The Indian Navy's ultramarathon team (Photo: courtesy La Ultra / the navy team)

The Indian Navy’s ultramarathon team (Photo: courtesy La Ultra)

In May 2016, a set of events underway since February that year resulted in a message dispatched from headquarters to all the commands of the Indian Navy.

It sought volunteers to represent the navy in an ultramarathon.

For a force used to life at sea and deployed at bases along the seashore, the ultramarathon in question was at elevation; its altitudes ranged from 10,000 ft to 17,500 ft.

The person responsible for this situation was Captain Rajesh Wadhwa. Since 2004, he had been into running, progressing through a clutch of half marathons and full marathons to the ultramarathon. “ I used to think the full marathon is the longest distance around for running. It was an eye opener learning of the still longer distances people run,’’ he said. Capt. Rajesh’s first proper ultramarathon was a run of 80 km near Delhi, part of the 2014 Bhatti Lakes Ultramarathon. “ The dream was to run those races where fewer people queued up,’’ he said. Among the things he liked about the ultramarathon was its demographic profile – it was a mix of ages; not the brute dominance by youth you typically associate with sports. Further, as the distance to run grew with rising need for endurance alongside, the older, experienced runner wasn’t a push over. He / she clearly had something to bring to the table in an ultramarathon.  Having successfully completed the Bhatti Lakes 80 km run (he completed it in 12:33 hours to finish third), Capt. Rajesh did a couple of shorter ultramarathons. But the euphoria was short lived. His attempt at a longer distance – 100 km – at the next edition of Bhatti Lakes ended in Did Not Finish (DNF). Unwell, he had to withdraw from the race at around kilometer-60.

In February 2016, he found himself in Mussoorie, running Garhwal Runs, a 76km uphill of a race from Mussoorie to Dhanolti. The event was also a qualifier for the 111 km-category of La Ultra, the ultramarathon in Ladakh with three race categories –111 km, 222 km and 333 km. The overall cut off time for the Garhwal Runs-76 km was 12 hours. But if you did it in 10 hours, you qualified for the 111 km-segment of La Ultra. “ I started the race with no expectations. When I got tired, I walked fast. I kept moving. After several hours, I realized I was running second. That was when I asked: oh my God, what’s happening? A little later I caught up with the leader. He was walking. Seeing me, he picked up pace. I gave the guy a good chase. He was a youngster, as old as my son. Then at some point, I turned the last corner and there was the finish line. I crossed it bang on the tenth hour. That was fantastic!’’ Capt. Rajesh said. He was not only podium finisher; he was eligible to run the 111 km-category in La Ultra. On return to office in New Delhi, he applied for permission to participate in the ultramarathon in Ladakh, representing the Indian Navy. Intrigued by ultramarathon, the navy’s adventure cell recommended a team. Until then, the navy’s officers and employees had participated in ultramarathons in their personal capacity. Procedure required that the event organizers extend an invitation to the Indian Navy, so that the invitation to an organization – as opposed to an individual – would create sufficient grounds to float a team. The organizers of La Ultra invited the Indian Navy to participate in the event’s 111km race. Invitation secured, the navy dispatched its message of May 2016, seeking volunteers.

Cdr. Sunil Handa's collection of mementos from the races he participated in (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Runner in the house; Cdr. Sunil Handa’s collection of mementos from the races he participated in (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Running is a common human activity and in the forces, it is a tradition from training days. But there is a huge difference between those training runs, the later runs to stay fit and an ultramarathon. Not many realize this. In response to the navy’s call for volunteers, some 20-25 persons stepped forward. More interesting and rather revealing of how little understood the ultramarathon is – there were applicants enthusiastic to run La Ultra’s 222 km and 333 km races as well. The navy realized it had a job on its hands. The number of volunteers had to be trimmed to about 6-8 persons and the selection process required to mimic some of the challenges of an ultramarathon so that the volunteers stayed aware of what they were getting into.

In Mumbai, Commander Sunil Handa – he and Capt. Rajesh had run together before in Vizag – had earned a reputation in the city’s running circles as an ultramarathon runner. He is also a mountaineer. In 2015, he had run the Khardung La Challenge – an ultramarathon of little over 70 km, held every September in Ladakh. Focusing on the challenge offered by the pass, the route spans Khardung village, up and over Khardung La, on to Leh. While preparing for the ultramarathon, Cdr. Sunil ran the 2015 Mumbai Ultra, an annual 12 hour-endurance run held on a stretch from Shivaji Park to Worli sea face, in the city. Impressed by this and seeking to run with him thereafter, was Petty Officer Hari Om from the Indian Navy. He was also a mountaineer. The following September, both Cdr. Sunil and Hari Om completed the Khardung La Challenge, Hari Om finishing just outside the cut off time. Familiar with mountains and mountaineering, the two had followed an acclimatization schedule ahead of the run, which included an ascent of the 20,182 ft-Stok Kangri, albeit a cheeky and not to be recommended fast ascent of the peak. Rajesh knew that he could count on these two runners from Mumbai to be part of the proposed team.

Cdr Sunil Handa; August 12 morning, just past South Pullu (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Cdr. Sunil Handa; August 12 morning, just past South Pullu (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Problem was with selecting the others. Getting all the volunteers to assemble in one place for selection was difficult as they had their official responsibilities to attend to. It was decided to take the selection to them; have the trials where the volunteers are. With those overseeing sports at the various commands struggling to comprehend what they should look for in a potential candidate for this little known discipline called the ultramarathon, Cdr. Sunil was tasked with the selection in areas under the Mumbai based-Western Naval Command. For the rest of the commands, Capt. Rajesh decided to do the selection himself. As he was based in Delhi, he counted on technology and his knowledge of the running routes at the various commands, to oversee the process. On the average, Cdr. Sunil said, the volunteers ran 70-80 km during the selection trials. Where possible, they ran on routes Capt. Rajesh suggested (for instance, he knew the routes in Vizag very well, including how to combine inclines and flats for a route offering a miniature experience of what an ultramarathon entails). The runners used WhatsApp to update him real time. “ Since I wasn’t there in person, there was a lot of trust involved,’’ Cdr. Sunil said. It was a selection process that saw navy runners tackle long distances amid official duties, family responsibilities including children’s exams and even the monsoon (the trial run in Kochi had to be postponed owing to heavy rain).  Late July, a team of six runners met up in Delhi and proceeded to Leh. Captain Rajesh Wadhwa, Commander Sunil Handa, Commander Navneet Nagi, Lieutenant Commander Kanishka Chandel, Lieutenant Amit Kumar and Petty Officer Hari Om, – they became the first official team from the Indian Navy headed for an ultramarathon.

Hari Om, on the home stretch from South Pullu (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Hari Om, on the home stretch from South Pullu (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Taking a leaf from the previous trip of Sunil and Hari Om to Ladakh for the Khardung La Challenge, the team decided to do the Markha Valley trek with a climb of Kang Yatse II for acclimatization. The navy’s adventure cell arranged required gear. After the mandatory rest period in Leh, the team commenced its trek. One of the highlights of this hike to get used to altitude was doing yoga at elevation. However, the day they set out for the summit of Kang Yatse II, Capt. Rajesh had to make a choice. Except for Cdr. Sunil and Hari Om, none of the others were mountaineers. On the other hand, they were all runners and they had all come to Ladakh to run an ultramarathon. It raised a simple question: does the team climb Kang Yatse II all the way to the top or does it focus on the need to acclimatize and save its energies for the ultramarathon? On the mountain, when they were as high as Khardung La (the highest point on the La Ultra course), Capt. Rajesh posed the question to his team: what is the best option? Eventually Hari Om went on to summit the peak while everyone else proceeded back to camp. That reminder about running made sense, for the next day, in the vast, relatively flat terrain of Markha Valley, the team members spent their time doing yoga and running. Armed with these preparations and a team song they had composed during the hike, they returned to Leh for a few days of proper rest. On August 9, there was a meet up of all those participating in the 2016 edition of La Ultra.  Capt. Rajesh introduced the navy’s ultramarathon team with characteristic humour.  Referring to the team and its mix of varied age and experience, he said, “ I am the team’s daddy, Sunil, the uncle and Amit, the kid.’’ The next day everyone proceeded to Diskit, where the start line of the ultramarathon was. Amid the short walks around Diskit to get used to the environment, Capt. Rajesh remembers getting several messages from friends and supporters, wishing the team luck. He also had an infected blister on his hand – got from using an ice axe on Kang Yatse – lanced, drained and dressed by the race medics.

Race Director Dr Rajat Chauhan (right) looks on as Capt Rajesh Wadhwa (left) reaches South Pullu in the nick of time (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Race Director Dr Rajat Chauhan (right) looks on as Capt. Rajesh Wadhwa (left) reaches South Pullu in the nick of time (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The race began on the night of August 11. According to Cdr. Sunil, although he and Hari Om had run up and over Khardung La before, the La Ultra version of the experience with start in Diskit, made the run more challenging. It increased the distance and overall height gain to Khardung La and with the race commencing at night, he was forced to cope with something he hadn’t tackled before in a run or trained for – sleep deprivation. “ Between North Pullu and Khardung La, around two kilometers from the top, I was really in need of sleep,’’ he said of that passage through elevation and cold. Pass done and descent to Leh commenced, his condition improved. Meanwhile, in the distance between Diskit and North Pullu, two runners from the navy team had failed to meet stage cut-offs. They were eliminated from the race. Capt. Rajesh – Hari Om with him – was having a tough time. The initial portion of the race had gone off well for him.  Past kilometer-30, the two even did some yoga. But somewhere on the approach to North Pullu, Capt. Rajesh had sensed the pace slackening. There was a sense of daunting task, growing. At the same time, the 52 year-old knew that the onus of the team’s performance rested on him for he was skipper. He pushed on as best as he could. He reached North Pullu tired and out of breath. The race medics hovered around him. They checked on the runner. Before Khardung La, two to three bends below the pass on the North Pullu side – at the spot where Polish runner Dariusz (Darek) Strychalski was taken off the race – the Race Director spoke to Capt. Rajesh. There was concern that he was pushing his limits a bit too far. The naval officer told Hari Om to carry on. Then he explained how as a military man he cannot give up, how much he owed to those who had wished him well for this run. A little later, he resumed his trudge to the pass.

In retrospect, that was a turning point.

Cdr. Sunil, Hari Om and Capt. Rajesh (Photo: courtesy La Ultra / navy team)

Cdr. Sunil, Hari Om and Capt. Rajesh (Photo: courtesy La Ultra)

As a new day dawned and Ladakh’s sun revealed the surrounding topography, the runners diminished to minor detail on big mountain. Some hours later at South Pullu on the other side of Khardung La, Race Director, Dr Rajat Chauhan took his position to count down the stage cut off for that section. Enforcing stage cut off is a heartless job; it is door shut and no looking back. Making it home with minutes to spare was Capt. Rajesh. Before South Pullu, with about 15 minutes left for stage cut-off, he had given that portion of the race all he had. “ That third cut-off – that was the toughest stage for me,’’ Capt. Rajesh would say later. Right then it meant, the navy had successfully preserved its surviving quartet. Ahead on the race’s final stretch, proceeding to a comfortable finish were Lt. Amit, Cdr. Sunil and Hari Om. Nick Dillon and Tim Berrow, the race’s medical team, were impressed. “ Capt. Rajesh Wadhwa was a concern. He was exhausted. He was just very, very tired. But he wasn’t medically unfit to continue. I gave him one chance to continue. He took that chance and made the most of it,’’ Nick said.

Earlier, when Capt. Rajesh halted before Khardung La to chat with the Race Director, a small but significant step occurred. He told Hari Om to go ahead. While young ultramarathon runner, Kieren D’ Souza smashed the course record to finish 111km in 15:30 hours, Hari Om, tapping into some new found energy, finished a creditable third giving the Indian Navy a place on the podium. Altogether, four members of the Indian Navy team – Hari Om (19:04 hours), Cdr. Sunil (19:20), Lt. Amit (19:30) and Capt. Rajesh (19:33) – completed the 111km-race, the navy’s first official participation as a team in an ultramarathon.

Now that they have a team in place, the navy plans to run more ultramarathons. For starters, they have their eyes on attempting one of the two ultramarathons in the Rann of Kutch. “ This is the beginning of a journey,’’ Capt. Rajesh said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The photos credited to La Ultra were provided by the navy team.)

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