**** Apologies for not posting pictures but these India internet cafes just can’t handle it.
Quick fact: The Himalaya mountain range is higher than any other in the world. The imposing presence of the peaks strike fear into the hearts of many mountaineers and adventurers that look up at them from towns below, wondering if they will make it to the top when their impending climb begins. But now there are not just climbers with this sense of uncertainty, but runners as well.
This past week, I had the honor of crewing for my friend, ultrarunner Samantha Gash (www.samanthagash.net), as she attempted to become one of the first women to complete “La High”, a 137 mile ultra marathon across the two highest motorable passes in the world, Kardung La and Tanglang La. Both of these mountains are over 17,000 feet high, where the human body gets less than 33% of oxygen that it normally would at sea level. I met Sam last year when we both competed in the Sahara Race, a 155 mile run across the Sahara Desert. While that run’s distance was longer than La High, it was over 5 days. La High is a continuous race, which means that the runner can do whatever he/she wants, as long as they finish the race within 60 hours. Knowing Sam as well as I do, I knew this meant there was going to be very little sleeping going on over those 60 hours. She was planning on running continuously for 2 and a half days until she crossed the finish line. Yes, I know that sounds crazy, impossible, insane, etc. I agree with you. And yes, she is crazy, but in a good way.
Before I get into the details of the race and what happened over those intense 60 hours, natural questions to ask are “How the hell do you crew for a runner? “ and “What does that mean?” I was a bit unsure myself when I signed up, but as the race got closer and I learned more about it, I learned that these are the main tasks performed throughout the race:
1. Pacing. Basically, this means keeping the runner company throughout the race. 137 miles and 60 hours can get really lonely, so it’s important to have someone running/walking with the runner throughout a good deal of the race. This is really important to keep them motivated, but it’s even more vital to make sure the runner is in good health. Running/walking over two mountains at over 17,000 feet can bring on a number of altitude problems, including High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), as well as severe fatigue, and even death.
2. Nutrition. I originally thought this meant that I would get to eat a lot. Unfortunately, that was not the case. (Sidenote: The nickname given to me during the race was “Guts”, due to my voracious appetite… how embarrassing) When someone is up that high, it’s a natural reaction for the body to have a loss of appetite. When you throw running into the mix, you actually get less hungry. So it was also our job to monitor Sam’s calories to make sure she was ingesting enough of them, and to encourage and force her to eat at specific times throughout the race. We had two vehicles loaded up with foods of her choice that she could eat at each hour of the race.
3. Being a General Badass. At this altitude and distance, there are so many variables that can come into play to throw off the crew and runner that you have to be prepared for everything; from holding her hair while she throws up, to covering her with a sleeping back when she has a 91 degree temperature and is hypothermic, to navigating her safely past army trucks and through, snow, rain and rock falls to keep her unscathed. All of these things happened. And compared to the runner, the crew has it easy!
Sam brought along a crew of 4 people to help her attempt this crazy race. Besides yours truly, there were three other integral parts of the team:
Sarah: The logistics guru and the one in charge. Because of the long time period that we would be at high altitude, we arrived in the town of Leh 10 days before the beginning of the race. Over this week and a half, Sarah set up a game plan as to who would pace Sam at what points, and an hour by hour nutrition guide for what Sam should eat. This was her first time trekking and doing intense outdoor activities and I must say she did an awesome job.
Nic – Sarah’s boyfriend and an unbelievable film expert and photographer. Nic was in charge of a number of things besides pacing Sam, including being the official photographer for Sam’s website, which he also designed, as well as shooting a great deal of footage for Sam’s sponsors. While we were out acclimatizing to the altitude, Nic would be behind the scenes working his ass off to come up with clever, funny and unique videos based on the race. Based on what we have seen so far, Nic did an awesome job… especially at getting embarrassing one liners from me.
Jim– The third and final Aussie, Jim dressed very similar to me during the race, but is younger, smarter and better looking than me. Damn. You win some, you lose some. Jim had similar responsibilities to me, which were to focus on pacing Sam over the 137 miles, keeping her in a positive frame of mind, watching out for puddles, and making sure she didn’t get herself into some serious trouble out there.
We arrived in Leh ten days before the start of the race to acclimatize to the altitude. At our first team meeting, we were told that two tourists had died that day from altitude sickness, so that set the tone pretty quickly that it was better to stay on the conservative side of things when trying to come up with a plan to acclimatize. We spent the first 10 days hanging around Leh, soaking up the Buddhist culture, and doing some treks and drives up to 18,000 to get our bodies ready for the race. What made this a really tough race for the runners, besides the obvious reasons, was the leadup. Usually when a runner is doing a big race, they can’t even think much about it until 24 or 48 hours before, because they have the rest of their life to take care of, like their job, family, etc. But with this race, the runners had nothing else to think about for ten days besides the enormous task of getting over these two mountains and through 137 miles in the allotted time period.
After camping at 15,000 feet and surviving some intense wind storms, we were finally ready to get started. After a hectic start at the beginning of the race, Sam was off and running at 6am on August 11. Our team plan to start was to have her slowly climb the first mountain to conserve energy for the 60 mile stretch that she would have through the valley through the first night and the plan worked brilliantly. While the first ascent to almost 18,000 feet was a struggle for everyone involved, Sam and the rest of the team were in real good spirits as we summited Kardung La. At this point, Sarah and I went to lower altitude and got some rest while Jim and Nic took over pacing Sam for the next 6 hours. We went back and forth throughout the race using a staggered rest pattern. While Sarah and I rested, Nic and Jim would be on duty, and vice versa. We used this plan until around mile 100, when it became “all hands on deck” mode. We knew that after all of us constantly moving for 48 hours, especially Sam, it was important to have everyone on hand pulling and helping each other to get Sam across the finish. In her defense, we probably needed her more than she needed us as she still looked really good as we ascended Tanglang La on the evening of August 12. This is where we ran into some trouble. A heavy and biting wind met us around 9pm that evening. We continued to climb altitude but met the race operations team on the way up. They had come from the summit and explained to us that there was a white out on top, which basically means you can’t see up from down or left from right. A whiteout in these circumstances is really dangerous, especially for runners and crew that are extremely tired. Disorientation can lead to major mistakes, with the worst case scenario having someone just walking over the side of the mountain to impending doom. The organizers strongly recommended that we head back down until the weather cleared and we really had no choice but to agree with them. We headed back to the camp below for a few hours to hope that the storm would clear out of the area. During this time, we found ourselves in a hotel type arrangement that wouldn’t exactly be called 5 star. I found myself sleeping between another man and a squat toilet, which isn’t in the guide book of fun adventures, but it was an adventure nonetheless. For all those reading that think traveling and doing exciting things is all upscale and roses, let this story assure you it is not. But it is always an experience, that’s for sure.
Thankfully, the weather subsided and at 3am we were back up the mountain where we left off pushing for the top. The heavy rain had turned into a mix of snow and rain, which made it lighter on your clothing and easier to move. After many hours and with daylight over us, we made it to the top of Tanglang La. At this point, Sam was exhausted. She had just pushed hard over the two highest motorable passes in the world and had traveled over 115 miles with little oxygen. This is the point where having a crew really worked in her favor. We were able to pace her, watch her temperature closely as she was hypothermic at this point, feed her the necessary calories when it would have been trouble for her to think for herself and keep her in a positive frame of mind with a daunting 18 miles left to go.
Because of the 6 hour mandatory stop we incurred due to the weather, we were shorter on time than we expected to be, which meant that even though Sam and the rest of us were exhausted, we had to stay on the top of our game to make sure she crossed the finish line in the allotted 60 hours. As the clock approached 4pm on August 13, we approached the finish line about 58 hours after we started two and a half days earlier. We left Sam on her own for the last few kilometers to let her grasp what she had just accomplished… the completion of the toughest and highest ultramarathon in the world.
The rest is a blur… the finish, the drive back to Leh, the party the next evening. What a trip. So after all was said and done, I stopped to reflect. What did I learn and what could I take away from the race? One thing that was really fascinating to me was the group dynamic. Up to this point, I had never participated in a race that dealt with teams in nature. It was unique to see 5 different personalities working towards the same goal. I would be lying if I said there weren’t disagreements and arguments over how we should approach different parts of the race. But we were always able to take a step back and realize that we were 5 smart people taking their own approach to solving the issue and we were able to put our own thoughts aside to make the best decision… the sign of a highly functioning team.
I also learned how important logistics and planning are in situations like this. In a race of such a long distance, flexibility is vital as things will change on the drop of a dime. But all of the planning that we did beforehand gave us such a strong backbone that it facilitated our flexibility, which made the difference in our success.
I learned once again that with the proper purpose, passion and perspiration, one can achieve amazing things. And I won’t ever forget that.
And finally, I learned that I don’t like sleeping between guys and squat toilets. This may be the most important lesson of all.
Congrats to Samantha Gash and Team SG.