Note :This write up is about La Ultra 111 km which I ran in 2016. My story of 222 km of this year will come later. Read on.
Pre-race journey and family support
La Ultra, one of the most enjoyable, memorable and toughest journey of my life unfolded last year sometimes in May /June. Though I had been to Ladakh twice earlier; once on vacations with family in 2014 and then for Khardung La challenge, 72 km in 2015, yet I didn’t know what I was getting into by raising my hand to participate in 111 km La Ultra. I guess same was the case with other five volunteers. Having run a few ultra marathons earlier and quite a number of half and full marathons in last couple of years, in addition to one ultra run of 72 km in Ladakh itself, I was fairly confident of doing well. However not wanting to take any chances I also participated in 12-hour stadium run at Mumbai in June, covering 102 kms. But trust me, no run or race can prepare you for this physical, mental and spiritual journey called La Ultra. A person will need to dedicate his/her body, soul and mind with utmost humbleness and sincerity to achieve this. So the training for La Ultra commenced with ‘almost’ utmost dedication and honesty while trying to balance domestic and office requirements. Before proceeding further, let me acknowledge the contribution and support provided by my wife Ritu, who is not only a good runner but a very positive person and very very caring wife, mother and daughter too. This journey, and in fact no other marathon or run would have been completed without her support. Our daughters’ contribution is no less as they keep reminding us that they have also become ‘famous’, along with Papa and Momma. Really?? Are we famous?? Thank you Mumbai, if that’s the case.
So coming back to training and preparations for La Ultra, let me tell you that apart from what I have said above, a very healthy lifestyle, very balanced food habits, blessings and prayers of your friends, family, coaches, gurus and elders play a very important role in achieving a goal of this magnitude. And fortunately most of these factors were in my favor, and in good measure.
Our day starts with a liter (1000 ml) of warm water with fresh lime and honey which is followed by a banana or dry fruits after 45 minutes. A medium to long run of 12-15 km 3-4 days a week is what follows hone-lime water and banana. Two of these runs are done on the slopes of Malabar hills. Two days are reserved for strengthening exercises in gym and some swimming. Sunday is long run day and Tuesday is generally rest day. Rules of the gym are, no heavy weight lifting, no plain running on treadmill, no body building. Gym session is divided into flexibility drills, cycling, muscle strengthening and some ‘show off’ in the latest marathon T-shirt. Strength training also includes climbing of stairs for one hour with 20-25 kg backpack. Maintaining a weekly mileage of 65-70 km initially and stretching it up to 85 km within three weeks is what is needed. I seldom crossed my mileage beyond 100 km/week during first three months of training. During the fourth month weekly mileage crossed 135-145 for two weeks before tapering started. But I would like to caution you all to read your body signals correctly, carefully & immediately and apply hard brakes if you think body is demanding a brake. Learn to distinguish between good pain and bad pain, learn to decide when to listen to your body and when to ignore your body and listen to your mind, which is generally more powerful than your body. No egos, no comparisons, no competition with others will make you a better person and good runner. You can only become better than yourself. So be yourself and challenge yourself, but wisely.
Lifestyle and good eating habits
Now coming back to lifestyle and good eating habits. Healthy lifestyle basically means doing what is right, and doing it for at least 24 hrs a day! Get up early in the morning, say by 5.30 or 6.00. Have warm water or any healthy liquid first thing (tea/coffee may be avoided). Some dry fruits (include raisins or dates) or banana should be consumed before you venture out for gymming or jogging. Have a very healthy and fulfilling breakfast which should include at least 70% seasonal fruits and natural fruit juices (do not go for expensive and exotic stuff. Leave those for Mr Anil Ambani). Other half of breakfast may consist of your favourite stuff like eggs, omelette, paranthas etc. but fruits first. Remember seeds of most fruits and vegetables are very healthy. Basic principal I follow is, seeds of all non-citric fruits are good and can be eaten in any form. Post breakfast have two three dry fruits (almonds, walnuts, groundnuts, raisin, dates etc) every one hour till you get to lunch table. Simple lunch of dal, rice, one vegetable and a bowl of curd with jaggery or honey will guarantee you an awesome gastronomical experience. Spend the afternoon finishing your assignments and munching on dry fruits every one hour. Let me add, a cup of tea after your morning run and another one at about 6.00 pm will not harm you. If you have done your workout in the morning try spending time with your family in the evening, prepare dinner, clean up your bedroom, pick up that wet towel from your bed which you left there post morning shower, as you were getting late for office. And if wife is not watching devote 30 minutes to Whatsapp and FB. Dinner should be the simplest meal of the day unless you have been invited for Filmfare Awards night dinner or it is your best friends birthday / wedding reception. We all can hog at least one day in a month. Try to finish your dinner latest by 9.00 pm. Ideal time would be 8.00 pm to 8.30 pm. Some people advocate even earlier dinner at about 6.30 or 7.00 pm. Lights out at 10.30 pm. Good night.
Julley. When in Ladakh do as Ladakhis do
Ok. Now let us fly to Leh. There are two ways of reaching Leh, quickly and directly by air which means you need to be very careful for next two days while acclimatising. Or drive to Leh from Srinagar or Manali and acclimatise while gaining height. Tips for acclimatisation. A tablet of Diamox may be taken prior to taking off from Delhi though I have never taken one and always believed in natural acclimatisation. Day 1 at Leh should be utilised for complete rest and consumption of lots of water and liquids (no alcohol). Take rest but try not to sleep during the day. If you sleep your breathing becomes shallow resulting in less Oxygen to body, which increases the danger of getting AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Even if you are feeling like a Gama during the first 24 hours after landing at Leh, try to behave like a Lama because AMS hits you about 18 to 24 hours after you land at Leh. Take a small easy walk on the morning of second day if you are feeling nice and another walk in the evening. Say Julley to everyone you meet in Ladakh. Julley is ‘namaste’, bye, thank you, hi, Ram Ram, Adab, sat shree akal and everything.
Key to acclimatisation for La Ultra or any big ultra in Leh is to undertake a trek of four- five days where you reach a height of about 16500 – 17000 ft. There are so many options available for such treks in Leh. Or you can do short, medium and long runs on the road to Khradung La every day starting from a higher point everyday. But make sure you take good rest for two days after the trek or runs before you are transported to the Start Point. Lots of fruits, juices, adequate amount of fats, soups and healthy balanced food must be consumed during the last week before flag off. For the record, I climbed Stok Kangri (in 47 hours at the summit) before Khardung la challenge, 72 km in 2015, attempted Kang Yatse 2 / Markha valley trek (six days) in 2016 before La Ultra 111 km and Markha valley trek from Chilling to Sang Sumdo in six days before La Ultra 222 km in 2017. And I managed to complete the all these races. So treks are good!!
The participants are transported to Nubra near Diskit a day before the race. The journey is tough and tiring thanks to condition of the roads. Though most part of the route is good but even small bad patch is enough to make your life miserable at that height. Journey to Start point takes about five to six hours. Return journey to Leh on foot is much better and easier. My advice; before departing for start point ie Nubra, eat heavy breakfast with lots of fluids, carry enough water and most importantly carry packed lunch or some snacks etc. which can compensate for lunch. If packed lunch is not available then energy bars, fruits, salted nuts, dry fruits and momos are other good options.
The stay at Nubra is for one night and it would be memorable. Take adequate rest, don’t think much about the race. Even if you are thinking of the race think of finishing it at Leh. Next day whole day you will be relaxing, making your drop bags for the race, eating fresh apricots and apples from the orchards around the campsite, getting yourself photographed and taking selfies with new ultra friends.
Drop bags, along with what to wear when the race starts are the most crucial things which are on every participant’s mind day before the D-day. It is not very cold when the race is flagged off at 8.00 pm. Wear simple track pants and not more than two layers of tops; one half and one full sleeve. A cap and a buff or muffler around the neck is a must. And keep your hands covered with cotton gloves. Keep one full sleeve T- shirt or very light jacket, a pair of socks, some chocolates, handful of dry fruits, an energy gel in your first drop bag at 25 km. But honestly, people seldom use their first drop bag. In second bag at 48 km keep another pair of socks, a pair of shoes, your goggles, sun screen lotion, energy bars / Gel and another warm jacket. Use the jacket to keep yourself warm while you are resting there. Leave it in the bag, before you proceed further. Keep a pair of socks, sun screen lotion, dry fruits, energy bar and a pair of shoes (if you have one) in the third bag at 78 km. By the way, start the race with your headlamp and reflector jacket on.
Now coming to the running strategy. Divide the race in parts as per cut offs. Looking at entire distance may scare you. First cut off of 25 km is the easiest. Run, jog walk, run …..should be the mantra. Run less, jog more and walk a little bit after every km. Take sip of water/energy drink every mile. Every ultra runner worth his salt can easily save 30 to 45 minutes on reaching the first cut off. Second cut off at 48 km seems like 55 km and as you gain height, temperature goes down and efficiency of your body also reduces proportionately. Most of you will make this cut off with 15-20 minutes or even 5 minutes to spare. Have hot soup and eat something good and hot on reaching 48 kms mark. I can assure you, if you reach 48 km cut off mark in time, 99% chances are that you will finish the race, provided you run it wisely and carefully. After 48 kms you can jog, walk, jog for 4-5 kms. Thereafter strategy should be to walk fast towards Khardung La. Take long breathes, eat or drink something whenever you see a support vehicle. Stop while eating. Don’t munch and run/walk simultaneously. Do not compete with anyone. Run your own race. In Ultras winners and finishers don’t overtake other runners, they run at their optimal pace and others just fall back. But have a target in mind. Your target should be to reach Khardung La top latest by 8.00 am. Any urge to sleep while climbing to K-top should be fought vigorously. Drowsiness is dangerous if you allow it to control your body. And if you thought you will run down to Leh after Khardung top then you are wrong. Your speed will not change much, once you start going down. You can pick up some speed only when you are approaching South Pullu. But remember, by now sun is at its worst and your body is sleepless and restless for more than 14 hours. However, the route from South Pullu downwards is very good. Take adequate rest at South Pullu. Eat and drink adequately. Go through your drop bag and see what you might need. One advice; do not change your shoes during the run unless you really feel that changing the shoes will make you more comfortable.
Finish it STRONG..
You only have 33 km left to cover with more than six hours in your hands. Run wisely, do not do anything stupid which might result in cramps or other medical issues. Once you reach 100 km mark, you will find lots of crew members, elite runners and other support staff near the guest house. Urge to sit down and finish the race at this point is very strong. But ‘bash on regardless’. Continue to jog towards the finish line which is still 90 minutes away. And believe you me, once you kiss the finish line it will change your life, your perspective about capabilities of human body and mental strength. You will thank yourself for having registered for the most dangerous race in the world and Almighty for allowing you to finish it. All the best.