|The towering Danes Michael and Kim with the crews at Pangong Lake|
Photo courtesy of Vinayak
Each of the 11 runners who stood at the Start Line had to deal with their respective problems even before the race started. Many suffered headaches, diarrhea, vomiting and lack of sleep. And we’re only talking about the ones not caused by acute mountain sickness (AMS). But despite that, the 9 men and 2 women took off at gun start and began their grand adventure of 222-km reaching altitudes over 5300MASL. At 6:00AM of August 2, 2012, the 3rd Edition of La Ultra: The High, the highest ultramarathon in the world, has begun.
Many had to face tougher challenges along the way from more stomach problems; being hit by a motorcycle; facing rain, snow and hailstorms; and suffering blisters so large and so many that one runner had to cut both shoes open just to continue walking. Two were unable to finish due to medical reasons. Race route had to be changed due to cloud bursts and because the Dalai Lama was in the area. The race organizers and partners also each had their obstacles to overcome during the course of the race. Everyone had amazing stories to share that will leave so many inspired if not awestruck. But my story is about the one I was fortunate to personally witness: The tale of Team Nummer Syv.
I crewed for Team 7 with Michael Nielsen from Denmark as our runner. Other crew members are a Delhi-based Indian named Vinayak, a Ladakhi named Tsering and our jovial driver, Tashi. As it turns out, 7 or syv in Danish is Michael’s favorite and said to be lucky number. At some point prior to the race, I thought we needed luck on our side. Vinayak and I have never crewed before and Michael himself wasn’t sure how to go about it since he hasn’t really tried running with a crew in previous races. It was only Tsering who had some experience because he was a part of Samantha Gash’ team last year. Fortunately, Michael, Vinayak and I were introduced several days before race day. We had the chance to get to know each other through various running and non-running adventures at different places around the Ladakh region. During that period, we agreed on some form of flexible game plan—the key word being “flexible.” At the end of the day, what was important was making sure Michael had everything he needed to reach the finish line with a smile.
At the start line, our team had a slight problem. Michael’s colds the past couple of days decided to manifest into a full blown flu. It remained an issue on the first section: the 42km run up to Khardung La with an elevation gain of ~1500MASL, the highest being at ~5380MASL. Michael planned to run/walk that continuous uphill with his friend, Kim Rasmussen, the other Danish who joined the race. But about 10km before the top of Khardung La, he was just too slow for Kim so he had to let him go. And to add to the crew’s concern was when he asked Vinayak to walk with him. See, the thing is, prior to the race Michael told us he does not want a pacer. But Vinayak did as requested. We saw how he struggled on this part, walked as if drunk, swaying from side to side—which isn’t a good thing since one side of the highway led to a dangerous cliff. Apart from giving him what he needed, we also tried to cheer him up by carving #7s on the ice that lined the mountain highway. Before Khardung La, Michael saw the “Go #7” I drew on ice and that made him smile, pose for a picture before trudging on to the chair we had ready for him.
I admit everybody was hoping that he’ll get his second wind on the 14km stretch of downhill from Khardung La to South Pullu but that wasn’t the case. We saw Michael’s increasing frustration. It didn’t make sense to him that he couldn’t run this section. But we stayed with him and continued to believe in him. It was a long race, we had time. The important thing was to make sure he feels better. The timing couldn’t be more perfect because South Pullu was the first mandated medical stop. Vinayak knew something had to be done about the flu so when the crew vehicle reached the station ahead of Michael, Vinayak had a quick talk with Doc Tom and requested him to convince Michael to take, at the very least, Paracetamol. And that’s exactly what Doc Tom advised Michael when he checked his vital stats. He had the lowest pulse rate, lost about 3kgs, and was dehydrated. Or in Michael’s words, he “had no pulse, was fat and ugly.” The fact that he still had his sense of humor was sign enough that he was good to go.
At South Pullu, he was in fourth place and about an hour behind Kim who was leading the race. But after that station, magic happened. We’re not sure if it because of the Paracetamol he took or the promise of ice cream and pizza at Leh (after ~30kms) or the fact that he wore the vest dipped in ice-cold water that woke him up. We knew the supportive text message from his wife definitely gave him a huge morale boost. Perhaps all of that combined did the trick. Michael ran like a bullet and blew everyone away. Seriously. Seow Kong, Mark W. and Kim plus their crews and even the race organizers couldn’t believe it when Michael came thundering past everybody. The last time they saw him was how he looked like he was dying up at Khardung La and then suddenly, there he was passing them before Choglamsar with a smile on his face. He got his second wind and he wasn’t letting it go.
He ran through the evening with the slightly warm but windy temperatures—it was perfect for night running. There were times when he turned off his head torch to enjoy the surrounding views illuminated only by the bright moonlight. And all through that time, he kept to his nutrition strategy of alternating wheat noodles soup, Danish chocolates, hot chocolate, coffee, water, soda water plus short 2- or 5-minute naps on his chair. Every time he got up that chair and started running again (running and not walking, mind you), Vinayak and I would nudge at each other in disbelief. Team Nummer Syv’s runner is on fire! Not even the huge packs of wild dogs at Karu bothered him. He growled back at all of them and made a remark in Danish that seemed to scare the dogs away. During this time, we received bad news when Kim’s crew vehicle passed us by and shared how Kim got hit by a motorcycle (without headlights) at Choglamsar. It amazed everyone how Kim managed to resume the race after only a couple of hours of lying down.
But trouble once again started when we reached Upshi, about 132km into the race. Dr. Rajat, La Ultra Race Director, was there to tell Team 7 surprising news. The road to Tanglang La, the second peak of the route, was not accessible due to river flooding caused by cloud bursts on the other side of the mountain. They had to make a last minute change in the route. Michael ran so fast that by that time they still weren’t sure what back-up plan to utilize. Dr. Rajat told us they had a couple of ideas but they had to make sure the one they pick will be the right one. The advice they gave us was to run the 14-km back to Karu and they will let us know by then what the new route will be. Vinayak and I gave each other uneasy glances. We could hear Michael’s irritation in the dark. One of his race mottos was, “turning back is not an option.” But turn back we all did. Everyone, including Michael, saw the wisdom behind the decision but that didn’t change the fact that whatever race plan he had in his head is now officially thrown out the window. After Upshi, we were literally running in the dark and with about 90km still to cover so Michael’s aggravation was understandable.
The way back to Karu was when we saw Seow Kong and Mark W. with their crews. It was only then when we realized that Michael had an approximately 20km lead. We saw how tired, weaker and slower Michael was but we needed to make sure of the new race route so that we won’t waste any more time. At Karu, we found out that all runners will now go up Wari La, a less used highway that stood at ~5250MASL. Wari La made us all uneasy.
Wari La is a deceptive pass. At almost every point, you can see the distance you already covered and how near or far you are from the top. But the switchbacks are so long that it can seem like you are no closer to the top than the last turn you did. The beautiful views of nearby snow-covered peaks plus the greens of the mountain with an occasional view of rabbits and flocks of birds can be a nice distraction. But for Michael, his main concern seemed to be the other runners catching up to his much slower pace. Several times we had to assure him that he was 25-30km ahead of the second place. But that didn’t seem to comfort him. He kept hauling his ass as if Seow Kong was right behind him.
Michael’s strong run through the night started to take its toll. Michael knew his weakness was the uphill that’s why he said he ran fast through the flats and slight inclines. After about 24hours of running, the crew thought Michael would want to take a longer rest at the Wari La station but he had none of that. After a cup of hot chocolate, he was up and pushing himself to the second major uphill. When we caught up with Michael again, he informed us of the new game plan. Shorter distances in between stops (or chair breaks) as we reach the top. Vinayak, Tsering and Tashi alternated in pacing him up Wari La. I made sure whatever Michael needed was ready by the time he sat on his chair but every time, pain was evident on his face. Halfway up Wari La, Michael got so exhausted that he just crawled on the sleeping mat that Tashi laid out on the highway, barely mumbled “15-minutes” before falling asleep. It didn’t help that a truck chose to pass by at the time so we literally had to cover him to prevent him from being run over. There was also a time when he asked if there was a text message from his wife but we did not have network connection so we could only shake our head in reply. At some point Michael asked the crew if we were tired. It was kind of him to still worry about us but we told him to just focus on moving. We developed a vague strategy of alternating power naps to make sure somebody will be up and awake when Michael needed us. We played his favorite Pink Panther soundtrack or cracked light jokes (What is the name of the highest mountain in Denmark?) or pile 7 stones on top of each other on highway markers to cheer him on. Sometimes it worked and he managed a smile, sometimes it didn’t. But still we kept trying. Like he did.
We had another surprise at the top of Wari La. Apparently, the Km. 0 marker is NOT the turnaround point. There was still about a kilometer to go where the prayer flags and the race organizers were waiting for him. Michael, as is any experienced runner, knows his kilometers very well—how long it will take to cover them whether on flats or inclines. He was in no mood for cheers and pictures because of this mix-up. He told everyone there to clear the misunderstanding and re-measure the whole route, if necessary. He was in so much pain that he just wanted to finish the race in one piece.
Going down Wari La was still a major struggle for Michael. He was incredibly tired, his back and knees were killing him plus blisters on his feet refused to be ignored. We told him it was okay to take more frequent stops and even indulge in a 10-minute nap because he was way ahead of everybody. There was no question that he will finish the race as a winner. The team wanted him smiling at the finish line so we urged him to take it easy. And that he did. He enjoyed seeing everyone on the downhill, giving hugs and well-wishes to all the runners (especially Kim) who continued the fight for the La Ultra finish.
At 10km before the finish line, I had the honor of pacing him. Although close to the end of the race, fatigue made him upset about the last few kilometers. He said he was running the longest 5 kilometers of his life—and I think he meant that literally. In the last kilometer, he invited the whole crew to cross the finish line with him and although flattered, the crews agreed that Michael deserved his own private moment in the limelight. We promised to wait for him across the line with the loudest of cheers and biggest hugs.
Michael Nielsen, Nummer Syv’s Danish Dynamite, won the 3rd Edition of La Ultra: The High, with a smile on his face, fists up in the air and the Danish red and white flag on his shirt covering 222-km at high altitude with a time of 36:36:49. And finally, he was able to enjoy a bottle of cold beer on his chair with his crew at the finish line.
Thank you Michael, Vinayak, Tsering and Tashi. It was honor to be part of Team Nummer Syv. Kim and Feroz, we all had a blast at Ladakh, didn't we? To all the other runners, crews, race organizers and partners: thank you for the friendship and being a source of inspiration. Dr. Rajat, I am grateful to be a part of this year's La Ultra. Congratulations once again for a successful event. Wishing all the best and may our paths cross once again with nothing but smiles and happy memories of India and La Ultra 2012.
For more information about the race, check out La Ultra - The High at Facebook.
Interested to join the race next year, check out the La Ultra 2013 Facebook Event Page.
See related post on Memories of La Ultra 2012.