7KM SHORT, 215KM OF LEARNING

Shikha Pahwa (Photo: courtesy Shikha)

What defines outcome – the goal or the experience? This is an article by invitation. In 2019, Delhi-based runner Shikha Pahwa set out to attempt the 222km-race of La Ultra-The High in Ladakh. She tackled 215 kilometers before a combination of weather, fatigue and injury forced her to pull out (215 is the figure Shikha heard at the time of DNF, the figure shown on the race website is 212km. We decided to go with 215 because this is  a first person account of an experience and what you hear in the thick of an experience is part of it). For the past few years, Shikha has been a regular on the Ladakh circuit. In 2018, she ran the 111km distance category of La Ultra-The High, completing it in 18 hours, 15 minutes, 42 seconds. The year before that she was winner among women in the 72km Khardung La Challenge. In 2016, she had placed second among women in the Ladakh Marathon. This is her account of participating in the 222km race of La Ultra-The High in 2019.

My decision to attempt the 222km race at La Ultra–The High in Ladakh had its share of apprehensions. Not only was it double the longest distance I had run till then but its route also lingered at high altitude for a longer period of time given two mountain passes to tackle. Temperatures would range from minus 10 to 30 degrees Celsius.

I was not new to running in Ladakh. I had participated in events there since the past three years. I knew what I was getting into. To sum it up, I would say the 111km I had done the previous year was just a trailer.

Training for the 222km-run was not easy in Delhi. The weather and the terrain of the national capital are nowhere close to what one experiences in Ladakh. I focused therefore on just one aspect – more time, staying up on my feet. To be able to move for 48 hours at a stretch I needed to do a lot of training on tired legs. I started with two consecutive days of running 40km and 30km during the weekend for a month or so and then progressed to three consecutive days of 50km, 40km and 30km starting from Friday through the weekend for about two months. During Delhi’s summer months of May to July, this routine sapped my energy. In this period, I also participated in the Tuffman Shimla 80km ultra-marathon, mainly as practice for La Ultra-The High. It turned out to be a good decision as the event route featured some steep uphill and downhill portions; exactly what I needed.

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

Weather conditions in Ladakh can be unpredictable. At La Ultra-The High, runners are warned to be prepared for rain or snow or heat or all of them. I knew the drill and I was ready. But the mountains proved me wrong.

On August 17, 2019, runners assembled at the start point in Nubra Valley. The race started at 6PM in light rain; it continued for approximately 60 kilometers. After that, it transformed to snow and blizzard. Going uphill to an altitude of 18,000 feet in those conditions was something I had never imagined. I felt like giving up several times but somehow, looking at Nischint Katoch, the only other runner in sight, fighting the situation ahead, I pushed on putting one step before the other. As I had never walked in snow before, it was nothing short of a nightmare. To add to the whole experience, I started to feel a pinching pain in my left shin (it later turned out to be a stress fracture in the shin and a ligament tear in my ankle, as per the MRI test report).

I felt a sense of relief upon reaching Khardung La. I expected the downhill from there to be easy. But I was completely wrong. Moving downhill in the snow was very difficult. I slipped at least seven to eight times in the snow. I had absolutely no control over my feet. I was either stepping deep into snow or into icy puddles. Worried about the manner in which I was moving, the medical teams stopped several times to check if I was alright. I was okay, except that my shin pain was increasing with no clear solution for it.

Downhill running is something I love. I just give into gravity. As I am wont to, I let go and almost immediately I felt the pain in my shin. The next four kilometers I resorted to run-walk.

As part of the 222km event (and for distances in excess), we are assigned support crew. They joined us at the 87th kilometer. The crew is not there to merely help runners with hydration and nutrition. They also act as motivators to ensure that participants keep moving.

When I reached the said mark, my crew, Milam Shah from Nainital and Kunzes Dolma from Ladakh, immediately jumped into getting things ready to make me comfortable. After a short re-charge break, I headed out again. With no rain and snow, it felt like things were back on track.

Arriving at the 111 kilometer-mark at Shanti Stupa felt great as it was almost halfway point for my distance category. There was a huge round of cheering by the gathered volunteers. After a break at a guest house ahead, we headed out again. From Leh, it was pretty much a flat route for the next 60 odd kilometers. As easy as that sounds, it wasn’t so in real terms. It was mentally exhausting to get through the endless road especially at night. It was pitch-dark. My crew car was the only vehicle tailing me. I started feeling extremely sleepy. I fought to keep my eyes open and at one point started seeing things on the road that weren’t there. That was when I stopped the car and decided to take a 20 minute nap. Even after that it was a struggle to stay awake and so the crew stepped in. They took turns to walk with me, talking, making sure that I didn’t lose self-control. We had another stop to eat and sleep in the car. Eventually we made it to the 173 kilometer-mark at the next guest house. By then, my shin was red and swollen and I was suffering from fatigue. After consulting the doctors, eating and taking medicines for the pain, I slept for around two hours.

Feeling refreshed and ready to take on the last leg, we started moving again. It was just 49 kilometers to the finish line but half of it was climbing up to Wari La at an altitude of 17,500 feet. The weather was good and there were many people around, as the 55 kilometer-category runners were on the course. Slowly making my way up, I saw two friendly faces; my good friends Taher Merchant and Gregor Gucwa, who had come all the way just to support me. These are the priceless moments of participating in an event like La Ultra-The High. We get to meet amazing people. Both Gregor and Taher were participants of La Ultra-The High. Gregor was attempting the 222km and Taher, 111km (unfortunately, both had to give up due to altitude sickness. They came to Wari La for the final stretch of the race to support me).

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

After a couple of kilometers, Taher had to leave. Gregor and I, with the crew following, kept walking. As we gained altitude, the uphill walk became difficult. Gregor was going strong. He kept chatting with me and making sure that I was eating and hydrating all along. He helped me get through every sharp climb, one step at a time. We were on track, I was sure of making it to the finish in time. Then, reality hit back. We were told that there was snow along the route on the top. It brought back memories of the Khardung La stretch. The target got very very tight at this point prompting us to move faster. With snow and blizzard, there isn’t much you can do. It was slippery and wet all the way. Those four kilometers seemed endless. It played on my mind even more since I couldn’t see the point where I had to turn around; everything was just white.

At that juncture, I met Jyotsna Rawat, who is part of the La Ultra core crew team. She became my motivator, supporter and morale-booster for the moment, giving me the push that I needed, helping me to turn around. Gregor caught up soon enough, fighting the extreme weather, to be by my side. Although it was all downhill now, the snow and altitude didn’t allow us to gain much pace. With every step, time was slipping out of our hands. After the snow cleared, I started running down in small stretches. The pain in my shin was getting worse and the altitude was making me breathless. I knew there was very little chance of making it to the finish line before the cut-off time. Nevertheless, I kept pushing ahead.

The next time I asked Gregor if we would make it in time, he said it was too tight. Jyotsna, who was following me in a car, came up to ask if I wanted to continue, as there wasn’t enough time.

I was keen to finish even if it was after the cut-off time. But I had to slow down because of the agonizing pain in my shin. After another couple of kilometers I was again asked if I wanted to continue. There is that point when runners don’t see logic or consequences and are willing to endure pain and discomfort, just to reach the finish line. Gregor and the crew members tried very hard to convince me to stop, trying to prevent my injury from getting worse. After much resistance, I finally gave in. At that point I wasn’t sure how much distance was left. I later discovered that I had dropped out just seven kilometers from the finish line. Not wanting to go to the finish point at all, I was driven straight to the guest house close by to rest. After that, I only remember being comforted by Gregor, my crew and all the core crew members around.

I reached the 215 kilometer-mark but fell short of the finish by seven kilometers. To me it was an experience of a different kind. I wouldn’t term it failure. I witnessed several things for the first time, learnt a lot, realized my mistakes and understood how much the mind can push the body. Those 47.5 hours were one hell of a journey and I was extremely lucky to have so much support throughout. I couldn’t have gone through it without my crew and especially Gregor, who really is from another planet.

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

Having said all this about how insane this experience was, I then look at those three super-humans – Jason Reardon, Matthew Maday and Ashish Kasodekar – who completed the 555 kilometer-event in similar conditions and over much longer distances; I feel I need to work a lot harder. Human endurance has seen a whole new level and I would be extremely happy to reach at least halfway there.

Putting together an event like this is a mammoth task. The core crew members were not there to just man the hydration points; there were multiple complex factors to take care of simultaneously in those harsh weather conditions and for several days at a stretch. Despite all that, they went all out to motivate and encourage every single runner on the course. These are the people who make the impossible, possible.

I wouldn’t call La Ultra-The High a race. I was competing with myself, fighting mind and body, battling fatigue, suffering sleep deprivation and nursing an injury. In a span of 48 hours, I saw an unbelievable side of nature and tremendous support from some amazing people. It was a completely overwhelming experience. As difficult as it was, I would like to go back and try again.

(The author, Shikha Pahwa, is a Delhi-based runner. She owns Café Qahwa, located in the city’s Safdarjung Development Area. The 222km category of La Ultra-The High saw only one finisher in 2019 – Amit Kumar, who covered the distance in 41 hours, 48 minutes. There were eight DNFs. As per the race website, both Shikha and Munir Kulavoor pulled out at 212km covered, the farthest run by those who stopped short of the finish. Shikha’s DNF followed that of Munir, the race organizers said.)

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