Around five years ago, Sufiya, 36, started her ultra running journey. Ever since, she’s taken on thousands of kilometres that have tested her abilities time and again. But running at altitude was never part of her endurance bucket list until recently. In September, she decided to attempt a run that has drawn adventurers like her, whether on foot or on wheels, for years now. The highway from Manali (2,050m) to Leh (3,500m) presents a daunting challenge when it comes to the elevation and terrain. The route spans multiple high passes, with a maximum altitude of 5,300 metres and a total elevation gain of 8,100 metres. Sufiya felt that this expedition was the perfect test for her abilities.
True to its reputation, the run demanded all the experience that she’d gathered over the years. Sufiya eventually finished the 480km stretch in six days 12 hours 10 minutes - a mark that is being ratified by the Guinness World Records. “As far as I know, no woman had attempted the run before. I decided to do it since it’s one of the most gruelling routes that I’ve come across. And once I finished, I realised that it was way tougher than I had imagined it to be,” she says.
Sufiya is at ease with tackling long distances after her runs in the past. In 2018, she ran 720km in 16 days from Delhi to Jaipur and Agra and back to Delhi again. The following year, she created a Guinness World Record after completing Srinagar to Kanyakumari in 87 days 2 hours 17 minutes, the fastest time recorded by a woman. Then in April this year, she ran 6,000km along the Golden Quadrilateral in 110 days 23 hours. “Road running has its own challenges, but this project was essentially down to survival. It was about taking risks and pushing the human body to its limit,” she says, adding that her biggest challenge was preparing her mind for the run. “More than the physical aspect of going the distance, this project needed more mental preparation, readying the mind for anything that came up along the way.”
For once, she didn’t focus much on her mileage while training back home in Delhi. After a short warm-up run of 5km each day, her efforts were more dedicated towards strength and core workouts. Once a week, she would do longer distances between 21-35km. While she had always been consistent with yoga and pranayama, she added longer sessions this time around to strengthen her lungs. “I knew everything would be down to how the lungs would perform at altitude. I would practice breathing techniques like kapalbhati, anulom-vilom and bhastrika. I also meditated regularly to maintain a positive frame of mind. The body can push until a certain limit - after that it’s the mind that works the body,” she says.
Though Guinness had set a limit of 10 days, the idea was to run a hundred kilometres and set a competitive benchmark of five days for anyone attempting the route in the future. Sufiya and her partner, Vikas scouted the route to understand the terrain and the spots where she could stop for a few hours of sleep each day. A crew of five joined her in a vehicle to tend to her needs on the run. It included her first coach Rajender Yadav. “When I told him about the run, he instantly said that I would pull it off. He knows I’m quite mad and will do anything to finish what I’ve started,” she says.
Three weeks before the run, Vikas and Sufiya started out on a motorcycle from Manali to Leh. At each of the high passes on route, Sufiya would camp for a couple of days and run about 10-15km as part of her training. Once in Ladakh, she did the same at Khardung La. Though it wasn’t a part of the route, she says it further helped with acclimatisation, being the highest accessible pass in the region. “There are five passes, which I would encounter at different times of the day and night. I felt like my lungs were going to pop out while walking at these altitudes initially, so I realised that surviving them would be the key. I listened to my body and maintained a pace that I was most comfortable with,” she says.
The spirits were high as she started out at 7.38am on 25 September from Mall Road in Manali. But the steep climb to Rohtang La shook her up and by the end of the first day, her body was broken. She collected herself that night, before setting off the next day, well aware of just how rigorous a challenge she had taken up. The changing landscape brought relief - the alpine hillsides and meadows on the Manali side made way for snow capped peaks in Lahaul, followed by the rugged features of the cold desert in Ladakh.
“The sun was really harsh in the day, then the temperature would drop well below zero at night. But during the toughest moments, I was distracted by some of the most gorgeous sights. A pristine, blue lake would pop up around a bend when I least expected it. The sky at night was filled with galaxies. There was never a dull moment,” she says.
But on two occasions, the elements tested Sufiya’s resolve. At Nakee La, she had started ahead of her crew but soon felt faint and collapsed by the side of the road. The second time, she was approaching Tanglang La when yet again her body crumbled. The team had to use emergency oxygen on both occasions. “Luckily I was on the mountain side of the road both times. It took my team a while to revive me and I needed a few hours of rest before I could continue. The only thought I had at the time was if I would make the time we had estimated,” she says.
The Indian Army camps along the way catered to her needs on the run and threw in words of encouragement to push her on, much to her relief. Her most enervating ordeal came after Sarchu, where the road was under construction. All along the 10km stretch, the sandy dirt track taxed her progress, her feet sinking in at times till the knees. The fine dust tossed about by the wind and passing vehicles engulfed her, entering her lungs and leading to laboured breathing. These delays dropped her daily average to 75km and she eventually missed out on meeting her timeline.
Things got better on reaching Rumtse. The downhill stretch all the way to Leh was a delight and Sufiya found her legs to pull through to the finish. “Getting across the last of the passes was a good boost for my morale. I ran really well on the final leg,” she says. On 1 October, Sufiya finished her run at 7.44pm at the Hall of Fame Museum near Leh. In that moment, she swore she would never attempt the run again. But later that evening, she was already pondering over her missed target of five days and plotting her next ambitious attempt on the same route.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist.