The Art and Science of Fitness | Why, to jump higher, we must lower the bar

By 2013, I had been putting together La Ultra – The High, the world’s craziest ultra marathon, for 4 years, having participants from 10 different countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Malaysia, Spain, Poland, Japan and France — but only one from India. The distance of 222 kilometers was the least of the problems that runners had to be worried about. “Only the best of friends and the worst of enemies visit us,” is a popular Ladakhi saying that sums up the inhospitable weather conditions that coexist with the hospitality of Ladakhis. As is with high altitudes, runners must get used to the lack of oxygen. This is because the oxygen molecules in the air get further apart from each other as we climb. Lower oxygen density available in the air reduces the oxygen saturation of the blood, reducing oxygen supply to the brain and other vital organs. This makes people unacclimated to higher altitudes feel lethargic for the first few days. La Ultra – The High route used to cross the high mountain passes at altitudes ranging from 17,400 to 17,700 feet — higher than Everest Base Camp — where oxygen density in the air is half of that at sea level. We expected people to run in those conditions, which, without good planning, could be fatal. And to add to that, we faced extreme conditions such as snow blizzards, avalanches, cloud bursts, and sand storms, with temperatures ranging from -12 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Celsius. When I conceptualised this run in 2009, not surprisingly, I was told by well-meaning expert friends from different backgrounds that this was an impossible project, and that I could end up killing someone. I get excited when I am told something is impossible and want to get on with it. Besides catering to my ego, the bigger vision was to create a Tour De France-like running event in India, which could put us on the world map of sports. In 2010, we only had three participants — Molly Sheridan, Mark Cockbain, and Dr William Andrews. And only because one participant, Mark, fortunately, finished the race, La Ultra could go on to have many more races. Over the first four editions, we had 16 runners get to the finish line, once considered an impossible feat. In 2013, I also toyed with the 111 km category, where Molly Sheridan, one of the original musketeers of La Ultra, was the only one to run and unofficially finish (she took longer than the official cut-off time). Unfortunately, La Ultra was becoming a world-class running event organized in India, by Indians, for foreigners. We had only one Indian participant, Aparna Choudhary, who ran in 2013, but didn’t make the first cut-off time (runners need to get to different distances in a certain time to stay in the event). The distance and conditions may have been too difficult, even for the enthusiastic Indian runners. And I didn’t want to carry on with the event if it wasn’t going to play a major role in the Indian running revolution. While dealing with this dilemma, I had a conversation with Dr Mark Steven Woolley, finisher of 222 the year before. I asked him if La Ultra – The High was the toughest race in the world. He hesitated and then said that it was one of the toughest, but not the toughest. Rather than being disappointed, I asked, “What if we increase the distance to 333?” This got Mark excited and he was keen to come back if that were to happen, as it would be a new challenge for him. And so I got to work and the 333-kilometre category at La Ultra – The High was born. However, when I began to spread the word about the new category, those who had run 222 over the last four years were the only ones who qualified for 333, and they all were keen to come. But somehow, not many were interested in 222, as it didn’t seem such a “big deal” anymore. People have extremely short memory. This holds for all things in life. As much as we need to look at the future, it needs to be done while being in the present and learning from the past. I revisited my concern: Did I still want to organize the high-stakes event if we didn’t have any Indian participants, or participants at all? By then, we had developed a reputation of being a dangerous event made even more difficult by having a lot of checks in place. However, I decided that the safety of all participants and crew members mattered more, and so, I — albeit reluctantly — lowered the distance to introduce 111 kilometers, with the target of having local participation. Ultimately, with runners for all three categories, 111, 222 and 333 kilometers, we only had one participant finish — and that too, the 333. Was the philosophy of lowering the bar to jump higher faltering? Were Indians just not capable of running La Ultra – The High? In 2015, we finally had two Indian finishers in the 111 category. One was Parwez Malik, who had only been running for six months, and then was Saurabh Aggarwal, an IITian, ​​who showed me that strategy was far more important than brute pace to tackle these inhospitable conditions. Fast forward to 2017, and we had 32 Indian runners standing at the start-line of 111, with 20 of them finishing it too. Further, four Indians (Amit Chaudhary, Amit Kumar, Sunil Handa, and Raj Vadgama) participated in the 222 category, becoming the first Indians to do so. Just before this year’s event, I made up my mind to stop organizing it, as we had already conquered the impossible and gone even further. But the bigger reason was the lack of Indian participation. But the 2018 edition of La Ultra – The High changed all that. We had five Indians (Munish Dev, Mandeep Doon, Ashish Kasodekar, Sunil Handa, and Raj Vadgama) attempting the 333 category, of which 3 managed to complete it. For the 10th edition, I introduced the 555 km category to test the human limits. How far could humans go? I wasn’t expecting anyone to finish. We had two Indians attempt it, and one of them, Ashish Kasodekar, finished it in style, becoming one of the only three people to do so. The other two were Jason Reardon from Australia and Matthew Maday from the US. Had we not lowered the distance, there may have never been the entry of Indians, or at least not enough of them. Initially, we set the bar too high, but by lowering it, we showed them the path, and they excelled. The one big reason that I loved organizing La Ultra was that when you run, you might inspire others, but when you have a crazy event like this, you give people a goal, something that they might want to achieve, perhaps not immediately, but in a few years. The next time someone doesn’t show up, or fails at something, attempt to see the situation from their perspective. Lower the bar a bit and then be patient. Walk a few steps with them. Ultimately, the magic will happen. Keep miling and smiling. Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise. The views expressed are personal


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