I ran the La Ultra 111 km in August. I wanted to cycle up from Manali to Leh and spend a week in the Himalayas. Running and cycling combination has often worked well for me. August and September gave a few good weeks of endurance in the Himalayas and I feel high even now. This post is about La Ultra, and the cycle ride would make for another soon. As often, a lot happens through a year and I end up rushing to write about them by the year end.
Running La Ultra was an affirmation. These long runs often tend to be discoveries, irrespective of how many I run. Each one of them is unique. Especially, when some of these runs come with difficult terrain to get past, it feels almost reborn to arrive at the finish after spending those long hours out on the trail. This run was an affirmation that far greater potential lies in us than what we tend to imagine. So, that thing about one is as good as his imagination, might be true. I had acclimatized well because of the cycle ride. I had also slept at 4000m+ elevations for a couple of nights. Riding through five passes, all of them 4500m+, meant that body was primed well for the altitude. It all seemed to come together well for the run. Moreover, I was in a good frame of mind.
I did a couple of runs before La Ultra 111 in August. There was Dhanaulti 75 km in Dehradun. A quick 50 km in Ashkelinsky in Moscow’s winter (that still went strong in early April), several of those home to farm runs of 30 km and the regular Bangalore 12-14 km evening runs. Then August arrived, and to cycle was all I wanted to, when I thought of Leh. On a side note, this year has been great as far as sports go. I managed to even get better at skiing.
La Ultra was a sure shot run. And I am surprised about this, in retrospect. I knew I will get to the finish line even as I arrived in Nubra. I knew I had to run up to the summit of Khardungla Pass, and in my mind, the run ended there because the rest was downhill into Leh. Mind and body seem to perk up on the kilometres closer to finish, no matter the amount of beating one has taken during the earlier sections. I must also mention that other runners and I were being filmed by my friends and another friend had joined us, to support me. I generally prefer self-supported runs but having these guys around was definitely great. I saw them all along the course and they were there to cheer as I arrived on aid stations. This, especially during those lonely, isolated hours of night and early morning is a great support. I am thankful to them for it.
I wasn’t sure about the weather but expected to run through near zero degrees, starry nights. However, on the run night, Khardungla Pass received an unexpected bout of rain and snow. This meant, we had a rainy evening to start with, which developed into snowy night and about a feet and a half of snow cover on the pass by the morning. I wasn’t expecting this. I was certainly not prepared for it. It was a surreal experience to run through the dark tunnel of night, with snow flakes getting lit briefly by the headlamp. Every step crunched a bit of snow on the road. My calculation was simple – it is about a few hours of night time. If I stay the course, soon it will be morning, and soon the sun would be out and I’d run down into a sunlit Leh valley. I had a thermal layer on me and a windbreaker, on which I intended to run the distance. It seemed possible. Although, my friends got concerned and helped me into a heavier jacket and gloves. For gloves, I was definitely thankful.
By 5:30 AM, when the daylight broke, there was a deep, white landscape for as far and as much as I could see. The morning opened to a silhouette of two men in ponchos, making their way through a foot of snow, close to the summit, and an army Gypsy 4WD, slowly rolling behind them. Turns out it was one of the top guys of an army brigade in the region, who was running the same. I tailed the Gypsy tracks, and stepped on the snow trail compressed by its tyres. It was good for a few kilometres and then I lost steam on the summit. I had never ran in that kind of snow before. It was a first. My Nike Flyknit shoes were as opposite a type of shoes that one could wear for this snow, slush, water combination on the course. Besides soaked, freezing and numb feet, and rocks slipping from mountain side, there was little else I was concerned about. It was home run after the pass. I spent a pleasant noon walking down to the finish line. I heard it wasn’t as easy for many other runners through the night. I imagine they weren’t very comfortable with snow. In retrospect, I can say that skiing helps.
Last week Kipchoge ran a sub-two hour marathon. Breaking two hours limit for a marathon seems big because we truly didn’t imagine that it is possible. Perhaps, Kipchoge imagined it all along. And that is why he did manage to run fast enough to finish a full marathon within two hours. Listening to Kipchoge after he ran the marathon distance in 1:59:40 seconds, it appears that he knew (given the extensive support, choice of track, pacers and preparation) that it is attainable. He prepared for it. I guess that one cannot keep at such a preparation without some degree of conviction and faith in oneself.
After La Ultra, which is a personal experience of working at my body’s endurance frontiers, and having watched the world’s fastest runner trying to explore his body’s endurance and speed frontier, I believe it is a lot about mind. I say pretty much the same in the short film that is plugged at the end of this post. It is this that makes or breaks us after the basic physical preparation is done.
There is another reason to feel this way. La Ultra this year opened up a 555 km category. To think of someone running this distance was clearly out of my realm of imagination before I ran the 111km category. A distance of 100+ km is not a new space for me. But after running this course and seeing three runners going through the same stretch with pretty much the same range of physical strain and doubt and yet continuing this for five times more distance, has opened up a sliver of thought that, may be one needs to process an attempt, a goal, within one’s head before even setting the first foot. A strong mind precedes strong body perhaps. And then, they both feed off each other as one goes along.
Here’s the short film that Siddharth and Amit have made for Asia Insights. My run wouldn’t have been possible without these two, my friend Vandana and the support team at La Ultra with Mukul, Kanchan and others. Immense respect for all the runners with whom I spent those couple of days!