In 2022, Amit Gulia quit the Silk Route Ultra, a 122km race in Ladakh, at the 62km mark. He was experiencing chest congestion and though he could have pushed on, he decided to end his race, well aware of the perils of altitude.
He was back at the start line in early September this year, stronger and wiser. And by the end of the second edition of the Silk Route Ultra, he had finished fourth overall and first in the non-Ladakhi category in a time of 16 hours 21 minutes.
“Over the last few years, I’ve had multiple opportunities to race in Ladakh. But each time I’m there, I feel like I’m running for the first time due to the climatic conditions and temperature variations. So while experience matters, there’s no guarantee of success,” Gulia, 40, says.
In 2017, Gulia was the first Indian to finish the 222km category of La Ultra—The High; two years later, he took top spot among non-Ladakhi runners in the Khardung La Challenge (72km). After missing out at the Silk Route Ultra last year, he was looking to make amends this time around.
The race starts in Kyagar in the Nubra Valley, crosses the Khardung La (5,370m), the highest point on the course, and finishes in Leh. It has a total elevation gain of 3,737 metres. Runners have twenty-two hours to finish the 122km race, through extreme weather conditions and steep inclines.
Gulia started training specifically for the race in June with a weekly mileage of 100km. His day job meant that there were times he had to split his run over two sessions. By August, he was logging 180km a week, which included long runs between 60-80km on weekends. He would also put in a couple of speed sessions where he would run 4-5km at a much faster pace. Thrice a week, he would take on strength sessions at the gym. Recovery was all about a nutritious, home-cooked diet and catching adequate sleep.
“Since the Silk Route race starts at 7pm, I also did a few night sessions to allow the body to adapt to running in the dark and without sleep. A few friends and I would start at midnight and run until sunrise,” he says.
There were a few important sessions to train for the altitude and the inclines. Gulia would set his treadmill gradient to 23% and walk on it while donning an altitude mask that was capable of regulating the flow of oxygen.“This mask simulates the flow of oxygen one can expect at around 14,000 feet. I put in about six such sessions before the race,” he says.
One of the most critical aspects of every race at altitude has been Gulia’s process of acclimatisation. He arrived in Leh a week before the event and simply walked around town, instead of putting in strenuous sessions.
“I’ve seen runners log big distances around Leh before the race. Others like to go higher and put in a few short training runs. But at altitude, the process of recovery takes longer and it eventually takes a toll. The idea is to preserve the body and avoid straining it,” he says.
Right through those days before the race, he consumed a minimum of five litres of water, along with electrolytes. A day before the start, runners were taken Kyagar where Gulia spent most of his time resting. A few hours before the start, he ate a jam sandwich and lined up alongside the others. “I had seen the route before, so I knew what I had to do over each section. I had trained well and my body was ready for a good race,” he says.
Through most of the run, Gulia relied on gels and energy drinks, only consuming boiled potatoes and eggs on a few occasions. The idea was to consume around 200 calories each hour. Nor did he miss out on was the chance to consume hot beverages whenever possible.
“Soup, coffee and hot water are vital when you’re running in the cold. It also keeps the throat clear since energy gels have high viscosity, which often makes them hard to swallow up there,” he says.
Since Ladakhi runners were flagged off an hour and a half after the rest, Gulia ran his own race until the finish. He faltered when it came to pacing his run and hopes that all participants are allowed to start at the same time next year.
“Since there was no one immediately behind me, I took it easy on some sections. I could have pushed much harder if the Ladakhis were running alongside. I definitely want to go back and improve on my timing,” Gulia says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.