Saturday, 10 September 2016

Mastering Zen. La Ultra - The High 333. 2016

“Whatever you do it will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it anyway.” Mahatma Gandhi

La Ultra – The High 333 takes place in the region of Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. The region forms part of the ancient Tibetan plateau and is the highest desert in the world. Ladakh was an independent state but when India achieved independence from British control; and with the looming threat of a Chinese invasion in 1947, Ladakh decided to become part of India. The region is predominantly Buddhist and is the summer home to the Dalhai Llama. The border with Pakistan and China is only some 60 kms away and the military presence is enormous. Tensions between the countries at the time of writing seem pretty relaxed with soldiers playing chess with each other from across the Border. But things are not all peaceful and in the adjacent region of the Kashmir, in Srinagar recent unrest has resulted in gunfire and many people killed. Indeed, Angmo, one of the local Ladahki people that was on my crew could not return to work as the region had become too dangerous. But during the time of the race, the Indian army moved in in full force and stability has been returned to the region, albeit with the imposition of force.

It is indeed an interesting region to visit.

This was my third attempt at the 333 km version of the race, having failed the two previous times. The first time I was in the lead by 2 hours at 317 kms but I had collapsed and gone into shock, unable to complete the distance. Last year I had actually finished the distance but I had done so outside the time limit of 72 hours, arriving 54 minutes late. Clearly the distance and time limits were within my capability but had frustratingly slipped through my fingers as the finish line approached. I had decided to give it one more attempt before putting it down.

The underlying difficulty of La Ultra – The High is not the distance in itself; but it is the altitude. Performing athletically at altitude exposes you to serious health risks, which you have to keep under control. High altitude sickness, particularly Pulmonary edemas are genuine risks that have to be mitigated with a lengthy acclimatisation period and a disciplined, serene approach when actually running above 5000M. Excessive work rates at these altitudes cause the body to break down quickly with often serious consequences. It is fair to say that it is a dangerous race. 
The word “La” in Ladakhi means “mountain pass” so the name of the race; “La Ultra” literally means “The Ultra of the mountain passes.” You have to cross 3 mountain passes, Kardung La at 5400M, Wari La at 5300M and Tanglang La at 5350M. The distance is 333 kms long and it all has to be done within 72 hours. In describing the race, it is like having the environmental hazard of extreme conditions similar to Badwater except that you change the heat for altitude but with the imposition of extreme athletics and time controls as found in the Spartathlon. Indeed, the nature of the race is a sort of hybrid between these two emblematic races played out at high altitude in the Himalayas. Brutal. Rajat Chauhan the race director has indeed created the ultimate master piece of ultra-running art.

In more recent years I have been searching for the pure zen state in my running; that state of complete balance and peace where nothing can perturb you, where thoughts enter and leave your mind at ease, where no thought is hung on to, but where no though is blocked either. It is an incredibly peaceful state devoid of any conflict. The state of mindfulness where only the present actually matters, where superfluous thoughts simply drift away. You become completely in tune with your body, completely synchronised to every micro detail and subtle change in your physiology. The beauty is that once the state is reached you can run in an optimised manner forever and ever and ever; the nirvana of the ultra-marathon runner. Many times I will go out to train and find the state almost instantly, arriving back home without any recollection of the run that I have just done, the state of disconnection with the clutter of life being virtually complete. Indeed, I have become very good at it but in huge races, the pressure of the event and the competition have meant that whilst actually racing, I have not entered the state at all. Indeed, it has been far from that where I have pushed my body conscientiously beyond its limits with sometimes disastrous results. It shorter, 100 km races I have had great results by pushing hard in the traditional athletic sense but this simply has not worked for a race like La Ultra – The high. 

Clearly a change in approach was needed if I were to succeed in La Ultra and the obvious answer was to search for the zen state whilst running this enormous challenge. The delicate balance required to finish a race of such enormity is like running on a knife edge. Just one tiny loss of equilibrium and you fall off the side only to crash and burn as I had found out on the previous occasions. Maintain perfect balance and I would finish. But that is easier said than done, as the race itself generates a lot of tension. If there is any tension, then the state can’t be achieved. Lining up on the start line for a 333 km race at over 5000M generates a certain anxiety and destroys any opportunity of entering in the zen state. There is a cruel irony in that if the zen state is consciously searched for it is impossible to find. You have to let the state find you and for that you have to be completely at peace with yourself, completely balanced and completely relaxed, yet highly focused and tuned in on the task in hand. Not an easy task when you are about to cross 333 kms of the Himalayas at over 5000M running like a demon.

At the start line of the race in the Nubra valley at 8 in the evening it had started to rain and the Nubra valley had flooded a short section of the road that we had to cross. It wasn’t cold though and the thin jacket I had was perfect for keeping the rain off. We had sandals and we swapped the running shoes for sandals just to cross the flooded section. There were only four of us in the 333 km category with the majority of the runners doing the 111 km. There were a number of runners from the Indian Navy and we joked about when the boat was coming to ferry us across. On the bus over to the start line I had sat next to a friendly Navy officer called Hari. Hari had just climbed the Kang Yatse at 6200M as part of the acclimatisation for La Ultra and I asked him what his job in the navy actually was. “Oh, I’m in charge of firing the missiles.” He said, quite humbly and unassumingly.

We all crossed the floods without incident and then started up the long hill to Lardung La at 5400M. I had started using a GPS watch to make sure that I didn’t run too fast but I found it rather distracting and really quite annoying. I like to listen to my body and run with the flow, do what feels right at the moment and constantly keeping myself in check with a GPS watch just doesn’t fit with me so I switched it off.

The relief of switching the watch off cannot be understated and very quickly I settled into a pace that just seemed right. Not too fast, not too slow. And as the night advanced and the rain became colder I slowly climbed to altitude and I felt an intense feeling of happiness and joy running in this place. The clouds would break every now and then exposing the billions of stars in the Himalayan night sky, contrasting sharply against the silhouette of the mountains, but would soon close in again and rain some more. The flow was perfect and I ran with effortless ease up the hill until I reached South Pullu at 48 kms and 4700M above sea level. I had intended to get here at 7:15 into the race but in the end had arrived at 6:45. I was ahead of schedule but it had felt right. It had felt like the river of time had just delivered me here and that was simply the way it was going to go. I had tuned in and that was that.

Upon reaching the Check point at North Pullu; Grant Maugn from Australia and Jovica Spajic, the Serbian Beast were just leaving. Grant commented that I had climbed that fast but I certainly had no intention of continuing at that pace. We all hugged and wished each other the best for the race. Grant and Jo continued and I continued to change into my warm clothes that I had left in a drop bag. Upon reaching North Pullu the race hits 4700M which is the height where the lack of oxygen starts to become an issue. I had already decided, before the race that from now on until the summit that I would drop the pace here and simply hike to the top. Grant and Jovica disappeared into the dust and I simply got on with the task in hand which was to get to the top amidst the light snow that was now falling. I put on my down jacket and covered that with a Goretex layer. Amidst the harsh, cold conditions at altitude and at night, I was warm as toast and was actually enjoying every second of the experience.

Dawn broke just as I was summiting Kardung La which was surrounded by a freezing mist that swirled around the mountain pass painting a picture of incredible, stunning beauty as the surrounding mountains came into view, and then disappeared again as the mist closed tightly in. The water on the ground had frozen and had formed a hazy white broken surface due to the snow that had fallen, but the wind had stirred up the surface and it was easy to step on.

From Kardung La until South Pullu the descent was a pleasant, delightful experience simply allowing the gradient of the hill to pull me down. As I descended the air warmed and even the sun came out which added to the pure joy of running in the Himalayas. Straight ahead, over the other side of the Hindus valley I could see the Stock range peeking through the clouds. The view reminded me of when I had climbed the Stock Kangri mountain just 2 years ago with José Luis Rubio and Ryoichi Sato. As I hit the 5000M mark I started to find even more energy, obviously due to the richer oxygen content in the air, it really is quite amazing just what 400M difference makes at that altitude and managed a happy, relaxed pace all the way to South Pullu where the crew car was waiting with a hot coffee and some food.

The crew was composed of Andu, Stansin, Angmo and my wife Elena. Stansin had crewed me last year, Angmo the year before and both wanted to see me actually get to the finish on time. Elena had also decided that she was going to kick me all the way to the finish if that was what was required. Whatever happened this year, this was the last attempt. Whatever happened I was to put it down at the end. This was the last attempt. But it was the perfect crew, completely balanced, in tune with each other and very experienced. They knew what they were doing.

From South Pullo to Leh, the road became busy with traffic but the run continued to be a pleasant experience, simply tuning into my bodies sensations and letting it do what it had to do. The crew were very attentive and I had all the food and drink I needed; the optimum combination for running well, but not too fast, or too slow. That sweet point in the middle where the flow is effortless, the mind is where it should be and the distance just melts away as time flows its inevitable course.

At about 10 kms before Leh, we came across one of the many stray dogs that live in the area. I instantly recognised it as we had seen it before in Leh. It had been operated on and still had part of his body shaved and a visible scar from the operation. The dog also recognised me and instantly hooked into my pace following me just a few metres behind. When I stopped to get some food from the crew we gave some to the dog as well. Needless to say that he didn’t leave us until we arrived at the Goba Hotel in Leh for a half hour planned rest.

But I couldn’t sleep, even though my mind was at peace I simply didn’t feel sleepy so after some 20 mins I got up and decided to get on with the job. But getting out of the room was going to be difficult. Somebody (Elena) had locked it from the outside! I shouted and Vikas soon came; releasing me from my temporary prison. Elena had decided I needed to sleep so what better way than to lock me in the room! A quick foot check and repair and we got once again on our way to Spituck. The road to Spituck isn’t a pleasant affair as it is a main road with a lot of traffic, but the journey transgressed quickly and within an hour and a half of leaving the Goba Hotel we were crossing the bridge just after Spituck village where the 111 kms distance finished. Rahul, one of the Indian runners in the 111 km category had just finished some 5 minutes before me. I had got to know Rahul on the 5 day Markha Valley treck, just 10 days before the race, which we had done as a means of fully acclimatising for the race.

The next stage, from Spituk to Serthi follows a sleepy back road parallel to the Indus river but on the opposite side of the river to the main road. The valley is the epitome of a high altitude desert with barren and rocky features defining the landscape. Every now and then the road takes you to irrigated pastures and you are hit with moist air and greenery of an intensity that is hard to describe. It is a pleasant road with little traffic and although the conditions were good I started to find this section much more difficult than the previous 111 kms. Initially I just put this down to accumulating fatigue, having been on the go now for more than 20 hours but as we approached Karu, and the beginning of the second night took hold, my work rate dropped considerably. The sleep monsters came out in force and conspired with all their might that I should stop. But I was not having any of it and battled on regardless. Alex caught me up and overtook me on the way to his own 333 kms. He was going strong and I couldn’t keep up.

Just after Karu, the crew and I all agreed that trying to forge on regardless was a waste of time and that a short sleep break was necessary to get things back on track. We laid the sleeping bag on the floor and I sort of fell into a restless sleep. I felt like I was sleeping but then I wasn’t, and then I was, and then I wasn’t again. Either way, when the crew woke me up all I felt like was vomiting. I got up and started walking with Stanzin along the dusty broken road to Serthi. He didn’t stop reciting Buddhist prayers all the time and although I had no idea what he was saying; the meaning was obvious. He was praying that I would break out of the low point and get back on with the race. Stanzin is truly a good person and although I am not religious myself, I have a deep respect for his. We walked all the way to Serthi and as I really hadn’t recovered at all by the broken sleep I had had, we checked into the check point and I laid down for another hours sleep at about 3 in the morning.

But this time I fell into the most wonderful rest I have hadin a long time and when I was woken just one hour later I felt incredibly refreshed. It is amazing what one hour of proper rest can do and with a coffee just to get me going we started power hiking up the hill to Wari La at 5300M. As the dawn broke I was already above 4000M and Alex had once again caught up with me. We power hiked together for some time sharing stories about how the sleep monsters had attacked us both the previous night but Alex’s long legs meant he had a natural pace that was faster than mine and I slowly saw him drift off into the horizon.

But this is where I realised that I had reached a superior plain in my own ultra-endurance. In races gone by I would have kept pace with him, I would have upped m pace and matched his, I wouldn’t have let him get away. It was well within my ability to match his pace, push just a little harder, but it was ever so slightly away from my own equilibrium point and for the first time in my life it really didn’t bother me. I was so tuned in to me, so tuned into what I had to do that he left me behind and More importantly I had let go of my ego and I carried on at my own happy pace. The remainder of the climb up to the top of Wari La at 5300M was a really pleasant affair, I really didn’t feel like I was pushing it but my crew, especially Stanzin insisted that I was making excellent speed, much faster than last year and for a perceived effort that was much lower. The stunning moment though was when I reached the summit with very little conscious recollection of the actual climb.

The summit of Wari La looks straight across the Nubra Valley to the Karakorum range with Pakistan to the left and China to the right. Cotton wool clouds swirled around the almost 8,000M mountains in front of me casting deep shadows across the glaciers. It is a truly beautiful, stunning place to be and it was the raw beauty of the place that actually shifted my focus back into the real world. So completely absorbed had I been in the climb that I hadn’t really stopped to think at all. In an effortless expression of the zen state I had climbed the mountain and felt completely refreshed as a result. The run down was just as wonderful. I walked briskly down until I hit about 5000M and then started running again. The difference in Oxygen at 5000M is very noticeable and almost instantly I hit the zen state again. Before I knew it I was back at base camp and then back in Serthi. I remember stopping to admire the magnificent herd of Yaks at about 5000M that were grazing on the sparse vegetation but apart from that I remember very little, once again zoning out as I hit the perfect state of mind for running insane distances in the Himalayas.

The section from Serthi to Karu though was far from the intense pleasure I had felt on Wari La. The road was under construction and most of it was just a dusty track. Hopelessly inadequate for the amount of traffic that was passing on the road. It was by far the most dangerous part of the whole race with cars, trucks, motorcycles and every kind of motor vehicle you can imagine and not a single one would take the slightest deviation to avoid a runner. The only course of action was to step completely off the road whenever a vehicle came along which of course destroyed any meditative state that could be attained whilst running. Even though I was able to maintain a good running pace, at some 230 kms into the race, the section took twice as long as I could have done due to the appalling conditions on the road. I came to the conclusion that one of the most beautiful places on the planet had to have one of the worst roads. That’s how balance works.

Once in Karu things got better again and then I picked up a happy pace once again all the way to Upshi where we all stopped for a planned break of about 2 hours. It was 8:30 PM. We set the alarm for 2 hours later but I woke after an hour and a half. I used the other half hour to repair some minor foot damage before the crew gave me the order to start running again.

Angmo joined me on the road as it was pitch black by now and as we entered the narrow gorge leading to Rumptse the darkness engulfed everything around me, shrinking the world to just the few meters illuminated by my head torch. But the darkness wasn’t at all foreboding and the cold air coming off the river was invigorating. When running with someone, I find it impossible to enter the zen state, their presence distracts me and I can’t hit that optimum state where time and distance just melt away. When things aren’t working out I often prefer someone there but when I am in total equilibrium I prefer running on my own. I can hit the state quickly and the kilometres become effortless.

So Angmo re-joined the crew vehicle and along with Elena fell soundly asleep on the back seat of the car. Stanzin and Andu stayed awake all night and kept me fuelled up, working diligently to keep the machine running. Alex’s flashing light was only about a kilometre ahead and would appear in view every time the bends in the road coincided. And I just kept on, and on. Ticky tacky like a little baby pig trotting happily through a field until we came to Rumptsi, the final camp before the last big mountain pass Tanglang La at 5350M. Elena had now woken and had been busy on the calculator and gave me some wonderful news. According to her calculations I could have a full half an hour of sleep and still maintain schedule before we headed up the pass. It is impossible to understate the feeling of joy at being able to lie down and sleep for an extra half hour that hadn’t been previously planned. A rare luxury in the rarefied barren high altitude desert that is Ladakh.

The crew woke me exactly half an hour later and poured a hot coffee down my neck. Within 5 minutes I was on my feet and heading up the pass. It was dawn and the locals were just starting to go about their business. I crossed and old Ladakhi looking lady with a young child, maybe 7 or 8 years old walking on the road. When I overtook them they sped up and both sped up and matched my pace with massive beaming smiles on their faces. The old lady said something that I didn’t understand but I replied “School?” to the grand daughter and the little girl said “Yes!” “School”. The Grandmother was taking her grandchild to school and they actually ran with me on the road for an absolutely delightful 10 minutes until they arrived at the government run school for Tibetan refugees. A stark reminder of the genocide and subsequent displacement of the Tibetan population just some 100 kms over the border. The Ladakhis and Tibetans have always seen themselves as related and now the province of Ladakh is the home to many Tibetans, not able to return to their homeland.

After they left me, the climb up Tanglang La was just as enjoyable as Wari La. Once again I have very little recollection of any details; such was the perfect state of my own mind during the climb. I was neither thinking, nor not thinking. The climb belonged to an ethereal flow and it was that flow that was carrying me along. Even stopping for food from the crew wouldn’t break the trance although I can remember eating boiled eggs and potatoes with olive oil somewhere along the way that Elena had lovingly prepared. I also remember Jovica stopping and hugging me on the way back after smashing the race in 60 hours together with Grant.

At the top we stopped for a photo and then looked at the clock. It was 64 hours exactly into the race. With a full 8 hours to finish the remaining 25 or so kilometres all I had to do was roll down the hill. I had covered over 300 kms and strangely I felt just great, but when I tried to run downhill, my legs simply behaved like blocks of concrete and refused to run. So I walked to the finish, that my legs did allow. Everyone from the crew took it in turns to come out and walk with me and although their presence meant that my meditative state was lost I valued their company for all the diamonds in the world. They had all helped me get here and these were the final moments that we should all enjoy together. It was an especially special moment out there with my wife Elena. She had been on the crew and had paced me a lot of these last kilometres. It was important for me that we finished this together. Stazin had been the rock he was last year but with a much better result. Ango too, she was simply wonderful. Andu, the driver was awesome. The perfect team and not a single cross word was spoken. 

We all embraced in a long line of people as we crossed together in just under 69 hours where a bottle of Godfather beer was thrust into my hands and promptly got poured down my neck. Alex came in an hour and a half later, ecstatic at his achievement. He had really toughed it out in the end but had made it. 


La Ultra - The High 333 in under 72 hours is such a massive challenge that it requires not only a team of people to support you all the way but it also requires you to give the very best of yourself on all levels. You have to remain incredibly strong, both physically and mentally but more importantly you have to let go. Let go of your ego, let go of your anxiety, I mean really, really let go and learn to flow with the tide of time and tune into your most inner of beings. You need to let all the clutter in your life fall away and set about the only task that matters at the time. Running an insane distance in the Himalaysa. The zen state is real and once you learn how to achieve it you can do amazing things.

The Gandhi quote at the beginning of the article “Whatever you do will be insignificant. But it is important you do it anyway.” Really sums it all up. Gandhi I believe; meant that you should remain humble in everything that you do. I am neither a better or worse person for doing this. I have learned that letting go is not easy but when I do let go I am capable of being the best I can be. What I did was insignificant, but it was important for me that I did it.

I bowed before these mountains and they let me pass.


  1. MARAVILLOSO!!! Mil felicidades por este logro. Abrazo!

  2. Mientras leía lo que escribiste, de alguna manera por segundos me transporte en mi imaginación, paré la lectura y cerré los ojos por unos minutos... No sabes el gusto que me da que hayas completado esta "misión" que tenias pendiente. Hace unas horas que hablamos por teléfono escuche a un Mark como siempre lleno de alegría, pero ahora con algo más...
    ¡Un abrazo!

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