Avalanches and No Air… Fun in the Himalayas!

I am back from one of The High’s of my life…running The High in the Himalayas. Where do I begin when there is so much to share? Do I tell you all the details? Do I speak about witnessing acute altitude sickness on an unknown Indian man? Do I tell you about Yaks and mongooses and herds of goats roaming at 17,500 feet, in a place that is as remote as the Moon? Do I tell you about soldiers, and borders with permits, an angry crowd, a misplaced hand grenade? Shall I talk about the avalanche? Was it all a dream?………well, let me tell you the main parts. Then, if you are with me alone over some campfire far away, I will share the rest if you are willing to hear.

It begins with a man with a dream, Dr. Rajat Chauhan, who sent me an email not long ago. From the time that Rajat picked up Bill Andrews and I up from the New Dehli airport, until we left India, three weeks later, he showed us unbelievable hospitality. His race in my opinion is one of the most unique experiences on the planet. The soldiers of the Indian Army told Rajat that the race could not be physically done. Mark Cockbain proved that wrong when he crossed the finish line on July 26th. Bill Andrews made it 50 miles and I made it somewhere close to 100 miles. I felt priviledged to be the only woman to attempt it.

I am going to make this blog into a couple of seperate reports. This first report is the summary of events. I’ll follow it with more detailed events as they happened during the race.

Mark, Bill and I started the race in “High” spirits on July 24th at 6:30am. We all had great crew support and the whole team was excited to start after spending the last 10 days or more adjusting to altitude in Leh. We had camped the night before the race in Khargdung Village at approximately 14,000 ft elevation. The first 42 kilometers of the race are straight up to the top of Khardung La, approximately 4,000 foot climb. At the top of the peak the sign says 18,380 feet. Our GPS said 17,500 ft. Too me, what difference does is make!? Breathing is slow and labored. When you exert yourself you can feel your heart pumping harder and the feeling of overwhelming exhaustion hits you. Climbing to the top I tried to power walk. I don’t believe it is possible to run that section but maybe some day my theory will be proved wrong and some strong superhuman person will be able to run it. All I know is that it was difficult mentally and physically for me. I knew that if I could make it to the top I would have a good chance of completing the race. At least I would have survived the first altitude test.

Our crews drove ahead and we climbed toward the first peak. Mark, Bill and I, the only runners this year at The High, seperated early, each in our own pace. Later I hooked up with Bill to get to the top. We had made a pack to reach the top together and he was a huge support for me. I was sick half way up. I understand that you can get dehydrated rapidly at these elevations and thats what happened to me rather quickly. I reached the top with Bill and we had a few minutes together to take in the incredible view and have a few moments of our own time together. Then, Bill flew down the hill. A couple of people on his crew were having altitude problems and they had gone ahead. I took a few minutes to rehydrate then I headed down. My crew at that point misunderstood my requests to stop every 3 or 4 kilometers and went to South Pullo, which is many miles away. I ran out of water and got really dehydrated and was pretty wiped out when I finally reached them.

Rajat met me at that point. He was driving back and forth checking on the runners. When he saw me in South Pullo he asked me to go with him to the hospital for an IV. He said it would not disqualify me under these conditions. So, I agreed. We staked the course where I had stopped and went with my crew to the Leh hospital. The hospital was rather scary. I will give details in a later blog on the hospital. I did see an Indian man come into the hopsital suffering from acute altitude sickness. I don’t know the details of his story. I don’t know why he waited so long to get help or why the men with him didn’t get him help sooner. I don’t know if he had other health issues…all I know is that he died in the bed next to mine. We were all in one room, no curtians between patients. It was unsettling. Rajat wisked me out of there and I layed down for a couple of hours of sleep before continuing the race. I tried to focus back on the race. The hospital senerio was a reminder that the mountains of the Himalayas need to be respected.

I felt safe with Rajat as Race Director. The safety of the runners and crew were a priority with him and I never doubted that. I returned to the course, felt better and ran the next 42 kilometers at a great pace for me. I ran all the way through Leh. I heard that Bill had taken a break in the night and I had passed him but he wasn’t far behind. I heard that Mark was doing great ahead of me. During the day it got hot. It was 104 degrees in Upshi. I was slowing down quite a bit then. I asked my pacer Rajesh what the altitude was because I was feeling so much better than Khardung La. He said it was only 10,000 feet at Upshi…I had to laugh! ONLY 10,000 feet?! What a breeze! ha! During the second night it was a full moon and the river next to the road looked like milk flowing. My crew Robert, Sindu, Rajesh were doing a wonderful job of keeping me moving.

Where was Bill? It was strange to me that he hadn’t passed me. I was waiting all day for him to come running by. He is always faster and stronger than me. Late into the night my crew and I decided to take a rest at the next camp that Rajat had provided. After resting for a few hours we woke up to cold and the knowledge that the second mountain was ahead, Tanglang La. As I was coming out of the tent Rajat drove up. He came up to me and told me that Bill was in a hospital in Leh. He was very ill and they were flying him back to New Dehli. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. Communication in that area of the world is really tough. No cell phones. Satellite phones are forbidden by the military. I asked Rajat to call from the nearest town to ask if Bill was improving as Rajat hadn’t heard anything in about 12 hours. I didn’t know what was wrong with Bill. I only knew it wasn’t altitude sickness. Bill was having terrible stomach pains and they suspected appendicitis or such. Rajat went to the nearest town to find a phone. I started back out onto the course…then I just started crying. I couldn’t go on not knowing what state Bill was in. I felt that I couldn’t get my head back in the race. I was seriously worried. I actually thought about how I would feel if I finished the race and something horrible happened to Bill……was it worth it? I didn’t feel that I could keep going under these circumstances….I decided to abandon the race and go to the hospital. I have no regrets about that decision.

I had Rajat drive me to the hospital. When I arrived at the hospital and went to Bills room the first thing he said was, “Oh no you dropped”. He looked horrible. He was having terrible pains. I was glad it had nothing to do with altitude but he was in a terrible state. I accompanied him to New Dehli where he spent the next four days in the hospital. (Today as I am writing this Bill is having surgery in the States to remove his gallbladder which got badly infected in India). I remember looking out the windows on the flight from Leh. I looked over those vast Himalayas and then the clouds suddenly moved in and obscured my view. It was almost like some magical curtain closed and I realized my time there had ended.

All the crews joined together after Bill and I left and watched Mark become the first finisher of the High. It was an amazing accomplishment. I am so proud of what he did. On top of that he is a gracious and incredible person. It was a pleasure to run with him.

I can’t wait to go back and run this race next year…I have unfinished business with Tanglang La. Next year I’d like to have an extra person accompany me to help crew…Bailey?!!

Also, Bill and I now have a pact that we must go on and finish this race trusting that the other person will be okay during the race……there was a lot of unknowns this year as with any event that has never been done before. I’m glad I had the guts to be at the starting line this year. I will look forward to arriving at that finish line next year.

I will add all the additional details in the next couple of blogs…….there is more to the story!!!

-Molly

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