Run Crazy: ultra runner Ray Sanchez

TrailRunMag 22.03.2012

In only five years since discovering the sport of ultra running, three time Golden Glove boxer, Ray Sanchez, has fought his way from America’s mean streets, via the ring, to become one of the world’s most accomplished long run specialists. This year, he attempted to become only the second and the fastest man to finish La Ultra – The High, regarded as the world’s toughest footrace. Feature written by Chris Ord as first appeared in Men’s Fitness Magazine.

Sanchez in the first 42km of the 222km La Ultra – The High, heading up 5400 metre Khardung La pass in Kashmiri Himalayas, India.

“I’m just a nobody that runs crazy,” says ultra runner, 44 year-old Ray Sanchez, with a gleam in his eye that backs the argument.

“That’s why I like coming to these international races, in exotic places, because they treat me really well, like I’m somebody. Back home in the States, I’m still a nobody.”

Sanchez contemplates his invisible man predicament sitting atop a mud-packed roof overlooking the tiny Himalayan village of Khardung, a Buddhist outpost in Kashmir, India, that in winter is deserted by all owing to temperatures that drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius.

Below us, fields of grain dance in the short-summer sun, the odd malnourished cow looks up, double checking that the many whitewashed temples dotted down the valley remain in place – as they have for hundreds of years. Looming over all is the imposing Ladakhi range, which harbours on its flanks the Chinese border and the Pakistan border along with its contentious ‘Line of Control’ over which India and its neighbour often clash. Just out of sight beyond a 6000-metre plus behemoth, is K2, the world’s second highest peak.

Today it’s a tranquil valley bowl, but 12 years ago this was in part the scene of the Kargil Conflict, a violent skirmish where Pakistan decided it wanted a little more of India than India would like to relinquish. Pakistan sent in a crack squad of separatist Kashmiri militants. As it transpired, they weren’t quite crack enough and were routed by the Indian Army in only three months.

In 24 hours the same valley will see the beginning of another monumental if short battle, one that may also end in tears and recriminations if not bloodshed (although there’s potential).

Ten kilometres down the rutted road, where Ray’s crazy eyes now roam from atop our roof perch, begins ‘La Ultra – The High’, a 222km footrace touted as the ‘toughest on the planet”. It’s undoubtedly the highest. Competitors – all seven of them on invitation-only entries – will start at around 4000 meters, the height we’ve been acclimatizing at for the last day or so, before running a marathon distance to top out on Khardung La pass, known (slightly disingenuously) as the world’s highest motorable pass at 5400 metres. They then run back down to a ‘low’ point of 3600metres before a second thigh-thrashing ascent up Tanglang La, also approaching 5400 metres. 

That’s the highest label accounted for. The ‘toughest’ tag line can be attributed to three things. First is the fact that these are ‘motorable passes’ which means a constant stream of fume-spewing army and cargo trucks grunting up on narrow, rough dirt roads and driven by locals who have little care for the safety of mad western runners plodding alongside. They give no quarter.

Then there is the fact that this race needs to be conquered by sucking on diesel-scented air containing an average of 40% less oxygen than you’ll find at sea level. At the top of the two passes, runners’ lungs will have to contend with only 33% partial oxygen as compared to sea level.

Finally there is the ever-present risk of altitude sickness, which can lead to High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) – and death, as drastically demonstrated by at least three unwary tourists in the weeks leading up to this race who flew home in body bags.

While none of the three inaugural runners died in the first edition of the race last year, there were some hairy moments. American Molly Sheridan only conquered 130km before being forced to retire, while her friend and co-competitor Bill Andrews was rushed to hospital earlier in the piece.

Race director, Rajat Chauhan admits that when he checked in on his sole survivor, Mark Cockbain, ascending the second pass, even he, as a qualified sports doctor, couldn’t tell if his only remaining competitor was entering the dreaded death zone. Mark didn’t know where he was or why he was running; he was hallucinating and kept running off the dirt road, straight towards cliff edges. Rajat made the tough call to leave Mark out on course, the respected ultra runner eventually beating extreme fatigue and the onset of altitude sickness to top Tanglang La and troop down the final 30km to a finish in the middle of nowhere. In doing so, he become the first and only person to have completed La Ultra.

This year’s event was never meant to happen. On the back of the first experience, Rajat decided it was too tough an ask. If a known hardass like Cockbain seriously struggled, what hope was there for anyone else? No competitor would want to race something that was likely to kill them. But he hadn’t reckoned on Molly Sheridan’s determination to finish what she’d started. She hounded until Rajat agreed to host the race once more, and the pair set about vetting potential runners. More were rejected than accepted.

“Runners couldn’t just have completed some difficult ultras, they had to have completed many, and the toughest ones, to even be considered.”

Kiwi Lisa Tamati was a shoe-in: known mostly for desert running, the asthmatic has completed the Marathon de Sables twice, multiple Badwaters (hottest ultra), races in the Gobi, the Sahara, Niger and Libyan Desert, plus had run the length of her own country (2,200km).

Lisa recommended Aussie Sam Gash, with whom she ran alongside in the Racing The Planet desert ultras. Sam is the only female and the youngest person ever to finish all four of RTP’s Four Deserts editions, some of the toughest in the world.

Jason Rita, an Aussie expat living in the States has concentrated on many 100 milers in North America including the notorious Leadville 100 along with races in the Himalayas, including a 3rd in the Everest Challenge Marathon. As the only runner without his own sponsor-splashed website or blog, he is the unknown quantity, but undoubtedly tough as nails. Tick.

Another ex-pat Aussie, Cath Todd based out of Dubai, has run enough 100-milers to get the nod.

Sharon Gayter is the world record holder for 24-hour running: 226km. She’s also conquered the Badwaters and Libyan Challenges of the world, and run the length of Britain besides (establishing the official John O’Groats to Lands End run route). Not just in, but a potential winner.

Then there is Ray Sanchez. Our contender.

Early in his career the farthest Ray Sanchez would run – when competing – was about ten feet. He was quick, flighty even – it was all dash and crash a fist into his opponent. From one end of the boxing ring to the other he darted, chasing opponents to a knockout demise, of which he inflicted enough to claim three Golden Gloves titles. That put him, at least when he donned the gloves as a young amateur 1991-96, in Olympic trials contention and on the same path as the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and the Great One, Ali who all got their start in Golden Gloves tournaments.

He fought in the ring because, having grown up on the meaner streets of Sacramento on the US West Coast, and one of ten siblings, brawling was what he knew how to do. Smaller than his many brothers he fought harder. And won. Then there was the regular carousing of the local African American gang who seemed to take cultural exception to Ray’s Latino roots, the resulting pitched battles on his front lawn, occasionally extending beyond fisticuffs to realms of gunslinging. First it was the gangs toting steel, but when a slug just missed his sister, it was Ray’s brother who returned fire with more accuracy, knocking one down for the count forever.

Ray was a fighter long before he donned the gloves. The transition to contender was all about channeling the rage, according to his mentor, wrestling coach Mike Stockton (in the early days Ray tussled on the mat as well as in the ring).

“I was a complete brawler. I love to bang and brawl,” says Ray.  “I think I now run the same way.  My friend Jimmy Freeman says I don’t really run until I have been punched in the lip.” 

To Ray it was also about learning how to fight better. Didn’t matter if someone was bigger or badder, you just fought bigger and badder and harder. And then you held on for longer. He fought well back then, but by his own admission no battle bruised him as much as the one for his daughters.

The three-time divorcee quit fighting in the ring so he could fight for custody in the courts. As is his way, he won in what he regards as the toughest battle of his life.

He’s had others outside the ring: the battle to educate himself, to drag himself out of the Sacramento gutters where the potential to slither into a jail sentence was all too overwhelming.

“I was a bad man,” Ray admits. “I did bad things. But then I looked around, looked at my neighbourhood, my friends and family, the drugs, the violence, the prison stretches, the poverty…I wanted something different.”

The journey for Ray was longer than any of his ultras will ever be. He lost the way a few times (something he’s famous for come race day), but kept on going. He brought up his daughters, put them through university, gained his mechanical engineering qualifications and now holds down a career at a Sacramento hospital.

“The shifts work well with my running,” says Ray. “I work hard, then I run hard.”

It’s an understatement. Ray runs a ridiculous amount. Too much, other ultra marathoners believe.

Since taking up running in 2006 – prompted by a workmate’s suggestion and curiosity – he’s completed hundreds of races, most of them ‘ultras’ (anything longer than a marathon). But the real kudos for Ray came when he knocked off the supposedly impossible grand slam of ultra running. Dubbed the BAD 135 World Cup it involves finishing each of the three hardest 135-mile (217km) ultras in one year, those being the Brazil, Arrowhead (Minnesota, US) and Death Valley (Badwater, US) races. It was a feat the pundits considered impossible given the punishment completing just one ultra doles out to your body, let alone doing three in a period of six months. Worse, Arrowhead – regarded as the hardest due to the freezing temperatures, snow and the fact you lug a sled behind you – is only days following the Brazilian opener. No one had ever attempted it. Last year, Ray accomplished it.

Thus Ray Sanchez was a no-brainer inclusion on the La Ultra entry list.

On the starting line, Ray is oblivious to the fact he is standing on the famed Silk Road, an ancient route for camel traders shipping goods between ancient cultures. His lean, muscled body is champing to attack the first 42 kilometres up Khardung La. While others openly admit their best if doubtful hope is just to finish, Ray is here to win. He won’t admit it – he’ll tell you he’s here for fun. Or perhaps for the charity he runs for, one that totes the ‘Be Change’ slogan on his shirt to raise money for underprivileged schools and health programs back in his poverty-soaked Sacramento neighbourhood. From bad man beginnings, there is no doubt that Ray is now a good man. He’s also one that can’t keep still, the energy effervescent in a stream of banter that bounces off the anxious competitors and crew.

As the dawn light cracks crisply over the Himalayas, six runners trot off (Catherine Todd pulls the pin three days prior, the altitude and pollution plaguing her lungs and ebullient confidence enough to head home to Dubai before the rest headed to the acclimatization camp). Ahead there are some knowns: pain, fatigue, delirium, sleepmonsters, cramps, and 222km of mind searing doubt. According to the other racers there is one more known: it will be Ray and Sharon out front in a battle more epic than the Kashmir conflict.

The pair don’t disappoint off the mark, screaming ahead as though they weren’t at 4000 metres; as though they weren’t running uphill constantly for the next 42km; as though the passing trucks were blowing pine fragranced enriched oxygen, rather than plumes of lung clogging carbon (especially problematic for Sharon, an asthmatic); which leaves race organizers to wonder: are they insane? Have they totally underestimated these massive mountains, which do not take kindly to be treated with disrespect? Have they forgotten the altitude? And, for the sake of event insurance: are they running to their death?
As it happens, no. Not yet. Both breach Khardung La in just over six hours. Behind them, Jason Rita plugs away at a more realistic pace, Lisa Tamati’s stomach ejects a pot of noodles, Sam Gash also struggles with nutrition, and Molly, as the only one who actually comprehends what’s ahead, plays safe, plodding along at a pace that risks nothing bar missing the cut off times.

Everyone expects Ray to go fast. No-one expects him to pull out a three hour lead on Sharon and pretty much run unimpeded down the mountain, through the Indus valley, past Buddhist Monasteries, alongside the Indus River and finally to the last checkpoint, Rumtse, and the 100 mile (160km) mark. He’d blazed up the course in just 22 hours.

Then a wall called Tanglang La hit the ex-boxer like a crushing right hook. From Rumtse it’s a 1300 vertical metre climb over barely 20 kilometres of potholed road. Runners already have 170km of lead in their legs. The air is thin, the lungs looking for redundancy payouts, preferably in the currency of oxygen withdrawn from the Bank of Lower Altitude.

It’s enough to drive men – even supermen – to hallucinations. I say men, because at this stage, Ray is shattered and scattered, and the medics who roam the course are worried, whereas Sharon is in pain, her asthma causing chaos, but at least she’s lucid. Her pace tells the story: it’s taking 20 minutes to cover one kilometre, something that would usually take her four minutes. Even so, she is catching Ray who has started to do the John Wayne: a wide-stance gait that heralds the onset of HACE.

As the medics force him to take rest, Sharon passes him to take the lead only three kilometres over Tanglang La’s hump. Ray is oblivious to the loss.  He’s gone from battling demons of the distance to a battle of wills with the medics trying to keep him alive.

But he’s a fighter, remember? And no medic is going to pull him off the canvas.

Down the hill he weaves, eventually reaching the final plateau where one final incident plays out, showing just how punch-drunk Ray is.

Concerned about Ray’s state of mind and body, one of the race organisers, Khanal, approaches. Ray – the trauma of the race transporting him back to one of the biggest fights of his life, perhaps on a day in the front yard of his childhood when a crew of African Americans are teaching him how to really endure pain – turns on his concerned minder: “Who the hell are you! Get the f@#k away from me!” And he runs. Unfortunately it is in the wrong direction. 

Eventfully Ray clams enough to reorientate and cross the line in 39 hours and 3 minutes, a phenomenal effort that beats Mark Cockbain’s original 48 hour 51 minute race time. Even so, Ray Sanchez is, as they say, ‘chicked’, Gayter taking line honours in 37 hours 34 minutes. He was beaten by a woman, one older than him, no less. For a bad, crazy man from Sacramento, it is a hard pill to swallow.

“I’ll be back next year, and I’m going to break the record, and run it in under 30 hours.”

He’s also looking to finish all five of the world’s major 135-mile races – Brazil, Arrowhead, Europe, Badwater and La Ultra – in 2012.

Always aiming for the impossible, that’s our Ray.

And just to show that running 222km isn’t enough, he backs up the day after completing the La Ultra main event, lining up for – and winning – the La Ultra marathon, a 42km warm down in the Himalayas. Crazy.

POSTSCRIPT: All six finished the second edition of La Ultra The High in the cut off time of 60 hours.  Other runner times were: Jason Rita in 45 hours 55 minutes, Lisa Tamati in 53 hours 05 minutes, Samantha Gash in 58 hours 15 minutes, and Molly Sheridan finished what she started two years ago, in 58 hours 56 minutes.