TrailRunMag 04.08.2011

Lisa Tamati is scared. She’s said it to me many times. Today, after going to the highest pass competitors in La Ultra will have to run over next week, I’m scared. On paper, on the web, when you say it: 222km over two passes around 5500m – there’s just no way to compute what seven runners and their crews are about to go through come 11-13 August. But I tasted the blind vanity of this mission today and I know it is disrespectful to the mountains here in the Ladakh Ranges in India, to even think it is possible to run over them without going to a very dark, potentially deadly, place.

Of course, it is possible, as Englishman Mark Cockbain proved last year. But only just. He remains, in his words, a changed man and a year later still has ‘spells’ he attributes to the race. Still, his solo finish (two others ended up in hospital) gives a glimmer of hope to this year’s field – two men and five women – who are all, if they’ve any sense, scared witless about the undertaking they have chosen.

Today Team Tamati took a van to the Kardung La Pass, stopping 12 kays out from the target for Lisa to get some distance in her legs and, more importantly, some altitude (and as it happens, some diesel fumes) in her asthmatic lungs. It was a brutal experience. For 12 kilometres a firebrand invisible hand reaches inside your lungs to the very bottom of every branch, and scratches them, crushes them, burns them, turns them inside out. Your lungs grasp desperately at every molecule of oxygen they can scrounge in a mix that holds 60 per cent less than at sea level. Again, stats, words. Means nothing until you’re standing there and you start to run and you try to breathe. It’s then that the mountains slap you. Hard.

“Are you mental?!” the mountains (to anthropomorphize them) laugh. “This is no place for running!”

To a tee, the locals back in Leh agree when you tell them why you are here.

To her credit, Lisa pushed strongly today, aside from a few asthmatic moments and concern that when measured, her blood oxygen level at the top was low.

She ran up. Brit competitor, Sharon Gater showed her steely resolve and perhaps freakish abilities (or impatience) when, only two days after landing at Leh, 3500m, she headed up to the pass to run a marathon distance down. Insane.

Having been in town for two days of acclimatization, I headed up with Lisa today for my first taste of crewing – running alongside for as long as possible, handing water over, and generally just being there: having another human being suffer alongside must help. You each bear the same load, but somehow it is shared rather than doubled.

Even so, suffer I did. A few stints trotting aongside, occasionally glancing up to grandness of the Ladakh Ranges, which soar to well over 6000m, and the dreaded altitude headache started to vice my brain. An early sign of Altitude Sickness, the devil with a death wish (yours) that will sit on the shoulder of everyone involved the race, including crew. Since Lisa has been here in Leh (she was the first competitor to arrive to acclimatise over a week ago) three tourists have died from HACE – High Altitude Cerebral Edema, the result of going up to quickly, and not getting down quickly enough; the result of not respecting the height of these mountains and the atmospheric physics that defines them as much as the snowcapped peaks.

With that in mind, I peeled off two kays from the top to collapse into the support vehicle, knowing we’d be shortly at the top and quickly on our way back down.

That was the remainder of my day down the hole of ‘what the hell just hit me?’

Next thing I was waking up in my hotel room in Leh, with a pounding head and one way ticket to the toilet, but happy in the knowledge that I was now 2km lower than a few hours ago. Go high, sleep low, is the mantra of mountaineers trying to acclimatise. We’re on mantra, and hopefully on track to help get Lisa over the mountains in one piece.

I still struggle, now that I am here, to comprehend what this race is and why anyone would attempt it. There is no way to make a reader feel the altitude and the fear. All runners have a fear of failure. I argue that for ultra runners, it can be what drives them. In a way they want to find the limit of failure. They want to see just where they can push their minds to (and I say minds, not bodies, because bodies give up long before minds do in ultra athletes. The good ones just ignore that minor failure).

Knowing the ultra competitive drives of the seven runners daring enough to sign on this year, I know that in these mountains, in this race unlike in any other, if they cross the line that for them marks failure, they’re dead.

I just hope that for the first time in their running lives, these athletes listen to their bodies, and choose the first failure before the second.

For more reports on Lisa’s La Ultra The High journey, check in to where she will be blogging as often as the intermittent internet connectivity in Leh allows!