Every August, giant banners bearing La Ultra — The High, a race with a rather unique name, flank patches of the Manali-Leh highway. Although it sounds French, it is an Indian ultramarathon, ‘La’ deriving itself from the Tibetan word meaning “a mountain pass”. An ultramarathon is any sporting event involving running and walking longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 km. La Ultra is arguably the toughest ultramarathon on earth with its patrons having to run across some of the world’s highest motorable mountain passes, one of which is Khardung La (18,309 ft).
A race of 111 km, 222 km and 333 km held in the Indian Himalayas, in the high-altitude desert region of Ladakh, La Ultra involves running in an atmosphere that contains less than 40 percent oxygen content, where the temperature varies from 40° C to -10° C, and with a level of radiation 60 percent higher than in the plains! Devoid of a racing track, the athletes run on the dangerous roads that have snow-capped mountains on one side and steep gorges — some with gurgling rivers — on the other.
The race starts at an elevation of 11,000 ft at Nubra Valley and the runners have to climb up till Khardung La; after a steady steep slope, runners pass through South Pullu, and the first 111 km is completed at Spituk, near Leh. The next day, the climb takes them to the Wari-La pass (a recent addition to the race) and the world’s second highest motorable pass Tanglang La (17,480 ft), after which the race ends at 333 km in the More plains, a sprawling and picturesque pasture right in the middle of the Ladakh Valley.
Often hailed by motorcyclists as their Mecca, the roads in the region are regularly used by bikes and trucks, and are accident-prone. In the previous four editions of La Ultra, runners have encountered blizzards, avalanches and flooding rivers, besides high-altitude sickness. As if the race weren’t challenging enough, there are tight time limits in place keeping safety of runners in mind. For the first 48 km, all of which is uphill, it is seven and eight hours, respectively, for 111/222 km and 333 km participants. At 78 km, the cut-off of 15 hours applies to all. The next cut-offs are at 111 km, 222 km, 278 km and 333 km in 24, 48, 65 and 72 hours, respectively. The race is non-stop, which means the clock doesn’t stop. The runners use the time to crawl, walk or run, besides accommodating time for sleeping, eating or going to the loo. It is the total time taken by the athletes that is considered. To runners in pursuit of the ultimate adventure, La Ultra is the deadliest, ergo the most exciting ultramarathon in the world.
In 2009, when Dr Rajat Chauhan, a specialist in sports medicine and an accomplished ultramarathon runner himself, conceptualised La Ultra after a run from Manali to Rohtang with a friend, all he faced was cynicism and more of it. Nobody — not even ace ultrarunners — considered a race in such dire surroundings to be feasible, let alone the prospect of anyone completing it.
When the idea was pitched to the adventure wing at the Indian Army, they initially rejected the idea as not executable. “Civilians can’t do it,” they said to Dr Chauhan, when he insisted. However, he decided to pursue his ‘civilian’ dream singlehandedly. “That was the motivation we needed,” he says. But his troubles were far from over: most of the ultrarunners (more than 30) that he had sought after on social media and who expressed interest in La Ultra began to back out from the race one after the other. “I told them that even if nobody turned up, I’d run the entire stretch on my own,” he says. “Luckily, three ultrarunners were willing to fly down to Ladakh and give it a shot.”
Molly Sheridan, 55, is one of those original three ultrarunners — the other two being Bill Andrews and Mark Cockbain. She flew down from the US to participate in La Ultra’s inaugural run in 2010. “Early in 2010, I received a Facebook message from Rajat asking us to participate in his race,” she recalls. “He made it sound so much fun, so awesome despite there being no logistics in place, and the excruciating weather. There was something that clicked. I could totally understand him, his passion, and believed in him. Despite there being a lot of people chickening out, I felt that this race is where the guts is. This is where you put yourself on the line.”
Having completed over 50 ultramarathons, including the gruelling 217-km, non-stop, Badwater Ultramarathon in California, Sheridan discovered in no time that that La Ultra was the cruellest run she had ever subjected herself to. The lack of oxygen, the utter remoteness of the location and the unreliability of the communication systems with her crew left her severely dehydrated on the first day. Although she picked up pace the following day after having spent the night at a hospital in Leh, she was forced to abandon the race as her partner, Andrews, ended up in the hospital for medical reasons unrelated to the harsh weather.
In 2010, Cockbain from the UK became the first and the only person to finish the 222 km of La Ultra, proving to the doubtful authorities that the race was entirely possible and equally viable. Sheridan returned to the Himalayas again in 2011 and after battling snowstorms, freezing rain and sleet for hours, completed La Ultra, becoming the first-ever American woman to finish it. Sheridan is here to work as part of the crew for this year’s run along with her daughter. “A runner’s crew is his or her life support system,” she says. “It helps them stay alive — warm, hydrated and steady, and be a constant source of motivation and encouragement to the runner to not give up.”
Indians as well as foreigners have volunteered to be a part of the La Ultra crew. The role of the crew is of special importance for the athletes running 333 km for they have to climb across three of the highest passes of the world, and most runners develop blisters in their feet, and acquire symptoms of hypothermia and high-altitude sickness. In the first race, Dr Chauhan walked along with the finisher Cockbain till Tanglang La top, preventing him from teetering along the edges and keeping him steady despite the sore feet.
To prepare for a race at such altitudes, the runners and the crew members need to arrive in Ladakh at least 11 days before the race begins in order to acclimatise to the scarce oxygen levels. High-altitude sickness can be fatal if untreated and the nearest hospital is in Leh, which is the base camp, thus requiring the runner to be shipped all the way down in the middle of the race, in the nick of time. As part of the initial process of acclimatisation, La Ultra organises activities such as climbs, small treks/hikes and local sightseeing; this year, they organised a trek atop Stok Kangri, a mountain peak at a height of 20,182 ft.
Therefore, one can expect this 15-day survival expedition to be quite an expensive affair, especially since La Ultra did not seek sponsorship for the past four editions. The race runs itself on the fees that the participants and crew themselves pay, and of course, Dr Chauhan’s personal investment loaded with commitment and promise. The runners pay Rs 1.7 lakh for the 333 km; approximately Rs 1 lakh for 222 km; and for the 111 km short race, the fees is Rs 33,000 for foreign nationals and Rs 17,000 for Indian citizens.
Apart from a cairn — a manmade pile of stones in accordance with Buddhist tradition — as the trophy, there is no fancy prize. It is the exhilaration of completing the world’s cruellest ultramarathon that brings enthusiasts from all across the globe and encourages them to invest their money instead to make the race happen. Even though the town of Leh got a business worth 50 lakh through the fifth edition of La Ultra, the organisers haven’t broken even yet. However, having successfully scaled up the race from an impossible dream to a yearly reality, Dr Chauhan plans to open up to sponsors from next year.
What was initially a 222 km ultramarathon has three segments now: 111 km, 222 km and 333 km. When asked what brought this change, Dr Chauhan, with his characteristic shrug of shoulders and twitch of mouth, says, “We wanted it to be open for a more diverse class of runners, but still we pay heed to the runner’s profile and select only those who have a good track record that can promise to withstand the torturous weather.”
This year, the race received over 100 applications but its stringent selection process filtered down to around 20-30 runners, of whom 15 participated. “We are not looking for studs alone, but amazing folks who respect their fellow human beings and their surroundings,” says Dr Chauhan. However, true to the international standards, the unforgiving weather doesn’t make La Ultra lenient compared to other ultramarathons. “This one time an Indian, Aparna Choudhury, reached North Pullu (48 km) six minutes past the limit (seven hours) and I had to remove her. It was hard for her and for me, but I cannot bend the rules just because it’s difficult,” he says.
This year, too, among the 15 runners who participated, including three Indians — Kieren D’Souza, Ankush Dixit and Sarvadarshi Shukla — only one officially completed the distance they had entered for since all of them missed the sevenhour cut-off. Kim Rasmussen from Denmark is the only finisher of 333 km at the fifth edition of La Ultra. He covered the distance in 71 hours, 23 minutes and 3 seconds. Mark Woolley, who lives in Spain, did 318 km in 67 hours and 12 minutes, but had to stop because of medical reasons. There have been runners who have ran multiple times — such as Sheridan (thrice), Mark Wolley (twice, he finished 222 km in 2012), Michael Nielsen (the 2012 winner for 222 km who had to stop before 150 km in 2014) — but no one has won the race multiple times.
In a country where running is not a part of the lifestyle, it is not surprising that La Ultra has been reported more extensively in the foreign media than in the Indian media. However, the increased Indian participation — both as runners and crew — is a welcome sign. In its fifth edition right now, La Ultra has sailed past an array of bureaucratic and logistical bottlenecks. The Ladakhi locals, for instance, have been placated by their recruitment as a part of the crew now. If there is one reason why La Ultra has been on and growing for over five years, it is certainly because its founder believes in its motto: “Failing is not a crime, lack of efforts is.”
Harsh Snehanshu is an author and a freelance journalist. He is currently an exchange student at Sciences Po, Paris