain’s top distance runners and of those assembled in Ladakh for the race, easily the most experienced. In a field beginning to be competitive ahead of the race, Sharon talked, laughed and set her goals away from rivalry. She described it loosely as finishing the run, doing so to her satisfaction and improving the previously established timing (in 2010, the winner had clocked 48 hours and 50 minutes). Samantha, by her own admission, looked up to Sharon. Yet the two were as different as chalk and cheese – the older one fuelled by experience; the younger one banking on preparation, personal protocol and checklists.
The other four were shades of these two extremes. Ray Sanchez of the US, a former boxer, appeared to share Sharon’s emphasis on self-awareness as key to distance running. But on the eve of the race, he looked comparatively tense, his sense of humour notwithstanding. Lisa Tamati of New Zealand was the most technical with a battery of support staff and equipment. Molly Sheridan of the US and Jason Rita of Australia (settled in the US) wanted to do their best and finish. At this stage, if there was anyone who seemed to gain energy from the ambience and the people around, it was Sharon.
That evening a dust storm struck. The horizon grew dark with grey clouds. The winds were powerful. It collapsed large tents and sent smaller ones flying. Sharon kept her composure through all that dust and commotion. Samantha would later report a swollen eye.
Early next morning the six runners set off from a line on the road ten kilometres away from Khardung on the Nubra Valley side. Ahead lay 222 kilometres of running – over the Khardung La, through Leh town, over the Tanglang La and ending at Morey Plains. In these parts of the Himalaya, `La’ meant a pass. Khardung La was the highest pass in India that you could drive through and one of the highest in the world. Ray raced off to a handsome lead. Sharon hung around in second position. It seemed that the outcome would be decided by these two. The athletes were free to run, walk, rest – manage their time any way they wanted as long as they covered the whole distance in 60 hours, which was the official cut-off time. I remember that as the rule then. As the kilometres went by, the sound of laboured breathing enveloped each athlete like a private ecosystem. I was in a small media van with a film crew. Thanks to four wheels and an engine, we could range up and down the route without strain. Ladakh was a vast barren landscape of mountains. I remember my uncle quipping that the real hero in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was the desert. If so, the hero of Ladakh would be a tussle between land and sky. Both were awesome. In that setting, graced additionally by stillness, as the media van slowly overtook a runner, you heard clearly the sound of human body working. I wondered what the runners’ minds would be like with each passing stride; active and chattering or simply shut down to quietness?
An ultra-run is a composite of body, mind, nutrition and strategy. While physical fitness had seemed priority for all, there had also been plenty of talk among the athletes about the route and how that route should be run – particularly how energy should be rationed to tackle challenging sections. Thus the Khardung La may be India’s highest motor-able pass but for the runners, it was the 17,583 feet high-Tanglang La looming towards the latter part of the run (when they would be tired) that challenged. Nutrition occupied considerable pre-race talk. It was a simple problem – in a race lasting many hours you required periodic, effective nutrition without digestive complications for a body strained to the limit. As I found out, runners spent years perfecting their on-race nutrition. It took many races and plenty of mistakes before a pattern of food intake unique to a given athlete’s body became perfect. Up until the Ladakh ultra, Ray for instance, was still perfecting his nutrition. With years of running behind her, Sharon had got it right and Bill, her husband, knew exactly what she wanted at each stage of a run. No wonder so much of premium was attached to knowing one’s self as defined by mind and body.
I followed the run to Khardung La. Ray made mincemeat of that ascent; Sharon followed. From the start to the high pass, it was 42 kilometres, a full marathon. I waited – perhaps an hour or more at the pass for another three runners to cross that landmark. Then I chased the first two in the van, pausing en route to check the progress of Samantha and Lisa. I failed to catch up with Ray and Sharon; both had completely descended on the other side and gone past Leh, Ladakh’s main town. Who would win – Ray, persistent as the pugilist he used to be or Sharon, veteran of many a race and knowing when to strike? Or would they both, running in non-negotiable altitude, give way to someone else?
My freelance self wasn’t in Ladakh for one assignment.
Having other work to do, I got off the van at Leh.
Over tea, I referred my notes from a conversation with Dr Susan Thompson, senior member of the race’s medical team. During an ultra, you require fuel for the body (including glucose), fluid intake (basically water) and electrolytes like sodium and potassium that are essential for body cells to work. The most common problem in long distance running is hyponatremia, a situation wherein electrolytes are lost through sweating and the hydration people resort to as compensation only restores water but not electrolytes. Runners therefore work towards right intake of isotonic salts. Unattended, hyponatremia can affect the brain. Then, there is dehydration. Unattended, that can lead to kidney malfunctioning. Last but not the least, there is the issue of energy. As body energy levels dip through continuous running, the body starts processing muscular fuel – glycogen. This erodes precious energy reserves which can impact a person’s anaerobic metabolism. It causes lactic acid to build up opening a host of other problems. Like the road’s edge on a mountain, these issues would be shadowing anyone running out there. Safely tucked into my café chair, I sipped ginger-lemon-honey-tea. No place like Ladakh for a glass of it. In all my tea drinking in India till then, this wonderful mixture sipped with Ladakh around, had been the best.
The next evening, I learnt that Sharon had won the race.
Deep inside, I had expected it.
There’s something about endurance tests that empathise with the experienced, the patient – indeed, the not merely physical but the mental as well. What happened en route betrayed the real character of the Ladakh ultra. Ray had maintained his lead for almost three quarters of the run. Somewhere around Tanglang La, exhaustion kicked in. That mixed with altitude, made him hallucinate. Delirious, he was in and out of examination by the medical team. This episode and its aftermath, I was told, was when Sharon took the lead. Not that she didn’t have her travails – in her case, for the first time in many years, her nutrition plan had not worked properly. Further, as an asthmatic tackling high altitude and running through bouts of vehicle exhausts, she had to use a nebulizer roughly every four hours. Although the race organizers may not have wanted it so, the challenge wasn’t just about you, running and altitude. Ladakh was way up in India’s north and landlocked. It had no railway link. Two main roads connected it to the outside world during summer. By early winter, they closed owing to snowfall. What a whole region can get by air is limited. Road transport dominated. Trucks plied supplying goods for civilian consumption and to also keep the sizable presence of the army, stocked. Given the strategically important Siachen Glacier and international borders with China and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir close by, Ladakh was a major military base.
Atop trucks and army convoys, were the vehicles carrying tourists, not to mention several private cars and motorcycles driving in because man on motorized transport photographed against Ladakh’s bleak landscape was considered high adventure in the plains. Traffic here is not yet as severe as in other parts of the sub continent. You can still experience empty stretches without passing vehicle. In the tourist season, traffic increases. When a vehicle passed by, in the still, clean air of Ladakh, your nose sensed every molecule of toxic automobile emission. They are two distinct high altitude worlds – the comfort within a vehicle or astride it, and running on the road breathing a blast of vehicle exhaust. Early in the race itself I noticed – Sharon had a surgical mask ready for use.
However the real challenge in the Ladakh ultra marathon was the altitude. The whole region straddled 10,000 feet and up. For variety, uphill gave way to downhill and the heat of day gave way to the cold of night. But what could the runner do about altitude which lurked everywhere? Sharon said that the Ladakh run had been the toughest yet in her distance running career. In a subsequent post on her website, she would write, “ It’s taken nearly four weeks to recover from The High.’’
Sharon, 47 years old then, finished the race in 37 hours and 34 minutes, chopping over 11 hours from the winning time of 2010. Ray’s timing was 39 hours, 03 minutes. All six participants completed the 222 kilometres within the assigned cut-off time as opposed to only one finisher in 2010.
A day after the ultra, Ray Sanchez ran a full marathon in Ladakh!
I later caught up with Ray and Sharon for a chat in Leh and couldn’t believe that they had the energy to talk, crack jokes and laugh after such a run. They autographed a race T-shirt for me, which I gifted to an ultra runner friend in Mumbai, who seemed more committed to running and capable of it than I. As for me, my running has remained the delight of a few weeks of jogging before the shin, foot and so many other parts of my left leg announce their existence, through pain.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was published in much abridged form as a news report in The Telegraph newspaper and in a less abridged version in Man’s World magazine.)