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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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A Woman on a mission

Deepthi Velkur speaks to the Ultra-Marathoner, Gurmeet Soni Bhalla about how running has given a new dimension to her personality.

“If you don’t challenge yourself, you will never realize what you can become” – unknown.

This is such an apt quote to start this interview story with when talking about Gurmeet Soni Bhalla. A paediatrician, allergist, runner, certified scuba diver, traveller, mother to two teenagers ….and the list goes on. Gurmeet challenges herself every single day to be a newer version of herself.

She has been running since 2009 and has so far completed 20 FMs and 7 Ultras of varying distances from 50K to 90K. Her running dreams include completing marathons across all 7 continents (6 done, 1 to go!), running at the North Pole in 2020 and running injury-free for years to come.

In this interview, she shares her perspective on how running has added a new dimension to her personality – her travels, the friends she’s made from all over the world, the charity runs she does and of course inspiring others to take to running.

FM: You take your fitness very seriously, which is a good thing. How did you get into running?

Gurmeet: Yes, I take it very seriously for a very simple reason – I have a high-risk genetic pool. Hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease are not uncommon in my family so staying healthy is a top priority for me. I try to keep my fitness regimen fairly fluid and interesting by trying new things – aerobics, Pilates, normal gym workouts.

Running happened to me out of nowhere to be honest – in 2009 someone asked me to participate in the SunFeast 10K race, I trained for it and ran reasonably well to find myself on the podium. Ever since then, I’ve been running!

FM: When did you graduate into long distance running?

Gurmeet: The transition from a recreational runner – 10K – 21K – 42K happened over a period of 9 months. After I started running in 2009, I got very interested in the sport and that along with a lot of hard work really propelled me to move into long distance running fairly quickly later that year.

FM: You juggle so many roles so successfully. How do you do it? 

Gurmeet: I rely on 3 key tools to keep me sane: (a) Effective time management, (b) Good support system at home and (c) The love and understanding of my family.

Long-distance running is very time consuming so I have to be good with time management. I begin my day early around 5 AM, finish my training run, get home to pack kids off to school, my husband and I walk our dogs and then I head to work.

For support, I invest in good house help so that I can be free to pursue my passion guilt-free and things still work at home.

Finally, the love and understanding of my family are paramount – without this, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.

FM: A lot of runners swear by a running coach. Do you share that opinion and what are the benefits of having a coach?

Gurmeet: Yes, I definitely share that opinion. I think having a seasoned coach to mentor and guide you is advantageous and gives you an edge. It really hones your running skills and prevents you from making a lot of mistakes.

Back in 2009 when I started running, there were hardly any coaches. There was a running group called RFL (Runners For Life) who would organise weekly runs that helped runners meet, run and exchange notes. Most runners back then trained themselves either through the internet or running manuals. I remember training with my first coach in 2015. Today, there are several coaches out there to help new runners.

FM: Over nearly a decade of running, you have participated in various events across India and Internationally? Share your experience of running in these countries vs running in India?

Gurmeet: International races are very professionally organised – from running routes to hydration, aid stations to safety and comfort of runners, every aspect of the race is planned carefully. To top that, the crowd support you see abroad is fabulous, I mean the whole neighbourhood steps out to cheer the participants. At the Comrades event in South Africa for instance, you can see a wall of supporters that run for miles, cheering, offering food and beverages. This really helps when you trying to run 90K!

In India on the other hand, we are still learning. A lot of organizers are more concerned about making a quick buck that basic requirements such as properly constituted hydration fluids, decent toilets are often overlooked. Crowd support in India leaves much to be desired – I have seen hostile crowds on race routes who are enraged at being stopped to let runners pass by. Despite these pertinent issues we have in India some races such as the Mumbai Marathon or the TCS 10K are beautifully organised and match the standards of a world-class event.

FM: What was your experience of running a marathon in a land where it all began – The Athens Marathon?

Gurmeet: Athens Marathon is very special to me as this was my first full marathon in 2010. I wanted to run the historic route run by Pheidippides. That year was also the 2500 centenary of Athens Marathon. We were driven to the Marathon village where the Olympic flame gets lit before the start of the race with traditional pomp and show. The course was undulating hills and not very easy. It had superb crowd support and finishing in the ancient Olympic stadia was overwhelming for it felt great to experience the original route from marathon to Athens just like Pheidippides.

FM: You have your eyes set on completing a marathon in all 7 continents? How far have you come in achieving this goal you’ve set for yourself?

Gurmeet: It all started with my annual family vacations and marathons combined together. A few years later I realised that I had run on 5 continents and so the quest to finish the other 2 began. Antarctica was going to be the hardest since the race is a curated one and held once a year. It is usually booked a couple of years in advance. I was lucky to get an opening this year as someone dropped out. Now my focus is South America -the last one. I should be able to finish it in 2019.

FM: What are the benefits of having a partner who shares the same interest as you with respect to running?

Gurmeet: The benefits are immense! I often tell runners to get their partners into the same passion as yours. One of the reasons I have been able to run all over the world is because my husband had a similar interest in running. Also, it’s easier to train together as the partner understands the challenges of a marathon and how much training is needed. Half your battle is won when there is support on the home front.

FM: You do a lot of charity/fundraising through various runs for your foundation “Shishu Care Foundation”?  Have you been successful at it?

Gurmeet: I wish I could do more charity runs and raise money for organisations that need funds. Being a paediatrician, children’s causes are close to my heart. So far, we have been able to raise the funds that we set out for. However, it’s not easy to get people to loosen their purse strings on a regular basis.

FM: What does it take for someone to run an Ultra-marathon? Would you recommend that it is a must do for its sheer experience?

Gurmeet: Ultramarathons are a mind game. Physical training is just one part of it. One has to strategize and believe in one’s capabilities. I was not an ultrarunner but the lure of comrades marathon got me into training for a 90K race. I ran a couple of 50K and 60K races to train both physically and mentally for this big race. Training was hard but the day of the race was a cruise. I knew I could do it and I loved every minute on the course. Ultras may not be everyone’s drug, but, it was a natural progression for someone like me who likes to push boundaries and do more.

FM: Your most recent event was the 2018 Antarctic Ice Marathon? What made you register for the most challenging race of all time?

Gurmeet:Antarctica was always on my radar but it is not easy to run this marathon due to various logistics like it is a small race of 55 people and is held once a year. One has to really plan a couple of years in advance to find a spot in the race. I was certain I would run it one day and I am elated and grateful I could do it beside my husband.

FM: What was the experience like to run in the most extreme weather conditions and still managed to secure a third place?

Gurmeet: Antarctic Ice Marathon was an adventure of sorts! Even after running more than 25 marathons, I was nervous. This was completely out of my comfort zone. I worried about a lot of things from extreme temperatures to new gear, new shoes, new terrain, basically all commandants of racing were to be broken. I had to bank on my running capabilities alone. My husband and I shopped for a lot of polar clothing that we would wear on the race day.

After a long circuitous route of flying to Punta Arenas, the southernmost town of Chile, we were whisked away from civilization a day ahead since the weather and winds were getting turbulent for flying. When the plane touched down on the blue ice runway, icy cold winds welcomed us. We were not ready for such frigid temperatures. 24 hours daylight kept our spirits high but not for long as the weather started to turn bad with low visibility and snowfall which meant no firm ground to run on.

The group did a trial run with layers of new gear and realised that we were overdressed and hence were profusely sweating. This meant soon the sweat would freeze in sub-zero temperatures and we ran the risk of hypothermia and frostbite. After a couple of trials and errors with the gear, final race gear was decided. The challenges of the marathon were formidable because of underfoot conditions and snow and ice throughout the trek along with wind chill temperature of -20C.

There were participants from 14 countries and for a few Brave hearts, this was their first marathon. The race route was changed from 21K to 4 loops of 10.5K to keep things contained. We faced the harshest weather conditions in the last 9 years. The First loop was slow and steady on unknown terrain, the second loop was enjoyable as the whiteout landscape looked ethereal like running on clouds, third was tough as my body temperature started to drop, fourth was done half walking as the track had become uneven by now. My training for ultras helped me stay on track, I didn’t think about podium till about the last loop when I realised there were 3 women ahead of me. Despite the extreme cold I pushed and wasted no time at the aid stations. When I crossed the finish line with the tricolour in my hand I was told, I stood third. It was a very proud moment to be able to put my country on the podium.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Deepthi Velkur is a former sprinter who is trying her hand at various sports today. A tennis fanatic, who believes that sleep should never be compromised.

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The Spunky Ultramarathoner

Protima Tiwary catches up with the feisty Taru Mateti, an ultramarathoner who is a powerhouse of energy even after 50. 

Feisty and well over 50, this powerhouse performer is not only playing the role of a doting mother and loving wife, but also that of a superwoman who competes in ultramarathons under record timing! We caught up with Taru Mateti for a quick chat to see what keeps her going.

What inspired you to take up running?

I have been actively involved in sports all my life. I only took up running at the age of 49 as a form of recreation. I discovered that running gave me joy and a sense of liberation. I started enjoying running enough to make it my passion, so much so that I decided to pursue it wholeheartedly by leaving my job and concentrating on training for marathons. Point being, it was a hobby that turned into a lifestyle.

How did your family react when you told them about your decision to run?

They have been super supportive! Training for an ultra-marathon is more long-term than training for a full marathon. Hence, a bigger buy-in is needed from the family. It is months of consistent and long training, with a string of no weekend outings because of long runs. Fortunately, my husband runs too and my family understands my passion. If we have family commitments, we plan our running days in a way we can set out time for both family and fitness. Deciding to run an ultra is a big commitment and one must consider all factors, the family being the most important one of them. I am grateful for their support.

You’re not just a marathoner, you’re an ultramarathoner! Could you share the greatest moments of your running career? 

The greatest moments have been at my best and worst races. Let me explain.

I had run the Bengaluru full marathon in 2014 undertrained, tired, and with some niggles. I obviously did not get a good timing and realised how important it was to get a mentor who would guide me with my training, nutrition and even recovery.  This race taught me how to be grateful.

I also remember the 100K Pune Ultramarathon where I ran through the day! I was the only woman running the event that day in the 75K/100K/100 miles combined. I finished fifth amongst all men. The runners high was one of a kind.

Another time I paced a friend in Pune Women’s Half Marathon and she got her PB. Her joy at winning reminded me of how humility and gratefulness are 2 of the most important qualities that will see you through life.

Then there was the time I paced my mentor for 61k in his 161k run, and we kept talking throughout the distance. I learnt so much in that knowledge exchange!

Then there was the Fitathon in April 2017 when I was struggling, and my husband, who had been trailing in all runs till then, was going strong. He could have gone ahead, but he ran with me until the end. This race reminded me of the power of love.

How do you deal with bad races?

It is important to go through some bad races too because you have so much to learn from them! I’ve learnt that one needs to set practical targets, and a sustainable training plan and strategy needs to be thought of to support that target. Bad races have also shown me how important it is to eat well, sleep, and go through the regular body and blood tests.

As an ultramarathoner over 50, your training and mental conditioning would be very different, isn’t it?

Definitely! And I am not just over 50 now, I started all of this only when I was 49! My lifestyle before I took up running has made me injury prone, so my recovery time is longer. I also put in fewer runs and miles than others, and keep a check on my speed. I plan my run, yoga, strength training, and rest days carefully, along with my diet and supplements.

I have stopped wearing high heels (I wore them for more than 30 years!) I have altered my eating habits and am conscious of my posture. I am finally working on my spine, hamstrings, feet, glutes, upper body and core like never before!

Could you shed more light on the challenges and advantages that being on the other side of 50 gets along?

It is great to be on the other side of 50 and running as well as working out. All the wealth in the world can’t buy us good health the way working out for fitness can. Growing old is inevitable, but we have just one body and we have to keep it in high maintenance mode.

With age, women do have to deal with a lot of changes, the main being menopause. Learning to adapt to this new way of life is a part of this lifestyle, and being fit does make things better.

Yes, there are challenges too, so it is important to know your limitations. But that doesn’t mean you should stop yourself from learning new things!

If I had to point out one disadvantage, it would be the fact that being on this side of the age scale doesn’t have too many competitors, and anything that a woman this age does is appreciated a lot. Basically, this attitude encourages mediocrity.

They say consistency is key – but how do you build this consistent pace that they talk about?

Running isn’t only about running; you need to take into consideration the consistency in terms of training, diet and recovery. I do yoga/pilates at least three times a week and strength training twice a week. Yoga is important because it helps improve mobility and breathing, while sleep, nutrition and medical health continue to be important. In order to run well, one must train to run well!

Marathons don’t always go perfectly. Any moment you’d like to share with us where you thought things were going downhill? How did you overcome that?

I do not think about how I am running during my run. I give it my best, learn and move on. But I did have a bad phase due to an injury when I couldn’t do any workouts for a month and had to visit the physiotherapist daily. It frustrated me, I remember crying! But I overcame all of it by focussing on doing the upper body exercises that I was allowed to do, and spending time at work and doing a lot of yoga.

An ultra-marathon is a combination of mental and physical strength- any tips you’d like to share with us on how to stay strong during the race? 

It all boils down to your mental health, isn’t it? Train hard, but also practice self-love. One has to be comfortable in spending time with oneself and nature because most of the runners will find themselves running those long distances alone.

I usually find myself having a conversation with well, myself. Or sometimes I sing! I also count steps, especially when there’s a fuelling stop coming up. I also draft emails, Facebook posts and workout plans in my head while running!

Remember why you started- this will see you through the race, all the way to the finish line. It is difficult to stay motivated, but visualise the goal, why you want it so bad, and be grateful for the effort you’ve put into your training.

As a runner, what is the one quality that defines you?

I will not pick one only,  and would like to say that I am dedicated, self-motivated and hardworking!

Any tips you’d like to leave us with?

It is never too late to start! I started at 49, did my first headstand and L-sits at 53, am learning pilates at the age of 54 and am now trying to master the art of a full split!

Inspirational, to say the least. How many times have we heard “we’re too old for this”? It was a pleasure interviewing Taru Mateti who at an age that people think “is too late” is charging ahead and rightfully earning the title of Marathon Podium Queen with each passing year.

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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