An article in long form, on the 2016 edition of La Ultra-The High
August 10, 2016.
My hotel room has a fan and I can’t believe it.
The temperature didn’t warrant using it. Equally, if I turned it on I wouldn’t be very cold. The fan harked of early entrant whose time will come. As in the Bob Dylan song: the times, they are a changing. The food served at Hotel Siachen, amazed for the variety of vegetables in it. The hotel was in Diskit, Nubra Valley, Ladakh. “ The vegetables used were grown here,’’ the employee standing behind the buffet table informed. He said that weather patterns had been changing slowly in Ladakh. Winters aren’t as severely cold as before and in land famous for being high altitude cold desert, rain was getting through. That has its problems. The powdery soil of Ladakh’s mountains dislodges quickly with water. Rain makes people nervous. On the other hand, the rising warmth and occasional wetness has meant improved scope for home-grown vegetables on Siachen’s table.
Next day, around noon, a very light rain manifested briefly. The forecast, as available from a couple of days ago, wasn’t good. August 11 evening; there is a mass of dark grey gathering in the skies behind Diskit. A cold wind blew. The massive Maitreya Buddha statue on a hill near the Diskit monastery faced the approaching grey in peaceful meditation. It rained. Dr Rajat Chauhan looked past the statue to the clearer skies it guarded. Hope is a good word. It was still raining when the convoy of cars left Diskit. Ladakh’s roads are a study of curves and straight lines; curves on mountainsides, straight lines on vast, open flat land. The starting line was on a straight road below Diskit, close to the flood plains of the Shyok River. The vehicles bearing runners parked here, one behind the other. A small hamlet of headlamps took shape. The countdown had begun.
In 1992, director Ridley Scott made a movie: 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Garnering mixed reviews, the movie wasn’t commercially successful. Its theme music ` Conquest of Paradise,’ by the Greek composer Vangelis, however became popular, including as the preferred music at the start of the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in Europe. A powerful, evocative musical composition, it played on the mobile phone of Dalibor, part of Jovica Spajic’s support team. Rain and cold notwithstanding, Jovica looked ready for action. By now the other runners too had got out from their vehicles – Grant Maughan, Mark Steven Woolley, Alexander Holzinger-Elias, Dariusz Strychalski, Nahila Hernandes, Dunya Elias, the team from the Indian Navy, Saachi Soni, Rahul Shukla, Ramanand Chaurasia and Kieren D’Souza. August 11, 8 PM, they set off. Minutes into the 2016 edition of La Ultra-The High, they tackled the first problem: a portion of the road submerged in ice cold water, thanks to an overflowing stream. That done, one by one, they drifted into the inky blackness of Nubra’s night, a series of headlamps making steady progress on the road. Kieren led the group. There was a ring of expectation around Kieren. He was a young Indian ultramarathon runner born in Nagpur, brought up there and in Bengaluru, now living in Faridabad. His well-wishers presented him as someone who had grasped the nuances of the sport. In 2014, he had participated in the 111 km race of La Ultra and failed to complete it; according to the official website of the event, his race ended at kilometer-48, a Did Not Finish (DNF). Two years later, he had elected to return with considerable training at altitude done. Besides races in India, he had been to UTMB. That night on the road leading to Khardung La, Kieren showed no lack of confidence. He ate up the miles, opened up a long lead and chugged steadily on to Khardung La.
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 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 (17,582 ft), in the 222 km segment, you get Khardung La and Wari La (17,200 ft), in the 333 km segment you get both the earlier mentioned 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 altitude, atmospheric pressure will reduce to 50 per cent of what it is at sea level. This affects oxygen intake. Add to it progressive fatigue and susceptibility to adversities brought on by the elements – that’s what makes La Ultra particularly challenging. It currently ranks among the toughest ultramarathons in the world. It is also an expensive proposition given the mandatory acclimatization schedule. You have to be in Leh, days in advance. That makes it, a commitment.
As some of the foreign athletes gathered to run 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. Appreciated in this context, was how the organizers have preserved race parametres without diluting it to attract higher number of participants. Broadly speaking, this purity is a function of distance and cut off time. 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. Rest is typically eyes shut for some time. 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, twelve of them (two foreigners, rest Indians) for the 111 km race.
Very important for a race of this sort is the medical team. 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, a difference when working with an ultramarathon wherein athletes push their limits is, gauging how far a runner can push his / her limits safely and monitoring that appropriately. You don’t terminate his / her race without providing room for stretch.
At a medical briefing for volunteers and support crew, Tim and Nick put their approach in perspective. While altitude is the most obvious challenge in La Ultra, the solution for altitude related complications like High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) – is as obvious. The best treatment for altitude issues is descent. With the race being held on the road and vehicles present for support, treatment was available at hand – get the patient down as quickly as possible. The medics were more worried about heat related complications – the consequences of losing heat or heating up. La Ultra debuted in 2010 as a 222 km race. Given its emphasis on adequate, prior ultra-running experience, it was partial to foreigners. Indians who attempted it, struggled to get past the race’s early stages. For a country getting used to the ultramarathon, 222 km at altitude with cut-off time alongside, was probably too big a first step. 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 challenge. That’s how the 111 km sub-race and the extension of overall length to 333 km happened. 2016 was special for the 111 km segment. The Indian Navy dispatched a team of six runners for the 111 km race. Their team leader Captain Rajesh Wadhwa had been podium finisher (along with Ramanand Chaurasia) at an ultramarathon in Garhwal, which serves as qualifier for La Ultra’s 111 km category. When he sought permission to participate in La Ultra, the navy, noticing the uniqueness of the race at altitude, recommended a team.
If you want to know how fast runners can be – even in the hills – all you need to do is, eliminate traffic. Night does that for you. With nothing else around moving for distraction, running’s pace shines forth. An ultramarathon is slow. But even that seems a determined, consistent lapping up of distance when ultra-runners are the only ones moving in the frame. Past midnight, the slopes of Khardung La were pitch-dark. Kieren’s headlamp would bob in the distance and then slowly, unfailingly wind up the road’s curves to where one stood. As I prepared to ask “ all okay?’’ he quipped, “ are you okay?’’ On the road, the first half of the string of runners included Kieren, the 333 km-pack, some of the navy runners, Rahul and Ramanand and Dariusz (Darek) Strychalski of Poland. Darek had enrolled for the 222km segment. He runs mainly with one side of his body; the other side having been paralysed in an accident in childhood. The mishap affected his vision too. Recovering, he lived a lonely life. Running was accidental and testing. He used to run very early in the morning to avoid being seen as his gait was awkward; one leg and side of the body does most of the work, the other supports as best as it can. Initially people looked at him like an oddity. He persisted. Slowly he regained the company of people. After two years of running, he ran his first marathon. His best timing yet in the full marathon was 3:07. He also ran the Badwater Ultramarathon. “ In Poland he is called the Polish Forrest Gump,’’ Anna, Darek’s friend said. Darek, who spoke no English, had been to La Ultra before. In 2015, attempting 222 km, he had to pull out at kilometer-35. That time he had been unable to continue his run because of a leg injury. In Leh, in the run up to the 2016 edition, he had experienced return of the old leg injury. Running steep uphill sections challenged the man who counted on one good leg to do the bulk of the work. Darek never let the strain show. His face was always calm.
For the medics and the Race Director, the 111 km segment is the busiest section of the route as the number of runners is more and it includes the less experienced. At the first cut-off, a little over 20 km from the start, two runners missed the stage cut off time and had to withdraw. Punctuating the ascent and descent on Khardung La are South Pullu and North Pullu. They are check posts, both at approximately 15,500 ft. On the ascent from the Nubra side, you hit North Pullu first. The medics gave everyone a check-up here. Two more runners retired from the race at North Pullu as they failed to reach on time. Darek arrived at North Pullu before the cut off time. He was very cold and having low oxygen saturation. “ His lungs was clear, his pace had slowed down. He was okay but feeling very, very cold,’’ Nick Dillon, one half of the medic team, said. Darek was warmed up. He was the last one to leave North Pullu for Khardung La. Nick followed in his vehicle; he kept reassessing the runner’s condition. Not just Darek’s but as he put it – into a race, the back of the pack is where the ones needing help are.
Between North Pullu and Khardung La. Nick Dillon grew worried about Darek. The runner’s lungs were clear, his mental clarity was good. His pace was very slow. At one point his oxygen saturation was 55 while that of everyone else in the medic vehicle was around 70 (these figures must be read in the context of altitude). What made Darek’s diagnosis difficult is that his medical history featuring partial paralysis, created a case for weak circulation. Even looking for ataxia (loss of balance, it is a symptom of altitude sickness) was difficult because Darek’s natural gait had a wobble to it. He was allowed to proceed because he seemed neurologically sound. But when the runner’s pulse slowed down and ataxia became strongly suspect, Nick decided to consult Dr Chauhan, the Race Director. The latter spoke to Darek who resolved to press on. About 50 metres from the Race Director’s vehicle, with Nick and Anna present, Darek stumbled pronouncedly. It was curtains for his second attempt at La Ultra. The Race Director pulled him off the race and Nick administered oxygen. “ It was a combination of factors and several things building up over time that resulted in this intervention,’’ Nick said. It was also a text book case of what the medics had promised – that they would assess, provide room for stretch, keep monitoring and if required, pull the runner out. Darek bore it stoically. He and Anna returned to the race to encourage and applaud fellow runners.
On the map of Europe, Slovakia lay to the south of Poland, south of Slovakia is Hungary and to Hungary’s south is Serbia. Straddling the junction of European and Asian cultural influences, East Europe has a tradition of being Europe’s powder keg; the world wars of the twentieth century were sparked by events in these parts. In the closing decades of that century, as the erstwhile Iron Curtain crumbled, the Yugoslav Wars broke out (Wikipedia describes them as conflicts spanning 1991-2001). Jovica Spajic was born in Priboj in Serbia in 1987. He grew up with his grandparents; he used to help his grandfather with work in the forest. “ These memories bring so much peace in me. I liked to talk about the future with my grandfather,’’ he said. His father worked in the police and following his basic education, Jovica attended secondary police school. Then he moved to Belgrade for “ real’’ police school to join the special-forces. For someone with that background, Jovica speaks passionately, emotionally. “ Till I turned 14 years old, we had war. That is too much for young people. Maybe it matured us with experience. You learnt to survive with little; a piece of bread and a glass of water. We enjoyed small things. Life was tough and beautiful at once,’’ he said. His grandparents died some years ago. “ There is a lot of empty space in my heart because of that,’’ he said. If there was a well-tuned running machine at the 2016 La Ultra, it had to be Jovica. A black belt in judo and jujitsu, he seemed energy reined in. He came to Leh with two close friends, Dalibor and Alex. Jovica met Dalibor much before his running career took off; at a “ small’’ run in Belgrade, “ a six hour-race for which I had arrived in walking shoes and jeans.’’ In the stipulated six hours, Jovica covered over 60 km. Dalibor encouraged him to take up running. “ That was the start of a voyage,’’ he said. Later, back in Belgrade after a mission in the mountains with the special-forces team, he chanced upon a magazine article on a race in the Sahara. He decided to go for it. He was the first Serbian to attempt the race and completed it in seventeenth position.
On return, he and Dalibor formed a group called: Ultra-runners Serbia. “ It is like a community. There are people from age 15 to 55. It isn’t just about running; it is about life, friendship, progress. Each of us, have some talent, we express that in our community; we try to motivate others to find their strong point. There is nothing aggressive. We don’t judge anyone. That is not our purpose. The elder generation talks with sorrow and pessimism about world and war. We try to be different. We want to tell positive stories to the next generation and create in their head, space for forgiveness. We don’t blame anyone. We must put a full stop and move on; there is no use staying in the past,’’ Jovica said dipping into the many things ultra-running seemed, in his life, the first 14 years of it, affected by war. “ Ultra-running is like a river. It is like life, flowing along. Life is a synonym for ultra-running,’’ he said. According to him, Serbia’s ultra-running community has the quality of an oasis. “ It is our space. We don’t make huge plans. We take small steps. In big space you can’t make a difference; in small space you can,’’ he said. Following the race in the Sahara, Jovica started to regularly participate in races and push his limits. He ran Italy’s longest road race, the ` Ultra Milano San Remo’ and the ` Race of Titans’ in the Italian Alps. In due course he became the national record holder in running for 24 hour-runs, 48 hours, 72 hours and six day-races. Then he entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the maximum number of sit-ups – 30,000 repetitions in 24 hours. In 2015, he was accepted to run the Badwater Ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth. Training for it in Serbia with its nice weather, was tough. Jovica trained with several jackets piled on to create a very hot environment. “ It was odd doing so in the centre of town,’’ he said. In Death Valley, he had just one day to acclimatize. “ I had no strategy or tactics, I ran with my heart,’’ he said. Jovica completed the iconic race in about 29 hours to secure eighth position overall, the highest place that year for a European. On the final climb to Mt Whitney Portal, he had the best split timing; all that growing up in the forest and hills of Serbia must have helped, he said. Among those Jovica met at Badwater was, Grant Maughan. “ When you say Badwater, you think of Grant and a few other runners. It is like his playground,’’ Jovica said. Fifteen to 20 miles into the run in Death Valley, Jovica saw Grant struggle with stomach issues. He asked Grant if he needed help. “ He just laughed and said: everything is okay mate; this is normal, this is ultra-running. That’s one thing about Grant – one moment he is like near dead, 15 minutes later, he is full of energy,’’ Jovica said. Grant, who has been a podium finisher at Badwater, ended the 2015 race in ninth position overall, just after Jovica. In conversations that followed, Jovica said he would like to run with Grant sometime.
In Leh, Mark Woolley and I knocked on Grant’s door at the Leh-Chen hotel, to see if the 52 year-old would speak to freelance journalist. An athletic weather beaten man of medium height opened the door wondering why his sleep had been disturbed and yet ready for whatever the interruption held. Let me start the profile backwards, beginning with what I discovered last, long after the 2016 La Ultra had ended, Grant was in the US and I was in Mumbai. Grant Maughan is an excellent one man-band. Sometime amid his travels to run races, he should cut a disc. One of his songs is about the Australian Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, who like Ernest Shackleton, had endured an epic story of survival. If you decide to compose a song for somebody, there must be much empathy therein and when the subject is exploration and Antarctica, you can imagine what the heart identifies with. Growing up in Australia, Grant liked the active life; he liked surfing, he also liked motorcycles becoming at some point in his life the owner of a KTM 640 (one of his travelogues is about an 8500 km-motorcycle trip around Scandinavia, including a visit to Murmansk in Arctic Russia). Travel and adventure appealed much to Grant. He became a sailor. He was skipper aboard yachts, ships and fishing trawlers. The world’s oceans taught him to cope with solitude and sleep deprivation; he also became familiar with the uncertainties of weather, how cold and icy things can be. Somewhere along the way, while helping to unload cargo that had been lashed down to the ship’s deck, a mishap occurred leaving him blind in one eye. Grant took to running only in 2011. He quickly moved through his first marathons to embrace the ultramarathon, which he felt was his calling. The portfolio of runs he has been to, is diverse – there are desert runs, runs in arid terrain and runs in snowbound terrain pulling sledges. He has a twin brother, who – according to Grant – is quite unlike him. Grant was married for 19 years. When he took to running, his wife joined the support crew for one of his races. “ It was nice of her to do so,’’ he said. He has no children. “ My wife and I, we made a conscious decision not to have children,’’ he said. The couple later separated because they weren’t getting much time together. They remain “ best of friends.’’
Grant seemed to keep a packed calendar. As of late August, his race history, available on the Internet, had been updated till February 2016 with the last event being the Alaskan winter classic, the Iditerod Trail Invitational. The list was an eclectic mix – many ultramarathons, a handful of marathons and a bunch of triathlons including Ironman; altogether 52 races, since 2011. In mid-July 2016, he successfully completed yet another edition of the Badwater Ultramarathon (finishing it in sixth position overall), by July end he was in Leh to acclimatize for the 333 km-La Ultra and race done in mid-August; he was expected within days thereafter in Colorado to run the Leadville Trail 100, a demanding 100 miler and among the world’s best known ultramarathons. “ I tend to recover well,’’ he said. Interestingly, Grant also said he gets bored very easily and needs activity. Further he is on a trip to stay healthy and get the most out of as little training as possible – the best option therefore, was to make running a lifestyle, hop from one race to another (one of the gathered runners pointed out that the flip side of this approach, is you may run some events sub-optimally). He found the people in ultra-running agreeable company. On the small lawns of Leh-Chen, on the eve of leaving for Diskit, he quipped how different the people around would be had it been a gathering of triathletes or marathon runners and not those into the ultramarathon. “ I find ultra-runners a quieter lot. They are an interesting bunch of people,’’ he said. Besides running, seafaring and surfing, Grant is also a mountaineer who has climbed in North and South America. He heard of La Ultra from among others, Mark Woolley. He registered for the 2016 race. Reaching Leh – a town he had visited decades ago as a young traveler – he rested and then progressively set out to acclimatize for the race. One of the things he did was go up Stok Kangri, the peak climbed by many for a shot at 20,000 ft. He felt good. For race bib number, he had chosen `640,’ after his bike. Coincidentally, another runner the organizers reached out to was his young admirer from the 2015 edition of Badwater, Jovica Spajic. The opportunity the latter had dreamt of – to run with Grant – materialized. Reaching Leh, Jovica and his team, after spending some time in town, moved to Wari La, the pass that sits in the middle of the La Ultra course, to train. August 11, from the start of the race in Diskit, Jovica and Grant ran together.
The night of August 11, medics Tim and Nick were at North Pullu when the runners reported for their check-in. It had rained along the way and with elevation, it had got quite cold. The small café at North Pullu was where the runners were assessed and warm drinks had. The personnel of the local ambulance service, was also present. Jovica’s entry into the café made heads turn. He resembles Virat Kohli, India’s cricket sensation. At North Pullu, the medics did a quick assessment of Grant. “ He was okay, there was nothing out of the ordinary,’’ Tim said. Past North Pullu, problems began. Tim was by now tracking and checking the first lot of runners for although they led the pack, that very fact meant they were ascending fast. Gaining altitude quickly can be dangerous. As the medics put it, broadly speaking the vanguard of the runners’ column where the strong racers are, runs the danger of coming up too fast; the middle is usually alright, the caboose is slow for valid reasons. So their eyes were on the front and the rear of the column. Up ahead, Tim posed simple questions to the runners. “ What I was looking for was: can they answer me in a full sentence, a quick inspection of how they were running or walking…such things,’’ he said. At roughly 15,800 ft Grant who had slowed down, said he was finding it hard to breathe. Tim had noticed changes. So he kept monitoring. At Khardung La, he once again caught up with Grant. By now Grant’s difficulty in breathing was clear. “ It was obviously pulmonary edema. I didn’t have to get my stethoscope out, I could hear the crackling,’’ Tim said. The treatment for HAPE is descent to lower altitude and administering oxygen if needed. Inhaling bottled oxygen disqualifies a runner. So Tim walked with Grant till he descended to 15,800 ft on the other side. Tim’s vehicle followed with oxygen cylinder aboard. At 15,800 ft, Tim checked Grant once again. He seemed able to continue without medical assistance. “ This was a case of quick onset and quick recovery,’’ Tim said. Something else – something very central to the 2016 edition of La Ultra – happened at Khardung La. When Grant struggled, Jovica waited. Grant told the young Serbian runner to continue and not waste time. Jovica not only waited for Grant’s medical assessment to be done but on the descent thereafter, he carried Grant’s small backpack till he felt sufficiently well. Abhinav Sharma, one of the members of Grant’s support crew, was waiting for the runners at South Pullu on the Leh-side of Khardung La. “ It was a humanizing instance,’’ he said of the moment Grant reached South Pullu, the effects of Khardung La visible on him.
Towards noon, August 12, Kieren D’ Souza reached the finish line of the 111 km race. It was a new course record – 15:30 hours. The August 19, 2015 issue of Hindustan Times has the story of the previous course record; 17 hours and 57 minutes. It was set by Parwez Malik a scrap dealer from Dehradun in Uttarakhand. Parwez was the first Indian to complete the 111 km race of La Ultra. While Kieren placed first in the 111km segment in 2016, the second position was secured by Rahul Shukla, an engineer from Bhubaneshwar. Third was Hari Om of the Indian Navy. Kieren’s timing is considered to be very good for that distance, in a high altitude environment. “ Under similar conditions, the best we can expect internationally is just over 14 hours. However, we must appreciate that we got extremely lucky this year. We started off with poor weather conditions, which cleared very soon. Best conditions in the last seven years. Let’s not make too much of these timings as they can’t be compared from year to year for the earlier mentioned reasons,’’ Dr Chauhan said. In September, Kieren was scheduled to travel to Greece for Spartathlon. “ Give him 2-3 years, he will be right up there,’’ Dr Chauhan said. A remarkable story from the 111 km race would be that of Nahila Hernandez. Born in Azerbaijan and now a Mexican national, she is one of Latin America’s top female ultramarathon runners. Among other milestones in her career, she was the first woman to cross South America’s Atacama Desert. Nahila’s baggage arrived late in Leh upsetting her acclimatization plans. Then, a day before setting out for Diskit, she fell ill with food poisoning. Till the time of leaving for Diskit, she was under the care of the medics. Nahila had originally registered for La Ultra’s 222 km race. She switched to the shorter 111 km and essayed a wonderful run, surviving on just fluids. But what should interest amid all this is that the ones who immediately followed Kieren were those from the 333 km-pack; they had over 200 km more to go and yet their pace wasn’t terribly slow compared to Kieren’s.
Mark Steven Woolley was seated nearby when I interviewed Grant. They were of the same age. At one point, Mark couldn’t help intervening, hearing Grant’s views on running – it was so similar to his own. Yet as the two runners explored that similarity further, disparities emerged. Grant said he is a loner. Mark wasn’t, indeed among the gathered foreign runners he was the one who mixed with others the most. Grant didn’t think much of competing; Mark admitted to occasionally drawing energy from it. Late evening, on August 12, several kilometres away from Leh, the headlights of our car picked up a runner, paced by a member of his support crew and proceeding diligently to Sakti. It was Mark. He was in many ways the real hero of La Ultra’s 2016 edition. While people blaze their way to the finish line or complete strenuous races on their first attempt, Mark had been denied the satisfaction of completing the 333 km stretch twice before. Mark is an accomplished ultra-runner with races like UTMB, Badwater and Spartathlon under his belt. He was also into martial arts. Mark is an Englishman, living and running in Spain. He is a school teacher; he teaches Physics. Elena, his wife who was part of his support crew for the first time on the 2016 edition of La Ultra, is a photographer. Mark had previously completed the 222km version of the race successfully. According to La Ultra lore, his disinterest in coming back was among reasons that spawned the longer 333 km race.
A new race born, in 2014, Mark attempted it. That first time at La Ultra’s 333 km race, he overtook his nearest competitor and led, till at kilometer-317 – past Tanglang La – he collapsed. He went into shock. The descent from Tanglang La to Dibrung, in its early portion, is a mix of sharply contrasting ambiances. Depending on the time of day, just after the pass, you get a sunlit mountain face. The road then proceeds to a gully, takes a U-turn and straddles the opposite mountain face, which is in the shadow and hence cold. “ Up there, the big issue is high altitude but sometimes you have the more common problems like hypothermia and hypoglycemia. Mark was extremely low on energy and suddenly the temperature dipped because he was in the shadow region,’’ Dr Chauhan said of what triggered collapse and shock. That year was weird. Probably because 2014 was the inaugural year for La Ultra’s 333 km-challenge, of nine people running the distance, eight ended up DNF. Only one – Kim Rasmussen of Denmark – finished. Mark’s was the last of the DNFs, which had begun from kilometer-48. On the second occasion, in 2015, Mark ran up and over Khardung La in good time but then began worrying if he had done it too fast. He wondered whether such an approach to altitude would elicit a toll later in the race. Next day, when he experienced difficulty breathing, a rather convincing notion that he was unwell, took hold. With memory of previous collapse alive in mind, he lost much time insisting on being checked by the medics when the medics couldn’t find anything wrong. Eventually he finished the race 52 minutes after the cut off time for the whole course. 2016 was his third attempt. “ I like to finish what I started,’’ Mark had said ahead of the 2016 race. If there was any runner, everyone wanted to see finish the race successfully – it was Mark. You have to have a big heart to return three times for La Ultra’s 333 km-ordeal. I had asked him if three times on the same route may deny runner’s mind a sense of motivation. “ No, you start with an empty head. Every race is new. Besides this is the Himalaya,’’ Mark said.
Morning of August 12, as they came off Khardung La and South Pullu, the 333 km-runners were free to halt at the Goba Guest House in Leh, which served as the race organizers’ base camp. Waiting for Mark there was Ryoichi Sato. In La Ultra circles, everyone spoke of the Japanese runner with respect. His visiting card offered a glimpse of the races he had run: among them were the Marathon Des Sables, Spartathlon, 24 Hour World Endurance Marathon, Annapurna 100, Mustang Mountain Trail Race and a clutch of races in Japan. In 2013, he required a pacemaker to be attached to his heart. Two months later, he completed La Ultra in its 222 km-avatar. “ I got to know of his pacemaker only after I reached Leh. That year’s medical director almost had a fit when she learnt of it. Sato has some crazy runs in some amazing times. The pacemaker wasn’t something that bothered me. I did tell him that he needed to listen to his body a bit more now and not be as reckless as he would have been a couple of years ago,’’ Dr Chauhan said. In 2014, Sato had attempted the 333 km-version of La Ultra along with Mark. “ Sato San’’ met Mark a little away from the guest house and ran a short distance with him. A while later, refreshed and rested, Mark left the guest house on the next leg of the race. That was hours ago. Now a blazing afternoon and much of an evening later, on the run up to Sakti, he seemed to have slowed down.
Gone past Mark was Alexander (Alex) Holzinger-Elias, a German businessman based in Bahrain. Both Alex and his wife Dunya are into running. Alex, who has been a regular at The Comrades in South Africa, had completed the 111 km race of La Ultra in 2015. That year, he placed second, behind Parwez Malik. He had then taken a leap of faith and opted for the 333 km category in 2016, skipping progression through the intermediate 222 km option. Training was a problem. Bahrain is a hot place with neither mountains nor altitude. Alex opted to run long hours early in the morning and after work, besides making the best use of the treadmill and the stair-master. With Dunya as coach and manager, he also did a couple of races, which he thought may prepare him for La Ultra. Dunya’s bid at the 111 km race in 2016 ended quite early. She missed the North Pullu cut-off by 15 minutes. It was her second DNF; in 2015, she had stopped at kilometer-54. On August 12, she joined Alex’s crew. The least experienced of the 333 km-field, Alex kept a steady pace. He was the last of the four runners to reach Leh from Diskit, but by Karu, on the approach to Sakti, he had overtaken Mark. That was the pecking order August 12 evening; past Mark and his crew we came across Alex and his team. Ahead lay a small guest house – Solpon Camping & Home Stay – and beyond that, the 17,200 ft high-Wari La.
Jovica and Grant had already reached Sakti and Solpon Camping & Home Stay. They rested for about an hour and 45 minutes. Late night, they set off for Wari La. Grant had to exercise caution. They were moving into high altitude. But Jovica was prepared for Wari La; this was where he had trained ahead of the race. The duo made brisk work of the pass. “ Their initial target was to reach the top of Wari La in about eight hours. They did so in six hours,’’ Dhanush K. N, who was part of Jovica’s support crew, said. Meanwhile very late at night, Alex and Mark too reached the guest house. Early morning as the sun revealed the beauty of Wari La and the view from there; all four runners were once again in the same region. Jovica and Grant were returning from the top while Alex and Mark were on their way up. Grant seemed fine after Wari La. Tim and Nick had an observation about the Jovica-Grant partnership. It worked to mutual benefit. The tough older runner had the drive of the younger one to draw motivation from; the younger one avoided the folly of heading too fast to altitude thanks to older runner around. It kept both in a stretched but mutually beneficial, relatively safe zone, aware of potential complications yet avoiding it. On the ascent to Wari La, Mark kept a slow, steady pace. He had chosen his crew carefully. Two of his crew members had been with him on his previous attempts; the third was Elena. “ For me, the most important thing in a crew is absence of conflict,’’ he said. He had that peace in his team; Mark’s was a happy, relaxed crew. It graced runner too. Mark was never beyond a “ hi’’ or a “ hello’’ on the road.
Unlike cities, mountains are quiet. From a couple of bends above, I heard Mark say hello to Peter. The cyclist had slowly caught up with Mark. Peter was a police officer from Germany. His touring bicycle – a Velotraum – had pannier bags at the rear and up front. Loaded, it was heavy. “ I like my independence,’’ he told me. For a while, cyclist and runner seemed side by side, a moment Elena tried to capture on camera. Then the cyclist pulled ahead. On Wari La, Peter watched from the side as Mark reached the pass and turned back. The Wari La portion of the La Ultra course, is an up and down along the same road. As Mark left, we went looking for Jovica and Grant. Peter stayed on alone at the pass, enjoying his rest, before cycling on to Nubra.
The road to Sakti and Wari La branches off from Karu on the Manali-Leh highway. Jovica and Grant were not at Karu; they had already gone past the junction. The sun was now blazing; it was hot, close to noon. We met them at Upshi, where the duo had decided to break for lunch. Jovica sat in his support vehicle. Grant sat on a chair in a dhaba (a roadside eatery), dressed in racing attire amid a bunch of tourists. Few looked up from their banter, food and selfies. The road from Upshi to Rumtse was testing. Not only was it the hottest part of day, there was vehicular traffic and in Ladakh’s still air, every molecule of smoke invades one’s nose and lungs. The runners proceeded carefully on this section. By all accounts, it was Grant who kept the steadier head on these hot, irritating sections of road with traffic. Exhaustion was slowly creeping in. Jovica paused to rest. Grant walked considerably ahead and decided to take rest himself. The support crew created a chamber within their vehicle for him to rest, windows masked with dark fabric. He chose to lie down on the road, legs up on the vehicle’s bumper. Before the start of the race, Grant had mentioned that he would like to keep his breaks for rest, not full-fledged but partial. Bare earth was perfect; neither here, nor there. Late at night, after a two hour-halt at the guest house in Rumtse, Grant and Jovica set off for the last high pass on the La Ultra course – Tanglang La.
Probably because it is the highest and most publicized, when it comes to mountain passes in Ladakh, Khardung La is everything. Tourists in cars, bikers, cyclists – all want a photo or selfie there. When you run La Ultra from Diskit, things are different. As the first test by altitude along the way, Khardung La takes its toll. But a seasoned runner is still fresh and able to tackle the challenge. Next night, it is a tired runner who reaches Wari La. However Wari La is overall gentle unless the weather plays truant. Picturesque and tucked away, it pulls the visitor in without a mission mode in the frame. August 13 night, as Jovica and Grant began the ascent to Tanglang La, they were not only tired from being on the road (almost continuously) for more than two days, they were sleep deprived and the approach to the pass was long and winding. The dimensions of these mountains hit you. The frustration is perhaps more at night, for in the darkness you can’t see the far bends or estimate how much more distance is left to reach your objective. Headlamps show you the way; they don’t show you the world.
The unending climb took its toll on Jovica. He grew tad irritable. At one point he asked me if I knew exactly how many kilometres remained to the pass. He seemed searching for an answer better than the regular Indian reply of: it’s just over there. Although I had been on that road before as a traveler, I hadn’t observed it well enough to estimate distance, particularly at night. My response was disappointingly vague. Another time Jovica wondered if this combination of endless ascent and their tired selves was “ some sort of scientific experiment.’’ Grant assured in a composed voice that their problems stemmed from the night denying them perspective to gauge distance. Grant was however battling other worries – it was cold, exhaustion had been creeping in and Tanglang La was once again, a return to elevation. Not far from the pass, the medics came by checking on the duo. The runners asked if the medic’s car could be driven slowly so that they could follow its lights to the pass. That’s how Jovica and Grant reached Tanglang La. It was bitterly cold.
The medics assessed Grant. “ Jovica was tired. But Grant was not engaging mentally. He wasn’t responding. We quickly took him to the vehicle and turned the heating on. His oxygen saturation was 65 while everyone else was at about 75. He was told that medically he is unfit to continue for the next ten minutes. He accepted that,’’ Nick said. During the ten minutes that followed, Grant had a litre of water and two chocolate bars. He was reassessed. His oxygen saturation was now around 85. His lungs were clear. He was allowed to continue the race. According to Nick it was a case of exposure exhaustion. Jovica once again waited till Grant was back on his feet. Tanglang La, appearing late in the race when runner is exhausted, has always been the real challenge in La Ultra. “ The pass is 309 km into the race. That’s a lot of running by any standards even if it is in the plains. Now add high altitude and extreme cold to it. This year’s medics pushed my extreme approach too. They are thorough professionals who appreciate what runners are doing and what it means to them. As a support team, they were the find of the event. We are still learning how the human body responds to endurance events in such extreme conditions,’’ Dr Chauhan said.
At the 2016 Badwater Ultramarathon where Grant finished sixth, completing the race in seventeenth position was Ray Sanchez. In 2011, Ray, running La Ultra in its then 222 km-avatar, had a memorable tryst with Tanglang La. It was there, delirious and disoriented, that he lost his lead to Sharon Gayter who went on to win that edition of the race. I didn’t specifically ask the runners but I suppose, crossing Tanglang La is a psychological threshold in La Ultra. You know you are now on the home stretch albeit still with work to do for someone racing against time, as there is one final cut-off – 333 km in 72 hours – to meet. The lead duo of 2016 had however made it to the pass with much time to spare. The peaks around wore a crown of early morning sunshine as Jovica and Grant jogged down the descent from Tanglang La. A little over a half marathon now remained. Their passage to Dibrung was largely uneventful. Sixty hours and 37 minutes after they commenced their run in Diskit, Jovica and Grant crossed the finish line in Dibrung, together. It was a new course record. Grant later described his partnership with Jovica during the race, as akin to a “ father-son relationship.’’
The previous morning, Alex had reached Wari La before Mark. On the way down, Alex decided to rest some time at the guest house in Sakti. Mark didn’t. He regained his lead. But at Karu he rested and Alex went ahead. The latter, reaching Rumtse ahead of Mark elected to rest for about two hours. Mark reached Rumtse late but kept his rest short. Some hours after Jovica and Grant had crossed the finish line, it was Mark we met first on the Dibrung side of Tanglang La. Alex was still a bend or two below on the other side of the pass. At one point, as he walked down the sunlit face of Tanglang La, Mark said, “ my energy level is fine. My legs feel like blocks of concrete.’’ If you run your hand on the bone above Mark’s ankle, you can feel a line of screws beneath the skin. There’s a rod in there. On the knee of his other leg, to the side, is the scar of a surgery gone by. Both are joints that have seen much work. “ The ankle holds up but the knee tends to hurt,’’ he had said in Leh ahead of the race. Elena walked with him for a while on the home stretch to Dibrung. Just before the finish line he was joined by his whole team. That last bit, they walked together. On his third attempt at the 333 km race of La Ultra, Mark Woolley succeeded, completing it in 68 hours and 57 minutes. The finish is significant. Mark, 52, has been working on a book on his life in running. He can now write the chapter on La Ultra. It was evening by the time Alexander Holzinger-Elias reached the finish line. He had taken a chance at 333 km and cracked it in the very first attempt. He completed the race in 70 hours, 39 minutes. V.S. Ramachandran was part of Alex’s support team for the first half of the race. “ I was sure from start that Alex would complete the run,’’ he said.
The thing about La Ultra is that because it is an extended commitment, it forges bonds. “ I think we are all sad that it’s over,’’ Alex said after the awards ceremony on August 15. “ Post-race blues,’’ Grant said smiling. Mark felt Grant is among the toughest adventure racers in his age category at present in the world. Grant thought of himself as a gypsy. This life – hopping from one race to another, encountering different cultures, enjoying the company of ultramarathon runners – suited him. He hadn’t worked the past six months. He had invested his earnings such that he could keep race-hopping. But resources were running out and he knew he would have to skipper a boat or two to further the gypsy life. I asked him if he had anticipated his troubles at Khardung La. “ I thought I went in good considering I acclimatized well and the distance seemed doable. It surprised me that the altitude got to me. There are quite a few bits and pieces of the race that I can’t remember,’’ he said. About Jovica he said, the Serbian is a talented runner, somebody to watch out for. As for La Ultra itself, Grant felt “ it is really, really extreme.’’ But describing any race as `toughest in the world,’ more than one runner cautioned, would be incorrect, for at day’s end perceptions are personal. I asked Elena if she would return to being on the support crew for Mark, now that she had made her debut at the job in Ladakh. A photographer, she didn’t consider herself a sportsperson. She wasn’t sure she would repeat the experience. People are different; some are into sports, some are creative. What each one is should be respected. She said of Mark, “ if he is angry or upset, you give him his running shoes. He goes out for a run, he is calm again.’’ Late August 2016 – I searched for Grant Maughan on the 2016 Leadville Trail 100 results. A week after La Ultra, he had finished second in his age category at Leadville.
Postscript: One month after the 333 km race in Ladakh, Grant wrote in with a small synopsis of what he had been up to. He wrote: a few days after finishing La Ultra “ I was back in Colorado to run the Leadville 100 mile trail race which I managed to do in sub-24 hours. Then I drove for two days back to Death Valley and completed the Badwater 146 mile; solo, self supported crossing and broke the record by about six hours (49 hours 42 minutes). Solo means you have to carry enough water, food and gear to get from Badwater Basin in Death Valley all the way to the summit of Mount Whitney (highest mountain in lower 48 states of the US). I pulled all the stuff in a three wheeled cart. It weighed about 85 kilo at start because of all the water you need to carry. You are not allowed to resupply along the way or even get rid of garbage. Pretty cool!”
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The altitudes of mountain passes are as mentioned in the race route map. The details of DNF from earlier editions are taken from the race’s official website. There is an article on the 2011 edition of La Ultra available in the blog archives. At that time the race was of 222 km and it started from Khardung village. The organizers have been talking of increasing the distance of the race to 555 km and 666 km, making it multi-stage alongside. An article on that too can be found in the blog archives.)