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Preparing for the La Ultra - The High

Words & Photos: Elize van Staden

Earlier this year I accepted an invitation to compete in the 2014 111 km Ultra - The High. Taking place on 17 August in the Indian Himalayas, a high-altitude desert region of Leh-Ladakh, the course crosses over the highest motorable mountain pass in the world, Khardung La (17,700 ft).

Photo credit: Elize van Staden

To give you some idea of how tough this race is, runners experience temperatures ranging from 40°C (104 F) to minus 10°C (14 F), the oxygen content at some stages is only 40% of what it is at sea level, and for the 111 km event there is a 24-hour cut-off. Definitely not a race for the faint-hearted. So why would I, or anyone for that matter, want to put themselves through such a gruelling experience?

After I came out of ICU in January 2013, as a result of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), I realised that life really is too short and could be over in a blink of the eye. It got me thinking whether I was actually following my life motto, 'Live with no regrets', and the truth was that I had not done half the things I wanted to. I hadn't travelled a lot and I hadn't challenged my mind half as much as I could.

Determined to live my life with no regrets, and as a passionate runner, my initial thoughts went to my 2013 IRONMAN Austria entry. However, as I was on a heavy dosage of Warfarin, my doctor strongly advised against competing because should I fall and cut myself and wasn't able to stop the bleeding, it could be fatal. After much persuasion, he finally relented on the basis that I don't 'race'.

With just three months to prepare, my amazing coach, Neil McPherson, somehow got me to the start line. It was the toughest IRONMAN I've ever done, due to all my cycling training being done safely on an indoor turbo trainer*. When I crossed the finish line, and with a number of IRONMAN events under my belt, I decided it was time to look for my next challenge.

Not long after, I received an invite from the La Ultra - The High race organisers, to participate in this year's event, on 17 August. I had originally applied to participate in 2011 and was kind of happily horrified when I was accepted. I however avoided doing it for three years, as I was focusing on IRONMAN. This time I was officially without an excuse, other than fear, and decided to pay the entry fee.

Faced by this daunting challenge and wondering what had I gotten myself into, I decided to quit my job, rent out my car and house, pack up my life and take my shoestring budget to travel and train.

Photo credit: Elize van Staden

Once I managed to sort out most of my visas, get the all clear on my DVT, find a gear sponsor, rent out my house and car, and locate an NGO (Develop Africa) that I could work with to raise money for malaria, I was finally ready to leave. On 24 March 2014, I left for Atlanta, in the US, without a real plan but the resolve to accept the good with the bad and make the best of every day, planned or unplanned.

In the four months that I have been travelling through the States and Peru, I've been fortunate to meet some incredible people (many who became my travelling or running buddies), explore bustling cities and quiet rural villages, see a number of iconic sights, experience different cultures, and discover the most beautiful hiking and running trails that simply leave you breathless.

Of the many highlights experienced during my travels through the States, I had the opportunity to run the trails in Joshua Tree National Park, close to Los Angeles, and meet a rattle snake on my run along the popular Lost Horse Mine trail. The Grand Canyon is a feast for the eyes and will leave you speechless. I saw my first bear while visiting the Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming, took an icy walk along the banks of Lake Tahoe, saw whales in Jedediah, hiked Fern Canyon in the Redwoods, and witnessed sunsets I will never forget. And then there was Yosemite; nothing could have prepared me for this incredible wonderland of waterfalls, rock formations, trails, deep valleys and gorgeous views. It is a place that can heal the most broken soul.

In Peru, I went on a hair-raising 10-hour bus trip to the very remote town of Andagua, located in The Valley of Volcanoes and ran up Chachani Volcano to about 4,800 m. I hiked the Colca Canyon, mountain biked across the hills outside Cusco, and took on the tough challenge of running up to Sasmanwaqyo. I also spent five incredible days on the Inca Trail and watched in awe as the porters jogged past us in slip slops and carrying 25 kg loads on their back with the utmost ease.

Now in Europe and having just spent seven glorious days hiking in the Alps, it is not long to go before I will be standing at the start of the 111 km La Ultra - The High. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to run as often as I wanted and have had to accept that travelling and training is hard. Some days I really did not want to put on my takkies and on other days it was mind over matter.

I don't know whether this experience has changed me, but what I have seen definitely reminds me why we have to live life to its fullest, why we have to be grateful and say thank you often.

More information
If you want to support Elize's cause - provide a mosquito net and save a life from malaria - visit www.theadventuresofone.net and click on the link to donate $10.

You can also follow Elize's blog or silently cheer her on when she stands on the start line of the 111 km La Ultra - The High, with race number +27 on 17 August 2014.