At the 170-km Ultra Trail Hong Kong race in 2016, Ashok Daniel faced one of the most grueling conditions in his running career. The cold wave had lasted for over a week. As he battled through the course, the freezing temperatures added to his difficulties.
“Half the field dropped out after the first night of non-stop rain and cold weather. But since I was better prepared with proper gear, I could get through the rough patch before conditions got better. So there’s always risk, but I would rather the organisers erred on the cautious side, rather than something bad happening,” he says.
The world of ultra running takes runners to some of the most idyllic locations, where the distance and environment present the perfect test for one’s endurance. But when the weather turns, the challenge posed by the elements often transforms these races into a battle for survival. This is exactly what happened at the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon in China, where 21 runners were killed by inclement weather in May.
“What happened in China was a rare occurrence, akin to airline crash deaths. Such weather is very unfortunate and unprecedented. Then again, I’ve heard this countless times -- weather can change very quickly in the mountains, so it’s either adapt or perish,” says Shashwat Rao, a trail runner from Solang in Himachal Pradesh.
Over the last decade, the ultra-running scene in India has taken a big leap, with runners growing by the numbers and races popping up across the country. It’s been a steep learning curve for those who have been around a few years now.
Dr Rajat Chauhan first started out as a runner, treading many miles across the country, to get a feel of the sport. During one such run in Manali in 2009, he conceptualised La Ultra - The High, a gruelling race in the high altitude environs of Ladakh. “My homework was in place, but I had never been to Leh before the first edition of the race. I had no idea what I was getting myself or the runners into. No textbook can teach you what we’ve learnt about high-altitude running after 10 editions of the race,” Chauhan says.
Chauhan says he got really lucky as things fell in place during the early days and learnt from his observations. He’s seen it all -- from runners failing to acclimatise well, inappropriate gear during the race and inadequate fueling on the run, to the crew struggling at altitude with simple tasks like boiling water. He now shares the “common sense stuff” with runners before each edition of the La Ultra - The High. “During the briefing, I talk about death all the time because it’s better that I scare people, rather than bravado killing them,” he adds.
It was the same with Vishwas Sindhu when he conceptualised the Solang SkyUltra in 2016. The first 30-km edition of the trail race had almost 12 km of road. The idea was to give runners a taste of mountain trails. Over each edition, he added new trail sections. In 2019, they introduced a 100-km category that has almost 80 km of trail and a total altitude gain of 7,400 metres. “I ensure that I’m the one marking the route each year, so that I know the terrain and what I can expect during the race. A lot of decisions are made on the fly after monitoring the weather,” says Sindhu. “One year, the Beas river was in spate and we changed the route just before the race. Another time, there was a whiteout just below Bhrigu Lake and we turned runners around, getting them to cover the distance lower down.” he adds.
The 100-km race has a 30-hour cut-off, which means runners are out in the mountains even at night. Besides the low temperature, this is also the time wildlife is most active. The route was planned in a way that runners always had access to a mobile network. Besides, volunteers dot the trail at regular intervals, relaying messages to the next checkpoint when they spot a runner. In international races such as the Tor des Geants in Italy, Daniel was handed a GPS tracker. Other events use a predictive algorithm that estimates the speed and time taken to cover a certain section. Search parties are sent out when a runner fails to make it to the next checkpoint in time.
In the past, Chauhan too, has tried GPS but realised that it failed in the remote areas of Ladakh. With the entire race panning out along the road, he banks on mobile crew vehicles to track runners, which also have doctors on-board to keep a check on their vitals. Race cutoffs, where every runner must cover certain sections in a given time, can also save lives, says Chauhan. He also insures his runners as part of the race fee. “At high altitude, everyone gets affected. Then it’s about how much and to what extent. It’s a very fine line between what we do and something that’s dangerous,” he adds.
Gear can often make all the difference in a race. Daniel believes that there is “no bad weather, only bad clothing” since one cannot really control the elements. Sindhu has a checklist in place, which includes essentials that go beyond the scope of running such as a whistle and a lighter. “A fire can save you from the cold until help arrives. I’ve seen a few who don’t take it seriously and we’ve disqualified them before the start. It’s easy to blame the organiser in case of a mishap, but the onus also lies on the runner to follow rules,” Sindhu says.
With most races cancelled last year, Kieren D’Souza decided to take on high altitude running projects. On the run, he worked with a film crew that doubled up as his rescue team. On Deo Tibba, a 6,001-metre mountain in the Pir Panjal range, which stretches from Kashmir to Himachal Pradesh, he was equipped with a satellite phone and a helicopter on standby. “There may be rescue in place, but you have to be as prepared as possible for any situation. The most important factor is knowing yourself, trying to make the right decisions and trusting your instincts. And that starts with reading up and researching the route,” D’Souza says.
A major issue arises when it comes to the eligibility for these races. Rao, who has run grueling races such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, believes that while the system in place in Europe is fair, it has its own flaws. However, in India, the prerequisites are mostly nonexistent or based on road marathon timings.
During the first edition of the Solang Sky Ultra, Sindhu recalls how some runners had questioned the nature of the course, calling it a trek instead of a run. These days, he permits runners on the 100-km race who have finished the 60-km category, at least one 75-km ultra, or two full marathons within five hours. He also makes it clear that running in the mountains is a different ball game.
“The idea is that someone who has run 100 km has a basic understanding about these distances. But I always insist that first-timers should run shorter races and get a sense of what it’s like to run in the mountains before tackling bigger distances,” says Sindhu. “Most of the runners fall for the images of the Solang SkyUltra. They neglect the technicalities of these trails,” he explains.
Since the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon tragedy, China has imposed an indefinite ban on ultra running events until they can assess the risk posed by these extreme races. With the popularity of the sport growing each day, Chauhan feels there is an urgent need for guidelines when it comes to organising races.
“When you go climbing, there are rules in place -- why doesn’t this exist for ultra running? Besides, who can organise a race has gone totally unchecked. The Athletics Federation of India should come up with guidelines, a kind of certification and it should be left to the race directors if they want to follow it. That way, a runner knows exactly what he’s signing up for,” Chauhan says.
Daniel, who has run ultra marathons around the world since 2013, believes there is no substitute for years of running. “When you are going fast and light, experience plays a key role. Ideally, people who sign up for mountain races must have extensive knowledge of being outdoors for days,” he says. “The current ‘right now’ generation wants to skip the apprenticeship part of honing their skills and scaling up gradually. While they may achieve goals quicker, it puts them at a lot of risk.”
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.
Also read: How Hillary Allen beat the odds to run again