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La Ultra-The High: The secret to running against all odds

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-08-2017 Rajat Chauhan

Eight years ago I was telling people that I want to put together an equivalent of Le Tour de France in India. A foot race that India would be proud of. People laughed at me. Thought I was crazy. I guess they were right. This year, at the post-race ceremony of La Ultra-The High, I was told that India has Taj Mahal and La Ultra-The High.

That is a mega statement. Bigger than just trying to emulate some bike race somewhere in Europe. Where every second participant is high on something or the other.

La Ultra-The High, a crazy foot race in Leh-Ladakh, came into being because I was told that my idea was impossible. In any case, if it was any easier, it wouldn’t have given me a kick. There are enough people out there who want to do the easy or hard. That doesn’t excite me. What excites me is the impossible, pushing fellow human beings to push beyond what they think they are capable of doing. Pushing the human limits. Because we say no too soon.

In 2010, when I went to Leh for the first time for the very first edition, I was told by a certain commanding officer of a particular regiment there that they were strictly instructed by the medics in-charge not to run in Leh as that could be fatal.

At La Ultra, the distances that are run are difficult for most to comprehend what they mean, or how long they are. A full marathon is 42.195km. The flagship category at La Ultra is 333km that has to be covered in 72 hours, then there is 222km and 111km to be covered in 48 and 20 hours, respectively. As much as people get carried away by these numbers, it’s not the distance that is the deal here. It’s the conditions—altitude, the extreme temperature variations and weather—that participants are expected to run in. At the highest points, the oxygen level is as low as 60% of what we breathe at the plains.

Remember, oxygen is important to keep you alive, something that we all take for granted. The temperatures can vary from plus 40°C to -10°C within a matter of a couple of hours. There could be a snowstorm followed by a dust storm. In this run, you can have frost-bite while having a heat-stroke.

No. You have no clue what I just said because you have not been there, not in those conditions. You simply can’t get it sitting in the comfort of your drawing room, sipping on your qhawa or chai.

This year we pushed the boundaries of human limits even further. Before I get into the details, I must admit, this year was intended to be the last year of La Ultra-The High because it simply wasn’t making enough sense anymore.

When you blindly follow your dream and you make a lot of name for yourself, but when somewhere down the line, the reason that got you started in the first place starts to go missing, you wonder why you are still carrying on. For me it had been almost a decade with this crazy project.

The biggest learning for me at La Ultra-The High has been that we are all so insignificant and yet we have such inflated egos. When you sit under the sky filled with a gazillion glittering stars, where the only highway you see is the magnificent Milky Way, it suddenly dawns on you, you are nothing. Zilch.

For that reason, I don’t look for studs to participate at La Ultra, but folks who can appreciate this. Who are humble enough to pray to the massive Himalayas to let them pass rather than trying to attempt to force their way through. You never know which rock might be sitting there for a million years with a simple task of making you into a star, too.

I look for people who respect other fellow beings and nature. A rare commodity today.

For the first seven years, I had amazing ultra runners from across the world, 22 countries to be precise, 77 of them coming to take on the impossible. No less. They weren’t interested in 111km, a category I like to call baby run of La Ultra-The High. It is a category created to be a stepping stone for the newbies to ultra running to get into La Ultra.

In the Indian running community some are under the impression that this run is intended for foreigners, but it’s not. It’s simply for anyone who fits my criteria. It’s just so happened that a majority so far have been foreigners.

This year I suddenly had 32 participants wanting to run 111km. Five more wanted to run 222km. All Indians. Only two had signed up for 333km. It made me question why I should continue with the event. Running in India is seven-eight years old and runners are trying to rush into doing too much. Most of the times ending up with injuries. Mumbai Marathon has only been on for just over a decade now.

We, as a society, don’t know running well enough yet. I say so because I also have a sports medicine clinic. I see a lot of running injuries just because of trying to do too much too soon. I had decided to call it quits after I got over with this edition. Because I thought we wouldn’t be pushing the human limits anymore.

I was proved wrong.

As much as I am no fan of any ranking system and believe that we are all simply racing ourselves, sometimes we do need to acknowledge some phenomenal achievements. Last year Kieren D’souza, an upcoming Indian ultra runner, shocked the other seasoned ultra runners by finishing the 111km event in 15hrs 30min.

There was a buzz over how someone could run that distance in those conditions. This year we had three Indian Army personnel from Ladakh Scouts not only beat that time but totally annihilate it by covering the distance in 12hrs 32min (Tsering Stobgais), 12hrs 36min (Rigzen Nurbo) and 13hrs 28min (Shabbir Hussain). These are times that can hold their own in the international arena of ultra running.

The icing on the cake was when 17-year-old Jyotsana Rawat, at an age when participants aren’t even allowed to run a marathon, finished the same distance in 19hrs 46min. She was accompanied by her 54-year-old father Yashwant Singh Rawat.

Before the race there were a couple of participants who had high blood pressure or low saturated oxygen levels, which would have made any sensible doctor not let them start, but then again, no sensible doctor would let this race ever start.

The problem is that in medical colleges we aren’t taught about how far we can get but about how soon to stop.

We are experts in illness and sickness, not in health or performance. These participants finished with amazing times. As they said at the finish line, it is about the body, mind and emotions working in sync, and they managed to do just that and more. They stayed humble throughout, because without that they couldn’t have crossed the massive Himalayas.

Twenty runners from around the country, out of 32 who started, finished the 111km distance in the allotted time of 20 hours. More importantly, only one civilian participant didn’t get to the finish line. A phenomenal feat for the Indian ultra running fraternity.

Amit Kumar Chaudhary became the first Indian to get to the finish line of 222km in 38hrs 20min, no mean feat. Lt. Amit Kumar and Cdr. Sunil Handa, Indian Navy officers, made it in 43hrs 28min and 46hrs 21min respectively. Raj Vadgama, a seasoned ultra runner, finished in 47hrs 20min. Matthew Maday was the lone finisher for 333km in 69 hrs 45 min.

I am so glad I was proved wrong. Indian society has come of age. At the end of the day, runners are representative of the society. Like running in India, the Indian society is changing for good at a far faster pacer than even the most optimistic folks would imagine. But we need to give it a chance. Rather than being pessimistic about it. No, we are not trying to catch up with anyone. We simply are running our own race.

Dr Rajat Chauhan, a student of Pain and Running

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