Technically speaking, any race that covers more than the length of a marathon—42.195km—qualifies as an ultra race. Add to this 180km of unforgiving, barren terrain that slopes up and down, temperatures that vary from 40 degrees Celsius to minus 6 degrees Celsius, ever-plunging oxygen levels at heights well over 17,000ft above sea level—all to be surmounted within 60 hours—and you have La Ultra—The High, to be held in Ladakh next week.
La Ultra—The High 2011 will test competitors’ mettle to the limit, with a route that begins with a steep ascent till Khardung La—at over 17,000ft, considered the highest motorable mountain pass in the world—followed by an immediate rapid decline towards Leh. There’s flat road for the next 80km, followed by another ascent towards Tanglang La, a further 32km, and the race culminates at what Rajat Chauhan, Mint columnist and race director, calls “the middle of nowhere”. There are four strategically placed checkpoints in the 60-hour race—these have been created to ensure that participants are always on the move and perpetually mindful of the clock. Medical support is provided at these checkpoints. Dr Chauhan describes it as one of the most difficult runs in the world, citing elevation changes and extreme temperatures that leave races such as the Bad Water, held in Death Valley, California, US, far behind.
Get set: Ultra runners Ray Sanchez (left) and Molly Sheridan. Photograph by: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
“You cannot forget the fun part. The race is nothing without the pure joy of running,” says Ray Sanchez, 44, from California, US, who has been an ultra racer for four-and-a-half years now. Dr Chauhan terms it a run instead of a race, hinting in part at the pure joy of running that the runners themselves confess to be looking for at these races, and in part to the fact that most ultra races award no monetary prizes.
“Well, they do award us buckles for completing the courses,” remarks Sanchez, pulling his shirt up a bit to reveal a gleaming buckle that fastens his belt. “I won this one after braving thousands of feet of elevation change in the Santa Barbara ultra race.”
In its second year now, La Ultra has seen the number of participants increase from three to seven. It will cost them $2,000 (approx. Rs 89,000), which will include medical support, meals during the event, and accommodation at locations. There are no Indian runners, something Dr Chauhan hopes will change in the not-too-distant future. Possibly, the low number of participants may be due to the great height at which the run is held and the fact that some of the most prestigious ultra races are held around the same time. “The Leh/Ladakh route is open only for a few months during the year, and we have no choice but to hold the race in this interval,” explains Dr Chauhan.
Molly Sheridan, 54, from Nevada, US, a veteran of over 35 ultra races, is the only one to have competed in the run last year. She failed to complete the course, having pulled out somewhere around the Leh checkpoint, but says she is better prepared this year.
“I had a nutrition problem last year,” she says. “I wasn’t quite at home with the spicy Indian food, and it took its toll on me.” As always, she has run through the whole route on a map, looking at the places where she would like to be at different points in time, keeping her running style in mind. Unlike her, Sanchez has used a device by the firm Alto Lab to acclimatize himself to the Leh environment. The device helps runners get used to extreme environments away from their own homes.
Sheridan says the temperature and elevation changes in Ladakh can have a debilitating effect on a runner. “It’s almost like they have thrown the kitchen sink at you. You climb till Khardung La, and you feel like you have achieved something. And then the downhill run stares you in the face,” she says.
“Once I reach Khardung La, I’m going to halt and take my time clicking pictures,” quips Sanchez. And then, on a more serious note, “That’s what sets the ultras apart from the more competitive races. You take in the atmosphere, enjoy every moment—even the people you meet are friendlier.”
Sanchez says more and more 100-mile (161km) races are getting sold out these days, prompting organizers to construct more challenging routes. “I even know of certain 500-mile runs, which only proves that there really is no limit to human ability,” he says.
Come 11 August, their resolve will be tested once again by the Ladakh terrain, in what Sheridan considers the toughest race of all. “Ultra running makes me believe that I can do anything. This time, I just want to do the best I can,” says Sheridan.
“As I said, I’m going to finish this race,” says Sanchez. “And then I’m going to start hunting for another race to run at.”
La Ultra—The High begins at 6am on 11 August and goes on till 6pm on 13 August. For details, visit www.thehigh.in