Unedited version of week 61 column Run&Bee (written by my colleague Dr Divya Parashar based on her interviews with La Ultra - The High participants)
Later today we’ll kick start the 10th edition of La Ultra - The High. With all the crew members and runners acclimatizing together in the mountains of Ladakh, conversations are meant to happen, ranging from life to running. Which set me thinking about the reasons behind I decided to create this run ten years ago, one of the toughest in the world. It's not about running. It's about what the experiences of being in the mountains teach you.
The participants will run distances across 55, 111, 222, 333, 555 kms, through temperatures ranging from 40C to -10C, through mountain passes as high as 17,582 feet, breathing in rarefied air. This, they say, is one of the most humbling experiences. When the mountains bring you down to your knees, and your mental strength and grit see you through the challenge of reaching that finish line. It's about that brokenness you feel within which shatters all preconceived notions of invincibility you once harbored, and these experiences make you more "human." People started extending that learning to relating better to themselves, with more authenticity and honesty, and with others too.
"How far can I go?" "How much will the mountains let me do?" came as a leveler. Life doesn't always go according to plan and you factor that in, and course correct if you have to. Suddenly uncertainty and chaos seem more romantic than something to fear or loathe.
It's about being in the moment, watching the stars and the moonlit sky as you maneuver the mountains in the still of the night. "Look up instead of your feet" to take in the beauty of the Himalayas and not just on how your feet are landing, said another. Being one with nature brought a sense of stillness and calm which further helped with improving focus and mental stamina.
Was success always seen as crossing that finish line? Yes, of course, initially. Participants put in months of effort training for this run, often creating climactic conditions artificially to simulate what they may experience in the Himalayas. But then when they get here, they first see success as being at that start line. It's those baby steps they take, to tackle a monumental challenge through physical and mental strength, and often that just reaffirms their belief in themselves. Of course, they set their mind to the goal of reaching cut off points and then the finish line, have a plan in place, and are using optimism and pragmatism to move on and forward.
Some individuals have known to be fiercely independent, inward reflecting, relying only on themselves when problems arise. In an event like the La Ultra, where each runner has a set of crew assigned to them, who truly are the reasons behind their success, they realize the value of social support. From being independent, they found themselves valuing social support more than before, which again extended to their social, professional, and personal lives.
For some, more than mental strength, comes in "self transcendence," the ability to overcome physical limitations using mental focus and meditation. It's a spiritual connect at just another level where everything falls on the wayside, and you realize that even pain or fatigue become inconsequential. In the vastness of the mountains, even we are insignificant, the realization dawns.
In the end, it's about moving those mountains within. Our lives are checkered with experiences, good and bad, loss and gain, suffering and joy. And it's about taking those in your stride and moving forward, relentlessly, boldly, courageously, and even with vulnerability. We learn to value whatever life brings up for us, and that's what the mountains mean to these people here.
As we spoke some more, one of them said that when he ran the 111 kms two years ago, he saw the mountains on the La Ultra tee shirt as just that: Mountain passes that he would be running on. The next year when he ran 222 kms, he saw that same logo as the highs and lows of life that he takes in his stride. Some see it as a heartbeat, that they have a sense of purpose and meaning in life, which they wake up to everyday.
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