TrailRunMag 23.08.2011

No one died. Six starters, six finishers. The best anticlimax I’ve ever had, really.

Nevertheless, plenty of drama unfolded out there, kilometre by dusty, stinking hot, polluted and sometime snowballed kilometre. As with any good ultra worth its weight in blister blood, there was pain, throwing up, passing out, contentious heat of the moment behavior, and, of course, heroics. And that was just by the race organisers and crews before the starter’s gun had sounded. What the actual athletes went through after the horn had bounced around a cauldron of gigantic mountains 10 kilometres past a small Himalayan village called Khardung, went well beyond.

In the middle of beautiful nowhere, La Ultra The High’s starting banner waits for six people… IMAGE: Chris Ord

By the official altimeter it’s certified as the highest footrace in the world. It’d be all too easy to accuse this particular ultra of being the hardest in the world. But then, who am I to judge? No-one but an ordinary running man, never having run 222km or even a top-notch ultra (Oxfam doesn’t count, it’s a walk in the park, literally). So I’ll leave that judgement to each of the six runners who battled their ultra demons suffocated by heat, cold,  diesel fumes, altitude and Ladakhi curries that just wouldn’t play nice: come the middle of nowhere finish line, each and every racer rated La Ultra the hardest footrace in the world. They’re all well qualified having the requisite belt notches to make fair comparison – they can all reel off Death Valley Badwaters, de Sables Saharan monsters and many more killer ultras as part of their running mettle much like the rest of us can reel off community fun runs. They know what hurts, what is possible and what, if anything, scares the living shit out of them.

Four of the six (L-R): Sharon Gayter, Lisa Tamati, Molly Sheridan, Ray Sanchez IMAGE: Chris Ord

La Ultra did. We’re talking tears at the start line. All except, perhaps, the two characters who jostled in the opinions of others for race favourite and, eventually, with each other for the win: Ray ‘Superman’ Sanchez and Sharon ‘Superwoman’ Gayter. Make no mistake, this pair hailing from opposite ends of the Northern Hemisphere and bred into cultures apart are Sacramento chalk to North Yorkshire cheese, but they have two things in common: (i) habitually bounce-off-the-walls chirpy demeanors and (ii) they are not of this planet. Yes, alien runners. There is no other explanation for their super powers of running very, very, very long distances, very, very fast.

Even so, I suspect that their preternaturally cheerful natures prior to race start were simply coping mechanisms to help process what was was ahead of them and that, if they aren’t actually aliens devoid of earthly emotions, they were feeling the fear, too.

With the very real risk of altitude sickness on everyone’s minds, not to mention the sheer distance of this race, no wonder the race directors, and the rest of us, went slack jawed early on as Sanchez, Gayter, Aussie expat Jason Rita and Aussie rocket Sam Gash steamed up toward the first pass, Khardung La (5,359m), like it was just your regular urban marathon (remember when doing one of those was considered extreme? No longer…).

It was a marathon – 42km to the top of Khardung La. Difference being that this all uphill stretch was the warm up, and it needed to be conquered fuelled on air containing an average of 40% less oxygen than you’ll find at sea level.  At the top of the two passes, the runners’ lungs had to contend with only 33% partial oxygen as compared to sea level. That’s a serious squeeze on anyone’s lungs let alone an asthmatic’s, of which there were two in the field – Sharon and Kiwi Lisa Tamati.

Lisa Tamati dwarfed by the 42km pass headed up KhardungLa. IMAGE: Chris Ord

Lisa, along with the only return competitor who attempted (but didn’t finish) the event last year, Molly Sheridan, took the sensible approach and trotted up at a pensioner’s pace, Lisa afraid of what was ahead, Molly, behind her, knowing what was ahead.

It wasn’t long before the anticipated dramas – examples of which are common to any ultra – started to unfold. Sam Gash started to slow, feeling the effects of the climb early. Tamati, feeling strong, walked with her for a while before pushing on, the unspoken agreement between closely bonded friends who have raced the Sahara and the Gobi together meaning no hard feelings, especially so early, for disappearing over the horizon. It’s a race, after all. But Lisa  – who can rarely  eat much at all when she tackles ultras – soon had an argument with a second cup of noodles, which were refunded without receipt onto the road. Then the convoys of trucks belching diesel started to take their toll, with crews yelling at random drivers and protecting racers with their bodies from the sideswiping lorries: Indian truck drivers care little for mad Westerners running in the gutter of their Livelihood Road.

By the top of Khardung, the medics were getting jumpy – doing their job to keep racers out of the red zone, it was hard for anyone to distinguish between the ‘normal’ vagaries of ultra punishment on the body (lack of appetite, throwing up, diarrhea, extreme fatigue, vagueness, lack of logic, lots of pain – everywhere) and the vagaries of altitude sickness which precedes the beginnings of HACE and HAPE.

Even so, all runners topped out over Khardung La to a welcome reprieve of downhill, lesser traffic as the mountain closed for the night and a mystical sunset that imbued the the valley below, and infused the runners, with a sense of possibility.

Coming down Khardung La IMAGE: Chris Ord

Yet with each disappearing ray came a stabbing of the night and with it the impending long corridor of dark where the sleepmonsters roam and attack with a fearsome appetite for ultra runners in particular. For while the runners can choose to stop, rest, sleep even, with only 60 hours in which to complete the race none were contemplating more than a ten minute reprieve, if that, at any point during the first night. They would all attempt to run the valley – still high at 3500 metres – without a laydown.

Jason Rita, suffering a fever, slowed and eventually rested for half an hour. But the man is, as I came to know him, a Diesel Engine. Same pace, same grunty run pose, same rhythm consistently chipping away the kilometres, a mask of determination not slipping from his face. It was his only hiccup the entire race. Once back on that road, he passed Tamati and remained in third for the remainder of the race, the only competitor other than Sanchez and Gayter to not ‘stake’ – mark their distance on the course and retreat down the second mountain for a rest.

Jason ‘Diesel’ Rita chugs up Khardung La IMAGE: Chris Ord

The valley was, despite the clawings of sleepmonsters, the easy part. Blindfolded by the night and in a semi-conscious state of ‘zombie walking’, the runners’ eyes never registered as such, but they were passing by bucolic fields, the snowfed Indus river and smatterings of Buddhist temples (including one of the Dalai Lama’s residences, this Ladakhi region being home to a large community

of Tibetan refugees and Indian Buddhists). And like the monks, may well they have meditated on what was ahead in their passage. Hooking south west the racers left the banks of the Indus to start slowly climbing again. At the pointy end, Gayter and Sanchez battled the altitude, but higher meant cooler. Back in the valley and running 8-15 hours behind, Lisa Tamati and Sam Gash battled searing heat that at one point smashed Tamati to the earth, unconscious for long enough to crumple, but strong willed enough to continue on.

An hour’s rest at a foothill village was enough to coax her near broken spirit to push on, despite her despondent misgivings at ever finishing. Yet within ten hours of heatstroke hell, Tamati was on the mountainside in pitch black, a snowstorm raging around, and the Devil of Quitsville had shapeshifted from sleepmonsters to panic attacks. Behind her, Sam Gash and Molly also struggled to see hope amid the snowflakes.

By this stage Jason was safely over the pass before the storm hit, the remaining downhill kilometres (31) a slog but the pull of the finishline stronger than that of exhaustion. Ahead, Ray Sanchez and Sharon Gayter had tussled, the latter coping with the altitude well enough to pass not long after the crossing. Sharon came home in an astonishing 37 hours, 34 minutes and 37 seconds, becoming only the second ever to finish the 222km La Ultra, the winner of the 2011 edition, and the fastest ever beating Mark Cockbain’s 48 hours from last year. Pushed to the last by false visions of Sanchez catching, she still went hard enough over the final stretch to have medics in a panic when she vomited blood in a dramatic finish.

Ray Sanchez steams through the Himalayas, looking to change history IMAGE: Chris Ord

Sanchez followed her in 39 hours and 30 minutes, but suffered somewhat, at one stage becoming disorientated and running in the wrong direction when approached by race organisers trying to direct him the right way. For Sanchez, intent  on a win, it was a

bittersweet placing, the Sacramento mechanical engineer once gaining a three-hour lead over Gayter. But medical reasons held him back from surging ahead. The lead had changed hands twice, each time on the two passes, with Gayter overtaking on both occasions.

While Sharon, Ray and Jason recuperated (Ray promising a return next year to win and make race record, Sharon worried about any medicines the crew made her take at the end and what that would mean for drug testing at the impending 24 Hour Commonwealth Champs and Jason just on a high of survival), other stories were still playing out.

Up on the mountain, there were moments, broken moments where for Lisa it was all over. She slumped. She stopped. She sobbed. La Ultra had its third victim (counting the two from the first edition).

It is in these moments where the life-changing beauty of suffering blossoms. Where at the instant that every ounce of reason and energy and indeed life has slipped away from its owner, there occurs a transformation, that births the exact thing that seems a universe away: triumph.

Altitude, freezing temperatures, snow, asthma…and Indian trucks – Lisa Tamati and two of her crew push on through it all. IMAGE: Luke McNee

We know what belted Lisa to a pulp of tragedy: it was as simple as a crewman quipping that there was still six or so kilometres to go to the pass, when in Lisa’s tortured mind she was due to breach the top at any moment. Her ShangriLa of Tanglang La pass had been

ripped from her mental grasp and so too her physical abilities faltered. She didn’t hear ‘six kilometres’. She heard, and knew at her pace in those conditions: ‘two hours’. She didn’t have two hours of footsteps left in her. The plan had been to stake at the top. She had been working toward the reward of a few hours’ recuperation, but needed it at that instant.

For ten minutes there was no bringing her back from the give-up. She was a statue of tears rained upon by darkness and ice.

So what did bring her back? Lisa may tell you it was for other people. For her Dad. For her crew. For her ego. But there is a moment – or moments – in every ultra racer’s career on the trail where it goes beyond such pseudo-couch psychology. It goes to the core of why they put themselves out there to fail so grandly (my argument from a previous post). It is a chase for the defining moment of self – that moment when it is all lost, when one’s world is all but gone, and yet something else takes over, another step is taken over that wall of No Bloody More That’s Me Done For. And the racer goes on regardless powered by nothing they can name. It is what Molly Sheridan told me when I suggested my point about ultra racers chasing failure. No, she said. You’re wrong. We’re not here to fail. We’re here to push beyond the boundary of what is possible. Not find the boundary of what is not. There’s a fundamental difference.

And in that, Molly points toward a higher plane that ultra running seems to have the ability to tap. An existence of the mind and body that ignites only at these extreme, hopeless moments. “The brain uses powers it doesn’t or can’t tap in to in an everyday existence,” says Molly.

She knew what was ahead … and yet she still ran. The effervescent Molly Sheridan. IMAGE: Chris Ord

And so Lisa had cracked the seal on whatever that means. She pushed beyond and in doing so added not just to her story as a runner – for that only matters to her profile, her sponsorship deals, her motivational speeches, her career as an ultra racer – far more importantly what she did was to change in that moment who she is and even the way she views the world. And so it is, I hazard a

guess, for all the La Ultra competitors, some who broke and kept going, others who didn’t scrape so close to the soul, but regardless will have two mountain passes named Khardung La and Tanglang La burned into their being until the day they take their last step forward.

“For the rest of my life I will remember the journey I took,” writes Molly on her blog.

Read any of their blogs (Ray, Molly, Lisa, Sam – Jason and Sharon don’t have one) and there will be defining moments registered in cyberspace – with much less dramatics than my pennings, perhaps, but it’s there in 72dpi, defining moments nonetheless.

They’ll tell their grandkids about La Ultra. I’ll tell my grandkids about La Ultra. And maybe, if I’m lucky, like these inspirational people who for a brief time on the trail live in another ultra universe, I’ll one day break myself and find out what is possible. (Molly, you’re right).

NOTE: Special thanks to those who supported both Lisa Tamati in her mission to conquer La Ultra and Trail Run Magazine in being there to crew and cover the race – The North FaceAustralian Geographic Outdoor Magazine, Air Asia and Nalu Productions. Without supporters like these (and many more who continue to support Lisa), adventures like these don’t happen. So thanks. Keep an eye out for an upcoming feature in AG Outdoor Magazine and for a documentary being produced by Nalu Productions.