On the run at the top of the world gives you a satisfaction that is unfathomable and icing on the cake is – the experience cannot be expressed in terms of words when you are a part of the organizing team. Yes, you heard it right, Rajat Chauhan has been organizing arguably the world’s toughest race, La Ultra – The High, since 2010. The 555 km La Ultra race in Ladakh is one of the most punishing marathons in the world.
Endurance is not just the ability to withstand difficult situations, but to turn them into glory. To achieve success, working hard and getting knowledge is not enough. What we need more is the belief in ourselves and the ability to never give up on our dreams even after going through numerous failures. One should make themselves brave enough to make a difference in the world. One name shines bright when I think of a man with such a vision who was tough enough to make his dream a reality, Dr. Rajat Chauhan.
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Dr. Rajat Chauhan has an MBBS, an MSc in Sports and Exercise Medicine, and a masters in musculoskeletal Medicine, besides other diplomas and certificates. He’s been running a Sports Medicine and Conservative Pain Management clinic called ‘Back 2 Fitness’ since 2008. He was the founding head of Sports-Exercise Medicine, Manipal Hospital, Bangalore, and appointed as Chairperson for the World Congress for Science and Medicine in Cricket (WCSMC) as part of the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup held in India. Earlier he had represented India at WCSMC at 2007 World Cup held in the West Indies. He was the Associate Editor of the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2013.
He started writing columns for Mint newspaper in 2008 and now is a columnist for Hindustan Times.
With all this expertise behind him, it was obvious he wanted to do something unique in his life where he could make his country proud.
In 2004, he attempted to run from Paris to London, a marathon or more distance for 8 consecutive days, he got injured after 5 days and had to discontinue. He ran 100 km at Bangalore Ultra in 2007 when running was still in a very nascent stage. In 2008, along with a few other friends, he ran from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, a marathon every day for 5 consecutive days in extremely hot conditions.
Running events were now starting to pop up in India but there was none that gave him an adrenaline rush. He kept looking for some event that would make him stretch beyond his capacity.
Ultimately, in 2010 he decided to create something unheard of. A race that would test the human limits. That’s how the idea for La Ultra – The High (now called La Ultra), an epic ultra-marathon, was born. It wasn’t anymore just about him, but about the world.
“Not in achievement, but in endurance, of the human soul, does it show its divine grandeur and its alliance with the infinite.” – Edwin Hubbel Chapin.
Dr. Rajat Chauhan dared to imagine the unimaginable. And that’s what change makers do.
He has been organizing arguably the world’s toughest race, La Ultra – The High, since 2010. It has 55, 111, 222, 333 & 555 km categories where temperatures can vary from minus 12 degrees Celsius to plus 40 degrees Celsius, with altitudes varying from 11,000 feet to 17,400 feet, crossing the highest motorable mountain passes in the world. Depending on the altitude, the oxygen content in the air can be as low as half and the Sun’s radiation is double that in the plains. These extreme weather conditions put the participants at risk of high altitude sickness, which if not addressed properly can easily turn fatal. Other medical conditions to deal with are hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration, sun burns, frost bites, dust storms, etc. All these put together make La Ultra unique. The good thing is that Rajat is a doctor and safety is of utmost importance to him. At La Ultra he sets protocols in place to make this dangerous event difficult. He also helps the potential participants with their training plans.
The route of the race has been changing. Previously it used to start from Nubra Valley, cross Khardung La (17,700 ft) and get to Leh, where 111 km finished. 222 km participants had two high mountain passes to cross, three for 333 km and five for 555 km participants.
In the April 2022 edition, the 11, 22, 33, 55, and 111 km categories were primarily run up and down Wari La (17,200 ft). No matter what category, these distances have to be run non-stop. Even if the runner stops, the clock doesn’t. Besides running, there is power walking and sleeping, and all this while the clock is on. Sleep deprivation is a big issue and rest breaks need to be planned well. To make things even more tricky, there are cut-offs, i.e. times by which runners need to get to different points on the race course.
If La Ultra is the toughest and the cruellest race in the world, how did Rajat get participants and the team to support him? Who in their right mind would actually participate?
Way back in 2009, he started contacting professional runners and extreme running groups through Facebook and emails. Rajat found about 50 interested candidates, but then only three landed up at the starting line.
The first was Molly Sheridan, an experienced ultra-marathon runner from the USA, accompanied by Bill Andrews, an anti-aging scientist. The third participant was Mark Cockbain from the UK. All had plenty of experience and a history of completing many hard foot races in the world.
The first-ever La Ultra race took place in 2010. Dr. Rajat initiated an event that was going to change the face of marathon running in India.
During the first race, many unforeseen situations came up at 18000 feet. Runners suffered from dehydration and hospitalization. Rajat did have doubts if anyone would finish the race or if the race would finish them. Finally, one champion reached the finish line- Mark Cockbain. And Dr. Rajat Chauhan had succeeded finally in proving that this was possible.
The next year, Rajat was more confident when he announced the La Ultra. 2011-12 the adventure continued. The idea of pushing participants to test their levels of endurance has brought a huge change in the mentality of Indian sports runners too. First-time Indian runners ventured to push their limits and succeed.
For the first seven years, he had amazing ultra-runners from across the world, 22 countries to be precise, 77 of them coming to take on the impossible.
By 2017, Rajat had reached a level of saturation having done this extremely strenuous planning and execution of La Ultra for the past 8 years. He decided this would be the last.
Dr. Chuahan says “When you blindly follow your dream and you make a lot of name for yourself, but somewhere down the line, the reason that got you started in the first place starts to go missing, you wonder why you are still carrying on. The biggest learning for me at La Ultra – The High has been that we are all so insignificant and yet we have such inflated egos. When you sit under the sky filled with a gazillion glittering stars, where the only highway you see is the magnificent Milky Way, it suddenly dawns on you, you are nothing. Zilch”.
When asked, what is the criteria for selection, he said,
“I don’t look for studs to participate at La Ultra, but folks who can appreciate this. Who are humble enough to pray to the massive Himalayas to let them pass rather than trying to attempt to force their way through. You never know which rock might be sitting there for millions of years with the simple task of making you into a star, too. I look for people who respect other fellow beings and nature. A rare commodity today”.
But destiny had other plans. 2017, again there were suddenly 32 participants wanting to run 111km. Five more wanted to run 222km. All Indians. Only two had signed up for 333km. Rajat being Rajat, just would not and could not give up. And in 2019 there was a 555km category. And again, out of the three finishers, one happened to be an Indian, Ashish Kasodekar, who in 2017 had run 111 km.
So La Ultra – The High, continued till we faced the lockdown in 2020 and 2021. During the April 2022 edition, there were participants who had started running during the Covid pandemic. There was Dr. J. S. Nagra, Rajat’s dean from Medical college, who at the age of 78 ran 22 km up and down Wari La. Then there was Meer, a 6-year-old, who told his mom at the start line why don’t we go for a walk and they both did 11 km. Sanchit Paliwal, a 15-year-old, came first in the 111 km category. A lady changed her life by quitting smoking altogether and running 33 km. La Ultra had now become a lot bigger than just the longest distances. It isn’t merely about running now. It is making people believe in themselves and achieve their goals.
Dr. Rajat is solely responsible for showcasing some of the best talents we have in India as far as ultra-marathons are concerned.
He has been racing Director for other marathons and part of other initiatives too like Garhwal Runs, Mussoorie Urban Trail, and Mussoorie Jungle Trail; Asia Coordinator, CO2 eRace – A Danish Cultural Institute initiative, in collaboration with Earth; and GOYA (Get Off Your Arse) initiative, where the focus is on getting people off their backsides and get them moving. This is a lot more difficult than making people who already run insane distances, do more.
During the lockdown, he got new runners from 100+ cities across the world to run 10km on the same day. Lockdown and covid gave him the opportunity as a Doctor to play his role in a very different way. Now GOYA carries on in the form of Run & Bee, where he has mentored people from 23 different cities to believe in themselves and get started, connect better with themselves, getting speed and/or distance out of the equation.
Then there is MoveMint Medicine, a podcast interviewing physically active doctors (100+) from different specialties around the world to change how medicine is practiced. This led to a book by the same name being published by Penguin earlier this year. Here the idea is to empower people to become CEOs of their minds and bodies. He also penned many books – Move: Get Fit in 15 Weeks, La Ultra: cOuchCouch to 5, 11 & 22 km in 100 days, La Ultra, The Pain Handbook, etc.
When the lockdown was announced, he put together Squat Uni-V-Arse, a series of squats from 66 cities in 8 countries to attempt to set a world record in different durations. They managed to do 350,832 squats in 1 hr 11 min.
And then there was Dandi March in 2021 in its new avatar, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. It was a 25-day walk-run commitment to self, any distance, anywhere. There were participants from 165 cities in 23 countries around the world.
Rajat always has to reach out to projects in mind even during the race. How to create awareness regarding our environment or about plastic pollution etc. He is extremely aware of his social responsibilities.
Rajat says, ‘he is so glad he did not discontinue the race in 2017.’ Such hidden talent, when the opportunity is given, shines and makes our country proud. Each year, when such stars shine through, it gives Rajat new hope to push their endurance levels further.
He believes that in medical colleges we aren’t taught about how far we can get but about how soon to stop. We are experts in illness and sickness, not in health or performance.
These participants finished with amazing times. As they said at the finish line, it is about the body, mind, and emotions working in sync, and they managed to do just that and more.
Rajat expresses, “Indian society has come of age. At the end of the day, runners are representative of society. Like running in India, the Indian society is changing for good at a far faster pace than even the most optimistic folks would imagine. But we need to give it a chance. Rather than being pessimistic about it. No, we are not trying to catch up with anyone. We simply are running our own race.”
What excited him was the impossible, encouraging fellow beings to push beyond what they think they are capable of doing. Pushing the human limits. Because we say ‘NO’ too soon.
What an experience it has been to listen to Dr. Rajat and his experience. We wish and hope we have some more like him who can make Indian athletes achieve higher goals and heights. A real Citizen to watch out for in the coming years.
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