La Ultra, the High 333 km. Yes, it is POSSIBLE

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Date – 26 Aug 18. Time – 3.15 PM. Place- Right on top of Tanglang La (17500 ft approximately), the highest pass between Leh and Manali. Three of us; self, Ritu (my wife) and Rigzin (my second crew) completely drained both physically and mentally due to three sleepless nights since 23rd Aug. We arrived at the top, amidst cheers of La Ultra volunteers and organising team. Winds on top were picking up and temperature sliding down. There was no time to give Hi 5s and celebrate summiting of third Pass in three days. Journey was far from over. We had 2 hrs 45 minutes to cover 2500 ft descent spread over 19.5 km. ”Will we make it to Finish Line by 6.00 PM”?, was the only question on our minds, including Maj Ajay Beriwal (an Army doctor who paced me to the top). I was confident that 19.5 km in 2.45 hrs is easily doable. Anyone who can run a half marathon in decent time will think so. After a few sips of fruit juice and handful of nuts / dry fruits we set out to complete the last leg of this epic journey. I needed a speed of 7.5-8 km/ hr to make it safely to Mori Plains (Finish Line of 333 km). I never had any doubts that I would not make it. Around 2 km ahead, down along the curvy route I could see Ashish and his team moving at the same pace as I was. Munish and Mandeep were nowhere in sight. Probably by now they were already celebrating the success of Indian Ultra Running. And what a moment of Pride!! We must have had first Indian completing 333 km by now (either Munish or Mandeep). Mere thought of it made me step out faster and longer so that I could be part of this amazing journey of Indian Ultra runners. Body wanted to move, mind said, “yes, move on and finish it”. But suddenly legs refused to lift higher than a few inches and move farther than a foot with each step. Though it was all downhill but the altitude was still 16000+ ft. Lungs were not getting enough oxygen, muscles were fatigued and numb. Team Ashish disappeared slowly after a long curve (he would ultimately finish just about 30 seconds before the cut-off). I could see Brigid, a volunteer from Germany at La Ultra, trekking/jogging ahead of us and signalling to me to move faster. I wish, I could.

After around one hour I had covered only about 7 km and I knew things were going to be tougher. Rigzin came out to pace me when the crew doctor who was pacing me decided to take a break. But she found me irritatingly slow. She complained, “sir आप भागते ही नहीं हो। पहले आपको पानी पीना है फिर थोड़ी देर में break लेना है। How will you finish”? And she was right. I did not know whether l should eat, hydrate or take a break. Mind was numb and mere sight of my crew running along with me irritated me. They have been motivating and running with me for almost three days now. But my mind wanted a change, change in style of motivating and pacing. चलो, भागो, आप कर सकते हो। बहुत अच्छा कर रहे हो, थोड़ा सा कर लो और, इतना सारा तो हो गया” was working fine with me till about 250 km but these words were getting on my nerves now. My wife, seeing my pace during those two hours wanted to kick me hard (you know where) but she knew she too didn’t have the energy to do so!! At around 10 km to finish line I saw Chetan coming towards us. I still had one and half hours to complete. Chetan said, “just after the next turn you will find 5 km mark”. Some relief, it was!! And he started jogging with me. I thought I was going to make it as time was around 4.45 PM. I increased my pace to give it one last push. Winds had picked up, temperature was down to 4-5 deg C, sun was hiding behind brown and barren hills but despite the best efforts road seemed never-ending. The elusive 5 km mark was nowhere in sight. Finally saw that 5 km mark at 5.25 PM!! “Oh my God!! Was I sooo slow or Chetan hid the actual distance to boost my morale”?? Anyways, target had been revised. New target was almost 6 minutes/ km pace if I was to finish!! I didn’t know whether to give it my best or just forget it. I decided to take the challenge. But the Finish Point seemed to be moving further and further with every ticking second and every ‘baby step’ I was taking. Sadness on the faces of my crew was evident. Some tears were already flowing down (mine were still under control)!! Ultra running teaches you to control your emotions!! I increased my speed a bit but we all knew it was not enough. Turn after turn and still we could not see the Finish line. Desperation and sadness was all around. So close yet sooo far!!! Time was around 5.54 PM and we still had around 2 km to cover. From here only person who could make it to Finish line by 6.00 PM was Kipchoge!!!

Finally, my stop watch showed 72:00:00. THIS WAS IT! Ah, Oh,,, We could not make the cut off! By now many members of the crew had joined us for the last mile. Running changed to jogging, jogging to slow jogging and then I decided to walk and reflect upon my journey of last 72 hours. We jogged the last 100 mtrs towards the Finish line. Someone tried to hand over the Tri-colour to me but I had no sense to hold it and run. I just wanted to thank everyone and hug my crew.

That’s when I thought to myself – Life is not about how long you live but it’s all about how well you live during this journey. Similarly, La Ultra 333 km may have a cut-off time but it’s not at all about the time one takes to finish this journey. It’s all about how well we covered this distance and how well three of us lived those 72 hours. All the sadness and disappointment disappeared for a moment on crossing the finish line, meeting other three finishers and excellent crew members of La Ultra. There were tears, cheers, joy, clapping and lots of hugs. Sun was setting somewhere behind the mountains but the disappearing sunrays were giving the message, ‘Sun has given its best during those 12 hrs and will shine again tomorrow morning with same vigour and energy!!! Every day is a new day.

Final Moments captured!!

How much is 333 km?

The first and most important thing one has to remember before attempting 333 km at La Ultra is that 333 is neither 111×3 nor 222+111. It is much more than that, both physically and mentally. Having done 72 km, 111 km, 222 km during the last three years and now attempting 333 km, I have learnt that every distance, if one has to cover with utmost sincerity and best efforts, is equally tough and demanding. My first ultra run at Ladakh through Khardung La (72 km in 2015) was as tough and demanding as 333 km through Khardung la, Wari la and Tanglang la. Of course, for 333 km body and mind has to endure for three days which made it an unique and memorable experience.

Never Thought it was POSSIBLE, Never Thought I would Do it

When I finished 222 km in Aug 17, I was asked if I would run 333 km. I had stayed non-committal and in my mind I had decided not to attempt 333 km as it did NOT seem possible.

I never began serious training for 333 km. It was always weekly mileage of 70-80 km during the last 10 months. Of course, I had the opportunity to run Paradise trails ultra 101 km in Goa in Nov 17 and Run the Ran 161 km in Gujarat (Dholavira) in Feb 18. Both these runs are beautiful, unique and extremely demanding, both mentally and physically. Having qualified for Boston marathon during TMM 18 I was thinking of doing well in FMs and HMs so that I could give my best at Boston 2019. So there were no plans to run any ultra after Feb 18.

Memorable run at’ Run the Rann’- Feb 18

Unplanned but That’s How it Began

Indian Navy team for La Ultra 111 & 222 km was being formed. No one thought of Navy’s participation in 333 km though two of us, Lt Cdr Amit and I were qualified to attempt 333 km, having finished La Ultra 222 km in 2017.

In the last week of June, in spur of the moment I decided to run Mashobra trail 80 km Tuffman event. It was a weekend race. Delhi heat was too much to bear. (I had moved to Delhi permanently and family was still in Mumbai). So I took the night bus to Shimla on Friday night and landed at Mashobra next day. Managed to finish 80 km in 10+ hrs.

On reaching Delhi I came to know that many friends from La Ultra 2017 were attempting 222 & 333 in 2018. So I too decided to register my name for 333 km. Though training was inadequate and having come to Delhi only a month back I was terribly missing the running community, humidity and routes of Mumbai. Delhi heat made it almost impossible for me to train for La Ultra. But I somehow managed to maintain minimum training standards.

Having observed runners who ran 222 & 333 km during the last two editions of La Ultra, I knew that to do a good 222 or 333 km run one must spend at least three weeks in Ladakh, acclimatizing, training, running and trekking at a height of more than 15 to 16000 feet.

Delhi To Leh – Beginning of an Epic Journey

So with some training plan in place I left for Leh in the first week of Aug.

After spending around 30 hours getting acclimatized, small walks and small jogs were undertaken around Leh. I was very fortunate to have a very good friend; Ironman, excellent Yogi, artist and equally good dentist Dr Aditya Sahu as my room mate, who not only kept my spirits high but also shared many interesting gossips of Running World!

With Aditya – Running on the Streets of Mumbai

Training at Leh

A few days after I landed at Leh, rest of the naval team too arrived. After two days of acclimatization, some running practice in and around Leh, we commenced our trek to Base Camp of Stok Kangri. It took us two days to reach the BC. On reaching BC our team climbed further towards Advance Base Camp and gained a height of about 17000+ ft. Proper acclimatization and height gain of this nature is extremely necessary if one has to participate in a grueling race like La Ultra. Though such treks and climbs are very tiring as one has to keep moving for 8-10 hrs with 15-20 kg load on the back, but recovery is very very fast. Three days’ trek was followed by couple of days’ rest at Leh which were utilised to visit Sangam and Gurudwara Pathar Sahib ji. Now, literally we had left no stone in Ladakh untouched and unturned, including the holiest one. As last phase of training, our team moved to Start Point of La Ultra to run the entire 111 km route over the next 2.5 days.

Training Runs- Leh to Shey and Back

Training Runs in Leh City- Team Seeking Blessings of Lord Budha at Iconic Shanti Stupa Post Training

Acclimatization Trek to Advance BC of Stok Kangri

At Advance BC of Stok Kangri-Purrrfect Acclimatization

Trip to Gurudwara Pathar Sahib to Seek Blessings of Guru Nanak Dev ji!!

A Trip to Sangam to Witness Some Adrenaline Pumping Rafting (above and below)

Group pic with Team Captain, Capt. Rajesh Wadhwa (Standing, Second from Left) – A Picture to be Framed!

Group pics of Indian Army and Navy Teams- Some of the Best Runners at La Ultra are from Indian Army

Training on 111 km Route

We moved to Khalzang village on 14 Aug. Team set up camp slightly further from the Start Line of La Ultra in the afternoon and commenced running at about 6.00 PM. We completed around 23 km on the first day, 38 km next day and around 50+ km on the last day. I had to miss some part of the run due to upset stomach. Capt Wadhwa was the only one who ran every inch of the route. Team ran with national flags on 15 Aug and were cheered by many tourists and locals along the route. We set up our night camps at Rafting point near first cut-off point on 14 Aug and at North Pullu, slightly ahead of second cut-off point on 15 Aug. Team reached Leh on 16 Aug. Mental blocks and fear of unknown vanished from our minds during those three days. Everyone had seen the route including all the inclines and declines. The team was now more confident and more than ready to do a good run at La Ultra.

Route Familiarisation- At First Cut-off on 15 Aug morning

 

Official Briefing, Journey to Start Point and Flag-off

An elaborate briefing for all the participants was conducted two days prior to flag off. This is where we met some of the best runners from Indian Army and civil world.

All the runners were shifted to a beautiful resort near start point a day prior to flag off. Day of flag-off was spent leisurely, chatting, plucking apricots, checking gears for the last time, undergoing mandatory medical checks, clicking official and unofficial pics/videos and packing drop bags.

Mandatory Medical Checks on D-day – Maj Ajay monitoring BP

Finally, the runners were shifted to Start line at about 5.00 PM on 23 Aug.

Proud Naval Contingent with Naval Ensign in two pics below- Shano Varunah. (10 minutes before Flag-off).

Four Submariners – 4 minutes to Flag-off. Diving Now…Diving Now. ‘Depth’ 333 Kms, Inspect Compartments!!

I Love You Ladakh!

It was very heartening to see the entire village lined up at start line to cheer the runners. They had made special arrangements for offering tea and snacks to all of us. Such a lovely gesture and such nice, simple people of Ladakh!! That’s why I love Ladakh. This year, unlike earlier editions of La Ultra, the race started at 6.00 PM. There was enough daylight available and temperature was also comfortable. So it was a perfect start for all of us!! Just miling and smiling.

With the ‘Coolest and Strongest’ Jeet. Thanks bro for Pacing!

Journey Begins and Goes on Regardless

Many of us reached the first cut off (20+km) with one to one and half hours in hand. I still remembered having reached North and South Pullu cut-off points last year during my 222 km run only a few minutes before the cut-off. So objective this time was to stay ahead, in control and save time rather than energy. As dusk made way for night, temperature started dipping. I had started the race in half sleeve t-shirt. At first cut-off I took out my head light, gloves and additional jacket. Though one gains considerable height from Start to North Pullu, it’s all gradual and not very tough. Of course, lack of sleep and cold make things difficult. Maintaining a good pace and still feeling fresh I reached the second cut-off (North Pullu) at about 2.30 AM (with 1.30 hrs in hand). This is the most crucial and elusive cut-off point, road to which seems unending. Since it’s your first day of running in almost zero temperature at midnight at a height of 14000+ ft, body needs time to accept it. If one has physical and mental endurance he/she should aim to save at least one hour on reaching North Pullu. A cup of hot soup and quick massage by crew members and I set out to embrace Khardung La. As always, sleep deprivation, time of the day (early morning) and height gain made climb to Khardung top very challenging. I always try not to run this stretch and this time too I covered those 15 kms walking/ brisk walking.

I took me around 3.30 hours to reach Khardung La top. It is advisable to go slow while climbing from North Pullu to Khardung top so that body acclimatises well, if not already acclimatised. It is also most challenging time as you have been sleepless for more than 22 hrs, early morning temperature is almost zero and you are gaining height. It is extremely important that you fight that urge to take a nap till you reach the top and start going down towards South Pullu. Nap, if you need it, must be taken after you have gone down considerably. Though I don’t consume chocolates or coffee while running but stretch like this is the right place for consuming coffee or eating your favourite chocolates.

I still remember how I managed to reach South Pullu last year, just 4 minutes before the cut-off and no one was sure if I would make it. My wife was almost in tears. However, my arrival at South Pullu this time was very very comfortable. I was there at 9.15 AM, 01 hour and 45 minutes before the cut-off. This was a huge relief for all of us.

Once my crew was in sight and I knew that next cut-off was 24 hrs to complete first 111 km. We were relieved and relaxed. After a quick bite of breakfast we headed for Leh (Shanti Stupa) which was finish point of 111 km with 24 hrs cut-off for 222 & 333 runners.

We covered the entire route to Shanti Stupa easily.

Racer and Pacers (for both 222 & 333 km) – With Rigzin and Ritu

Training together, Running Together – My Pacer at La Ultra and for Life!

Day 2

After half an hour rest, quick lunch and a round of massage by my crew we resumed our journey to Karu. Though experts advise to take a nap at Leh but since none of us was sleepy we decided to move on regardless. Journey to Karu and from there to about 3 km before Serthi junction was uneventful, boring, monotonous and mentally tiring. It’s flat road which passes through small, sleepy villages. Out of two, one of my crew members was with me on road most of the time. The scariest part of this stretch is when you reach Karu town shortly after midnight and roars of stray dogs along with Indus river gushing past sink your heart. Temperature here further dips by a couple of degrees. Though it is a big town but not a single soul could be seen there at midnight. Of course, Army jawans guarding the gates of Army bases in and around Karu were alert and awake.

Unlike last year, road from Karu to Serthi (10-11 km) was in much better shape this time.

Around 3+ km from Serthi junction I had a glass of water and took handful of dates and then along with my wife continued to jog towards Serthi guest house. Though it was my second year running on this route, I had absolutely no idea about the exact route to Serthi guest house and we were relying on our driver’s knowledge.

First Fiasco

As we both moved ahead driver of our crew vehicle decided to stop there for a brief nap. We thought he will catch up in 10-15 minutes. We reached Serthi junction at about 2.30 AM. But there was no sign of our vehicle. Though we had run this route last year too but we were totally clueless about location of Serthi guest house, next cut-off point. At Serthi junction, at 2.30 AM in sub-zero temperature without water and extra clothing, not knowing where to go or what to do we were waiting for the vehicle to come and guide us. Even our mobile phones were in the vehicle.

One option was to go down (back) 03 km and wake him up but then we thought it’s not worth it. He should be here in next 10-15 minutes. But time was almost 3.30 AM and there was no sign of our vehicle. We were shivering and waiting. We spotted the bib of one of the 222 km runners on roadside and realised that he had reached there and gone elsewhere to come back and resume the run from there. In fact, I would have also left my bib there, gone back to wake up the driver and come back to this point in the vehicle to resume our run. (It is allowed by the rules). But at that time this idea did not strike us and we both (husband and wife) continued to wait, curse, suffer and shiver together!!!

Nightmare Ends

Luckily at about 3.30 AM we saw crew vehicle of 222 km runner Nischint Katoch and followed him to the guest house. Let me tell you, I found Nischint the strongest and best runner amongst all of us attempting 222 & 333 km distances.

We reached the guest house by 4.00 AM but our plan of reaching Serthi early and taking two hours nap till about 5.00 AM was ruined. WE NEVER THOUGHT THAT TIME LOST WAITING AT SERTHI WOULD PROVE TO BE SO CRUCIAL IN THE END!! But this kind of mishaps can happen with anyone during such kind of adventures. I am sure other runners too faced similar situations during their journey and they overcame them bravely.

To Second (Worry) La and Back

After quick 30-40 minutes nap, (though we all were slightly weary and sleepy) we decided to head for the next Summit of our journey, Wari La which is about 30 km up at a height of 17400+ feet. Most of the journey to Wari La is on good road and has gradual climb. Last 3-4 km are tough as route becomes rough and climb steeper. Last stretch of 02 km to Wari La top seems like 20 km. However, with so much time in hand we made it to the top well within cut-off. This is where most of 222 & 333 km runners saw each other for the first time after the flag-off.

Running up to Wari La – in 2017 for 222 km

Lunch Break – Ever Caring Crew, Rigzin. We are sooo Grateful to her!

Worrisome Moments after ‘WorryLa

I don’t know how, but most of us had to sprint down to make it to 222 km cut-off just in time. It’s very very tricky route and despite having sufficient time in hand almost everyone was running against time to complete 222 km within 48 hrs. Most of us completed between 47.30- 47.45 hrs. It seems everyone miscalculated the journey to Wari La and back!!

Ready for the Last 111 kms- Complete Carbo Loading and Awesome Physiotherapy

Despite having lost one hour in the morning we were charged up and happy that two third of the distance was over. We were welcomed into coziness of Serthi guest house. It was time to take a good massage and physiotherapy. For the first time in my running ‘career’ I saw two small blisters on my feet. This happened because I wore brand new pair of socks and probably some sand went into my shoes. Blisters were quickly and nicely treated by the doctors. Thanks to excellent massaging and physiotherapy by Major Ajay Beriwal, my legs and entire body felt extremely fresh. This was also the place where after two days we could eat a complete meal consisting of hot soup, rice, daal and some Ladakhi delicacies. We call it ‘ Carbo Loading’.

To Lato Guest House via Karu

Now the next big target was Lato village via Karu town. So at about 8.00 PM we were ready to resume our journey. Other 333 km runners were still resting/recovering and their crew members very very busy planning every kilometer and every hour of next 20-22 hours. We had made no such plans (in the hindsight I think we should have done it). We were also mighty impressed with the crew teams of other three runners. Very experienced, meticulous and dedicated!!

Second Fiasco

We were feeling fresh and enough Carbs had been loaded by all of us. We were off to a good start. Everyone was fresh and well rested. Here ‘We’ means my crew and I.

However, our driver decided to disappear once again!!! This time my wife was in the vehicle and Rigzin was running with me. Our mobiles were again inside the vehicle. Time was around 10.00 PM. I had given very clear instructions to driver to stop every two kms and wait for me. It had been almost 45 minutes since we started running and our driver and vehicle were nowhere on the road. We both were actually running at good pace. We were not sure whether we were on the right track. But we kept running for another half an hour as it was a straight road to Karu. Luckily we met race organisers’ vehicle en route (Mark Woolley was in the vehicle). Time was around midnight. Using their mobile phone I called my wife. To my horror, she told me that driver had diverted the vehicle to a tea shop in a small village as he wanted to have tea. I was literally fuming!!! Somehow I managed to maintain my sanity and controlled my anger. It was extremely unprofessional behaviour but nothing much could be done at that stage. Imagine at midnight driver elopes to a remote village for a cup of tea with your wife in the vehicle!! And you are running on the road sleepless for more than 50 hours and temperature dipping to almost zero!!!

ADVENTUROUS, isn’t it??

My New Crew on Leh-Manali Highway and Severe Sleeplessness

Anyways, somehow we effected an R/V with our driver and continued our journey. Yes, I forgot to mention that at Serthi Chetan Sehgal (la Ultra team) told me that he would stay with me till Lato guest house. They probably realised that our crew strength was inadequate and both the ladies needed some respite and rest. It gave immense relief to all of us, especially my crew because now they both could rest/ sleep. Karu onwards Chetan took on the responsibility of pacing and keeping me awake. Journey from Karu to Lato is on the national highway (Leh-Manali). It’s nice flat road with very few inclines. However, Indus river flows right next to the road and sleeplessness and drowsiness sometimes took me very close to the river bank. But the noise of gushing, roaring river kept me awake and alert. It was third night of sleeplessness!!!

Chetan maintained pace with me through most of the night. I took 2-3 quick naps of 15 minutes each while he patiently waited for me. Towards early morning he told his vehicle driver Tony to pace me while he drove the vehicle. The biggest advantage of all this was that both my crew members could get good sleep of 4-5 hours. Ever grateful to Chetan and Tony for this!!

Lato Guest House

In between I saw Munish Dev jogging past me. I tried to keep pace with him but could not.

I don’t remember when Mandeep went past me. Most of the time my eyes were half shut while running from Karu to Lato!! If I remember correctly, Ashish reached Lato guest house immediately before or after me. On reaching Lato I was told that Munish was going very strong and had left the guest house almost an hour ago!!!

While I was stretching outside the guest house, we saw Mandeep not being able to bend his legs and was supported by his crew to his room for a session of physiotherapy and stretching. I must say, at that moment I was really worried for him. But hats off to doctors / physios in the La Ultra team and Mandeep’s extremely meticulous and dedicated crew that within 15-20 minutes he was back on his legs and ready to conquer the last challenge, Tanglang La. While I finished my breakfast after a quick washroom break (there was no time to take a quick nap!!) and excellent massage / physiotherapy by team La Ultra, Mandeep was ready to fly towards finish point. He is a tough, extremely dedicated and very strong ultra runner. When after about 30-40 minutes I came out to commence the last leg of this epic journey, we found ‘Team Ashish’ moving around in the guest house and Team Mandeepp had left around 15 minutes earlier.

Physically, like all of us Ashish too seemed to be tired, exhausted and drained, but in very high spirits. His crew, including his brother (Col in Army) were around him giving him much needed motivation and support.

Lato to Tanglang La Top

After saying ‘hi and bye’ to Team Ashish we left the guest house knowing fully well that Ashish would catch up with us sooner than later. His walking style is excellent. He walks with long and steady strides while going uphill. These ‘walks’ were much better than my ‘runs’ under those conditions.

Short break at Lato was rejuvenating and first 10-12 km towards Tanglang La are on flat road. We covered them well, meeting locals, chatting, jogging or running most of the distance. Total distance from Lato to top is about 45 km and other 19+ km to finish line from there. After about 13-14 km Ashish and his crew caught up with us. At this point the climb towards top had commenced and I had started walking. Ashish was also walking but with much longer and better strides. Though there was no chance of meeting Munish till we reached finish line, even Mandeep was out of sight. He had probably almost caught up with Munish as they both finished within four minutes of each other, Munish being the first one.

Race Director had told us that the last Pass would be the most elusive one and seems never ending. His words were seeming real and genuine now!!!

The Pass was on our right side but we were moving and climbing to left through winding roads and steep slopes. Gradually, Ashish started moving out of sight. I would see him once or twice again before meeting him at Finish line.

This was the time when we all felt the ‘heat’ and had some doubts about finishing within 72 hours. Till this point and even on reaching Tanglang top, I was pretty sure that I would complete well within 72 hours. Lack of a good pacer & motivator and additional crew members was being felt by all of us. Because all three of us were in almost same physical and mental state. Here Major Ajay Beriwal, one of the doctors of La Ultra crew joined us along with another doc whose name I am forgetting now. They both took the responsibility of pacing me up. I must say Ajay’s style of pacing and motivating was unique and excellent. We took one kilometre at a time and targeted the distance and time. There were fast kms and ‘not so fast’ kms but no slow kms. Both the doctors kept our spirits and ‘josh’ high till we reached the top of Tanglang La at about 3.15 PM. It was the leadership of an Army man! I tried to follow Ajay as much as I could. And with two doctors with me I could take the risk of moving faster than what my body permitted me. I have no words to thank Chetan, Tony and both the doctors for the support they provided us from Karu to Lato, for the final climb to Tanglang La and beyond that.

Last 19.5 kms

There was no time to celebrate on reaching the summit of last La. Immediately we were on our way down towards the Finish Line which was some 19 kms down.

Major Ajay, I was told, became slightly unwell because of very quick height gain and exhaustion while pacing me.

Sadly, Ajay could not accompany us for the last 19-20 km. Though other doctor remained with us for some more time and we tried to maintain the tempo. Height at that point was still more than 16000 feet. Though I was going down slope but muscles and lungs were crying for a little more oxygen and rest. Despite all our efforts legs were refusing to lift and move more than a couple of feet with every step.

Going Down to Morri Plains-Last ‘Few’ Kilometres

Sun was going down and so was the hope of making it within 72 hours. Target of 333 km was finally achieved but of course not the way we all would have expected it to. I don’t know whether we were sad or happy. Probably, happier than sadder as this was one huge leap in ultra running in India.

This Pic Has No Title – Millions of Emotions Cannot be Expressed in a Few Words

Three superbly fit, strong and tough Indians have proved beyond any doubts that a distance of 333 km through this kind of terrain can be covered within 72 hours. Now we are waiting for the first Indian woman to conquer 222 & 333 km challenges and first Indian to complete 555!!

Finally, if someone asks me the reasons for exceeding the target by 20 odd minutes, I will sum up like this:-

Crew: You can’t do 333 km with only two crew members. We were the team with the least resources and members. By the end of second day all of us felt the need to have a couple of more crew members who could not only pace, motivate, decide on my eating, hydration, running and rest strategy but also give some good massage and physiotherapy. With two crew members you can do 222 but 333 is a different ball game. My crew felt helpless towards the end. We could all see the misery on each other’s faces during those last 10 hours. For three finishers of 333 km, I will not applaud the runners alone. Each member of their crew deserves a huge APPLAUSE! The teams achieved it together.

Crew at Work- Team Ashish (below)

Even I would not have reached the finish line but for unflinching support of Rigzin and my wife during those unforgettable 72 hours. We all were stretched beyond our physical, mental and emotional limits.

Emotionally and Physically Drained – Three of Us at Finish Line (above and below)

Second reason could be lack of training. I had not made up my mind till mid-Jun to attempt 333 km. Serious training started in end-Jun ie only less than two months before La Ultra. Shifting to Delhi in mid-Jun and not being able to cope up with the kind of heat and pollution Delhi throws at you, pushed the preparations back. Notwithstanding all this, there are reasons for every failure and success. There are no excuses for not working hard and success doesn’t come as a miracle. A failure makes us as strong and humble as an astounding success would make us. Failures are the stepping stones to reach the pinnacle of success.

Let’s work hard together for the next challenge life throws at us. Till then keep running and inspire the world around you.

Jai Hind

La Ultra 222 km, the toughest journey so far…..

My account of La Ultra 222 km which i finished in Aug, 2017. A memorable Journey which could be completed with support and hard work of lots of people, family, friends, myself and above all God.

Background

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. IMG-20170815-WA0005

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.

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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.

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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!!Home Mobile 20170907_185229

 

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.

 

A Journey Called ‘La Ultra, The High’

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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.

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Training

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 Race

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.

Running Strategy 

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.

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