Why 'La Ultra - The High' is the Cruelest Marathon
Image: Abhijit Yeole
’m a medical doctor. And there’s one thing I know for a fact. When you’re born, the only thing you can be certain of is that you’ll die. So if you want to live safe, you might as well wear a helmet and wait it out until death claims you. Call me crazy. But if you are not running or living on the edge, you’re wasting space!
I think that is why I thought up the La Ultra or The High. This is the cruellest run in the world. Imagine running 222 kilometres on foot through Leh and Ladakh, the highest altitude deserts anywhere within 60 hours where temperatures can drop to as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius and go up to 40 degrees on the other extreme.
What makes it worse is that at those altitudes, the oxygen available to breathe is just 40 percent of what is available at sea level. To put that into perspective, imagine running with your nostrils shut for at least two consecutive days and nights.
When we pitched the idea to the Adventure Wing at the Army Headquarters, they first rejected the idea as not do-able. We insisted and came up with options. They laughed at us and said “civilians can't do it”. That was the motivation we needed. If it was any easier, why bother!
Image: Abhijit Yeole
The start of La Ultra 2012 was between Khalsar village and Khardung village
Most participants at the La Ultra have participated in the Badwater Ultra, often described as the world’s toughest foot race. It starts off below sea level (282.15 feet) at the Badwater Basin in California’s Death Valley and ends at Whitney Portal, at an elevation of 8,064.3 foot. Temperatures there are in the region of 50 degrees Celsius.
During the first edition of the La Ultra in 2010, two of the three participants dropped out. Only Mark Cockbain from the UK managed to cross the finish line. On the way though, he experienced hypothermia and could have wavered off the edge. If he hadn’t completed, everybody who thought it impossible would have been proven right.
So why would anybody want to do something as insane? Various reasons. Let me begin from the beginning. The La Ultra was thought up in October 2009 when I’d gone on a running trip with a buddy from Manali to Rohtang Pass. We did it simply because we loved to run and wanted to push ourselves to the limits on routes motorcyclists think of as their Mecca.
Before that, I had attempted to run five marathons in five days, from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer in temperatures that ran in excess of 40 degrees Celsius. I managed to complete four.
Often times I remembered the retinal detachment I had in 1993, when I was asked to give up running. I picked up ultra running after that. I can still see and my eyes continue to reside where they ought to. The point I’m trying to make is, anybody can do it, so long as you have the will to do it.
That’s the thing about the human body. You won’t know how far you can push it until you try. For instance, when running through Rajasthan, I was hallucinating. I could see dancing girls around me where there was nothing but miles of desert. But you put your head down and tell yourself, I’m not quitting today.
You have to keep playing games with yourself in the mind. When I ran from Paris to London, I started off telling myself I need to get to the finish. But like every runner knows, once the pain starts to kick in, things change.