It is three in the morning and it is happening again. I am waking up from a dead sleep and gasping for breath, but this time it is combined with a nightmare that I am suffocating and it makes it all the more frightening. It’s the 3rd night in a row now and I am scared to fall asleep, and even more scared that this whole thing is going to come to an end before it starts. After 30 minutes, I try again but then panic – my mouth wide open grasping for air.
Where am I? And what am I doing here? I am in the Himalayas of Northern India at 12,000 feet and I am following a rare group of ultra running trailblazers at the 2nd running of the highest altitude ultra in the world, and have been acclimatizing to the altitude now for three days.
It has been a year ago since I followed up on an email telling of an ultra running doctor out of New Delhi who was creating a new race that included running the two highest motorable passes in the world. I called him up and he started by telling me of how he thought up the idea. It was a day-run up to a place called, Rohtang La (the pass of piled corpses). The goal was just to have a ‘fun run’ with friends up to 13,000 feet. An elevation challenge for an ultra runner bound to his homeland, India, for work. But the run was cut short by a landslide and they found themselves in a warm café drinking tea and staring into the wave like road map of the Manali-Leh highway, wondering what if.
After Rohtang La, Rajat returned home to his family and found himself struggling to think of anything other than this map of the Himalayas. His mind started to crunch the numbers and his fingers started to punch up the details and in 9-months time he had constructed a race crossing 137-miles (222km) covering the passes of Khardung La (18,300ft) and Tanglang La (17,583ft) before finishing in the Morey Plains at 15,000 feet. Now all that was left was finding runners to run it. Sifting through the ultra running pool, he found 30-runners to say ‘yes’, but as time would have it that number trickle down to one, Molly Sheridan and that one was just enough to give him the push to get started.
It wasn’t apparent to me at the time I was hearing this, but the idea of running at these altitudes seems insane. The first time at 18,300 feet, the body doesn’t respond all that great and the pulse-ox meter that one runner is testing tell’s us so. The heart rate is at 112 beats of the normal 60 and the bodies O2 is down to 76% of its norm of 98%. But the body does change. Red blood cell building and O2 adapting, slowly the lungs make better use of the oxygen and as the days pass, we are all starting to see our heart rates drop and blood O2 levels go up, and this is a good thing. It means I am not going to get on that plane and fly home. It means I am going to see the starting line after all.
Standing in front of me at the second running of The High, to complete what she hadn’t in the first was Molly. And next to her, pacing like race horses were; Ray Sanchez (USA), Lisa Tamati (NZ), Samantha Gash (AU), Jason Rita (AU), and Sharon Gayter (UK). And so while I sat backwards filming on my motorcycle, they were waiting to take on this challenge before the challenge took on them.
The run to Khardung La isn’t all that bad. Once your body has acclimatized to the altitude it is pretty good at taking on the first 26 miles. By the time the runners get to the peak each of them are still moving at a pretty good pace and looking at a long 26-mile downhill into Leh before plaining off for a 45-mile stretch through the high desert of the Leh valley. But the comforts of this flat land can turn dark, the continuous hours of low level O2 can sneak up on you leaving you with exhaustion, dehydration, cramps, and worse. It is something to be aware of when running. And it was this element that crept up on the runners in that first year’s event and almost ended the entire race before it began.
Rajat’s thirty runners had turned to one and that one runner, Molly, helped turn it into three. By race day of 2010, Rajat was poised at the starting line doing the countdown and with a click of a second those faithful three were off and carrying with them the unknown question of if this race could even be done.
Months before this moment Rajat had worked to do his math. He was a doctor after all and it wouldn’t look good for a doctor to have dead runners on his hands. So he visited the Special Forces branch of the Indian Military to gather information on how to prepare the body for the high altitude. Standing square in the office of some of the highest officials in the land there was dead silence as the officers listened to his race idea before looking him in the eye and stating, “Are you mad! No one can do this…it is impossible”. Words to live by one might think, but not Rajat. Not the man who grew up in a home where the word “NO” to his running interest was all too common a theme. A theme that left him seeking the vary outlet of this race today. And so he set off to make this race bullet proof and prove to the military, his country, and the ultra world that this run could and would be done. But now 24-hours into his own race, two of his runners were in the ICU with one getting evacuated for further emergency care.
It was Molly who went first to the ICU. She had gone too long without water coming down Khardung La and needed an IV to recover. Bill Andrews came second with problems that required an immediate flight out of the area. And so there was only one, Mark Cockbain and the questions again arose of if this race was even possible.
Why do you do it? That was the question I used to ask. Why do you run these distances? I was only just learning about this sport and the answer for them was simple, “because we can”. However short, it was true we can. Humans can endure amazing things and in that endurance we can discover something about ourselves that we never knew. Following Molly and the others in that second race, I was uncovering something new about myself. While working to keep up with the front-runners, Ray and Sharon, I was learning just how hard this stuff really was. And while the runners were going on 24-hours, I was discover my limits of keeping up and of staying awake in the process.
By this time, Rumpse was the town on every ones mind. It is the last cut off point before the finish and the place to rest before the final push up Tanglang La. Either you make it here before 42-hours or it is over. Resting with my camera in lap, in front of me was Ray Sanchez. Ray was on a record setting pace, but it was not time to relax. Sharon was still close and he knew in his mind he needed to keep going. So before I could snap a shot, he was off to Tanglang La and on with the race.
Watching him run off I knew something he didn’t. I knew there was a certain level of confidence he enjoyed knowing that this race had been done before. For him he didn’t have to think if this was possible, he knew it could be done. And so now he could focus on doing it faster and better. But Mark was not so lucky and for him this race was still undetermined and now he was up there all alone in the ultra world with hypothermia starting to set in, the peak still hours off and the question looming if it could even be done.
Rajat raced from the hospital with Bill and Molly to the front to check-up on Mark. After miles on dirt roads, he found Mark hungry, tired, and suffering from signs of accute mountian sickness (AMS). Assessing the situation, Rajat had set in his mind that if Mark doesn’t start to improve in the next 20 minutes he is pulling him from the course. Mark however had a different thought, being experienced in ultra running he had no intention of stopping until he was either at the finish line or unconscious trying. And so the two fueled on, Rajat to his side and Mark walking closely to the edge.
I thought about myself for a moment when I first met Mark in the UK for an interview. Would I have been willing to drive towards that finish line all alone? There was no glory in this. There were no competitors to go up against. There was only the long dirt road ahead and an empty finish line. And the answer is, I don’t know. For Mark however, none of that really mattered all that mattered was that he was only a few steps from crossing over the top of Tanglang La, his AMS was getting worse, and he needed to go down.
Watching Mark cross over the top, Rajat hopped back in his car to finalize plans with Molly and Bill. Arriving at the hospital in Leh, Bill was in bad condition and Molly was by his side. Assessing that more proper medical care was in order they booked tickets and hopped on a plane home. As the plane was leaving the ground it became clear for them both that the race was over, but not finished.
Standing at that finish line one year later, surrounded by cars, ambulance, crews, and a banner, the excitement of the 2nd years finish is in the air. Walkie-talkie updates are coming in and it isn’t certain who will arrive first. In that last 14-hours and around 17,000 feet, Sharon Gayter over-took Ray Sanchez and has been fighting to keep the lead ever since.
Then you could hear it vocally. It was Sharron coming around the last corner and her ashma was bad. Pushing herself to her limits, her lungs were screaming for air and as she half-raised a hand crossed to cross the finish line, she collapsed into the hands of the medics. The crew was in a roar, the first runner had officially made it, but there was more to come and others still out there.
Seeing Molly and Bill off on the plane, Rajat now was driving back to find Mark with a million thoughts on his mind. Did they make it? Are they safe? Do we have a race or is this a lost cause? But the answer wasn’t easy. After leaving them at Tanglang La the night before, Mark and his crew made a fatal mistake. Tired and exhausted from all they had done and nearly suffocating from a lack of O2, they pulled the car off the road and with Mark inside each fell asleep.
I imagine Mark’s last dream up there was similar to mine during acclimatization. Laying in the back of that truck suffocating and hypoxic, he was in the dark until he snapped out of that slumber and rocked forward with one thought in mind, “We have to get out of here and start moving or we could just lay here and die”. First with the right foot and then with the left, Mark was moving again and one at a time he was on his way down to lower ground and the finish.
It was daylight now and Rajat was headed to the rendezvous point of Whiskey Junction. He had checked the finish line first to see it empty without a sign of Mark or crew. Searching for them in the last place they could be, he pulled into the rest area he looked around quickly and found them down by the river bathing their feet. Grabbing his breath and looking more closely, he could see they were smiling. It wasn’t much, but it was enough, they had finished the race and it was done. The impossible had become possible and it was time to go home and celebrate.
Sitting here at the finish watching the others come in, I am rethinking through the 2010 race and am now starting to wonder where Molly is. Listening to the radio I heard that she didn’t make the cut-off at Rumptse and I don’t know where she is now. But I do know one thing, it’s that I really hope she makes it. It isn’t because she didn’t finish the first race last year or that I want to see a comeback story come true. It’s because Molly is that person who gives you that little push in life. The push we all need to get our dreams going towards true and now I want to see her get that push so that hers come true too.
As seconds turned to minutes and the clock stuck down to under one hour, we saw that last runner coming around the final turn and it was her. Out in front of me holding the finish line banner and waiting for her arrival was Rajat and most likely he was thinking about all that it took to get them here. The dream of doing it, the work to make it, and the moment when Molly said, she would stay by his side, was surely what he carried out to meet her at the finish. Watching her cross the finish I knew it was complete, it was finished for her and him as well. Standing there in front of my camera was a pair of people – one who dreamt the impossible and one who believed it could be done.
The remarkable story of making the first LA ULTRA THE HIGH is currently in the process of being made into a documentary film called, THE HIGH: BACKTRACK THE IMPOSSIBLE.
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Thanks for reading!