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Khardung-La Challenge – Only for the fittest runners

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.

So, what is the ‘The Khardung-La 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.

ABOUT THE GUEST COLUMNIST

 

A senior management Leader with a leading Semi-Conductor company, Upendra Tripathi((aka Upen) has achieved running accolades in 3 years what most of us will probably not achieve in our lifetime.

 

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Devil’s Circuit Tests Your Mind Like Never Before

Protima Tiwary just completed the toughest obstacle course, the Devil’s circuit and she shares her journey here.

As of 2019, I have been going to the gym for over a year now. Before that, I used to be a runner for almost 2 years, easily clocking in 7 km 4 times a week. I had run a handful of marathons to test my stamina and focus, but I really tested my strength? In hindsight, I feel the answer to this is no because what I did on 20th January 2019 beat all other tests that I had ever taken. This was the day I successfully completed 13 out of 15 obstacles in India’s toughest obstacle race, the Devil’s Circuit.

When I had seen the race registration details in 2018, I gave myself some time to think about it before signing up. Basically what I did was give myself enough time to lose focus and let fear take over my mind, because I did not sign up for the race last year, giving myself the reason that I could never do this. This time around things were different because I signed up without really thinking about what was going to happen. All that I knew was that I had to train and train hard. I had to see if all that gym, diet, discipline and routine was of any good. I signed up knowing this would be the ultimate test of all that I had worked from over the last few years.

After having suffered an injury in October 2017, getting back to the gym in April 2018 had been an intimidating task. I was back to lifting 5 kgs and struggling to maintain form. But over the months I slowly built strength and felt stronger than I ever had before. Signing up for the Devils Circuit required just a few rearrangements in the training plan, with a shift in focus to upper body workouts. I started 2018 with the ability to do zero pull-ups, ended it with the ability to 4 (even 5) at a stretch.

I will be honest, I didn’t let myself think about the fact that I was taking part in India’s toughest obstacle race, because I am aware of what fear does to me. I have lived a large part of my life being anxious and scared of things. This time I wanted to do things differently. The only time I actually gave a thought to the obstacles was when I was a few metres away from them. This in itself is such great progress! Working out trained my mind too, something I realised as I stayed focused on performance.

I balanced myself 15 feet high on a bar

The first obstacle required us to climb 15 feet high and then climb back down. It looked easy from the spectator stand, but I understood the intensity of this obstacle when I was halfway up the actual obstacle!  Going up on top and throwing one leg over the pole to shift your side, and then climbing back down requires a change in your centre of gravity. When this happens 15 feet high up in the air with nothing but your core to keep you stable, and that you happen to be scared of heights… Well, you know how it goes. Panic almost got the better of me. Before I threw my leg over to the other side, I wanted to shut my eyes and cry. I looked down at the mattress 15 feet below me. I said to myself- look, if you fall, you fall 15 feet on to that. You won’t get hurt but it’s better to be in control than give up. By reflex, I tightened my core and threw my leg over the pole at the top. I climbed down, happy at my performance, and jumped the last 6 feet. I ran a couple of meters before turning back to look at the obstacle and cursed loudly in celebration.

After this initial shock and adrenaline rush, I crossed the next couple of hurdles only because I had to. I mean there was no other way about it.

I froze in fear

I would have said no to the fourth one had it not been for people asking me to give it one try. This required you to jump up, hold onto a bar, pull yourself up and roll over to land on top of the obstacle. All of this was happening 12 feet in the air. Not like I had some great core strength or balance or even upper body strength to balance, but I jumped up, had a little support given to me on the back, and before I knew it I was putting my leg on the bar and rolling over to land on top. I celebrated this moment by standing there and just enjoying the view, but I also think I went wrong in doing this because I ended up looking down, got scared of the height, and literally froze on top of the obstacle for a couple of minutes. The height was intimidating.  This time there was no soft mattress to cushion my fall. If I fell, I fell 12 feet on to the ground. It took me 5 minutes to climb down because I was frozen stiff with fear. Once down I ran without looking back.

I crossed monkey bars and hanging tires, only thinking about three things: core conditioning, the centre of gravity and the fact that I had to do the obstacles because there really was no other way out of it.

My favourite obstacles were the ones in water, mostly because I love water and hate heights, which basically meant it was love versus fear for me. I crawled through trenches and did muscle ups in water without much of a problem, plus my body felt more at ease doing these movements.

I conquered a childhood fear  

I am super proud of one particular obstacle- this required us to climb a height of 10 feet and jump into the water which was 4ft deep. As a child, I have been trained to be a swimmer, but one thing they couldn’t get me to do was jump into the pool (even if it meant from the deck of the pool.) While I was climbing onto the top of this particular obstacle, I told myself “ Nope, you’re not waiting here to see what the height is like. You jump because there’s no other way to go back.” I cleared this within seconds. I landed in water prepared for all of it to come rushing up at me. I smiled while doing a muscle up to get out of this pool, proud of myself for having let love win.

I plunged into a pool filled with ice

The last obstacle deserves an elaborate mention only because I feel this is the star of all the obstacles at the race. Sliding into a pool filled with ice does not require anything other than strong grit and determination. Once again I told myself I wouldn’t stop at the top of this obstacle. I climbed up the inclined slope (slipping and getting back up twice) and immediately sat on top of the slide. I was three seconds away from the toughest, coldest slide of my life. When my body hit that ice cold water, the world stopped. My body was in shock. I remember the first emotion being panic. But once again I am extremely proud of the fact that the voice in my head asked me to keep moving, to swim through, do a muscle up even when I couldn’t feel my body and get out. This too took me a few seconds to clear. Once out, I started jogging on the spot to get some life back into my cold, numb body. I know it sounds like a simple slide into ice, but the three seconds before you hit the ice are the toughest- you either regret what you are doing, or are proud of what you have done. I wanted to celebrate all that I had achieved. Yes, I had successfully completed India’s toughest obstacle race.

Here’s what  I learnt

Honestly, this wasn’t only about physical fitness. I knew rope climbing & muscle ups required an immense amount of upper body strength, and I had prepared myself for it. There is still a long way to go, but it felt good to know that I could manage, and if life calls for some really extreme situations, I know I am physically fit enough to get out of them.

More importantly, this was about testing your mental strength. It is so easy to let panic overwhelm you, it is so easy to freeze, it is so easy to give up. I ended this race knowing that giving up or saying “I can’t do this didn’t occur to me even once” The amount of self-awareness and confidence this gives you is not something that I can put into words. All that I really know is that if your mind says you can achieve something, your body makes sure you will do it. This goes for fitness and in life. I woke up the next morning a little sore, a little bruised, but a lot happy.

If you asked me whether I would do this again, I won’t even think twice before saying YES.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

An Army kid who wishes to travel the world one wellness vacation at a time, Protima Tiwary is a freelance content writer by day and Dumbbells and Drama, a fitness blogger by night. High on love and life, she is mildly obsessed about travelling and to-do lists and loves her long gym sessions like a fat kid loves cake.

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