The LaUltra Challenge took Ashish Kasodekar 5 days, 6 hours, 18 mins to complete and he has now created history.
Edition X – a brave new world
La Ultra – The High – an ultramarathon like no other that tests the very limits of human endurance. 333K of beautiful but unforgiving terrain across three high mountain passes and a cold desert. Only a few brave souls have ever tried and succeeded in conquering this monstrous challenge. It is by far the cruelest ultramarathon in the world.
As if the 333K wasn’t challenging enough, 2019 saw the advent of the “Edition X Special”, a gruelling 555K run introduced to celebrate 10 years of the La Ultra – The High. The run starts in Lakjung in the Nubra Valley and passes through 3 towering mountain passes (Khardung La, Wari La and Tanglang La) before culminating in Leh, a tiring 5 and a half days later. Through the run, the runners will climb up to 17,500ft, face 14-time cut-offs, battle varying temperatures from 40 degrees C to -12 degrees C and work with only 50% oxygen levels.
Only 5 runners signed up for the “Edition X Special” and with two Indians in the mix, the local’s hopes were high. As it turned out, Ashish Kasodekar from Pune became the only Indian to complete the gut-wrenching distance and managed to finish 3rd overall. “LaUltra is an experience because it’s a whole different feeling running in the Himalayas. You run on your own as they are not too many participants or people to cheer you through. But running the 555K is not only about you but the crew plays a big part in your journey to the finish line as they are constantly motivating you, pushing you, attending to your hydration and nutrition needs, giving massages when you need them, etc. Since this event had very few participants, the organizing team is aware of every runner by name, and we addressed each other by our first name thus making it a very personal event”, says Ashish.
In 2018, Ashish was among the only 3 Indians to have completed the 333K fighting back fatigue, deliria and self-doubt along the way. When he heard of the new 555K run, he knew he had to give it a shot and see if he could push his body and mind further. He says “Initially there was a lot of scepticism and most of us thought that Dr Rajat Chauhan (race director) had gone mad. This was a distance never run before. For me, I thought there is this event happening which is very close to my heart and considering I meet the eligibility criteria (completed the 333K), why not give it a shot. This was a one-time race and I didn’t want to regret my decision of not participating in the event. That’s what pushed me to go forward and sign up for this event with just 4 months to spare”.
Training to be superhuman
Tackling ultra-distances is hard on your mind and body and you need to be spot on with your training to give yourself the best possible chance of finishing the race. Ashish adds, “My decision to be a part of this race happened quite late. Although I was going about my regular training with good fitness levels, I was not particularly focused on this event. I had also completed the Hennur Bangalore Ultra event (210K) recently. Having ran the 333K, my crew and I understood what changes were needed for this race with respect to hydration, nutrition, strategy, etc. Once I registered for the race, my focus was on building mileage, training on tired legs and building a sustainable sleep pattern. I used to run 40K, get to work, spend time with friends in the evening, go for a walk from 11pm-2am and sleep from 2am-6am. This continued for 6 weeks. I also focused on strength training, intervals and worked on the power naps”.
He further adds, “Another key factor to training is acclimatization. I got to Manali from Chandigarh by bus and from Manali we hired a vehicle to get to Leh. I used to run for about 30K/day, spend a lot of time at the passes and do walk-runs. I was well acclimatized by the time I reached Leh which took a total of 6 days”.
The hydration and nutrition strategy for any race should be on point to be able to get you across the finish line without any challenges. For this race, his dietician and him discussed on various things like how much to eat, when to eat and to carry food mostly in the liquid form since carrying solid food becomes very difficult in Ladakh. “For my hydration, I used Fast & up and water. This time my crew member advised me to have Sattu (barley, flour and jaggery) which worked well for me and gave me the required nutrition. I drank it about 7-8 times during the run. The strategy was basically to be eating and drinking at the right intervals which were to eat every 2hrs and drink every 1hr. The first 87K you have to support your own hydration and nutrition needs. It’s only after this point does the crew join you”, says Ashish.
Race Day – August 17, 2019.
5 runners including 2 from India – Praveen Sharma and Ashish stood tall at the start line all set to take on the course. Ashish felt strong and confident. The crew along with him had devised a good strategy to tackle the race by splitting the race into stages with adequate rest at every juncture.
Amidst the slight drizzle and chilly weather, the race kicked off but hardly had they hit their strides, they were faced with heavy snowfall which is quite unusual in the month of August. “The fresh snow is always nice but when vehicles started traversing on the snow, the slush made it very dangerous to run on and quite slippery too.”, says Ashish.
The fluctuating temperatures, 40° C during the day and -12° C at Khardung La and North Pullu gave the runners a hard time in dealing with such brutal weather and it was here that a lot of runners pulled out of the race. “I somehow managed to pull through this extreme cold and manage to get my cut-off done by 4 AM at North Pullu. I changed socks and shoes at every aid station and this helped as I never got any blisters or cramps. Thanks to my crew who ensured nothing went wrong and were my biggest supporters who ensured I get adequate rest, nutrition and hydration at regular intervals”, he says.
On the last day, when he came back to Serthi with only 64K to spare to get to the finish line, Ashish and team decided to rest for 3 hours before they headed out while the other two runners – The Australian and the American continued running to the finish line. “The 3-hour rest did me good as I ended up having a strong finish. We all sang, danced and enjoyed every bit towards the finish line. I never planned or put unnecessary pressure on myself to be the first Indian but wanted to finish strong and enjoy the process”, says Ashish.