Guest Columnist and Ultra marathon runner Upendra Tripathi talks about his experience running the Khardung-La Challenge.
The year was 2017 and I was thrilled at having completed my first Ladakh full marathon, but my mind had something else running through it – the famous Khardung-La challenge.
It was the eve of the full marathon event and the Ladakh central market was bustling with runners from all over the world. It wasn’t just the anticipation of the Ladakh FM the next day but also the runners who had just completed the Khardung-La ultra-race were milling about adding to the sense of magic in the air. You could see emotions writ all over their face – some really excited, others with a look of satisfaction and others tired and a bit disappointed.
I got talking to a few of them and their stories of the ultra-race had me intrigued but apprehensive. My first thoughts were to never ever run the Khardung-La race, but the challenge beckoned – I was curious, I wondered if I could push myself and test my limits.
Despite my apprehensions, I knew in my head that I had accepted this gruelling challenge.
The Ladakh Marathon, an AIMS certified event is considered to be the highest and is amongst the toughest marathons in the world. Out of the 4 races in this event, the Khardung-La Challenge (5370m) is the World’s highest Ultra Marathon covering a distance of 72KM with oxygen levels at 30% lesser than the plains.
It starts at over 4000M at Khardung village and has a steep incline for 32+KM until a steep descent starts at 40KM hitting the lowest altitude of 3500 meters to reach Leh. The cut-off time for the full course is 14 hours with 4 intermediate cut-off points – Khardung-La pass (8hrs), South Pulu (10hr 30mins), Mendhak Mod (12hrs) and Leh (14hrs).
Without a shadow of doubt, this is one of the most challenging, toughest races out there that really tests the limits of human endurance.
With a dream in my heart, I take flight.
A year has gone by now and it is September 2018. My dream of completing the Khardung-La challenge has taken shape – I have trained hard, followed a balanced, nutritious diet all the while focusing on my goal in mind.
Hoping to bring it all to a fruitful conclusion, I take my flight to Leh a week ahead to acclimatize myself and get used to the conditions. I spend the week training and preparing myself – physically and mentally. A day before the event, all the runners are picked up and brought to Khardung village where we undergo blood pressure and oxygen level checkups. With everything in check and normal, I finished the hot meal offered and after carefully laying out my running gear and other essentials, I hit the sack.
It’s the final countdown.
The sound of the alarm cut through the silent, cold night and I woke up with a start. I looked for the clock and it read 1230AM. I thought to myself, “who sets an alarm for this godforsaken hour?”. I assumed it was a mistake so imagine my surprise when I noticed the other 3 guys in the room waking up and putting on their thermal jackets. I jumped up in bed and made my way through the dimly-lit room to my running gear so that I could get ready. With the cold breeze howling outside, the hot drinking water and tea provided by the landlady was an absolute luxury.
The hot beverage woke me up and it finally sunk in that I was at Khardung village about to take on the famous Khardung-La race. I had to be at breakfast by 2 AM so I rushed about, finished breakfast and headed to the start line for a roll call by 230AM. The route recce director then briefed us on the route, the expected weather conditions, the availability of water and aid stations etc.
The anticipation was building up inside of me and I couldn’t wait for flag-off.
A dream come true
0259AM – All the training, all my sacrifices over the past year, all my dedication came down to this. In 1 minute, I was about to embark on one of my biggest challenges in life. I was ready!
0300AM – and we’re off! As soon as the whistle blows, all the runners clad in their multi-layered gear start off but within a kilometre, a large section of them have started walking barring the local Ladakhi and elite runners who seem to have adjusted to the altitude very well.
I soldiered on braving the elements and the fatigue but as I was nearing the 5KM mark, it got a whole lot worse – it started raining and then very quickly began to snow as well. The road being tar got very slippery with this deadly mix of rain and snow and as if that wasn’t enough, it was accompanied by a bone-chilling wind that lasted for hours. With the temperature dropping, my mind wandered off a bit and I started wondering ‘what on earth was I doing up here’?
Banishing those thoughts, I set myself a goal – get to Khardung-La pass (the first intermediate stop) because something good awaited the runners – hot garlic and coriander soup! In this weather and these conditions, a bowl of soup is a godsend and after a continuous incline of 32KM, nothing works better. The good thing was once we got up there, the weather improved, and we could see the sun coming out too.
All recharged, I then turned my attention to the next stage of the race – the 40KM decline. It sounded easy enough, but the reality was different. After a 32KM constant incline, my legs were like jelly and I considered several times of quitting the race and taking the mobile van back to Leh, but I didn’t.
Every time the thought of quitting came to mind, I looked back at the past year, my family, the sacrifices – NO, I decided – I cannot quit!
Summoning all the grit and will power I had, I pushed myself even more and was proud to have reached the finish line in 12 hours 30mins.
That indescribable feeling.
The sense of relief and achievement is something that I cannot describe. As I received my finisher’s medal, a sense of pride filled me and I was over-the-moon at making my dream come true.
The race itself is organized brilliantly and Motup (Chewang), the race director deserves a lot of appreciation for planning it so well. The crowd support in Leh was amazing and each one of the runners received an ecstatic ovation.
Looking back, I realized that everyone who finished that race is a winner.