1. Every journey in every sphere of life has a background, a reason, a motivation, a destination, some dedication, a little hard work & focus and endless wishes, prayers and support of family, friends and well wishers.
2. My journey to La Ultra 222 km in Aug 17 had all the above gradients in right proportion. It was my third consecutive Ultra run in Ladakh in the last three years. After having run 72 km in 2015 and 111 km in 2016, I felt a little confident to attempt something which no Indian had achieved so far. When Indian Navy decided to field the team for 2017 edition of La Ultra, I opted for 111 km first and then after some thought and self assessment changed my category to 222 km. Preparations for THE ULTRA started in the right earnest from day one itself. I have spoken about the training, family support and right lifestyle in my previous blog so will not repeat that. Only thing I want to say is – once you have set a goal, leave no stone unturned to achieve it, be extremely positive and focused, and finally, seek support and blessings of everyone in your life. All the factors will conspire to ensure you get what you deserve.
To Ladakh for Acclimatization
3. Since the run was scheduled for 18 and 19 Aug our team decided to reach Leh on 06 Aug ie about two weeks prior to D-day in order to get acclimatized. There are plenty of options available for acclimatization which involve trekking of 6-8 days and sometimes even climbing a peak of about 6000 ft height. I had climbed Stok Kangri in 2015 prior to running 72 km Khardung challenge. Our team had planned to trek in Markha Valley and summit Kang Yatse II in 2016 prior to running La Ultra 111 km. However, only one person, Hari Om (he would go on to climbed Mount Everest in May 17) reached the summit. So for 2017 we decided not to waste time and money on summiting any peak and focus on an acclimatization trek of 5-6 days. Hence, it was decided to undertake Markha Valley trek again albeit through an easier route, minus summit of Kang Yatse. Easier trek was decided considering the facts that out of 20+runners in our team there were only two trained mountaineers (self and Hari Om), only five of us had run in Ladakh earlier and only 6-7 of us had been to Ladakh before. Though most of us had run Ultras, FMs etc. but this run was totally different and unique as many of us would discover later. Since the formalities and briefing at Delhi was completed on 04 Aug, I decided to fly to Leh on 05 Aug as spending an extra day at Leh would have given me extra 24 hrs to acclimatize. So I somehow managed to advance my flight. The rest of the team landed at Leh on 06 Aug. We had race briefing on 07 Aug which was followed by route familiarization jog/walk on 8th morning. Race Director Dr Rajat led the participants for the familiarization jog. In the morning we went up towards South Pullu covering about 15 km. In the evening another route recce towards finish point ie Spituk was done. By this time our team had completely acclimatized as far as Leh city was concerned. Our team captain, Capt Rajesh Wadhwa, very experienced ultra runner shared valuable tips about training and running. Time at Leh was also utilized to brief the team about the run and share each other’s experience.
Acclimatization Trek to Markha Valley
4. Our trek commenced on the morning of 09 Aug from a place called Skiu after a drive of about 65 km from Leh. The very first hurdle was to cross to other side of the river Indus by a very rudimentary hand pulled rope way. The trek thereafter was not much difficult and we reached the first pit stop in about two hours. After setting up the camp and having light refreshments our team captain who is also an excellent Yoga teacher, introduced the team to basic yogasanas which were very very refreshing and ensured that team was rejuvenated for the tougher trek next day. Not wasting much time let me take you straight to our final campsite Neemaling which is a huge green valley full of trekkers, mostly foreigners with their girlfriends 😍😍. We were wondering why many Indians don’t trek as much as foreigners. And we found the reason; how many Indian men are allowed to have girl friends and then take them along for treks? (courtesy Karva Chauth, we have no choice for next seven births). Joking. But seriously, how many Indian men encourage and motivate their wives to join them for such activities. Not many, though the times are changing.
5. Coming back to serious business of acclimatization. We had two nights and one and a half days at Nimaling. We decided to send the team for small treks in the evening. One group was sent towards BC of Kang Yatse2 and a smaller group towards Lamayuru pass. It was decided to jog at least 30 km in the valley the next day. Both the plans were executed with almost 100% perfection. Let me add, each evening was utilized for Yoga sessions and dinner time was spent in listening to one of the members’ experience and life story. Before proceeding further let me confess something interesting. We sent the experienced trekkers group towards Lamayuru pass which included self, Lt Mritunjay and Capt Rajesh Wadhwa, our team Officer-in-charge. Wadhwa sir, even at 50+ is as strong and fit as he must have been 20 years ago. Advantage of trekking to Lamayuru is that we get BSNL signal there and a phone call to family and friends, a SITREP to office and receipt of all whatsapp and fb messages was possible. And we achieved all this!! Since I had missed going to other side of the valley (towards BC of Kang Yatse), next day after the long run in the valley myself and Mritunjay decided to trek a little up towards Base Camp. We started at about 1700 hrs. But as we gained height we felt fresh and energized. So we decided to move further and higher without realizing that coming back to our tents will take same amount of time, and it would be much later after sunset. Finally, we reached the Base Camp and decided to turn back. Sun was almost setting and we were not even carrying our headlamps. So stupid of us! We decided to hurry up but it was pitch dark and no trail or route was in sight. Fortunately, lights at the campsite far below could be seen flickering. By now not seeing both of us in the tents our Oi/C got worried and enquired about us. Someone informed him that we were seen heading towards BC about two hours ago. He formed a Search and Rescue team of strong runners and led them towards BC. As we both started heading in the general direction of campsite we made a little progress. But it was not enough because we were not following the right path/trail and encountered many obstacles. Meanwhile we could make out that an SAR team was on its way towards BC. We decided to head in their direction and finally, we both were found, ‘rescued’ and returned safely to our camp. Lessons learnt and consequences of this misadventure need not be explained.
Return to Leh post Acclimatization
6. The team returned to Leh on 14 Aug after a wonderful trek and complete acclimatization of body and mind. Body gets acclimatized with time spent at heights but mind gets acclimatized only when YOU think you have acclimatized. And this positive thinking is very very important. Now was the time to relax, soak in some unfiltered sun, massage our muscles and stock up on Carbs and fats. Meanwhile, I got in touch with my crew for 222 km. Let me introduce the crew to you. I am extremely lucky that I had the best crew supporting me. My sole&soul mate Ritu Handa was my crew number one and Rigzin, a very brave, energetic and strong girl who is my Basic Mountaineering Course batchmate in ABVIMAS, Manali was my second crew. Wife landed at Leh on 15 Aug after having run 12-hour Mumbai ultra on 13 Aug as part of preparation for Mumbai-Pune run (160 km) to be held in November 17, which she would go on to complete on 23-25 Nov (in 55 hours). Rigzin had also come back to Leh after a trek to Stok Kangri (20000+ft) just a few days back.
The professionalism, sincerity, and meticulous planning of IRun team was once again evident during the medical briefing on 15 Aug. Every aspect was covered in the best possible details. It was also an occasion to meet and greet the great ultra runners who had come from various parts of India and abroad. It was decided that all participants would assemble on 16 Aug morning for departure to Nubra (Diskit). Race Director correctly advised my wife not to accompany us to Nubra as she had landed at Leh on 15 Aug after having run an ultra and was not yet fully acclimatized. So wife decided to stay back at Leh with Rigzin and other members of the organizing team. Let me clarify here, the personal crew is supposed to join 222 & 333 km runners only after 78 km mark.
Journey to Start Point and till Flag off
7. Journey to Nubra commenced at about 11.30. It was my third bus trip on this route, having done 72 km Khardung la challenge in 2015 and 111 km La Ultra in 2016. I have always felt that return journey on feet is much easier than bus journey to start point. Condition of the road, especially between Khardung top and North and South Pullus shakes each and every bone and muscle in your body. Thankfully, we stopped at Khardung top for 30-35 minutes to take pics and eat something. Most of us had soup or Maggi. It would be a good idea to cary pack lunch from Leh itself. Most of us had breakfast at about 9.00 am and the buses reached Nubra (guest house) at around 5.00 pm. Of course, light lunch was available on reaching Nubra. But you don’t get much to eat at Khardung top and en route. I feel organisers can provide packed lunch to all the participants prior leaving Leh. At about 5.00 pm we all checked-in our luxurious tents and got something to eat with hot tea. I was lucky to share tent with ultra legend of Indian Navy Capt Rajesh Wadhwa. His positivity and useful tips never fail to inspire me and many of ultra runners. The atmosphere at the resort camp was eclectic and very very positive. The bonhomie amongst the runners and organisers was just wonderful. I had the opportunity to meet many established ultra runners and share mine /listen to their experiences. Another wonderful thing was apricot orchards all around the camp. Plucking and eating the fruits right there without washing them reminds you of your childhood. Most of the day was spent in soaking the sun, chatting, preparing drop bags, massaging, doing final medicals and photography. Some brave hearts visited the nearby Monastery too. I was not one of them. I believe in taking adequate rest before the race. Drop bags were properly marked and handed over to the organisers. Last minute preparations were made and some rest was taken.
8. After light dinner at about 6.30 pm we dressed up for the BIG one. Day was reasonably hot but as the dusk approached we started feeling the ‘heat’ of the moment and cold of the place. Dilemma in my mind was, whether to overdress to protect the body from chill of the approaching night or to dress light and warm up adequately. Finally, decided to dress light with a half sleeve tshirt, simple jacket and 3/4th bottom. Covered the head with a cap and carried a hydration belt with one 250 ml bottle in it. No gels, no Fast & Up, no Enerzal, nothing. Objective was to ‘travel’ light.
Flag off and Journey till 78 km.
9. A lots of pics were taken at the start point. Evening was calm and cold. A little bit of fear, some anxiety, a lot of cheerfulness and an air of confidence could be felt while participants and organisers made last minute preparations for the journey ahead. Finally, we all lined up for flag off at about 7.45 pm. National flag was proudly displayed by the team, national anthem sung and amidst cheers of ‘Bharat mata kee jai’ the race was flagged off at sharp 8.00 pm. The first part of the journey is reasonably easy as the altitude at Nubra is less than 11000 feet, roads well maintained and height gain was gradual. Even the weather is comfortable or it becomes comfortable as body warms up. One could see flickering headlamps of runners ahead and behind on snaking, spiralling route. Support vehicles were on watch along the route catering to runners needs. First cut off was at 25 km mark which was to be achieved by 12 midnight. Keeping in mind the tough journey ahead for next two days I had decided to take it easy till reaching Khardung top. I reached cut off 1 at 11.24 pm (25 km) and reached 30 km at 12.10 am. The first tough part of the journey is between 30 and 48 km. Night becomes colder, you are gaining height with every step so atmosphere becomes rarer. You have been running for more than 5-6 hours and the worst part is dogs near Khardung village. Though the dogs are harmless and rarely come close to runners but they are scary and the distance to North Pullu seems unending. North Pullu is second cut off point at 48 km which needs to be covered in 8 hours. Most runners have complained that distance is more than 48 km. Its debatable. But my advice is, take the distance to N. Pullu as 50 km and pace yourself accordingly. Early morning 2 to 4 o clock is the toughest time to run. By now you are at a height of 15000 ft (Oxygen percentage is going to be about 50%very soon) and temperature is almost zero degree, body has been deprived of sleep and rest it gets every night. One piece of advice for all runners who would take on this challenge in future; if you comfortably reach the second cut off of 48 km, 99% percent chances are that you will finish the ultra. You can push yourself only till N. Pullu. Since my strategy was to take it easy, I reached N. Pullu about 15 minutes prior to cut off time. At this point (N Pullu) runners get everything- hot soup, snacks, refreshments, medical check up and good massage. A normal runner spends about 15-20 minutes here. Every runner must keep a pair of shoes, socks and a jacket in the drop bag meant for N. Pullu. A jacket or full sleeve tshirt should also be kept at 25 km mark. By the way, every runner can hand over three drop bags to be kept at 25 km, 48 km and 78 km points.
A runner must have his/her headlight on during the night, spare set of batteries should be available and a reflector jacket should be worn while running at night.
10. Journey 48 km onwards till Khardung top is very very challenging and a bit risky too. The road till this point is fairly good. But once you cross the Army camp area most part of the road is bad. Now your body is desperately demanding some sleep. Till now body was thinking that this person is on a weekend late night party. Now body expects you to crash in bed after a late night dance and ‘daaru’ party, but it is not happening. This is when we have to fight with our ownself and come out winner. My suggestion is, if you want, take a 30 minutes nap at N. Pullu. Since you gain height quite rapidly here onwards, don’t think of sleeping after covering couple of kms from N. Pullu. Resuming the journey can be quite difficult if you sleep at 16000+ ft. I decided to furiously fight the urge to sleep and kept on walking. Since height gain is quite steep it is advisable to go slow and acclimatise. In case of any discomfort, walk back, lose some height and rest for some time. Other thing I have observed is, if you want to eat anything at this height, stop and eat. Never walk /run while eating as the amount of oxygen available to body is limited. So either eat or run, if you do both simultaneously, you might end up throwing up everything. Another tip is, avoid having coffee to stay awake and active. Have juice, soup or any other liquid which doesn’t contain caffeine or similar stuff.
11. Since I was not in hurry I decided to go slow en route to Khardung top. I had not realised but by now I had miscalculated my pace and was almost on the verge of disqualification at 78 km cut off at South Pullu.
12. Many participants of La Ultra or Khardung challenge may think that they will take it easy till Khardung top and then would pick pace as it is all downhill here onwards. But it seldom happens. Reasons are; climb to Khardung has sapped your energy and road after Khardung la till South Pullu is mostly bad. It is extremely difficult to run till you reach S. Pullu. North Pullu to Khardung top (at 18000+feet) is 15 km and from Khardung top to S. Pullu is about same distance.
13. Once I started my downward journey, I realised time was running out. I had less than two hours to cover 15 km. I had royally screwed up my pacing strategy. Out of five 222 km runners I was the last one to reach Khardung la.
14. Meanwhile, my crew ie my wife and Rigzin were at S. Pullu since 8.00 am. Personal crew in a vehicle loaded with all the food stuff, energy drinks, change of clothes etc. etc. is allowed 78 km onwards. They both had stayed back at Leh and were ready to join me for the remaining journey. At about 10.00 am my wife got really worried as most of the runners had come to S. Pullu and left. Time 10.30 am: No news of Sunil Handa. She asked Chetan. Chetan said, ‘he is coming’ but also signaled 50:50 with his hand. Arvind Bijwe saw her almost in tears and asked who she was and why she was so nervous. She told him she is Mrs Sunil Handa and his crew. Arvind immediately sent his vehicle back to see where I was. Arvind was crew for Raj Vadgama who was also running 222 km. Raj was also a couple of kms behind 78 km cut off at that time.
15. For me last 3-4 km were race against time and ‘run for your life’ moments. But I was pretty confident that I would make it to S. Pullu in time. Now I also realised I had been saving my energy unnecessarily and should have run little faster. Finally, both Raj and I made it to 78 km cut off with less than 5-6 minutes to spare. There was huge relief and cheers all around, especially my crew who were again in tears but tears of joy this time. They both had undergone so much agony since morning. Now it was time to cheer up and get ready for the next phase.
16. My wife had run 12-hour Mumbai ultra on 13 Aug. Then she boarded the flight to Leh on 15 Aug morning. My in-laws (though not keeping well) had come from Himachal especially for this to look after our daughters during our absence. Our friends and neighbors were taking care of everyone at home. They were even preparing the school tiffins for our daughters. So with so many people helping me, sacrificing and praying for my success, there was no doubt that target WILL BE ACHIEVED.
Journey to Serthi Village
17. Now the remaining journey was easy as the 111 km cut off for 222 km runners is 24 hrs. This is so that runners can relax, take a shower, eat something and change their dress at the guest house which is at about 101 km. On reaching the guest house I met finishers of 111 km, changed clothes, had a cup of chai and biscuits and decided to proceed further against the advise of Race Director who wanted us to take a nap. I saw Raj taking a sound nap and his crew Arvind trying to get a plate of rice, daal and sabji for him. 😄However, I avoid eating much while running ultras. So we proceeded straight to finish point of 111 km. We informed the organisers on telephone and decided to continue our journey towards Karu town. The route to Karu is not through the main highway but through the villages. And it is flat road. After covering about 15*km in two hours we stopped for soup and refreshments. The support vehicle had everything in it including a stove. After some good rest and hot soup we decided to proceed further. Road to Karu is dark and lonely. All villagers go to sleep early. Roads are mostly unlit and dogs keep watch on the roads. It is extremely boring to run on these roads. Sometimes you think-what am I doing, why am I doing this?? But for me the best thing was that my wife and Rigzin had decided to run with me one by one starting from South Pullu. Plan was that while one of them ran with me other sat in the vehicle. I would have my energy drink or water or small snack and driver will take the vehicle two kms away on the route. I will cover two km and reach the vehicle. By then my next glass of soup or energy drink would be ready. But driver and crew always drove the vehicle three kms away and not two. Thus ensuring that I cover more distance and spend less time. In those conditions it is very difficult to judge how much distance you have covered. But this strategy by my crew helped me a lot and I saved enough time to finish the race comfortably. We crossed Karu town at about 1.00 am and it was bloody cold and scary at that time. Stray dogs were another challenge here. At Karu we turned towards Serthi village where a guest house was available for some rest and refreshments. But last 10 km to Serthi from Karu were really tough as the roads were bad, and as we approached the village none of us could find the guest house. At 3.00 am no one was available to give us directions. Finally, after running around the village for good and agonising 45 minutes, we landed at the guest house at 4.00 am. We should have driven to this place during our acclimations stay.
18. Till this point we had covered a distance of 160+ kms ie 100 miles and it had been almost two days since I slept. Last time I slept on a bed was two days ago on the afternoon of the day of flag-off. Even my crew had not slept for about 24 hrs. And on top of that one of them was always running/walking along with me. While Rigzin pushed me to go faster and push my limits, my wife tried to relax and calm me down. So it was a perfect combination which worked very well for me. However, at the end of 160 km all of us, including our driver were thoroughly sapped. Both the ladies must have run at least 45-50 km with me till I finished 222 km!!
19. We all needed some rest badly. So we decided to sleep for two hours at the guest house. This short nap of two hours rejuvenated all of us. Ever cheerful and energetic Rigzin ensured we got tea and snacks at 6.00 am and were ready to conquer Wari La, which is at a height of 17500 feet. Running 222 km means climbing two passes of more than 17500+feet in two days, Khardung and Wari. 333 km has three such passes!
20. As we got ready to resume our journey I was told that indefatigable Raj Vadgama and his crew Arvind Bijwe had proceeded towards Wari La without taking any rest at Sarthi. His indomitable spirit motivated all of us to give one last push to the challenge ahead of us . Wari La top is about 30 km from Serthi. Runners have to come back to Serthi from Wari la and finish the race. So it is 30 km up and 32 km down route.
21. Wasting no time, we freshened up and got ready to move. Everyone was feeling good. We left the guest house at about 6.30 am. We still had 13.30 hrs to complete the race. Cut off time is 48 hrs. By the way other two runners of 222 km were much ahead of us. Even Matthew who was attempting 333 km was ahead of us. Amit Chaudhary would finish 222 km in 38+hrs and Lt Amit in 43+ hrs. Matt would finish his 333 km challenge in 69+hrs. While we were still crawling up towards Wari la, we met all these superb runners sprinting back to Serthi.
22. Organisers provided hot lunch and breakfast to all of us en route. Journey to Wari la was tough but target looked achievable. So we decided to take it easy and clicked some good pics. Support vehicles with volunteers and doctors were available on the route. And it was a huge relief.
23. Fortunately, I did not have any major issues but still decided to take a full body massage when ever smiling doc and his crew gave the offer. Last part of the road to Wari la top not only became steep but also rough. By this time sun was right on top and heat unbearable. As always, last two kms before the U turn from Wari la were the longest!! On reaching the top we were told that we had to walk another kilometer before turning back. OMG.. . Finally, we saw the La Ultra team waiting for us. A quick and very effective session of full body massage by ever positive and smiling crew, followed by pics and selfies and we headed back to finish point at about 1.30 pm. By this time Raj had also reached the top. He needed medical attention for blisters. But he was still determined to finish it and was pushing bravely. Hats off!!
24. Having conquered second Pass (La) of more than 17500 ft in less than two days we were on the last leg of this memorable journey. And last 30 kms were downward spiral with almost entire La Ultra team cheering us. We all (me and my crew) decided to run/jog as much as possible. By this time the temperature was touching 35+ deg but the spirits were high. So we ran, jogged, walked, stopped, cried together, cheered each other and continued towards our destination. As we crossed Serthi village we knew the finish line was 1.5 km away. I could still feel enough strength in me. Combined this with my crew’s cheerfulness, positivity and unrelenting support and I was ready to go to Wari la once again!! We were an INCREDIBLE TEAM. A journey of this kind would not be possible without the support and motivation of an excellent crew.
25. Finally, flanked by my superb crew, I finished the run in 46 hrs 21 minutes. A moment to cherish for life!! Had a cup of hot soup, some tea, felt like SRK while giving interview to Race Director with cameras flashing all around and then was ready to receive Raj who finished the racein about 47.30 hrs despite all the medical problems he had to face during the journey. Sign of a tough and determined man!!
26. We drove back to Leh same evening and returned to Mumbai after spending a day at Leh buying almonds, apricots and walnuts. Two reasons I want to go for La Ultra again-one and most important, dry fruits and apricots. Second, equally important, hospitality of Ladakh and pampering by IRun team.
27. To conclude. It was an epic journey and the toughest race I have attempted till now. A race of this magnitude demands total dedication towards training, complete focus on the objective, discipline, support of family & friends and blessings of God and everyone. And as they say, ‘behind every successful man there is a woman’, in my case there were two very strong women behind me. Without their support this journey would not have been completed. Thanks a ton once again, Ritu Handa and Rigzin.
28. I am extremely lucky to have got the opportunity to achieve this. I am sure there are many more talented brave hearts who, if given the right kind of support and guidance will achieve this and even greater feats. Hoping to see many more attempting this and even tougher races while I prepare to conquer my next target, La Ultra 333 km.