Tuesday, August 14

La Ultra - The High 2012

This is my story of how Team Hibram go through the race supporting  our runner from Malaysia, Seow Kong Ng. Warning:  this is going to be a long read. I feel I want to narrate it in such a way that I will vividly remember how my adventure on this race went when I will read it after a month, a year or even several years there after.

11 Runners at the starting line. Pic from the album of Seow Kong.

Eleven days after acclimatization on the altitude already high for most of us, the day has finally come, at 6:00am on August 2, 2012 starts the 3-day main event of La Ultra-The High,  the world's highest altitude ultra marathon. With a cut-off time of 60 hours, the single foot race covers 222 kilometers that will pass through the Indian Himalayas through the highest motorable mountain passes in the world.

On this year's 3rd edition, 11 ultra runners from different parts of the world with excellent resume of ultra races in the past finally make it to the starting line. But despite their individual ultra running achievements each one is not spared with the effects of the altitude, they have to  deal with physical concerns even before the race started. Adjusting to the altitude and getting used to the local food, nobody knows what one will suffer on the many days prior to the race. Some had diarrhea and upset stomach, others had loose of appetite and vomiting, some had headache and difficulty getting a good sleep.

At the campsite on race day. Pic from Seow Kong's album.
No one really knows what lies ahead for all of us as the race started. With how the horizon looks as we all left the campsite, this is going to be a usual hot sunny day ahead. Runners and support crew alike had to face the extreme weather condition all through out the race and  the altitude. True enough as the race progress, all the runners had to face with more difficult challenges, altitude sickness hit some of them as they go through the highest part of the course, others had to deal with more serious stomach concerns while some had to deal with more and bigger blisters. Majority were exposed to the worst of  the weather condition. After the blistering heat of the sun at day time, it's  the rain,  hailstorm, gusty winds and snow that they have to deal at night time. The race organizer and it's support team  had their own share of challenges too. As the race progress, it turn out there was a cloud burst  near the mountain slopes of Tanglang La, making the Indus River swell which makes the small bridge at Rumptse unpassable especially to runners. The organizer had to make some last minute changes of the route unknown to all of us.

I came to join this race to crew for Seow Kong Ng from Malaysia, the only Asian on this race. Together with Rishab from Mumbai and our local crew Tashi with our ever vibrant driver Labzang, we represent the Team Hibram. Our runner Seow Kong thought of a name for our team, "Team Hibram - The High on Vibram".  Among the three crew, it's only Tashi who has an experience of crewing, he joined last year as part of the crew for a media team that covers the race. Even if he did not crew directly to a specific runner, we are thankful he is part of our team, at least he is knowledgeable on every part of the route most especially those parts that our runner needs much assistance. Labzang on the other hand knows very well how the road condition is in all parts of the course.  In my case, this is my very first time to crew for a race, as big as this. Even if Seow Kong forwarded to me some guidelines and tips on what is expected of a crew and I did some research too, I fly for this race with no clear picture of how I will really do my role  in such a way that I will be able to serve my runner in a way that he wants it to be.

Seow Kong on his VFF. Pic from his album.
Seow Kong knows very well how he wants things to happen on the duration of the race. He showed us the kind of food he wants to eat (some food he brought from China) and specifically enumerated fruits and foods that can be bought at the local market and store that he wants us to buy for the race.  He explained to us when he is going to eat what kind of solid food, when he is going to drink his salt tablet, electrolyte drink, calorie mate, etc. He also discussed to us at what distance he wants the car to be waiting for him (in every after two kilometer), how he wants the food, water and tablet be given to him as he will be approaching the car. A specific work assignment is also set for each one of us, who will take charge of the preparation of the food, the drinks, the medicine and change of clothes and other gears.  Though we also become flexible as the race progress. He also discuss to us which part of the route he needs a pacer and somebody to accompany him. Yes, he needs a pacer, which I am very much lucky and happy for I know other runners do not want any pacer on the race. Something I really want to do, aside from serving him his needs on the race,  is also running with him on some parts of the course. He discussed  all of  these to  us on the several meetings that we had prior to the event. And even on the marketing of additional supplies, he is hands on with it. On the many days that we stayed in Leh, we heard some crew already had their bets who among the 11 runners will finish strong, who will be the top three finishers and how the rest of the runners will perform. For Seow Kong,  he just do his running according to his pace and experience.  On one rest day, he plotted his target time on every  10 kilometer distance based on his previous running experience and estimated a finishing time of 46 hours. It doesn't matter what rank of the race he will be, what will matter most is that he will be able to cross the finish line strong and smiling as much as possible within his projected time.

Team Hibram. Pic from the album of Seow Kong.
On the race day, the team came at the starting line excited and in high spirits.  Seow Kong is on perfect shape, no stomach problem, no headache, no concern on his legs, and not even jitters, he maintained his cool composure.  As soon as the 11 runners are released, so is our exciting life in the road. The real work for us started as we wait for Seow Kong on the first stop 2 kilometers after. He already informed us before hand what he wants to eat on the first few stops which we prepared. Seeing how our runner progress, he is doing well, not the first one on the race but also not the last. He ran 5th among the 11 and he progress well especially that this is an uphill course climbing to the highest point of this route with an elevation of 5380MASL.

At Khradung La. Pic from the album of Seow Kong.
The four of us in the car is trying to get the rhythm of how we are going  to prepare the food, drinks and how we are going to give it to our in coming runner on the first few stops, until we were able to get the proper timing of doing the routine the right way. More than halfway to the 42kilometer mark, to the top of Khardung La, Tashi and Rishabh begin to race concern that Seow Kong has been eating so much in such a short distance covered, I explained probably because he did not have a good breakfast which he deserve to have some solid food along the way. But at some point I agreed with them that we should lessen the food especially on our way up to Khardung La.

Rishabh's turn to pace Seow. Pic from the album of Seow Kong
It's Rishabh who tracks the pace of Seow Kong, calculating how fast he has been doing versus his target time based on the excel sheet that we printed prior to the race to keep as our guide. Trudging the unending gradual ascend  road that switchback through the mountain slopes of Khardung La, Seow Kong  is now on a slow small running strides, but he really never stops. We take turns in giving the food and fluids, and salt tablets. At less than 10 kilometers to the top of the pass, as we saw other runners already in pair, we decided that Tashi and Rishabh will take turns in walking with Seow Kong while I will prepare the food. Our runner reached Khradung La still smiling and in good shape without any sign of altitude sickness, no difficulty in breathing or walking.  We thought he will stop to rest on the chair and take some noodles, but he did not, he just had small amount of food and proceed down, this is an elevation he doesn't want to stay longer.

Done with one of the most difficult part of the course and now time to tackle the next part, an almost 40kilometer  descend to Leh. After more than 7 hours on the road the  temperature going down is now warmer. After several kilometers down, Seow Kong take  some solid food that he deserves after that successful ascend. It is now also my turn to pace him on this stretch of descend. I was at first worried for my pace might slow him down, I know very well how  fast he is running on descend but it turned out fine. After sometime, we started the run walk run technique, with alternate counting of 100 and/or 50 steps of running and walking  with me doing the counting until we reach South Pullu. A compulsory stop for all the runners for medical check. Seow Kong has no choice now but to stop and sit down, his third rest from the start of the race. He does not want to stop even when eating and just continue with his run walk run strategy. His vital signs turn out fine, oxygen saturation, heart beat, blood pressure all great.

The  weather already warm as we descend further, Seow Kong has one  request which Tashi and Labzang just smile, an ice cream. They know very well that this is not available on this place. We move further down, Seow Kong  maintaining his pace, doing well as always. At some bend I decided to ride the car again, as we are approaching the town of  Leh, we need to decide how to get our orders of  solid food that will sustain us up to the following day. We figure out we cannot use our support car to divert a route leaving a crew and our runner on the race route. A brilliant idea of calling another taxi that will meet Rishabh at the junction that leads to the short cut going to the town proper. We will just meet him at the Indian Petrol Station. We left Seow Kong running alone few kilometers down, until we asked Labzang to park the car at another junction in Ganglas even if 2 kilometer mark is not due yet. We just want to make sure Seow Kong will not make a wrong turn on an intersection. After which I pace with him again, and upon entering the city proper, it is now Tashi who paced with him. I just want both runner and pacer to be safe on this busy street of Leh as it will cross major streets.

On our way down to South Pullu. Pic from the album of Seow Kong
It's already late in the afternoon but still bright enough for us not to bring out our torch, we covered more than 80 kilometers now. We know very well that Mark Woolley, Kim and Micheal had  already passed, making Seow Kong rank 4th at this point. With Tashi pacing Seow Kong, I asked Labzang to go straight to the Indian Petrol Station to catch up with Rishabh. We parked right next to a core crew's car, Vijay talked to me that Rishab decided to go ahead to the first campsite at Choglamsar so that he can rest while waiting for us for he will be the one to pace with Seow Kong on the next stretch. Vijay also told us that it's now Micheal leading the race followed by Kim then Mark.

Finally at Leh. Pic from the album of Seow Kong.
As Tashi and Seow Kong arrived, we continue the downhill street to Choglamsar but this time of the day (late afternoon) the street is just too busy with passing cars and vehicles. I thank God it's Tashi who is pacing with Seow Kong, at some point the passing cars are just too scary. Further down, I can see Tashi just running way ahead of Seow Kong, then requested me to pace again. Seow Kong is still doing good and ever looking great, his fingers and arms not bloated, no sign of fluid retention. Though he feels his stomach is full of water and wanted to pee which we cannot do on this busy part of the street. As we went further down, I make sure we are at the edge side of the road to make sure of our safety sometimes even walking and running at the rough side of the road, most of the time I am few feet ahead of him. It's beginning to get dark, the street is more congested with vehicles of different sizes, we can now feel the pollution due the emission of fumes from the cars,  can hear the blowing of the horns here and there and most of all it's really traffic. At some point, Tashi had to join us to make sure of our safety. Until we finally saw Rishab on the other side of the road meeting us and leading us to the campsite. It's few meters away from the highway.

At Choglamsar Campsite. Pic from Seow Kong's album.
We are way ahead of our schedule, and even if Seow Kong will take a short nap, which all of us were hoping, he is still within his target time. We reach the campsite already dark, there are local food prepared for every body, there are rooms that the crew and runners can rest if they want to. The first thing the Seow Kong did was go to the rest room, he has been wanting to do this for several hours now. After which he sit down on the chair placed at the ground, the medical staff needs to be check his vital signs again, while we prepare his much awaited fried rice. He has been looking forward to have the fried rice.  It is now evident in his face that he is beginning to get tired. With his feet up on the chair, he slowly take some solid food, fried rice and sweet tea. He eat with much gusto despite the slight fatigue evident on his face. I am amazed for I probably cannot eat that much given that challenge he has been through the whole day. The other runner Kim after taking a nap went out of his room and take his dinner, talking to Seow Kong that he has stomach problem. Michael on the other hand did not rest at all is now ahead of all the runners while Mark just left 30 minutes ago after taking a nap too.

I am not tired yet but I am also hoping that our runner will take some rest. While I am attending to Seow Kong, the 3 guys are eating fried rice on the other side. Seow Kong is already looking for his head lamp. And few minutes after he wants to resume with his adventure on the dark part of this road. Haven't eaten well, we packed up, Rishabh pacing Soew Kong while I need to make sure that we get enough boxes of water to replenish our supply, the fried rice and bread are all secured in the car and has to look for Labzang and proceed back to the road. We left with no other runners arrive at the campsite yet.

While waiting for our water to boil.
It's already dark, the wind started to slightly blow but not so cold. I have to bring out my headlamp and get ready with my inner jacket. Yet it is still a busy road for us.  It is now Tashi who is driving the car, Labzang needs to sleep at this stretch of the road to have energy on the next more difficult part. After several meters, the car is able to catch up with Rishabh and Seow Kong on the road. But after few meters, they asked us to stop. Only to realize Kim was hit by a motorcycle. Seow Kong wanted to make sure that he is attended by the medics before we move further. After few kilometers, Seow Kong and Rishabh need something in the car. He needs to change his shoes from VFF to Ecco Beom. He felt already few blisters on his feet. It's Tashi who assists Seow Kong changing his shoes. Upon taking off his VFF, some blisters needs to be pricked, Tashi deed it, put on his socks and the shoes. He requested for some paracetamol too which I gave him. I asked him if he wants to take a nap we can always clear the mid seat of the car where he can rest,  he wants to do it  on the next campsite, at Karu or Uptsi. Also at that time he is already informed by Rajat  that due to unpassable Rumptse bridge the route of the race will be changed, after Upste we will turn back to Karu.

At Uptsi turn around.
This part of the route is mostly flat and long and monotonous, the street is dark and as it goes farther away from the town  there are less houses beside the road now. Though it's windy once one will start walking and running the evening also becomes warm. With the bright moonlight that illuminated the surrounding gigantic mountain ranges, the evening is just really beautiful. We are just like strolling in the night. Tashi and Rishabh thought of leaving Seow Kong alone for this part of the route is mainly flat and not so critical. But I insisted of joining him. Being an ultra runner myself, I know very well how it feels to be running alone especially at night, it's lonely. As we continue with our adventure we pass by Mark Woolley resting at the other side of the road on an empty shed. It turn out his crew is trying to fix his blister concern as well. While pacing with Seow Kong on majority of  this route, at some point he is complaining again that he can feel more blisters, but he does not have socks anymore. I offered my spare socks and he did change. True enough additional blisters formed that Tashi pricked again. He requested for some Ibuprofen which it turn out he did not bring any, I offered my Alaxan FR. Since then this tablet has become part of his intake in every after 4 hours. As we approach Karu, we can now hear and see the swelling Indus River, and we are also welcome by the pack of dogs. Thank goodness to the made in China dog zapper, it is effective and very useful. This stretch of the route is really long but we just take it one step at a time.  At some point I was able to convince him to take a 10 minute nap before we will proceed, which he did. Us outside the car just watching him sleeping at the driver's seat, he snore a bit which means he was able to get at least a short deep sleep, and wake up at exactly 10 minutes, even before any of us wakes him up. We continue on, at Karu starts the uphuill stretch, few kilometers  after Karu we meet the first runner, Michael on his way back.  As we are approaching Uptsi, I have to ride in the car and leave Seow Kong running alone on the road again for he wants noodles on the turn around. Seow Kong deserves his much awaited noodles and another short rest on his chair. This is just his second rest on the chair aside from the three rest inside the car while changing shoes and taking a nap. Another medical check and he is still doing fine. We are now about 132km on the race. After finishing his noodles, off we go again. On our way back, I pace with him until Karu. This was another long stretch back, with less stops for food.

With runner Mark Woolley.
At around 4am I last get some cubes of watermelon as Seow Kong's food on our car parked with the three guys trying to get a rest. We continued on, until the day breaks, we are almost at the community at Eco Village before reaching Karu that we meet the next runner Mark followed by Kim. Really we are happy to see other runners coming. More than an hour on the road,  the very last food that I had given to Seow Kong was the cubes of watermelon yet our car is nowhere to be found. They did not pass by us until at this time. I am anxious especially that Seow Kong has been looking forward of eating the fried rice left over from dinner. I was hoping another crew car would pass by so that I can ask them to inform our car but there was none. More than the concern about food intake of Seow Kong I am also concerned about our passports in the event that we will pass by the Karu check point and a military personnel might be at post as early as this time. I prayed that our vehicle will pass soon, hoping that each sound of vehicle that is approaching will be our car, but that did not happen soon.  After more than an hour and 30 minutes finally they arrive. I am just thankful that they did. Opening the chair, we prepared the fried rice and some hot choco drink (milo). But more than the food, he asked for some tissue paper and he wants to poo. Without proper toilet at this area, I asked him to hide on the slopes above the road.  He has been on the road for 24 hours now. We now welcome the second day of our adventure.

After Seow Kong's breakfast of rice and milo,  Tashi and Rishabh insisted that I should rest. I did not feel tired yet but I gently followed their request. I leave it up to them to pace and prepare the food, tablet and medicine. But I also cannot sleep. On our way down to Karu turn around, we meet Jup and Mark Hines, our car proceed to the turn around point where Rajat and the others are waiting for Seow Kong. While waiting for them, Rajat was giving instructions to Labzang and Tashi on the detour of this race,  at Warila Peak, 5,100MASL.  It's a less used route to public vehicle.  I  cannot sleep anymore, I tried cleaning myself, brushing my teeth, been wanting to go the rest room but to no avail. At this point it's confirmed  that I have my unscheduled monthly period, AGAIN. I know my friends who followed my adventure will say to me this, again? But it's true and I wanted to change undies look for sanitary napkin (for I do not have any, supposedly not my schedule yet) but I was not able to change nor get a sanitary napkin at all. Until I already hear from the core crew that Seow Kong is coming. Ok then no need to attend to my personal needs at this time. We proceed up to the route to Warila.

It's 7:00am, on our way to the next stop, I still want to get a sleep but to no avail,  I decided to be active and useful again. Looking at the route to Warila, it's a slow climb to the mountain top that looks so far from where are. Tashi and Labzang is trying to show to us the peak. The view at this side of the mountain slope is more spectacular, it's more green, with boulders scattered on the mountain slopes and has a wider horizon. The road is more safe with no cliffs and ravines and no workers on road repairs  too. The first few kilometers we pass by monasteries and communities. On this day of the race, it looks another hot sunny day ahead of us. Seow Kong is still going strong, focused on moving forward.  At some point I decided to pace with him again. The three guys went ahead, find a shade on a nearby community that has lush green tall trees and vegetation. Seow Kong decided to change to his VFF again for he can feel more blisters on his feet which making him in pain.

As we approach the community, we find our three guys taking a bath on the cold stream beside the street but their luxury of enjoying the coolness of the water was cut short when I told them Seow Kong needs to change shoes again. Bringing out the chair, Tashi take off  Seow Kong's Ecco Beom shoes and socks while I prepare the safety pins for pricking the blisters. There are more big blisters at this time. Which I myself cannot imagine how painful this cause to Seow Kong now. It is evident in his face when Tashi started pricking it and even when we help putting on the VFF to his feet. God, this does not look good but he is determined to go on no matter what happened. After he finally had the VFF on, I gave him again the pain killer (Alaxan FR). He said his feet will just have to be used to the shoes again and with the pain killer that will take effect soon, everything will just be fine. I continue pacing with him. As the sun is getting hotter he requested for the wet towel every after 2 kilometers to cool him from the blistering heat of the sun. After few more kilometers, the camp is already visible, I decided to ride the car  to prepare the noodles ahead of time. The core crew was there, they offered other food that is available at the camp and his request of a sweet tea. But even after I am done preparing the food, Seow Kong is still far, I decided to bring out my umbrella and meet him few meters below the camp.

After eating we proceed with our adventure up still using the wet towel to cool him and using the umbrella while it's not too windy. We count the distance written on the road and at the same time markers on the side. At this time we just take things slowly as the switchbacks are so long and one can see the distance we already covered yet the road ahead seems like we are no closer to the top. At some point we meet the number one runner Micheal not also on his best shape but still really running strong. At some point we also meet the car of  Dr. Rajat, that of Molly and Barry but no visible runner behind us at all. We are no longer at a running pace at this point. Even our strategy of run walk run is now mostly walk and it seems like its taking forever.  Despite his deep breathing while negotiating to the altitude as we move further, Seow Kong still has the brain to do the math on the distance that we have covered, how many more kilometers he will be able to cover at his current pace. And all the more I am amazed when he even calculated how many more kilometers probably the next runner behind him. I don't think I can do such calculation on such condition already. Few more kilometers  before the peak, the two guys decided to take care of Soew Kong again while they requested me to rest. On the last stretch, Rishabh was the one who pace while Tashi and myself proceed to the top of Warila to prepare some noodles in case he will ask for some. We hang our prayers flags ahead even before they arrive, thanking the gods for a safe passage. I decided to look for a place to pee and at least do some improvised remedy with my getting wetter situation. Thanks to the big boulder, I managed to do it there and had additional layer of pants.

The team at Warila.
It's cold up here, the wind is blowing and it takes few more minutes before Soew Kong and Rishab arrived. The noodles already cooked but when they finally arrived, it's still day time Seow Kong only wants some pictures taken then proceed back down the road. Which we all did. His fingers and hands are starting to swell which I know is now an effect of the altitude and his fluid intake, my worry is that he may not be sweating or peeing that much as compared to the amount of fluid in take. Anyway, we just asked him to squeeze his hands more often for continues circulation.

On our way down it's Tashi who is already pacing Seow Kong. Along the way we meet Mark Woolley on his best shape despite exhaustion, after few kilometers Kim and his crew. Kim is just so focused and despite what happened to him he is just determined to finish the race. And few kilometers after surprisingly we meet Bill. The last time we saw him was after the gun start, among the last few runners. He is strong and we are amazed with his speed. Rishab and Tashi wanted to push Seow Kong's pace on our way down to advance further distance from Mark and hopefully bit the time of Ray Sanchez from last year's race. Upon the calculation of  Rishab, if Seow Kong will pick up his speed we will be able to finish the race at a far more shorter time.

We stop again at the camp to have dinner and for Seow Kong to use the latrine,  together with Rishabh, they eat dinner first from the food at the camp after which they left ahead of us.  Only then Tashi, Labsang and myself  take a proper meal in a hurry. We have to catch up with them in the dark. Few more kilometers left, we are almost to the finish line. Rishabh is determined to push Seow Kong further but of course Seow Kong can just do so much, he is just doing his running on his own best pace to finish the race. The usual routine of stopping every after few kilometers, refill some water and electrolyte drink then proceed, not much food anymore at this time. Until we know we are almost there but we really do not know where exactly is the finish line and at what distance now. So Rishabh asked me to pace Seow Kong again, he go back to the car for they are going to check where exactly the finish line is. I was left pacing with Seow Kong again bringing with me the dog zapper at one hand, my torch and the Malaysian flag at the other hand. Until they come back. We have 2.5 miles left to finish with around 20 minutes before midnight. But the drizzle that we feel now started to drop faster until it becomes a rain. I was running ahead, followed by Rishabh and Seow Kong few meters away from me. I can hear  Rishabh becomes so excited that he keeps cheering for Seow Kong to keep on running. The finish line seemed forever, with the pouring of the rain, I cannot take off my gortex jacket even the hood for the wind is blowing  but promise I was just sweating inside. After the bend, with everything around dark, we can now see the light visible few meters from us.

Finally it's the finish line. Opening the Malaysian flag I hand the other end to Rishabh having Seow Kong running at the middle until we finally cross the finish line.  Rajat and some of the core crew are waiting for us under the down pour of the rain. What a great feeling crossing the finish line, with all smiles on our faces. I myself feel like a winner. It is dark, it's midnight, the rain is now pouring but despite that we are all happy, we hug each other and congratulate each other for a job well done. Rajat hand over to Seow Kong the trophy, the medal and crews' medal after which we had a group picture under the rain with a smile on our faces. WE DID IT. We finish the race earlier than we expected.

Seow Kong Ng  placed second on this year's 3rd edition of La Ultra-The High with the time of 42 hours 4 minutes and 30 seconds making him the very first Asian to ever finish this race since it started.

What a feat. Seow Kong's mental toughness, strong  will and determination of pushing himself until the finish line with a smile on his face despite the pain, fatigue and exhaustion is just amazing. All through out the race he maintain his composure and coolness despite the difficult challenges encountered. He is very focused and is in full control of himself despite long exposure to the altitude, heat and cold. Despite the longer distance already covered he still had the straight mind to think of what food he wants to eat and what fluid he wants to drink on the next car stop. He maintains his coolness on times that his request for food is not handed to him or handed to him not on the way he wants it to be. Despite fatigue and pain he still has the brain to calculate how many more distance he will be able to cover given his current pace. And most of all, he always wear his signature smile all through out the race despite exhaustion. I am lucky, honored and privileged  to witness all of this on the entire race.  Truly winner and a legend  in his own way.

That was a great race, a grand experience. Thank you Seow Kong for the opportunity of being part of this race, thank you for making me part of  your team. Thank you Rishabh, Tashi and Labsang, the memories inside the chaotic car with all the supplies mixed up and our adventure as we prepare and hand the food to Seow Kong will always be remembered. In times of serious matters we become serious and in times of laughter, we all laugh and smile together. Thank you Dr. Rajat and the core team for such a heart pounding experience. Thank you to the other runners, you form part of my fount of inspiration. Thank you to other crew for a friendship formed. An experience of great memories that will last me a lifetime.

No comments:

Post a Comment