Run The Planet: in the footsteps of legends

Can an ultra runner who has already run two times around the planet and a beginner who has run a few times around the block answer the question: were humans really born to run?

To find out, two runners – master and apprentice – will look to push mind and body to the limit and beyond in a proposed television series, dubbed Run The Planet. The series will will take viewer on a journey following a number of grueling ultra-distance challenges that trace the footsteps of history’s greatest feats of endurance through the wildest environments on the planet.

The pair will investigate what drives endurance runners to push the boundaries of what is possible; is there an evolutionary need to run? Is it part of our DNA? Is there something in our psychology that makes some people push the limits of endurance, to forge past frontiers, to be pioneers, explorers and adventurers? Is there an innate instinct to run? Was the ability to run in an ancient world the difference between life and death – the ultimate survival of the fittest?

Here’s a ‘screener’ – a small abridged taste of Run The Planet.

From chasing down food as hunter gathers to running hundreds of miles for a message of war, Run The Planet will take viewers to the edge of what is possible to run. And what is not.

During the series Lisa will mentor her student in the art of endurance running, the pair battling through some of the scariest ultra-challenges on earth. Will they make it? Is Chris tough enough to endure Lisa’s world? Can she find an answer to the question she has been asked a million times before: why do you do it?

Viewers will join the pair on an rollercoaster journey as they face medical crises, hallucinations, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, breakdowns, meltdowns, triumph and failures: all part of the experience of extreme running.

The program concept for Run The Planet was developed when Trail Run Mag editor, Chris Ord, journeyed to Kashmir, India, on assignment for Australian Geographic Outdoor Magazine to cover Lisa’s attempt to run La Ultra The High, a 222km ultra through the Himalayas.

While embedded in Lisa’s crew, as he watched her throw up, faint, and push her body and mind to oblivion, Chris got to thinking about why people would consider undertaking such extreme runs in the first place.

Lisa’s answer echoed that of Christopher McDougall and his famous book, Born To Run: humans were born to run. She went further, saying that anyone could be an ultra runner. We all had it in us.

Trying to run with Lisa over two of La Ultra’s 5400m  passes, Chris had doubts.

Conversations ensued about big runs undertaken throughout history. Suddenly the pair had the bet (‘I can turn you into an ultra runner’) and they had plenty of legends to unearth and feats to recreate. And Run The Planet was born.

 More info at

Run Crazy: ultra runner Ray Sanchez

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.


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.


“I have about a three and a half-litre lung capacity,” Lisa rasps at me as we plod up the rutted road toward Tanglangla, the ‘World’s Second Highest Motorable Pass’ at 5380m. “My Dad, who’s a lifelong smoker, and most other normal people have a lung capacity of five or more. I shouldn’t be here.”

Rasp, rasp, rasp.

None of us should be here. Not the seven runners who have signed on to tackle the 222km La Ultra The High, nor the 2-5 crew per runner.

But Lisa especially.

If you look past her asthma, her lead-in to this run isn’t exactly mountain goat material. She’s a desert runner specialist. Low and hot is how she likes it.

Here in the Ladakhi township of Leh, we sit out our ten-day acclimatization period at 3500m. Every day or so we trip up to the race route passes which top out at 5600m.

Expected altitudes were at the core of Lisa’s problem’s months earlier, too. Using an altitude acclimatization device back home, she suffered hypoxic concussion, tooth abyss, kidney problems and, bluntly, a fair swing at a trip to the Big Trail in the Sky when she dialed the thing up to 6500m “because she wasn’t feeling any different.”

She soon did and not to good effect.

Lisa Tamati takes in the view over Leh, where she has been acclimatising for two weeks readying for La Ultra

Then, after a good trot in The North Face 100 in the Blue Mountains, she twisted an ankle badly, pulling ligaments on a post event photo shoot.

But blown ankles wouldn’t keep Lisa from La Ultra.

Yesterday, with a 12km training walk/run to the top of Tanglangla, the second pass of the race, we had to stop for Lisa to say goodbye to some local pizza she had tried to refuel with.

Today she’s in bed with stomach cramps and zapped energy levels.

Not an ideal lead in, but she’s not alone.

Everyone here complains of the dry, oppressive heat during the day, the air clogged with fumes that make each breath an exercise in choking on a pair of dirty socks soaked in diesel. It’s enough for Dubai-based Australian racer Catherine Todd to call it a day and go home, exiting the race before starting it.

“I just can’t breath. I wake up nauseous, then an arm goes numb, it’s one thing after another. I’m  flying back to Dubai and then may head to Europe to do a 100 miler there, where at least I’ll feel healthy going in to it. Here I just don’t feel healthy.”

That’s what the atmosphere does to you here: it clogs your immune system. Enough for a tough nut like Cath – as well regarded adventure racer and ultra runner used to extreme conditions, decide it’s just not worth the pain.

Then there’s the waiting. Lisa has been here over two weeks now. There’s still another seven days until race start. That’s a long time for runners to be thinking about the dangers, to be bored, to be filling the mind with what ifs, to be analyzing the topography profiles, to be revising crew strategies, to be worrying about how the hell they’ll pull off a finish. No-one is really thinking about winning. It’s all about just surviving.

The waiting. The waiting. Things roll over in minds. Everything starts to annoy the runners who are fuelling up on tension. The slow service. The overbearing hotel manager. The spicy food. The routine imposed by race organisers. Everyone’s losing weight. Everyone’s wanting to do their own thing. Everyone’s second guessing what everyone else is doing.

You went up KardungLa? How’d you go? Feel sick? Headache?

Everyone wants to hear a yes, to know that others are weak, too.

But few admit to it.

“Fine, feeling fine, you?”

Lisa, who tends to externalise her negativity, lets it out. She’s scared. She feels like shit. She doesn’t know if she can do this. She can’t believe others aren’t as on edge. Why is Sharon Gayter (UK entrant) bouncing off walls after doing a marathon training run the other day? Nuts.

And back to the waiting. This, remember, is a place where two minute noodles take 45 minutes. The only thing that is fast is your taxi driver who just missed a donkey, an old lady carrying grass on her back, a monk, a stoned hippie tourist and a truck, all by an inch while tooting madly as though it was their fault your driver was on the wrong side of the road.

You’d tell everyone to take a deep breath and relax…if only there was enough air.

Postscript: race day is Aug 11. Competitors have 60 hours to complete the 222km course. After heading up to the second pass today with a few runners, the legendary Ray Sanchez, Aussie rocket Sam Gash, Sharon Gayter and Jason Rita, I tried to do the maths on them finishing it on the loooong, rough ride back to Leh. Our journey took 6 hours in a 4WD. We covered less than half the course. I have no idea how the six remaining runners will complete this course in 60 hours, if they can complete it at all. But it’s going to be an adventure for all finding out.


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!


She’s got a reputation for taking on ‘more than you can chew’ runs. But has Lisa Tamati finally stuffed her metaphorical mouth so much with her latest project that she might not be able to breathe let alone swallow? Of course that’d be the altitude causing asphyxiation: from 3500m to 5500m. And anywhere in between – anyone who has ever zoomed up to altitude will know it knocks the stuffing out of you.

La Ultra The high is the Kiwi Ultra Queen’s latest mission, a 222km run tracking those altitudes over the world’s highest motorable passes located in Ladakh, Kashmir, high (like I needed to put that word in) in the Himalaya.

Trail Run Mag will be there every lead-foot step of the way, leaving on Monday to join Lisa in the mountain village of Leh, where she is acclimatising having arrived a few days ago.

We’re there to cover her story for Australian Geographic Outdoor Magazine and, of course, Trail Run Mag, with the kind assistance of Air Asia and The North Face Australia/NZ, who sponsor Lisa and make mad missions like this possible.Travelling with us will be a director/cameraman from Nalu Productions, who will film a cracking documentary about the attempt. And it is an attempt. First run last year, La Ultra The High only counts one actual finisher, Mark Cockbain, from the UK. Every other competitor last year ended up in hospital. No wonder some are rating this the hardest ultra in the world, the sheer altitude and risk of AMS the defining hurdle that pushes this race above many others.

There are three Australians also in the fray this year: Samantha Gash, the youngest and the only female competitor to finish all the Four Deserts Races run by Racing The Planet; Jason Rita, who has completed many 100 mile races and started the Tanzanian running organisation; and Catherine Todd, running under UAE flag but really an Aussie, another who has completed many 100 milers plus adventure races. We’ll keep you updated on how they all fare. But you will cop a fair bit of Lisa, purely because we’re crewing for her, too, which will be a learning experience in itself.

We caught up with Lisa on Skype today, here discussing how it is up at Leh, India, where she’s spending her time re-learning how to breathe.

Check the (scratchy) audio (video is still images of Lisa’s shoot in the Blue Mountains post TNF100 with Mark Watson / Incite Images):


Trail Run Mag believes that it is important to recognise those who support our trail runners undertaking wicked adventures that the rest of us want to be doing, too. Without brand support, adventures like this do not happen. Lisa is being supported in her attempt to conquer La Ultra  – The High by those below (notably, there’s a culture link (obvious for TNF and Outdoor), but the CEO of Air Asia is running ten marathons in a season, so there’s true understanding behind the support being offered):

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