La Ultra – The High: Race Report

Somewhere on the end of the earth, between China and Pakistan is a remote road in the Himalayas. This dirt road is only open 2 months out of the year because the snows of the Himalayas obscure it from human view for most months in the year. Magically the road opens for a short period of time and the rugged colorful trucks from China bring their commerce into India.

This year the road brought 6 runners from around the world to compete in the second annual La Ultra The High, the highest, longest ultra-marathon in the world. La Ultra begins at 14,400 ft in a small village called Khardung village. The course rises up to the first of 2 mountain peaks, Khardung La, a staggering 17,500 feet, Tanglang La is the second peak with a whopping 17,400 ft elevation that makes Leadville seem like a happy knoll among the giants of India.

This race is daunting. It requires 2 weeks of altitude adjustment just to get to the start line. La, means mountain pass in the Himalayas, therefore the name La Ultra, born from the creative imagination of Rajat Chauhan, visionary for La Ultra The High. The race is 222 kilometers in length (137 miles) non-stop. The number 2 is a lucky number in India so Rajat rounded off the luck in kilometers.

Khardung La [the first 18,000 foot peak] was really tough this year. I feel like it beat me up. I don’t know why but it wasn’t the altitude it was just tougher than I remember. I was one of the original three to attempt the inaugural race in 2010. Bill Andrews and Mark Cockbain toed the line with me last year. Mark was the single finisher marking an epic event that that proved to the India government that humans can run at extreme altitude and distance. They told us that this race was an impossible feat and it felt good to prove them wrong.

This year I toed the line again. I think I may have been even more intimidated with what lay ahead as I knew what I was up against. Sometimes not knowing is a blessing. I made it 100 miles last year and abandoned the race when my partner, Bill Andews, ended in the hospital for unrelated medical issues that were not a result of the race. Remote locations and unreliable communications forced me to leave the course and take a year to regroup and tackle it again.

This year my journey continued. During the first ascent up Khardung La my stomach (as usual) went nuts after I got to South Pullo [about 40 miles into the race]. My insides felt like it had aliens attacking. When I descended into Leh it was 11pm and I couldn’t continue and had to lie down to try to get my stomach settled and under control. I then was able to run through to Karu…ran on to Upshi and made up a lot of time. Bailey Sheridan and John Vigil were my incredible crew. They faithfully supported me and went without sleep for 57 hours straight. I couldn’t have completed the race without their complete devotion. I also had an Indian interpreter Jigme and an Indian driver Lamchun. Both tirelessly drove and maneuvered our way across the vast barren mountains of India into the remote Morey Plains where the race ended.

(Isagenix Dream Team!)

Anyway, there was major drama going on when we got to Rumste, our base camp at the bottom of Tanglang La [the second 17,500 foot peak]. We had all worked so hard to get to the camp. I had visions of hot food and a warm cot that had been promised by the race director. I needed to regroup for the huge ascent up Tanglang La. It was freezing rain and sleet for hours for us leading up to the camp location. I sent my driver Lamchun and Jigme, my English speaking interpreter, up ahead with Bailey to get some rest at camp while John paced me the last few miles into the camp. It was approximately 11:30pm. John and I trudged ahead in the dark and rain. We passed through the town searching for signs of camp. After a long period of time we realized that somehow we had missed camp and we were headed up the mountain. John and I were lost. We were headed up Tanglang la by accident, realized we missed the camp and dismally retreated back down in the dark, flashing our lights into huts in the small remote town desperately envisioning that hot food and bed… Meanwhile…..

When we didn’t arrive at camp, Bailey knew something was wrong and grabbed Jigme and started searching for us. They found John and I running around Rumste near midnight…we were freezing cold and soaked to the skin. They loaded us in the car and got us into camp. At camp we were shocked to find ALL the teams were there, asleep, because they had pulled everyone off the mountain because of a snow storm. I was the last one to arrive and they had no beds, no place to lay down, no hot food ready because they did not expect all teams to be there at once.

John, Bailey and I had a quick overview meeting. We all realized that the clock was ticking and we couldn’t wait at camp any longer. As much as I didn’t want to, I knew we had to keep moving. Too much time had gone by. The camp could not provide us with shelter or food. It was our defining moment in the race. I looked outside to the cold, wind, rain and we made the group decision to go on. Our driver and guide were instrumental in this decision. If they decided not to continue the race would have been over for us.

Then, we notified the race officials and medical team that we were going to move ahead…THE medical team said I couldn’t go up Tanglang La because of the snow storm and they had pulled everyone off for safety reasons! I told them I was behind, wanted to AT LEAST go to the snowline and stake out to catch up my time! WE waited for a decision but there was confusion, tired people, the race director was no longer at camp, and they ended up just ignoring us THEN John just said, Molly, lets go, these people didn’t know what they are doing. I saw Ray Sanchez at that point. He had just finished the race along with Sharon Gaytor from Great Britain. Ray looked amazing. I was so proud that the first American man had completed the race. I so admired the speed of the top runners. They had already finished and the rest of us had not stopped Tanglang La.

So I spoke with Jigme and my driver and asked them if they could continue up Tanglang La without rest or hot food. They both agreed to push on. That moment was the moment I will look back on for the rest of my life. We left camp at almost 2am in freezing rain, sleet and eventually snow while everyone else slept at camp. My driver actually offered to pace me. He was a local from Leh. That guy got out and walked me for hours up that mountain. He couldn’t’ speak much English but he understood the goal. It was the toughest part of the whole race for me. I felt like I was summiting Everest. It was that hard. At 4am the other teams drove past us to go to their stake out position on the mountain. They could not believe that I was on the mountain. They had all slept for hours and had hot food. So, I caught up to Samantha Gash from Australia and Lisa Tamati, from New Zealand who was just ahead. All of us working to get over the mountain.

My Patagonia clothes were amazing. I was cold but it wasn’t unbearable. The sun came up and I was half way up Tanglang La in the snow. It was breathtaking. I knew at that point that I was going to make it. Up to then I tried not to think about it but just kept pushing on. The sun gave me renewed hope and energy. Although I did have hallucinations at 17,000 ft. I kept seeing some guy doing cartwheels near our support vehicle. I asked Bailey and John if it was our driver. I knew they were questioning my sanity when I saw them exchange looks. At the summit, again my team was amazing. I was hallucinating really badly by then but I knew I wasn’t suffering from any altitude problems. It was simply extreme fatigue. I can deal with fatigue. Down the mountain I knew I was going to make it.

(Top of Tanglang-La)

Barry Walton, the videographer saw me, got out of his car and sobbed. He could not believe that I had caught up with everyone. He just kept crying and said he had never seen anything like what I had just accomplished…that made me feel good. But, I think Barry was partly exhausted! Ha!…I will always be the underdog, back-of-the-packer. When the medical team told me I couldn’t go, that really made me mad. It only motivated me to continue stronger. Don’t tell me I can’t continue if there is time on the clock and I am capable.

When someone tells me “I can’t” I will prove that I can. At the peak of Tanglang La I knew I had made it. I knew I had enough time left to complete the distance. The worst was over. My team and I celebrated for a few short moments on the top in the snow. Then we continued on to the Morey plains and the finish line.

I know that when you begin a race of this distance, with challenges this overwhelming that there are no guarantees of finishing. There are too many variables that can take you out in a moment. I have had defeats before and I can handle defeat, but, finishing this race is so rewarding, and the victory is so sweet as to be indescribable. For the rest of my life I will remember the journey I took with Bailey Sheridan, John Vigil, Jigme and Lamchun. I have never felt so grateful and happy. John and Bailey were instrumental. 58 hours without stopping. I know how hard that is to do…sometimes crewing is the harder than running. I owe so much to their devotion and hard hard work…they were also unbelievable funny when I needed fun!

(The FINISH line)

So that is my overview in a nutshell although there is so much more to tell.

I simply loved the race, the country of India and its people. The Himalayas are a magic world where the spiritual meets Mother Nature and it is a blessing to experience the wonders at the ends of the earth.

My next adventure will be in New Zealand at Lisa Tamati’s race in March 2012.

Northburn 100 ….running in rugged, gorgeous New Zealand…..

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