Our duo columnists, Mahalakshmi and Sandeep talk about how they conquered the Solang Sky Ultra, India’s only Sky running event in the Himalayas.
“Never limit where running can take you. I mean that geographically, spiritually, and of course, physically” – Bart Yasso.
I enjoy running – it’s a chance for me to go where my own two feet can carry me (literally).
It’s calming and repetitive. I have also found that the common running tenets of competitiveness, determination, positive thinking are the beliefs that I want to base my life goals on. It seems to me that running does a lot of good for a person and fits into my life quite well.
One of my running journeys took me up into the beautiful Solang valley in Himachal Pradesh that stands at an elevation of 8,400 feet. With the gorgeous Himalayas forming the backdrop, the Solang SkyUltra is India’s only mountain running race and is part of the Hell Race endurance series.
Skyrunning, as it is called is a high-altitude trail run and an extreme sport of mountain running that is run at an altitude of higher than 2000 meters and an incline of greater than 30%. These runs require a lot of technicality in terms of climbing and tackling the narrow trails.
This Solang Sky Ultra race has 3 categories – 10KM, 30KM, and 60KM respectively. The gain in elevation varies from 600, 2200m and 3800m for each category respectively. Mahalakshmi Sagar (my partner) and I registered for the 30KM race with a lot of uncertainty in our minds. Staying in Bangalore that is known more for its traffic than its trails, our uncertainty was understandable. Now, we have done our fair share of trail running too – the Turahalli trail as well as Yercaud trails for example but we still felt very apprehensive and unsure of the training that is required to tackle such a run.
Uncertainty and apprehensiveness aside, we decided to go ahead. We registered for the race, booked our accommodations and on the 28th of Sep 2018, Mahalakshmi and I along with two of the best amateur trail runners in India (Sampath and Aakriti) headed out to Chandigarh (our first stop). From there, we hired a taxi to Manali and thanks to the heavy rains our journey turned out to be longer and more exhausting than expected. The treacherous 12-hour drive was made palatable watching the wild, raging but beautiful Beas river making its way down the mountainside.
We arrived at the Solang Ski Resort and took the chance to mingle with a few of the runners who had arrived earlier and after a brief rest, we decided to go for an acclimatization walk on the race route.
During the race briefing, we were informed that the race route had been changed due to bad conditions and we were given thorough instructions regarding cut-offs, aid stations, etc. It was a daunting task to organize such an event under the given circumstances and the organizers had done a marvelous job getting things set up. We were ready to go and could not wait for race day.
RACE DAY! The 30KM leg flagged off at 7.30AM from the Solang Ski Resort and the route went down the Anjani Mahadev Temple road which lead us to our first river crossing of the run. They had created a makeshift bridge of a few planks of wood that enabled us to cross the river Beas leading to the harder section of the course.
Once across the river, the route meandered through tiny picturesque villages and then onto the Leh-Manali Highway which provided us with a bit of tarmac to run on. It was quite an easy climb to Jogini Falls. My Partner and I had decided to run the entire race together but halfway through we realized how unprepared we were for the trail, nevertheless, we were quite happy with the progress we made so far.
Jogini falls was a good climb and we were pretty warmed up by now and set our sights on the run ahead. All of a sudden, the race took us by surprise – it went straight through the falls! Obviously, we were soaked to the bone but we limbered on and set our sights on the remaining 16 to 18 KMS of the run.
Running through the waterfall, we hit the trail again and the trail sort of started winding down. Even though it was a downhill, the terrain was slippery and we could not run at the speed we wanted to. We passed through a village and had an aid station before the next climb.
The next section of the race was the most difficult one. Though only 2KMS, it had an elevation gain of 900+ meters. The terrain was rugged, to say the least. Forget running, even walking on this stretch was tough. We both realized, that this was way tougher than what we had imagined. We got really slow on this part, taking slightly more than 2 hours to complete this climb.
When we reached the top, we realized that we had 2 hours left and chances of us finishing before the cut-off’s seemed very unlikely. Nonetheless, we decided to give it a go, we tried to run hard and fast for the remainder of the race. Even though it was mostly downhill from that point on, we just could not get our speed going as the trail was full of slush.
We crossed a few more streams on our way down and that part of the stretch was the most beautiful. Through the winding trails, we finally came down to a gorge which had to be crossed via a century-old British bridge. It had lost its form and the only thing left was its railings. Volunteers helped us get across to the other side.
On crossing the bridge, we realized that if we did not run hard we might miss cut-offs by a good 10 mins. We kept running till we reached, the Manali-Rohtang highway. From there on, we both had decided to walk as we would not make the cut-offs anyway and instead we talked with the locals around and had an easy finish. Though that was not the ideal way we normally do our races, we thought it was worth it. We both decided then that we will do this race again next year and finish strong.
The 2018 race was unprecedented with the podium finishers getting through the course at some unbelievable speeds and setting new course records. In the 60KM race for men – Tianding Wahlang ended up 1st with a new course record time of 7hrs 12 min and 56 sec. Apart from Tianding, the other top two runners also bettered the previous course record of 9hrs 1min and 49 sec.
In the women’s format, there were the first-ever finishers with Aakriti Verma taking 1st place with a time of 13hrs 49min and 56 sec. In 2nd place with a time of 14hrs 44mins and 48 sec was Arpita Maitra which unfortunately was outside of the cutoff time, nevertheless, it is worth a mention. In the 30KM and 10KM categories, the gentlemen from the Gurkha regiment took home the honors with some exceptional running.
Though treacherous, we think races like Solang SkyUltra should happen more often. We thank the organizers for putting up a wonderful race. We truly appreciate the fact that the likes of Vishwas, Nupur, Ashok and Gaurav of the Hell race team are trying to build a culture wherein the runners are not pampered, they give you a tough race that leaves the runners with a feeling of utter satisfaction when they complete it.
As a parting note – we do not recommend this race to anyone who is not trained enough. Work hard on your fitness, train well and then go ahead.