If there was trepidation, it was swallowed up by the darkness. Save the odd cloud sailing across the sky, it was a clear night. The moon at its peak, the Shyok river bed should have been bathed in white, but the pale light seemed to melt away after bouncing off the mountains. That's the impact of the Karakoram. Silent, yet ominous, the jagged edges seemingly more menacing now, the lengthy shadows over the barren land added to the doubts.
There were people in different roles, each wary if the midnight start, 00:02.22 to be precise, would work. Suddenly, a pair of headlights cut through the crisp mountain air and lit up banners on either side of the start line. 'La Ultra - The High', it read. More than highlighting the event, it was the catch line, pasted neatly on the metalled surface, which warmed up proceedings. 'Failure is not a crime, lack of effort is'.
Achieving the 222-km target was a daunting task, for the runners and crew alike, but the shot of light worked like magic. A buzz ensued, and adding to it was Zbigniew Malinowski. Clad in a bright yellow T-shirt, which screamed 'Finisher', it meant little to the Polish ultra marathoner, other than a souvenir from a similar race in southern Morocco last year. For others it was otherwise. "Nervous? Marathon is a way of life," Malinowski and countryman Dariusz Labudzki chirped in unison. The race was on its way.
Sport, a unifier
Wrapping the red and white flag around them, the two took off with the other five runners. The love for their country did not go unnoticed. Language a barrier, the volunteers played on the theme to keep them motivated through the route. Cries of "Polska," would ring out as the duo would be seen approaching and they would reciprocate and move on with a smile.
Aged 56 and 59 respectively, Malinowski, a social worker, and Labudski, a pediatrician, met during a 100-km race in Biel, Switzerland, five years ago and have stuck on. It was no different here. The altitude fluctuated, from 10,766ft at the start point to 17,700ft at the Khardungla Top, they ran through rain and shine, even hand-in-hand at times. Their timings were identical too --- 44:42.17, finishing behind American Alex Kaine.
Tales of struggle
Alex came out a winner, but of greater consequence was the vindication of his decision to not quit. A spate of injuries during high school days left his wish of becoming a distance runner of repute unfulfilled. It took the birth of his son and a toe surgery two years ago to renew the resolve. Post-surgery, running was ruled out for life, but the 36-year-old from Phoenix, Arizona, wanted to set an example for son, Atreyo, by chasing his dream.
Japan's Ryoichi Sato did not make it to the podium, but his tale is hair-raising. If a back problem, since he was 24, wasn't enough, a pacemaker had to be installed last year. Sato's hunger is growing as he has taken part in three ultra marathons since then.
It is their appetite for adventure that made race and medical director, Dr Rajat Chauhan, give a nod to Sato and Ole Albertsen. The Dane, who finished third with a timing of 49:16.00, dared to turn up despite a knee surgery in November.
Rebecca Byerly's was another tale of mind scoring over the heart. The night before the start, Rebecca went down with food poisoning. Injections stabilised her but the bouts of vomiting took a toll. Visibly weak, she made it to the start point. The affliction eventually got the better of her as she, and Aparna Choudhary, the only Indian face, missed the cut-off time of seven hours at North Pullu by six minutes.
In this age of instant solutions, two-minute snacks are the easiest way of battling hunger. However, at an altitude of 17,700 ft the two minutes can stretch to as long as 15 minutes! It isn't as if the runners survived on noodles - energy bars, gels and electrolytes are the prescribed diet, but the extended time span points to the massive dip in oxygen level - as low as 60% vis-a-vis the plains.
The weather fluctuated, though not as much as expected, which did aid the foreign runners, but a supremely fit Malinowski could not escape the sun's wrath. Rolling down the right sock, he revealed a tender patch of red.
Down to five, the race till the 102-km mark seemed a one-sided affair, with Alex getting a headlong start. But all that changed when he took a break at Leh after experiencing symptoms of high altitude sickness. That threw the field open as the two Poles, Ole and Sato took turns to take the lead. The musical chairs continued till the American mustered strength to re-enter the field. It took all of 40 minutes for order to be restored as Alex regained the lead and won comfortably.