Taking the High Road -by Chris Ord
Posted on November 27 2017
In the space of ten hours, ultra runner Lisa Tamati has gone from being a crumpled unconscious heap on the floor of a remote valley in the Ladakhi Ranges, India, suffering heat stroke, exhaustion and sleep deprivation, to being a broken teary mess suffocated by a blanket of snow, sub zero temperatures and pitch darkness, 5300 metres up the side of a very angry mountain.
Smothering Lisa further into the muddy morass at her feet is a sense of absolute hopelessness. For the past two hours she has battled severe panic attacks, fighting to get the little oxygen there is at this altitude into her asthma-ravaged lungs.
The moment has come where all her dreams, all her energy and intense focus for the past nine months, are being sucked down the black hole of Quitsville.
It’s not a place Lisa has often been in her fourteen years of competing in ultra marathons and I can sense the anger swirling through her exhaustion. Somewhere in her pit of despair she’s registering that the 180 kilometres already trodden, three weeks of acclimatization and nine months of intense preparation is too much investment to toss it all in now. But how do you move on when every tank – mental and physical – is empty?
“I can’t do it,” she sobs as we huddle around, trying to find the right words to bring her back from the darkest moment so far in her attempt to conquer ‘La Ultra – The High’, a 222km footrace weaving its way through the Himalayas.
Her head drops and she whispers, almost to herself: “I can’t f@#king do it.”
An invitation-only odyssey, La Ultra is the highest ultra marathon in the world. Its starting line is pitched at 4000 metres, the course then rising twice to 5400 metres. It never drops below 3600 metres.
As it’s playing out, the race will surely go down as the toughest ultra marathon on the planet, a hotly contested title given your Badwaters, Arrowheads and Leadvilles – the current crop of ultras touting the label. But La Ultra has a few strings to its bow, like the fact that this race needs to be conquered while sucking on air containing an average of 40% less oxygen than you’ll find at sea level. At the top of the two passes, runners’ lungs have to contend with only 33% partial oxygen as compared to sea level.
Then there’s the other airborne scourge that plagues large sections of the course, which follows a road that was once part of the famed ancient Silk Route. Where once there were convoys of camels tempting altitude sickness to ply their owners’ trade, today there are convoys of fume-spewing army and cargo trucks, their diesel plumes asphyxiating runners’ willpower as surely as their lungs.
La Ultra is also probably the only race in the world with an acclimatisation period of ten days, competitors forced to hang around the dusty, polluted but topographically stunning city of Leh, a Buddhist and stoned-hippie hangout sitting 3500 metres above sea level in the Kashmir-Jammu region. Running for long periods ultra athletes can do; sitting around for days on end they cannot, sheer boredom ramping up anxiety levels as minds stew: will the finish, can they finish?
Finally there are the sheer extremes of weather at altitude – from baking heat to blizzards, sometimes within a matter of minutes.
While the Himalayan views are undoubtedly grandiose, the course will never be described in the guide books as an ideal place for an extended jog. As one local put it: “These are big mountains, they do not want people running through them.”
This is La Ultra’s second outing. Last year, only three brave footsoldiers tackled the challenge. Two ended up in hospital. The only one to stay the course – Brit Mark Cockbain –finished in 48 hours (against the 60-hour cut off), but not without enduring muscle-melting exhaustion, hallucinations and the onset of altitude sickness. A year later he still has dizzy spells that he blames on the trauma of La Ultra, for that’s what this race is: up to 60 straight hours of trauma.
And so the legend of La Ultra was born. Tales trickling back through the ultra running community worldwide were enough to scare off most who browsed the website or watched Mark’s You Tube interviews in an effort to fire their own Himalayan running dreams. But ultra runners are a tough, if slightly off kilter, bunch and The High’s near-impossible reputation was enough to lure an elite bunch of competitors who obviously believed that they haven’t yet paid enough in the currency of pain for their sins.
Even so, to get a slot on the start line, runners had to prove they had more than just a few one hundred milers under their belt. More people were rejected than accepted to race.
“Runners couldn’t just have completed some difficult ultras, they had to have completed many, and the toughest ones, to even be considered,” says Race Director Rajat Chauhan, a man who has completed numerous ultras and more than 100 marathons.
Rajat’s is an impressive CV, but he’ll freely admit that it pales in comparison to the seven competitors he green-lighted for La Ultra 2011.
The fact that we’re even here is thanks to American Molly Sheridan, an ultra event director herself and a veteran of over 20 ultramarathons including the Marathon Des Sables and the Badwater Ultramarathon. She was one of the two hospitalised in the inaugural La Ultra and has unfinished business here in the Himalayas. Molly hounded Rajat – who had decided that La Ultra was too dangerous and should never be run again – until he agreed to resurrect the event.
Australian Sam Gash makes the grade by being the only female and youngest person ever to finish all four of Racing The Planet’s Four Deserts event, some of the toughest multiday adventure runs in the world taking in the Gobi, Sahara, Antartic and Atacama.
Jason Rita, an Aussie expat living in the States, has concentrated his achievements on 100 milers in North America including the notorious Leadville 100, but has also experienced races in the Himalayas, including a third in the Everest Challenge Marathon. As the only runner without a sponsor-splashed website or blog, he is the unknown quantity.
Another ex-pat Aussie, Dubai based professor, Catherine Todd, has a reputation as an adventure racer, but has run enough tough100-milers to get the nod.
It makes sense that the world record holder for 24-hour running, Brit Sharon Gayter, is here having last year run 226km in a day. She’s also conquered the Badwaters of the world, and run the length of Britain besides (establishing the official John O’Groats to Lands End run route).
While most of the others sign up knowing it’ll be a long shot just to finish, Sharon is regarded as a potential winner.
Her only real competition for line honours is Ray ‘The Man’ Sanchez. A three-time Golden Gloves boxer (putting him, at least as an amateur, in the same league as the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman and Ali), Ray is also the only ultra runner to ever have completed the BAD World Cup: running the dreaded Brazil, Arrowhead and Death Valley (Badwater) ultra triple header, a feat most experts regard as impossible given they are all held within a six month period.
Finally, jumping forward in time for a singular moment, back on the mountain we have Kiwi, Lisa Tamati.
“I can’t do it, (sob) finish, (sob) I just can’t.”
It has been ten minutes and Lisa is frozen on the spot. Headlights from the support van catch a shower of snowflakes and highlight clouds of condensed, panicked breath puffing from crew members. We scurry around in the ice storm desperately trying to figure out what will break the spell of looming failure.
It’s not as though Lisa hasn’t been to painful places before. The first time she hit a threshold of endurance wasn’t competing against other runners, it was competing against her boyfriend of the time as they tackled a 250km, unsupported, illegal expedition across the Libyan Desert, in Egypt, in 1997. Then, as now, Lisa was at her limit. After five years of adventuring across the globe together, her boyfriend decided this was the moment to end it, smack in the middle of a nowhere desert. He up and left her and two other team members with next to no water and little hope of making the crossing alive.
That moment accidentally tipped Lisa into her ultra running career. She fell out of love with a man and in love with long distance running – specifically in hot, dry, desert-like places. It suited her asthma.
Running distances of up to 2250km (the length of New Zealand) also took her back to that Libyan moment; each time she conquered another ultra – in the Sahara, the Gobi, Morocco, Niger, the Arabian Desert, Death Valley and now here in the India Himalaya – she was proving her ex-partner wrong. She was able to hold out. She was able to push through the pain, the deprivation; she could endure.
There is a medical crew monitoring runners but in a race where the distance from first to last can stretch to 100km, little wonder Lisa hasn’t seen a medic in ten hours. It’s left to us – barely trained in how many Nurofen she should take, let alone armed with emergency medical knowledge – to monitor her vitals, administer a nebulizer for her asthma and try to bring her back from the edge of her first major race failure.
Lisa’s fear has had a long incubation period, rearing its prickly head even before she flew in three weeks ago. Hooking up via Skype in an effort to get to know each other, we had discussed her mindset going in, me trying to get an insight into ultras, my crewing responsibilities and how I was going to cope in my role as a pacer, nutritionist, medic, psychologist, masseuse, motivational coach and, surely, a shoulder to cry on. The last is the only one I had any experience in, and even then...
“Well, I will cry out there,” she told me. “I’ve always been confident that I could complete the other races I set out to do. But not this race. Everything about La Ultra frightens me,” said Lisa at the time.
This is not what I’d expected from someone with a reputation as one of the toughest in the game. It wasn’t false modesty, either. Her voice wavered. Broke a little.
The fear continued to eat away as she bided her acclimatisation time in Leh, doing her best but not succeeding in staving off a case of Ladaki Belly (the curries really are too good to resist).
Arriving ten days after her, I was greeted by a clearly stressed-out athlete.
“In the time I’ve been here, three people have died after going up Khardung La,” Lisa told me.
Khardung La is the first of the two 5400 metre passes competitors had to conquer. The three deceased tourists had been impatient to experience the ‘world’s highest motorable pass’. Their hurry to get up the mountain cost them dearly and their demise had played heavily on Lisa’s mind.
Back at the event hotel, race directors and runners all felt Lisa’s negativity. Some avoided her, needing to remain in their own amped up bubble of positivity as the only way to fuel the self-belief that they could finish. In reality, everyone was just as scared.
The runners worried if they could even make it. Catherine Todd, not able to surmount her fears, flew home before the race even began, citing pollution and altitude.
Runner crews – us most pertinently – worried if they would be able to help their competitor across the line. Would we be able to handle our own dose of sleep deprivation and altitude sickness, not to mention the expected wild mood swings of our charges come race days?
The race directors worried about logistics – getting high camps and checkpoints sorted in a country not known for its sense of organisation, reliability or timeliness is a nightmare.
The medics worried about whether they would make the right call on the course – would they ‘pull’ someone off course for the right reasons; would they not pull and end up with a race death on their professional record?
They all remain unanswered questions as the event party – down to six runners and about fifty crew and organisers – made its way from bustling Leh to Khardung village, a small outpost inhabited only in the summer months (it registers to minus thirty degrees here in winter, making habitation near impossible). This was the final high camp acclimatisation before race start where we spent two days in an endless game of postulation, the spell occasionally broken by the mesmerising bowl of mountains that dwarfed us and our game of ‘What If’.
Lisa rose on race morning with surprising confidence after spending her final nights tossing and turning on a dusty mat on the floor of a local guesthouse. After training on both race passes during the lead-in, she knew the altitude on the first pass shouldn’t be a problem, as she would be fresh in the legs, if not in sleep. But the constant stream of brightly decorated trucks spewing out thick, burnt diesel would play havoc with her lungs.
At the start line, plonked in the middle of beautiful nowhere ten kilometers from the village, there were nerves and the odd tear.
Immediately ahead lay the 42km climb up Khardung La, which didn’t seem to bother Sanchez and Gayter as they steamed off at a pace that scared organizers. The remaining racers – especially Molly, who is the only one who has any real appreciation of what’s ahead – settled in to a more appropriate snail pace.
It wasn’t long until the anticipated dramas started to unfold. Rarely able to eat much at all when she tackles ultras, Lisa followed form and soon had an argument with a second cup of noodles, which were refunded without receipt onto the road.
It prompted the first doubts in Lisa’s head. It was still early in the piece but already she was envisaging not finishing. Yet she still had hundreds of kilometres to go, a run through two nights with no sleep and another pass nearly as high as Khardung La; one she’d face knowing that altitude sickness would be more likely to strike in her exhausted state.
Lisa pushed on, dropping down the other side of the mountain and into the outskirts of Leh where she had spent three weeks going over these moments in her head. On through the cacophonic nighttime traffic she battled, a bus nearly ending her race with a swift sideswipe.
The course then funneled Lisa through a valley known for its magnificent mountaintop monasteries and gompas and one of the Dalai Lama’s personal residences. But Lisa saw none of them as she battled sleep monsters through the long night.
On shift we carried out one of our crewing duties by holding her hand as she ‘zombie ran’ on into the dawn while trying to make her laugh with the best poo stories we could muster.
Hooking south-west we left the banks of the mighty Indus river to start slowly climbing again.
At the pointy end, contenders Gayter and Sanchez contended with the altitude. Thankfully for them higher meant cooler.
Back in an endless canyon and running 8-15 hours behind the leaders, Lisa was instead stung by the morning’s searing heat. At one stage, with no warning, she dropped, smashed to the earth unconscious.
We exploded out of the crew car and were on her in a shot, fearing the worst.
She was a rag doll on the hot road, but was mumbling; she was alive.
Two of us gathered her up and limped her back to the car to drench water over her. The respite was enough to get her to the next checkpoint 10km down the road where an hour’s rest and the little hot food she could keep down was enough – so we thought – to recharge the batteries.
She doesn’t tell us, but at this point, with another 5400m pass to conquer, Lisa was already convinced that she couldn’t go on. Not wanting to let us down, and preferring to fail trying rather than while resting, she nevertheless headed back out onto the mountain and back into her worst nightmare.
And so we are back to The Moment.
Lisa has slumped. She has stopped. She continues sobbing.
I swear I can see Lisa’s spirit shattered like glass on the ground.
Yet I am about to witness how the suffering of an ultra can blossom into something of life-changing beauty. How at the instant that every ounce of reason and energy and indeed life has slipped away from its owner, there occurs a transformation, that births the exact thing that seems a universe away: triumph.
We know what belted Lisa to a pulp of tragedy: it was as simple as a crewman quipping that there was still six kilometres to go before the high pass, when in Lisa’s tortured mind she was due to breach at any moment. Her ShangriLa of Tanglang La pass was ripped from her mental grasp and so too her physical abilities faltered. She didn’t hear ‘six kilometres’. She heard, and knew at her pace in those conditions: ‘two hours’. She didn’t have two hours of footsteps left in her. The plan had been to stake at the top. She had been working toward the reward of a few hours’ recuperation, but needed it at that instant.
For ten minutes there has been no bringing her back from the give-up. She is a statue of tears rained upon by darkness and ice.
There is a moment in every ultra racer’s career on the trail that strikes to the core of why they put themselves out there. It is a chase for the defining moment of self – that moment when it is all lost, when one’s world is all but gone, and yet something else takes over, another step is taken over that wall of No Bloody More That’s Me Done For. And the racer goes on regardless powered by nothing they can name. For ultra runners do not put themselves in this position to fail. They put themselves in this position to push beyond the boundary of what is possible. Not to find the boundary of what is not. There’s a fundamental difference. There is a higher plane that ultra running seems to have the ability to tap. An existence of the mind and body that ignites only at these extreme, hopeless moments.
I watch as snowflakes land on Lisa’s cheeks, melting into her tears. One of the toughest women – nay people – on the planet looks back at me and I have never seen someone look so vulnerable, so damn human.
At that instant something mentioned to me by Molly Sheridan - whose singular energy helped propel this event back into existence when it had been relegated to the chapter of ‘A Bad Idea’ in history’s sporting annuals - rings in my frozen ears: “In an ultra, the brain uses powers it doesn’t or can’t tap in to in an everyday existence”.
That is our answer: tap into the possibility. Back in Leh, Lisa’s outward energy may have been the opposite of Molly’s effervescent positivity, but truly negative people do not attempt risky, brave, impossible things, be it running across deserts or up mountains. The very core of Lisa’s being is powered not by notions of what can’t be done, but by the possibility of what can. We just need to find where in her battered soul that beast lies.
I whisper to her hysteria: “Lisa. Breathe. Listen. Come back to me. Stay with me.”
The heaving of her body abates. The snowfall seems to ease from a pelt to a float. The world closes in to a halo of light around us, and the mountain disappears from our existence.
“You know you need to get to the top. You need to get up, keep moving. We’ll stay out here with you, every step of the way until the end. We’re not giving up. We’re going to finish this thing together. Promise.”
Something flickers in her eyes and a precious drop of possibility ekes out. Suddenly the mountain rushes back into being, the cold bites at us again, but the seal is broken. Lisa puts her arms over our shoulders, stands up and without saying a word steps forward.
I made it or rather my wonderful team and I survived it and made it. Coming across the line in 4th position and second woman behind winner Sharyn Gayter in a time of 53 hours and 5 min. It was brutal. Do I want to do it again, no. Am I pleased I did it? A resounding yes. I want to thank the team you guys were beyond amazing and you literally stopped me from failing this one by sheer guts and determination on your behalf as much as mine.
The full length documentary can be viewed here: