Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Worlds Cruellest Ultra marathon. La Ultra The High 333

The worlds cruellest Ultramarathon. (A story about an epic fail)

La Ultra, The High 333 is billed as the cruellest ultramarathon in the world. In a hotly disputed arena for the world’s toughest race, La Ultra simply states that it is the cruellest and subtly avoids entering into the pointless argument over which is the toughest and in spite of not giving the “cruellest” title much significance I was to find out the full meaning of cruel.

It all started on a mountain top in Sierra Nevada range in the south of Spain, just under a year ago, with a face book conversation with Rajat Chaugan from India.

Rajat: “Are you coming to la Ultra next year?”
Me: “No, I am not really interested in repeating 222 kms in the Himalaya, I have done that.”
Rajat: “What if I made it 333 kms then?”
Me: “Sure!!”

And so it was, Rajat had managed to entice me into another Himalayan ultra-running adventure in spite of having decided to move on and do other things. In fact, I had already agreed with my close friend José Luis Rubio that we would climb a Himalayan Peak during the summer. However, the 2 objectives were completely compatible and we decided to get to the Ladahk valley early, climb the Stock Kangri mountain at 6153M, rest for a couple of weeks and then run La ultra, the High 333, with José crewing for me. Our respective families would meet up with us when we come down from the mountain and then we would all be involved in the race. What could possibly go wrong with such a perfect plan?

The Stock Kangri climb was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had. We had decided to go with a small commercial expedition, simply because it meant that we didn’t have to deal with the logistics. It was a good call as all we had to do was climb and hike as the rest was taken care of for us. A well known Japanese ultra runner; Ryoichi Sato joined us, and although there were a few translation problems, the group quickly gelled into a buzzing happy unit. Indeed; the guides Tenzing and Padul were quite taken aback by how fast we hiked and climbed, but their pride always surpassed us and especially the younger lad; Padul always managed to stay in front. Many years ago I would never have considered a commercial expedition but these days, as well as being considerably older I also consider that I am helping out the local economy. They need it, Ladahk is a poor region. The guides were extremely competent and friendly and on the 4th day, after having left the village of Stock and after having progressively climbed higher and higher, allowing our bodies to acclimatise we saw ourselves on the Summit at about 7am. We had left at 12:30 in the middle of the night.

La Ultra. The High.

After coming down from the mountain we all met up with our families and had an extended 2 week rest before the race started; this was all too short but it was great to meet up with old friends from the 2012 edition and make a few new ones. The day before the race started, we had to go to the Nubra Valley and get ready for the race.

The race started at 10:00 pm and followed the Nubra Valley until the fork in the road indicated that we turn right and head up to the Kardung La pass at 5400M. The climb was steady but relentless and I spent some time running with a few of the others, John Sharp, Jup Brown and Jason Dunne, enjoying the conversation whilst it lasted but both John and Jason stormed ahead which left me for the most part running on my own, as Jup was running a little slower. 

As I got higher the temperatures dropped pretty fiercely. At North Pullu I had a down jacket waiting for me and I eagerly grabbed it whilst Molly Sherridon made me a hot drink. We were later told that the temperatures were between – 5 and – 8ºC ….. and I can believe it. I remember a moment when Alex exclaimed that he was developing frost bite and had to get into a support vehicle to thaw his hands out. Personally I didn’t have problems with the cold as I had good clothes.

As the dawn broke I found myself running on and off with Sato. He seemed to be having a bit of a tough time, as was I, especially as we were both over 5000M at this point and the hypoxic conditions meant that any physical effort took a lot out of us. We both slowed to a power walk and soon Sato left me behind. I had learned long ago that fighting the altitude was useless and I opted for a pace that didn’t leave me exhausted. There was still a long way to go.

When I got to the summit Sato was in a car resting and didn’t look too well. I greeted him, ate some food and then said my farewells; Satu was soon to be retired from the race on medical grounds. A great runner but the altitude is cruel.

As I descended I soon became much more alive and upon hitting the 4800M mark I found myself running again. At this point Kim Rasmussen from Denmark caught me. We ran together for a short while but he was going stronger than I and I let him go. There was still over 250 kms of race to go and anything could happen.

At the 90 km point, a curve in the road with a giant painted frog, called Kardung Frog, my crew; Jose Luis, Javi my son and a local girl called Angmo, a martial artist expert was waiting for me. From this point onwards we were allowed a personal crew and all the runners in the 333 km race had opted for a personal crew. From this moment on I would always be accompanied; I would never be alone. Coupled to the crew where Elena, my wife and Bea, Jose’s girlfriend who seemed to be having a great time filming the whole event.

Upon reaching the Goba Hotel checkpoint in Leh I had a short rest and then ran comfortably down to the village of Spituk. Here the run ran alongside the main road and the dust thrown up by the trucks was really unpleasant. I pulled the buff over my mouth and nose and just pushed on, hoping to get onto the back road as soon as possible.

Once off the main road, we entered into a quiet little back road of varying quality. At the start it was quite good but as the night approached the quality of the road deteriorated considerably to a point where the support car had quite a hard time in getting across. We crossed a point where John Sharp had staked out and soon after we had all decided that it was time for a few hours’ sleep. You reach a point in the middle of the night where you are not really making much progress and this is the best time to sleep. A couple of hours later we all felt much more refreshed and it was time to hit the road again.

We soon got to Serthi and then the climb to Wari La at 5300M. It was daytime now so the cold temperatures that we had experienced on Kardung La would now be avoided. The climb was pleasant, if long and slow but we soon found ourselves on the summit where we stopped for a little while to eat. 

Jup was here and we chatted for a while before descending. It was here that I felt just great and I literally ran happily and joyously down the mountain as if I didn’t have a care in the world in spite of Jose’s warnings to take it easy.

We soon reached the valley floor and then onto Karhu. At this point the secondary road joins with the main highway which goes on for about 15 kms before a turn right takes you up a narrow valley and then on to Tanglang La. At about 5 kms before reaching Upshi, with some 230 kms in the legs I felt exhausted and Jose promptly called it a day and we all slept; perhaps a little longer than we should have but all I can say is how wonderfully refreshed I felt. On to Upshi we went and then into a narrow gorge and on to Rumpsi at the base of the climb.

The climb up to Tanglang la was pure delight and the same sensation that had invaded my body whilst climbing Wari La invaded me again. I soon caught up with Kim who was having difficulties so I shook his hand, hugged him and wished him all the best, it was a race after all. The atmosphere was electric, with everyone congratulating me and wishing me well. We soon made the summit and with just 24 kms to go I settled into a gentle but happy trot using the gradient of the hill to aid my advance. At this point I thought it was all in the bag. How could I possible thing otherwise, I felt great, I had a 2 hour lead over Kim, what could possible go wrong?

The first 5 kms coming off the top were enjoyable in spite of some heavy trucks throwing up a lot of dust from the track that they were slowly converting into a road, but then the track crossed an open section of mountain with a strong, cold cross wind.

Upon reaching the support car I climbed in, just to get warm again but then things got very quickly and alarmingly out of control. I started shivering and then went into deep, uncontrolled convulsions. Jose quickly took control and covered me with every available sleeping bag and item of clothing but by then my body had gone into shock and I was all but paralysed, except for the uncontrolled convulsions. The medic Razwin arrived and took over, he put even more layers on and measured my temperature; 37.5ºC, half a degree above but I still couldn’t stop convulsing. After a couple of hours laid down during which time Kim had passed me it was obvious that I wouldn’t recover in time to finish. Jose made the actual call to quit. I didn’t argue with him, I knew I was beat. At 318 kms, at 5000M, with only 15 kms to the end I was well and truly beat, I couldn’t even stand up. Out of it. There was nothing I could do.

So Kim Rasmussen became the first and only person in the world to cover 333 kms in the Himalaya in hypoxic adverse conditions in a single stage foot race. He did it in 71 and a half hours. My sincere congratulations go out to him as he is a genuinely lovely person and I am happy to be beaten by him. He deserved to win.

And finally a race account could not be finished without a special mention to the crew and to my family. They had kept me going during some very tough times, and Jose, especially had made sure that every detail had been taken care of in order to keep me going. In the end I failed, I came so close yet the finish line may as well have been another 333 kms away for I was simply unable to make those last few kms.

So, I now have unfinished business out there. In many ways that is a good thing; it gives me something to work on, something to focus on, something to spend the next year dreaming about for I now just have to go back. And finish.



  1. Mark, Inyectas Veneno con el relato. Algún día!, algún día la correré!!!. saludos!