Running on Roof of the World!

Travelling alone for around 3200 kilometers through surface for running in one of the “World’s 10 most Extreme Marathons” sounds like some crazy idea for you? If it is, yes, I’m crazy to a certain extent!

I came to know about the Great Tibetan Marathon (GTM) through a newspaper article written by one Mr. Ashok Nath who had participated in GTM 2008. Inspired by his experience, I decided to take part in this once in a lifetime running event. When I contacted, Mr. Ashok Nath was generous enough to provide me with all the information regarding GTM 2009. Then I contacted Mountain Adventures India ( which was organizing the event and I became the first person to register for the GTM 2009. Gowher Rah and Nazir Rah, the persons behind Mountain Adventures India were very helpful in providing me with up to date details regarding GTM 2009.

After registering for the run, I became cautious about my running regime. Increasing my stamina was the priority. For that, I increased the distance I ran previously (just three kilometers) to 12 kilometers daily. Later I reduced the frequency to four days a week owing to my studies. So the whole confidence lay on my 48 kilometers per week running practice. Since GTM is a High Altitude Marathon, high altitude training was a prerequisite. But, unfortunately either my home town or Chennai, the place where I study were not hilly regions. Time constraint was another challenge. However, I stuck with my running regime. After few months of practice, I could really feel the confidence level was rising inside me.

Only person in this world supported me with a smile when I embarked onto this adventure was my Ammachi (‘mom’ in Malayalam) Her words were the most powerful inspiration which helped me to overcame my fears and guided me till the completion of the marathon. She took care of all the expenses I incurred.

Running Experience

Acclimatization period started from July 12th the day I landed in Leh. First few days I felt some difficulty in breathing but gradually I got adjusted to the new climatic conditions of dry cold and less oxygen. Though I got involved in lot of activities in Leh, my mind was restlessly waiting for the D-Day: July 18th.

Actually there was an event called Breakfast Run on July 17thmorning. However, my mind was made to believe that the real marathon on July 19th and Breakfast Run on July 18th. My doubts were over when I entered Hotel Singge Palace on July 17th evening to enquire about the Breakfast Run, the event which was really got over on that same day morning.

The objective behind the Breakfast Run is that to set ourselves ready for the real challenge next day. There will also be briefing about the real event. Route maps will be distributed and precautionary measures will be explained. But I missed it! But Lars, a Swedish who was the event coordinator, understood my plight and allowed me to run in the main event. He handed over to me the chest number, T-shirt and wished me all the best. I thanked him and left the hotel.

That night was really long. I couldn’t sleep well and the thoughts were entirely on the marathon which will be happening just after few hours. Somehow I managed.

Next day morning at 0530 hours pick up vehicle took me near from the hotel where I stayed. The journey was towards the Hemis Monastery which was around 50 kilometers away from Leh town. We reached there at around 0645 hours.

Hemis Monastery was spectacular in all aspects. I was like Alice in Wonderland. At 0700 hours Buddhist monks, both young and old, started chanting and praying. Though I couldn’t understand what they were chanting, I listened to them by my eyes closed. I gave strong affirmations to my mind that I can complete the marathon successfully. That is my way of praying!

After 20 minutes, the prayers ended with the blowing of horns those I had seen only in some Chinese movies. Buddhist monks blessed each one of the participants by putting soft, white shawls which was decorated with some prominent Buddhist symbols. My mind was prepared for the challenge of a lifetime ahead.

“Eight, seven, six” Lars started the countdown at 0730 hours. All the participants’ spirits were at its peak. Everyone shouted and hooted in excitement. I could see only smiling faces all around. Though my body was chilling, my heart was radiating with heat of thrill and excitement. Yes, I was ready for the first full marathon in my life and also one of the toughest marathons in the world!

The Marathon route stretched from Hemis Monastery to the foot of Spituk Monastery. Water stops were set up at every 4 kilometers. My objective was simple: successful completion of the Marathon. My strategy was simple too: a slow, constant momentum until the end of the race.

The run was at an altitude of approximately 3,700 meters Above Sea Level. For the first 6 kilometers there was a steep descend to approximately 3400 meters. That steep decline didn’t take much of my energy. I kept up my pace and also hydrated my body as well as possible.

With excitement I shouted ‘Jai Hind’ to the army men who were camping near to the Marathon route. They greeted back with a smile and thumbs up. Children who were passing by and also standing on the barley fields greeted me with traditional ‘Juley!’ I waved my hands at them in confidence. Their innocent smiles were really mind-blowing and encouraging. It all helped me to keeping up my momentum.

The route consists of paved roads which were washed out in some places. I passed through barley fields, pocket-sized streets, and riversides. I crossed 20 kilometer mark without much trouble in a slow steady pace. A foreigner who overtook me told “hey man, you got a good pace!” Those words were really an inspiration and I thanked him. Actually, that man got a great pace and within minutes he was out of the horizon!

Overtaking was not in my agenda. So, I enjoyed the run by cherishing the beautiful sceneries which welcomed me at every moment. On the way I saw a little boy who was sitting on a milestone and watching me running as if I’m an alien. I smiled at him and told ‘Juley!’ He didn’t respond. I stopped and gave him a banana which I kept for eating on the way. Then I greeted him ‘Juley!’ again. He smiled and greeted me back. That smile was really priceless!

At the 24 kilometer mark, an ambulance and a doctor was stationed. “Are you okay?” he asked me. “Absolutely!” I replied. “Let me check you…” he told me and clipped one of his medical gadgets on my finger and checked my pulse. “You are dead, man!” he told with a serious look. A lightning struck straight on my head and I stood wordless. He started laughing after seeing my perplexed and tensed look. “I’m just kidding. Your body is well saturated. Go ahead and all the best!” he said smiling. I thanked the doctor and got back on track.

When I made a general medical checkup in Chennai prior to the Marathon, the doctor whom I consulted warned me about my low Blood Pressure. I didn’t care about it. But that warning was always in the backyard of my mind during the run. That put me in tension when the marathon doctor made that funny comment.

I resumed running from the 24 kilometer mark refreshed. The face of the route changed to washed out roads in most parts. Till 37 kilometer mark, I managed but after that the ‘gateway to trouble’ opened up. ‘Gateway to trouble’ is my own terminology used to express the level which is out of my performance. Usually amateur runners like me meet with this ‘gateway’ during marathons. I don’t know how it is with professional runners.

It was hard to breath and my limbs were paining as well. I could really feel the dryness of the air passing through my nostrils. I changed my strategy: trekking through elevations and run through declining roads. That strategy worked only for around three kilometers. Two more kilometers to go. What to do? I couldn’t see anyone behind and ahead. The cruel sun is about to come out of the clouds. Till that time the climate was favorable for a good, tireless run. The sun was hiding behind the clouds as if he was shy seeing the enthusiasm of all the runners. I had no option other than trekking for remaining two kilometers.

I trekked through stones, grass, sand, dirt and wet areas. I crossed one wooden bridge over the Indus River on the way. When I reached the final one kilometer mark, Lars was standing there with his unique smile. “Welcome, Justin!” he told smiling. I greeted him back. “Take the loop and come back, I will see you in a while!” he told. I trekked faster to the loop. Loop is nothing other than a wooden bridge over the Indus River. It even misses planks at some places! So I needed to be very careful in crossing the bridge.

After crossing, I saw Gowher waiting for the runners. He handed over a wristband to me and told, “It will qualify you!” I thanked him and trekked back. While leaving I could hear him passing my chest number and name over his walky-talky. That was the final phase of my trekking. I saw Lars on the way back. “400 meters to go! See you at the finish line!” he told with a smile. I greeted him back with a smile. I didn’t spell out a word. Do you know why? I was conserving energy!

As I’m nearing the finish line, I could hear my name and chest number pouring through the speakers. A Ladakhi man came near to me, shook my hand and greeted me with a ‘Juley!’ I greeted him back with a smile. Then I saw some organizers waving at me and asking me to come to finish line soon because the time was running out. The allotted time was seven hours and I reached the finish line at six hours and 43 minutes. I ran and touched the finish line with a smile.

As soon as I finished, a Ladakhi woman came up and put a medal on my neck. I thanked her and gave thumbs up to Nazir Rah who was sitting there. He greeted me back with a smile. The organizers provided me with the lunch. All went fine. Only problem was that since my muscles were stiff, I couldn’t even sit! I did some muscle loosening workout but it didn’t work out! However after struggling for few minutes, I settled down and had lunch with a great feeling of achievement…

In the evening we had Ladakhi cultural show in Hotel Grand Dragon followed by Gala Dinner. Certificates were distributed in the function and after that the party hall became colorful with camera flashes and exchange of pleasantries. I made a bunch of good friends. After the party, I left the hotel bidding adieu to Gowher, Nazir and Lars. “See you in next year!” Lars told. “I’m not sure!” I replied with a smile.

That night I slept like a baby.

Lessons I learnt.

Running in a marathon is simply a mind game than a physical workout. If you think you can complete the 42 kilometer mark, you can and if you think you can’t, you will surely left behind the finish line. Make an efficient use of water stops they are like life-giving oases. Hydrate yourself (even though you feel no thirsty) well especially when you are into a High Altitude Marathon. Safety first and competition comes next. Just keep track on your momentum and don’t look on other person’s pace or stamina. Don’t keep on asking yourself the question: “Why I’m doing this?” during the running struggle. Concentrate on the run and set the mind only for the successful completion. After completion, other than asking, “Why I did that?” ask yourself “How I can do it better next time?” Happy running!


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