|Sharon Gayter, the winner of the ultra-marathon, runs as her husband Bill looks on. Picture by Shyam G. Menon
Leh, Aug. 14: Imagine running a 222km ultra-marathon at average altitude exceeding 14,000ft, where oxygen is low and traffic fumes linger long, becoming acutely irritating. Imagine you are an asthmatic and 47 years old to boot whose regular inhaler wouldnt work at those heights because of the pressure difference.
Now imagine you still win the race, competing against the worlds best. Sharon Gayter of the UK did just that in Ladakh on Saturday.
Only six athletes took part in the second edition of La Ultra The High, a punishing run over two of Indias highest motorable passes and rated the toughest ultra-marathon in the world. A seventh runner withdrew just ahead of the event after a pre-race taste of route and environment.
All the six runners were foreigners: Indian athletes were not in the fray as only those with prior experience of the worlds major ultra-marathons could register. The race had a cut-off time of 60 hours: if you didnt make it by that time, you were not a finisher.
All the runners finished within the cut-off this time. The winner made it home in 37 hours and 34 minutes. Ray Sanchez, 44, of the US finished second at 39 hours and 03 minutes.
Last year, only one runner from a field of three had finished the race in 48 hours and 50 minutes.
Sharon has been Britains top female 24-hour runner for the last 12 consecutive years.
I have done over 1,000 races and this is 100 per cent the toughest. It is head and shoulders above the rest. The challenge of altitude is monstrous compared to heat, and this had heat and cold as well, she said.
According to her, the Badwater ultra-marathon in the US, often touted as the toughest, wouldnt compare with the Ladakh event because heat (which is one of the main challenges in the American event) can be handled with the runners crew spraying water on the athlete and so on.
In contrast, there is nothing one can do about altitude.
The weather was bad into the second day and night of running: it was cold and snowing was reported at altitude.
(The weather, which blocked many roads, may have led to last nights tragedy when a bus carrying folk dancers from Leh plunged 150 metres into a gorge in Himachal Pradesh, killing 15 persons. The vehicles seven other occupants, severely injured in the accident near Keylong, 342km from Shimla, were rescued with the help of ropes.)
La Ultras starting point was 10km beyond the village of Khardung on the road to Nubra the gateway to Siachen and the finishing point was on the Morey Plains.
Sharon, whose crew was anchored by her husband Bill, had planned on a sub-40-hour finish with her priorities being finishing the race, improving on the previous winners timing, and winning in that order. Her pre-race calculations had indicated a finish in 39 hours and 45 minutes. In the event, she did better and shaved 11 hours off the timing of last years winner.
In the initial part of the race, Ray, a boxer turned ultra-marathon runner planning a sub-30 finish, had been firmly in the lead. He reached Khardung La (17,700ft) from a line on the road 42km away in six hours and five minutes, gaining almost 4,000ft en route.
A tremendous gap had already been opened up by Ray and Sharon, who was in second position at this stage.
One had to wait for quite some time at Khardung La for the next three runners to pass through. Driving down to Leh thereafter, it was possible to catch up with Samantha Gash of Australia, Lisa Tamati of New Zealand and Jason Rita of Australia, placed fifth, fourth and third respectively then (Molly Sheridan of the US was yet to reach the pass).
Both Ray and Sharon were, however, already past Leh. Writer and car were left in the dust. Ray later observed that his run-up to Khardung La had been deliberately slow because he was conserving energy for the Tanglang La (17,583ft) way ahead.
The asthmatic Sharon called the Leh-Choglamsar stretch her worst section because of vehicular traffic and smoke. In a trial run, she had already found out that her regular inhaler wouldnt work, so she had to use a nebuliser every four hours.
This writer did not track the run beyond Leh. The change in lead reportedly occurred past Rumptse. Around this point, both Ray and Sharon had begun battling exhaustion.
Sharon, who normally rests little during ultra runs, took two 20-minute naps in her crew car and an hour-long break, partly for a routine medical check-up. She also felt sick something she prides in not getting, having perfected her nutrition over years of ultra running.
I think it was the altitude taking its toll, she said.
Ray, who got his nutrition right on this run, experienced hallucination and delirium near Tanglang La. He was in and out of examination by the medical team, which as per race protocol intervenes in such situations. The switch in lead happened amid this.
Laughing at his exhaustion and altitude-induced hallucination atop Tanglang La, Ray said on Saturday that he planned to return next year for the La Ultra and try finishing it within 30-35 hours.
The only runner in the world to complete four of the toughest 135-mile (217km) ultra runs in the world (BAD Cup 135 series) in a calendar year, he wants to do that and add the Ladakh ultra to it, all again in one calendar year 2012.
Sharon, on the other hand, was more cautious in committing herself. Incidentally, she had enrolled for this run in 2010 and pulled out two months before the event.
On Sunday, just about a day after his punishing ultra run, Ray was to participate in a marathon that is open to Indian runners and is organised as part of La Ultra.
I want to finish it in under four hours, he had said.
On Sunday afternoon, when this writer bumped into him at a cybercafe in Changspa, he confirmed that he had done just that.
(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)