The 27-year-old jewellery designer on crewing for the fifth edition of La Ultra—The High

First published in Mint newspaper on 6th October 2014

In Indian society, girls are discouraged from being physically active from an early age. They are told that it is unladylike to be sporty. “Tomboy” is a term used widely for girls who go against the conventional wisdom and do what comes naturally to them, i.e. be sporty and physically active. Yet these very same girls are expected to play several crucial roles in society later on in their lives that are both physically and mentally demanding and barely leaves them any time for themselves.

Samiksha Mehra, a 27-year-old jewellery designer, couldn’t run even for a full minute without panting a year back. An athlete in her school days, Mehra was tired of not being her usual self. She recently participated in an 18km trail run, which was held as a build-up to the fifth edition of La Ultra—The High, a 333km run that needs to be covered in three days. La Ultra is held in the Leh-Ladakh region, and attracts ultra runners from around the world. Just to put it in perspective, the participants who were going to run 333km at La Ultra, took 4-5 hours to cover this 18km trail. There was a general consensus among them that it was as demanding on the body, if not more, as a full marathon (42km).

In December, Mehra had reluctantly signed up for the Great Delhi Run, a 6km run at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. She was wary of ending up embarrassed way before the finish line, as she had barely done any training. Fifty-four minutes after the start, she was standing at the other end of the finish line basking in the warm runners’ afterglow, relieved and delightful as sweat streamed down her neck. Still oblivious to where she was headed, she went on to participate in more running events in the city. This time around, she wanted to be better prepared, so she started training more regularly. She signed up to crew for La Ultra—The High, if only for the adventure of exploring Leh and her own self. The crew’s role is to provide the runners with water, glucose, first-aid, etc., and help them get to the finish line.

On getting to Leh, Mehra met other crew members and participants. “They had come from all across the globe and yet were completely at home,” she says. “As days passed we got to know the runners better, and boy, were we blown away by their stories! Each of them a champion in his or her own right, an inspiration with tales of independence and endurance. I was crewing for an Australian runner, Jason Dunn, and it didn’t take me long to be awed by his stature and humility. Not often do you meet a banker who is an ultra-runner in his 50s, with a kind smile and a gleam of adventure in his otherwise calm persona.”

Mehra ran the 18K to know the terrain better. The trail included crossing four mountain passes with a total ascent of 4,000ft. Trails in Leh can be dangerous and difficult. Even though the crew were advised to do a shorter, less rigorous 12km route, Mehra decided to run the 18km route as she gained confidence after having finished 6km. “I was confused but decided to take a call after the first pass,” she says. “Once the run started at 6am, the sheer excitement of running in Leh made me forget about the distance. The first pass was a steep climb and the toughest part of the trail for me. Crossing that one was certainly an achievement, I caught up with the participants ahead of me and then crossed them—I was enjoying this. Momentarily, I even got lost in the trail between Pass 2 and 3, but was happy to find Rizwan, a doctor from Mumbai, on Pass 3. It was a tough trail and incredibly picturesque. We had rocky mountains on one side, gorge on the other, and quicksand adding to the adventure.”

She goes on to share her experience: “The scariest was when we climbed up a rocky hill to realize the trail is on the other side. We were slipping. The shoes weren’t getting the grip. Wherever we lifted our feet from the rocks, they came sliding down. We rushed quickly and escaped what was almost like a landslide.”

Mehra was happy to have come out of this without any injuries, “just a few rashes from the two falls I had; no soreness. Just the blisters because of the shoe and the steep descend; no exhaustion either. An hour of sleep made up for it.”

Mehra has come a long way from a year ago when running a single kilometre on flat terrain was beyond her reach. She decided simply to start moving and today, she is very happy to meet the new her. “A day without a run is a day wasted, now,” she says. “In these three weeks I’ve been running almost every day and have already clocked 124km. I bettered my 10K timing over the past week.”

What about her friends and family? Do they consider her as social as she was before now that running takes away a lot of her free time? “You gain some you lose some,” she says. “I had to lose my late nights and started following a ‘early to bed, early to rise’ regime. I still do not know what exactly the tipping point was. The trail run; listening to the runners’ stories; witnessing La Ultra—or may be all of it. I have become a runner. I hope this journey continues for the longest time.”