A race in the high mountains of Kashmir. We knew right away that this was not going to be a normal adventure race. To race at an altitude of 3000 meters and above was not something we were very experienced by, but the organization had made a acclimatization plan to get us prepared so we were just going to have to go with that. Before we even left for india we had problems, Corinne Smith who we were going to race with hade to withdraw due to a foot injury, with just one week to go Anna Barrett of New Zeeland signed up to join our team, pheew (thank you Anna)! Now to focus on planning and packing.
Once in Delhi the adventure really kicked of! Two hours of sleep at a shabby hotel, a taxi ride with bike boxes stacked on the roof, pulled over by the police and then another flight to Srinagar. In Srinagar we had a delightful stay in a housebout, some good food and time to check out the town before it was racetime with prologue number one. A 1,5km downhill run followed by a 2.5km paddle in one of the local shikara boats. Fast and furios racing, we ended up in second for the day.
The day after we started our acclimatization, a 4 hour drive up to 2700 meters of altitude and stay in the beautiful mountain village of Sonamarg. With not to much time to rest it was time for prologue number two, a 28km mountain run which was going to take us up to an altitude of 3500 meters. It was quite taxing for the body to move fast and there wasn´t much to be won by going overly fast so we took a steady pace and finished third for the day which meant we would be second overall and start the real race one minute behind Yo running club who was first.
The next night we started a 16+ hour journey which would take us to Leh. Some crazy steep roads and even more crazy traffic but we all made it safely through and we had some quite memorable experiences also.
Once in Leh we where going to acclimatize further by driving up the highest motorable road in the world, Khardung La which was 5359 meters above sea level! We only had a short stay up there but we could feel that the air wasn´t as thick as back home. In the evening afterwards we did our final preparations, packing food and gear and plotting the maps, we would travel from Leh to the startline midday the following day.
The race consisted of 5 legs. A 80km raft, 42km mountainbike, 53km trek, 120km mountainbike and finally a huge 60km trek over the Lasermola pass at 5400 meters of altitude.
The night before the race was to be had in a quite amazing campsite with some good food and good vibes.
The race kicked off and we where quick in to our raft trying to catch up to yo running club. We did not have too much experience rafting but our new zeelander did the steering while the boys put the forward power down. A concept which worked well, as we left the water, put our bikes together and rolled out of transition before we could spot the second team! It took us 7,5 hours to complete the leg.
Onto the bike and it was good to be out of the raft, really tired and sore upper body muscles could get some rest and let the legs work a bit more. We had good flow and good teamwork making it through the bike section in 1 hour 40 minutes.
Another quick transition and we where on the 53km trek, we had a good lead but we were starting to have some problems, Jonas was feeling sick so we just had to calm down and keep moving forward. Even though we weren’t speeding along we were steady, made no mistakes and this allowed us to extend our lead to 2,5 hours. This leg took us around 12 hours.
Now awaited a 120km mountainbike, we set of in darkness, a bit drowsy we decided to take a 10 minute nap just before daybreak. The bike leg was relatively easy with lots of asphalt on winding roads, fast speeds and stunning scenery. As the day continued it got hot outside, really hot!
Around 8 hours later we arrived in the last transition area, quite cooked we took in easy, not stressing, eating some solid food, Jonas and Anna even had a nice shower to cool down a bit.
The last leg started with some camel riding which was cool but also scorching hot! As we started trekking up a canyon there was no relief from the heat but we kept moving forward and upwards. Some amazing paths led us up to an altidtude of 4000 meters where we arrived the “homestay”. At the homestay we stopped for more then two hours, we slept and had some more solid food and we were ready to push the final 50k´s to the finish. It was dark when we left up the valley, we were feeling strong, rested and excited. We could se some headlights up ahead but we did not know that it was Jabberwock who had passed us. We where surprised when we caught them as they where putting up their tent but this also gave us confidence that we would have a solid lead as they probably would sleep for at least one hour.
So far so good.
Some hours later and we were feeling the effects of the altitude, although we did not understand it at the time. What happened was that we started getting bousts of acute tiredness and we wanted to take powernaps. Adventure racing is a lot about managing sleep and you expect to feel tired and perhaps that’s why we could read the symptoms correctly. Just 5 minutes on ground normally makes your head clear again but not now. Even though we had several naps we only got worse. The night was getting cold and soon we started to get hallucinations, we could stop and powernap, it was to cold. Our pace was slowing but we had to keep moving until we were going to reach basecamp.
Once at basecamp it was quite a relief, we had pushed through our altitude sickness for several hours and now we could cuddle up in our sleeping bags while being served hot noodles. As the guide in attendance measured our oxygen saturation we where shocked to find that all of us where too low in oxygen. Our highest value was 72 and our lowest value was 48! and the lower limit to be allowed to continue was 75! We figured that we´d just rest some more and get a bit warmer. As Jabberwock came through, they all passed with numbers over 80, so did red ants. We didn´t understand! Why was our values so low? We had executed our race brilliantly, but to no use.
We stay in our sleeping bags for a while longer before starting to turn around with hanging heads. And not just hanging heads, dizzy heads too. Our problems where only just starting. We where feeling very bad and moving very slow. The slope was so graded that we barely lost any altitude. We moved 1k per hour and it was more than 20k´s to Homestay. We reckoned that this is serious and we press the SOS button on our spot tracker, hoping for a swift exit. We keep moving down and after some long a hours we start to feel a little bit better. After many hours a big group of people are coming towards us, and suddenly there is a helicopter too, and we understand that it is the rescue team! Jonas and Anna are flown the hospital instantly, while Simon and Mårten continue down on foot.
It was with heavy hearts that we walked that path down the valley, the race was over, it ended in the basecamp, so close to the finishline and to us it was still a mystery why we didn´t pass the test. Now after the race, after talking to doctors and mountain guides we have come to the conclusion that we just weren´t acclimatized. We also heard that Jabberwock lives at 1600 meters at home in South Africa, was that enough to make the difference. Maybe. Or maybe it was just coincidence, as it just harder for some people than other to acclimatize.
Of course it doesn´t feel good having to quit the race because of something out of our hands and so close to the finish, but both as a team and as individuals we have gotten some great lessons from this experience. This was a very different race as it was much more than a race, an amazing experience in a truly beautiful landscape and we filled up with many good memories. We sure that this has strengthened us as a team and we are super excited about upcoming our challenges!
Big thanks to Jana for all the amazing photos! (http://www.janaproductions.com/)