I have run in the hottest and the coldest ultra-marathons. Ultra’s requiring speed and ultras ran over various demanding terrains. Each ultra has its own unique factor, but now I was faced with an ultra called The High…..the world’s highest ultra.
The High is a new non-stop ultra that is 222km long incorporating two 18,000 ft passes to climb, with an average race altitude of 13000ft. The race takes place along a stretch of road called the Manali highway in the Himalayas, India.
This is the highest motor-able road in the world, and it is maintained by the Indian army and it’s only open for three summer months a year.
This race is the brainchild of runner Dr Rajat Chauhan, which seemed a crazy idea to many ultra runners when it was first announced, as many wondered if it was actually possible to run at these altitudes.
For me, this sounded like a fantastic and unique challenge, and I decided to find out if I could complete such a race at altitude, so I headed out to Leh in the Himalayas, to join two other ultra runners that had also taken up the challenge. These were Bill Andrews and Molly Sheridan, both highly experienced runners from the USA. I only had five days to acclimatize before the start of the race and I was soon introduced to my own personal crew of four before I started my altitude training.
My crew consisted of Sonali, Manisha, Akhil and ‘best driver ever’ Bunty. None of them had ever crewed a race before, but they were extremely helpful and willing to learn. My training whilst in Leh consisted of travelling up to higher points on the course each day and eventually to the maximum 18000ft of Kardung La pass. I found that initially my time up at this highest point was a real struggle, with walking downhill ok, but uphill was a heart pounding action that left me breathless.
Over the few days prior to the race I increased my pace and my confidence at this extreme altitude until I felt that I could cope with the pressure it would exert on my body. Altitude sickness can affect anyone at anytime, regardless of fitness, but my biggest concern was how I would cope with the altitude whilst fatigued, as the first highest point would be at a marathon distance, but more worryingly the second highest point would be at over 100 miles.
Before the race started we were all reminded of the seriousness of altitude sickness when one of the crew drivers was rushed to hospital with a life threatening case of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema), which thankfully he fully recovered from. After camping overnight at the beautiful lush green village of Khardung, at an altitude close to 15000 ft surrounded by breathtaking snow capped mountains, the three of us lined up a few miles down the road behind the starting banner ready to set off on this exciting new ultra.
As soon as I started to run my chest was much tighter than normal, and I had to control my breathing. It was great to eventually start making the race a reality and I marveled at the towering mountains and stunning rock formations around me.
The race was on ‘road’, but this seemed to dissolve into a rocky track as I climbed higher. After a few hours of gradual uphill, I had lost sight of Bill and Molly, and set my sights on summiting Kardung La as quickly as possible. I was over 16000ft now according to my altimeter and I could only manage to run/walk without gasping for breath. Up and up I followed the road until I could see the snow covered pass in the distance.
My crew vehicle was leapfrogging me and stopping every mile or so up the road to hand me fresh water bottles and gels. My body felt under such strain, and it was a bit like breathing through a straw. In just over six hours I was rapidly approaching the summit and the marathon point, and my heart was pumping overtime.
I turned the corner and noticed a commotion ahead of me……a fresh avalanche had totally covered the route, and I was very lucky that I had just missed it by a few minutes as it would have surely knocked me off the ridge.
The army were appearing from the Khardung La base with shovels, and I was worried that I would be stopped until the blockage was cleared, but I was determined not to wait, so I just clambered over the huge pile of snow and continued on my way to the summit. Luckily my crew vehicle was already beyond this point and waiting for me at the summit. I briefly celebrated reaching the top, with a few pictures, but I knew that I needed to descend quickly to minimise any possibility of altitude sickness problems.
I felt pretty strong but I was aware of the extra work and huge strain on my cardio system. I felt quite sick as I attempted to jog down the other side of the pass, and running still left me fighting for breath until I was below 15000ft.
Here the road was smoother and I changed out of my trail shoes into my road shoes and I ate some food from my crew.My sickness had passed, and I now felt much better running at a lower altitude and I had a nice downhill pace towards Leh and the 50 mile point.
A magnificent golden eagle soared above me on what had become a very hot afternoon, and I could feel the sun biting at my legs, but I enjoyed the amazing views and I coasted the long downhill into town..
Leh is a busy town, and you need to be very alert to the oncoming and passing traffic. There are certainly no obvious traffic rules in place, so I was glad to reach the other side of town without any incidents. Here I had a rest stop with my crew to eat some hot food and to change into my night wear.
It was dark at around 8pm, but the highway ahead was very busy, so I wore reflective gear on all sides with a head torch and flashing lights. I wasn’t taking any chances! I found it easier to run on the softer sand at the roadside, and I was soon making good progress through a few busy villages and then out along a smooth peaceful road that took me through sleepy villages and countryside. A full moon lit my way and I passed several silhouetted hillside monasteries, with glowing yellow lights from the windows. It was eerily quiet in the middle of the night.
However, I felt good and I continued running at a decent pace up to around 80 miles where I started to get low on energy.
My body had been working overtime because of the altitude, and I had not consumed enough calories in the past few hours which caused me to ‘blow up’ and I had to stop for a while to eat and recover. This wasted some time, and I whilst I rested, I was told the shocking news that Molly and Bill had both been taken to hospital! Molly suffering dehydration and Bill complaining of chest pains. This was very worrying and I was reminded by the team altitude expert Karshal to just take my time and make sure that I’m strong enough for the second 18000 ft climb over Tanglang La. My only objective now was to prove that this race could be completed.
Once I had recovered I set off again slowly into the night, only to soon be surrounded by numerous barking dogs. It was quite unnerving, but the Himalayan dogs seemed quite harmless, so I marched on and ignored them.
Daybreak and I stopped again for breakfast before following a fast flowing river into a beautiful canyon that would eventually lead me to Rumptse village and the base of the second mountain.
It was an extremely hot day, around 40C, which was magnified by the canyon walls which acted like a heat trap, so I covered up with long sleeves and a desert style hat. A local farmer joined me for a few miles and although he didn’t speak much English, I tried to explain to him what I was doing. I showed him the race profile on my crew vehicle and he seemed very impressed, He continued with me all the way to his village and he even invited me in for a cup of tea!, but I explained that I should try and keep going and thanked him kindly.
I found the local people to be so friendly and they all would say ‘jullee’…which means ‘hello’ when I passed.
I reached a crew campsite just before Rumptse village and I was able to get some hot food in preparation for my next climb. I was already at 15000 ft again and I could again feel the unnatural demand on my system.
Rajat joined me not long after Rumptse, as I began my steep ascent. It was around 30k to the summit. The mountain switchbacks got progressively steeper and I could only manage to walk as I was breathing fast again.
It was great to have Rajat to pace me up the mountain and I think that we were just both hoping that I could be at least be the one person to finish this race!
Up and up, it felt like my head was slowly being squashed as I was over 16000 ft, and I was aware of how cold it was becoming as the sun disappeared behind the snowy mountains.
I knew I was slowing down, but I was determined to beat the second mountain. Hours passed and the summit never came, and I started to deteriorate, becoming very cold and dizzy with a nasty headache.
It felt like I was a little drunk, and confused. I put on several more layers of clothing, including two jackets, as the temperature dropped below zero.
I was getting a little annoyed that I could not see the summit, and I kept asking Rajat where it was. He told me to just keep going, but now I was finding it hard to visually focus on him and my crew kept stopping me from veering off to the right….it was a long way down!
Sonali walked with me and helped guide me over the horrendous rocky and wet route. My feet were blistered now and stepping on sharp rocks was just causing me extra misery. I felt very anxious at this point and I was in no mood to hang around when we eventually reached the freezing summit. I felt dizzy and sick and I knew that I needed to get down fast. I was losing a lot of body heat.
It had been a long night and the altitude had drained me and I could only manage to get a few km back down the other side of the mountain before stumbling into the crew vehicle to try and warm up. I was quite spaced out, and I remember shivering a lot. We tried to rest here for some time, but the air was still too thin here, and we all seemed to have difficulty focussing and resting.
I knew I would only feel better if I got lower, so I left the vehicle and started heading down on the final leg of the route.
Karshal joined me and my spirits improved as the daylight came and the course flattened out before a beautiful desert valley called Morey Plains.
I had only around 18km to go and I ran the best I could through the valley.
I kept asking my crew how much distance was left, and they counted it down for me.
The end never seemed to come…but eventually I could see my crew and the white finish banner ahead.
I smiled and knew that I was going to finish what had been the greatest ultra running adventure I’ve had.
I crossed the line and celebrated with my crew. They had been fantastic.
I was the first and only finisher, in 48 hours and 50 minutes, and I was so proud to have been part of such an extremely tough exceptional race. I had manage to achieve what many had said could never be done.
I must thank Rajat, my crew and all the race volunteers that have made this race a reality. Bill and Molly have thankfully recovered and will no doubt be back next time.
I will truly never forget how kind and welcoming everyone was and the sights and sounds of India……especially the 100km trip back to Delhi via Manali along the most treacherous road I have ever travelled! This was not just a race, but a true adventure and an experience of a lifetime.
From 2013 onwards – The 222 Km route does not pass over Tanglang La, but over Wari La. Only participants for 333 will go over Tanglang La. Also keeping in mind safety of runners, the busy stretch from Leh City till Karu has been taken out and shifted to a parallel trail/road. The race now starts at night, avoiding all day time traffic on busy routes.