Ever since it started in 2010, La Ultra The High, held annually in Ladakh, has remained a tough ultramarathon. Depending on the distance tackled, it is one long haul at altitude, up and over high mountain passes and a variety of weather conditions. The 2019 edition saw the following distance categories: 55km, 111km, 222km, 333km and 555km. The longest distance category therein – 555km – was won by Jason Reardon of Australia. He completed the footrace in 120 hours, 19 minutes. Besides enduring Ladakh’s average elevation (much of it is over 9800 feet), the 555km-route takes you over Khardung La (17,582ft), Wari La (approx 17,400ft) and Tanglang La (17,480ft) with the last two passes repeated on the return. Jason had won the event’s 222km race the previous year. A keen sportsman, former member of the Australian Special Forces and someone who saw his share of life’s highs and lows, Jason responded to queries from this blog. Here, he speaks of his background in sports, what brought him to ultra-running and the two occasions he raced at La Ultra The High:
In your resume you have mentioned that you grew up playing state level sports from the age of eight. Can you give us an idea of the place and environment you grew up in and what sports you played in this early yet formative years?
I grew up in Canberra, one of the smaller cities of Australia. I have two sisters. Our dad worked while mum looked after us and drove us to all our sports. I played baseball from the age of eight, right through to life as an adult. I coached junior teams when I was 18. I also played a lot of football and a little bit of rugby league, rugby union, volleyball, netball and cricket. I first represented my local area in T-Ball at age eight, nine and 10. I then travelled around Australia as part of the ACT State team from the age of 10 to 18. I was a very active kid and my family was very supportive of all my sporting endeavours.
Australia is known as a power house in sports. As someone who grew up in that country can you tell us how sports / interest in sports is treated at school level? Can you give us a feel of the ambiance at school level as regards sports?
As mentioned, I was in one of the smaller cities, so we didn’t get the same advantages of the bigger cities. But we were always encouraged to join school teams. My school was small, so we only had cricket and netball teams primarily, although one year we did have a rugby union team and I joined that team. Little Athletics was huge though, this is very big in all Australian schools. So I have always been into running. I was a good sprinter because I played baseball. I did well in the 100m and 200m events. I also did a bit of cross country but surprisingly as a kid, it was not my best running event, not like today where I can run forever. So basically our school was very supportive of kids playing sports and doing athletics.
You coached junior sports from a young age. Which sports / disciplines did you coach at this stage?
I coached my club level under-12 baseball team. This gave me the chance to teach kids everything I had learned. My team was undefeated for the first season and in both the seasons I coached; we won the competition, losing only two games in two years
At the age of 24 you enlisted in the Australian Special Forces. By 25, you were a commando. How long were you in the military? Did this phase contribute in any way to the abilities / endurance you have since shown at ultra races?
Yes, I joined when I was about 24 and spent 18 months completing all the necessary training from basic recruit school all the way up to and beyond Commando Selection. After I passed selection, I needed to qualify in all the various specialties. I believe my upbringing and my passion and drive in all my sports prepared me for commandos, which then also prepared me for the ultra events. The commandos reinforced everything I had already learnt, growing up. Each step in my life made me more resilient and mentally capable of doing the next challenge and that journey is still continuing today.
You went through depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after the demise of your child while away on exercise. You have said that it caught up with you years later and you resorted to fitness and running to cope with the predicament. How exactly did fitness and running help you change? Was fitness and running your first choice for a way out from the situation you found yourself in or was it a mix you found, having tried other alternatives?
I went to some very dark places; turning to drugs and alcohol and a very destructive life. This continued for about two to three years, about three years after my son died. I went through some situations where I almost died from risky behaviour and these experiences helped me see that I needed to change and to make that decision. I met with a doctor who treated me after a suicide attempt. We spoke and worked out my passion in life; it always revolved around fitness and sport. We made a plan together to start using antidepressants to balance my moods and behaviour but I was clear I did not agree with medication and I wanted to be off these as soon as I could. We decided that I would start back at the gym and start running to have something to focus on. I used these goals to focus all my negative and positive energy. I also agreed to see a specialist and just talk about my situation which I did a number of times. After a while this new focus on my health and fitness started making quite a positive impact and I was feeling a lot better. Within about nine months after slowly coming off medication, I was free from any type of antidepressants and managing my behaviour and mood just like any other person. I still have days where I feel upset and negative, but now I am aware of seeing this happening and able to take steps to make myself feel better and stay on track
How did you discover your capacity for tackling ultra-distances? Was it evident to you from start or was it something you discovered progressively, working your way up through the shorter distances?
In 2010 I moved to Sydney and started working at a gym. In 2013, I was involved in a motor vehicle accident in South East Asia. This resulted in a fractured pelvis, punctured lung, head trauma, broken foot and other smaller injures. On my return I was warned by medical professionals that I may never have my full capabilities back and be able to run and be as fit as I previously was. I took this as just another obstacle and challenge to make myself into an even stronger person. Less than a year later I tried out for the Australian 24 hour-obstacle racing team. I performed well in the gruelling test and was quite successful though I didn’t make the cut for the team. I decided to race the 2014 Australian championships where I beat the other guys in the Australian team and came first in the first ever 24 hour-Australian obstacle event. I seem to do this often, do well in the inaugural events. That’s where it all grew from. So by not making the cut for the team – it just gave me the drive and lit the fire I needed to start this ultra journey. I continued with obstacle course racing until 2017 when I made the switch to ultra trail running. Each year I have pushed myself further into bigger and harder events. Each event is a stepping stone to a new challenge that is tougher than the last. My first ultra trail event was 100km. Since then I have done distances including 50km, 100km, 130km, 222km, and my longest – 555km.
You have mentioned that it was after winning the Australian titles for 24 hour obstacle course racing that your love for endurance races really took root. Can you elaborate on these races; how does a 24 hour obstacle course race work and what is it like to endure one? What did winning the Australian titles in 2014 tell you about yourself?
My first endurance event – the 24hr Enduro – was a 24 hour-obstacle race. The course is set up like a race track; it’s a 10km circuit with a central pit area where all our food, spare clothes, warm and wet weather gear and support crew are. There are a number of obstacles around the circuit, including water crossings, rope climbs, crawling, tunnels, sandbag carries, and more. You have 24 hours to do as many laps as you can. The event gets extremely cold during the night and then during the day it can be quite warm, so you are exposed to high and low temperatures. At night it is also necessary to wear a wetsuit to keep from getting hypothermia, so for a few hours participants are wearing wetsuits which slows the pace down and restricts full movement which adds even more fatigue to the body. As with all endurance events you mentally go through highs and lows. Further, not having the correct nutrition plan can quickly deplete your mental strength and capability. So it’s important to have the nutrition right as well.
Support teams play a vital role in keeping you positive and keeping you on track when you feel like quitting. I have witnessed many times runners wanting to quit but their crews push them back on to the course. When the race is over the support crew is always thanked for doing so as at times some runners wouldn’t finish if they had not been pushed back in.
I entered this race with no option other than to win in my mind; to complete the event and complete it in first place to show the Australian team they had not given me the credit I deserved. So by achieving my goal and being very new to not only obstacle course racing but endurance events as well, it cemented my belief that I am capable of anything I put my focus on. Finishing the race gave me more self-confidence and the belief that each person’s mind is so powerful and plays a role in our achievements every day. It gave me the fire I needed to pursue my endurance journey and get to where I am now.
In 2018, you won the 222km race at La Ultra The High in Ladakh. What made you choose this race as event to compete in? Did you have any prior experience running at altitude; how did you prepare yourself for it? How was the race experience?
I was looking for a new challenge and with some other things coming up in my life at the time I was starting to lose my spark and feeling a bit depressed. I knew what to look out for and knew I was not in a good space mentally. I chose to do this race after watching YouTube videos and seeing the extreme conditions and thinking, wow this is an epic challenge. I had never run at altitude before. We don’t have many mountains in Australia, and our highest is just more than half the height of Khardung La, the first mountain pass in La Ultra. I was in Thailand training as a sponsored athlete at Unit 27 for most of 2018. This was mainly strength based training, so I was a lot stronger and weighed a few kilograms more (81kg) than the average runner, who is probably about 65-70kg. So my training was mostly aimed towards being strong not light and fast. I had bought an altitude tent for this event, but it was in Australia, so I used it for about two months but not before the event. They say that training in extreme heat and humidity is the next best thing to prepare for altitude. That’s what I did. I made the most of the environment I was in.
On the second day after reaching Leh I thought I’d go do some stair running at Shanti Stupa, thinking I would go up and down about five or six times. I remember starting to run and getting about 40m into the 400m long stair run and having to stop and walk, thinking my heart was going to explode. I only did one repeat that day and thought to myself this is incredibly tough. There is no way I will be able to run this race. I spent the next two weeks doing small runs on the flat and on the stairs; I went for a two day-hike and up to the high pass about two times. At the time the race was starting I was feeling a lot better and confident that I had acclimatized better. I was able to run fairly well at altitude though I decided not to run too much anywhere above 4900m. I developed some gastro issues after blitzing the first 110km in about 15 hours. The second half of the race took me 31 hours to complete due to being sick. I finished the 222km event with a smile on my face and thinking how amazing that part of the world is and how lucky I was to experience the night skies of the Himalaya.
In 2019, you enrolled for the 555km race at La Ultra The High. Doing so, you vaulted over the 333km race in between. What was your thought process behind such a shift?
I believe that if you have the mental capability to finish an ultra, say 100 miles or more, it’s just using that same mind and thinking those same positive thoughts that will get you to the finish of a much longer event. So I trained hard, accepted the fact that this was going to be a tough race and prepared my mind for that. There were definitely times I wanted to quit. But with good support and the ability to turn those thoughts around by thinking about why I am doing this and what drives me, I was able to complete the distance even though it was more than double my previous longest run
You won the 555km race at La Ultra The High in 2019. Can you tell us in detail how this race unfolded for you? What are the aspects that were particularly challenging for you in La Ultra The High’s 555km race? Do you plan to come back and try improving your time?
For me the biggest challenge initially was being able to afford the cost. After that, it was the pain in my knee early on in the race. I had severe knee pain about 250km into the event. After resting for an hour and taking some pain killers this went away never to return, thankfully. The hallucinations were always there after day three, but not so hard to deal with, there were just negative thoughts in my head due to my past and PTSD. I would think and imagine things that weren’t real. But I kept reminding myself that it was exactly that, not real. And I managed to hold myself together for the entire five days. The cold, rain, snow and heat were no trouble as I was ready for that possibility but silently hoping there were not too many extremes, which was obviously not the case.
Next year I have other events I would like to do, but I am planning to bring some other runners to La Ultra to be able to experience the amazing mountains. So if I come back it will be as support and coach to others. I may do it again in a few years and I believe I can definitely improve my time if that’s my goal. Even by just slowly running the last 10km instead of walking I could knock an hour off my total time.
Ultra races often require support crew. How did you go about finding the right persons for your support crew? Do you have people who figure regularly on your support crew? What was your experience with the support crews of 2018 and 2019 at La Ultra The High?
In 2018 Carly was my support crew and she had crewed me in various events prior to that including some 24 hour obstacle course races and 100km ultra events. She did a good job and helped me stay on track especially when I was sick and having to stop regularly to attend to that. For the 555 I had no support crew from back home. I put out a call on social media. Freni from West India answered and said she would love to be part of the event, so I took her on board. Rimple was my other crew but between them they had no prior experience. They did the best they could for the first 24 hours but cut offs were too close and I was getting frustrated as I got more and more tired. At the 222km-mark I got a whole new support crew, I actually got two teams. Both support leaders had crewed before and even raced. So they knew exactly what was needed and what was involved. From that point on, there was less pressure on me to assist them. So I was able to focus purely on just the running side. This freed up a lot of my energy and I was able to make the next few cut-offs in just enough time to set me up for the finish.
So basically I didn’t know any of my crew well. We had all met over there and had to work it out on the go. All my crew were amazing and every single one of them did the best they could with the knowledge they had. I’m glad for all the help from everyone and their generosity and support. Ultra communities around the world are amazing for this very reason. Everyone just wants to help and will go out of their way to do so.
How do you evaluate yourself as an ultra-runner in terms of your strengths and weaknesses? Have you got all the details from – training to nutrition and the tackling of various stages during a race – sorted out or are there still unknowns? What are the variables?
I think I’m doing okay. I’m fairly new to the sport. There is still so much to learn, I think you could do these events your entire life and every single race will teach you many new things about the environment, how your body responds physically and about your resilience and mental capabilities. If you were an ultra runner and thought you knew it all you wouldn’t get very far or stay at the top of your game for long. Nutrition is always a hard one as so many factors come into play. There are temperature changes and other things like altitude, your current eating habits, past eating habits, how you feel, the amount of exertion, and many more. This, for me, is the hardest part to get right in all my events so far. And I was lucky to get it right at La Ultra. The key is to train for your next event exactly how you plan to run it, including food, hydration, altitude, ascent and descent, just everything. Really sit down and work it all out and if that race is really important to you then work out every tiny detail.
What are you planning next?
I have a race in Turkey on 27th September: the Lycian Way 100km. Then following that in November, the Spartan Ultra – 50km obstacle course race and Alpine Ultra Victoria Australia 160km. In December, there is the Al Marmoom Desert Ultra 110km and in February 2020, the Tarawera 100km. I also have a few others I’m planning on doing including UTMB 2020 which is the ultra trail race of all races.
You are pushing your limits. At the same time, how do you handle your setbacks and DNFs; how do you handle your injuries?
If a race doesn’t go to plan I’ll just sit down and work out where it went wrong and how I can improve it next time. I had a DNF last year at the Lycian Way in Turkey which I am doing again on 27th September. I’ve learnt from it and am going back to improve on last time. With regard to injuries, if you look after your body, you won’t get them. I plan my training accordingly and have lots of rest. If I’m feeling exhausted or not right I’ll have a few days off from training and get back to it later when I’m feeling better. Lots of people over-train, thinking that the more they do, the better they will be, when in fact that’s terrible thinking to have. You really need to plan and not overdo any of it. Nutrition, sleep and rest play a big part in recovery. If you don’t get these right; then your running and weights won’t work for you, 100 per cent. Nutrition and rest should be number one priority; after that, exercise. If I feel an injury coming on I’ll just force myself to have a week or two of down time and focus on something else.
(This interview was done via email. The interviewers, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For a detailed account of the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/)