I was just 12-year-old when I was watching a BBC documentary on Iditarod – The Last Great Race on the planet. A 1000 mile long dogsled race in dead of winter in Alaska from Anchorage to Nome in far West. It was then, I dreamed of racing that trail one day. But, I lived in New Delhi. I knew I could never be a musher. With time, I bargained with myself and said, “What if I walk that trail?” And then the big dream began.
While many were still dream of running 42.195 kilometres of a marathon once, I began to run them every month in chase of that dream many years ago. I have been training since I was 18 when I ran my first half marathon, working my way up, building my endurance with a belief, “One day, I will live my dream”. I’m certainly not the only one from my nation thinking so. Globally, ultramarathon running has been around for over a century and India is the newest addition to the international grand stage of such races covering every possible geographical realm like – high mountain trails, hot deserts, tropical forests and serene beaches. In this short while of mere a decade, India has taken giant leaps and is now home to over 1400 foot races of distances varying from half a mile to 300 miles, and some of them already are world’s most challenging ultramarathons.
While I continue to chase my many dreams, here are India’s top five toughest single-stage ultramarathons that sure deserve respect.
A race dedicated to the holy river Ganga, Uttarkashi 135 mile is single stage ultramarathon through the lower Himalayas with a gross elevation gain of nearly 27,000 ft. The race begins amid skittling rafts and on-shore camps of Rishikesh and traverses through misty hills and lush green meadows of Tehri-Garhwal and ends in the town of Uttarkashi, home of Nehru Institute of Mountaineering Science and gateway to Gangotri – the source of Ganga and one of holiest places of Hindu pilgrimage. Race being staged during peak monsoon, runners have to cross multiple raging streams and route is exposed to elements like landslides and hence, imposes threat in the night. Runners are advised to have mandatory crew support for the distance of 220 km that must be run under 48 hours.
4. Run The Rann
Uncharted territory, exotic birds, white salt desert, and thorns! Run The Rann is easily India’s most unique and challenging foot race that serves a carefully mixed combination of off-trail trekking, bushwhacking, GPS navigation and exposure to the heat with no shade on 161 km long unforgiving trail through epic Rann of Kutch. Set against the white landscape of cracked desert land, salt marshes and ruthless cacti with a seasoning of cobras and giant monitor lizard, runners endure India’s toughest desert trail circling ancient ruins of Dholavira in Gujarat, one of the largest and most advanced metropolises of 5000-year-old Indus Valley Civilization. This race is for the endured and fully baked runners. If 161 km is too long, there are options of 101 km and 51 km to give you a taste of hell.
Himalayan Crossing is non-stop 338 km long mountain ultramarathon that allows runners 70 hours to finish. While it’s strongly advised to have a personal crew, this race – designed to test your skill and endurance – challenges runners at multiple levels with a consistent high elevation above 12000 ft, difficult terrain and ability to acclimatize. The race begins in Kaza and take the runners through some of the most majestic Himalayan landscape of Kinnaur and Spiti Valley including Kunzum La, Chandra Tal, and finishing just after Rohtang La. Runners are required to carry special gear as suggested by race organizers and must meet minimum qualification to be at the start of the treacherous trail that sees gross elevation change of over 66,000 ft. If 338 km looks too long, Himalayan Crossing offers other distances of 168 km and 55 km.
Living up to its name, The Hell Ultra is the real hell staged in majestic Greater Himalayas. With an average altitude of 12000 ft, 40% lesser Oxygen levels and ridiculous 480 km distance from Manali to Leh crossing five passes, the race poses some extreme challenges and demands serious training. Organizers warn runners to be prepared for extreme weather conditions, where the temperature dips to 10 degrees Celsius below freezing in the night. Manali-Leh highway is arguably World’s toughest highway to drive and remains open only for a few months. With an insane distance to be covered in just 120 hours on challenging but beautiful terrain and life-threatening conditions of high altitude, The Hell Ultra will test the challengers to their limits and only the most prepared will survive.
There are races that are tough, some are challenging, but only a few are dangerous. Staged in the cold desert of Ladakh traversing through The Great Himalayan Mountain Range, La Ultra is 333 km long foot race that takes runners through brutal terrain crossing three of the World’s highest mountain passes above 17,500 ft. If you think the extreme distance of 333 km makes it tough, it’s not even close to the real challenge. 50% lesser Oxygen levels, the temperature that fluctuates between 40 degrees heat and 10 degrees Celsius below freezing in a matter of hours, and ridiculous altitude of the course, potentially pose serious health risks of high altitude sickness, particularly pulmonary edemas. The race allows runners to have a personal crew, but only after you succeed to survive the first 90 km. Arguably, La Ultra have the bragging rights to call themselves the toughest ultra marathon in the World. Other than 333 km, the race features distances like 222 km, 111 km and 111 km relay.
Feature Image: La Ultra – The High