JAMMU AND KASHMIR, India — If you go about as far north as a vehicle can reasonably take you in India, and about as high as your lungs can handle, you may well end up in a city called Leh. One of the few ways to get to this city, which sits 11,500 feet above sea level, is to travel along the Leh-Manali Highway, a 304-mile stretch of desolate road that was first cut into the surrounding Himalayan mountains in the 1960s, and connects Leh to a city called Manali, just a bit to the south. The highway was built for the Indian military, as it allows vehicles to travel through the always-fraught state of Jammu and Kashmir while staying out of range of Pakistani artillery. Travel that road on any normal day and you’re not likely to see much more than a pack of motorcyclists, a few burnt-out truck chassis, and small army outposts where, if you pull out a camera, two men outside with little to do will begin to shout. During a few select days every year, however, you might see a runner or two.
Pulkit Jain, a 26-year-old no one seemed to know anything about, was making his way down the road towards Shashwat Rao, who was limping. Rao, 32 years old, was the only Indian to finish the 2018 Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), ultramarathoning’s most prestigious race. Now he was about 275 miles and more than four days into a different race, a 298-miler with a time limit of 120 hours that makes up for whatever it lacks in prestige with punishment, and he was losing ground.
“Hey man,” Jain said as he came up on Rao’s shoulder in the suddenly blistering midday sun.
“You look fresh,” Rao replied.
Rao spun around and looked like he might collapse in a heap of crusted clothes. He lowered himself onto the quiet road, surrounded by dusty fields and a few cows, and asked for someone to stretch out his legs. The right one was red, taught, and dragging.
Jain stalled and his eyes darted about, like he was waiting for permission to continue. But soon he was on his way, and picking him out in the distance required some squinting. Not long after, race director Vishwas Sindhu drove past Jain in his SUV, and the five people inside shouted whatever encouraging things come to mind when confronted with someone who has been running for 4.5 days. Jain turned and stared.
“No expression,” Sindhu said, laughing.
“Buddha calm,” said someone else.
Behind him, Rao was running again. Somehow, his limp was gone.
Sindhu first saw the Leh-Manali Highway when he and a friend cycled it in 2014. India opened the highway to foreign tourists in 1989, and it quickly became a destination for cyclists and motorcyclists who wanted to travel through the country’s iconic peaks. Sindhu and his friend were entranced by the scenery like everyone else, but they saw more than a place to ride bikes. They saw a home for a new ultramarathon.
Their vision became the Hell Ultra, an annual race in which contestants run nearly the entire length of the highway, beginning in Manali and ending atop the Shanti Stupa—a Buddhist monument—in Leh. The 298-mile trip takes runners through five different mountain passes that reach up to 17,500 feet, equivalent to the higher of the two main Mt. Everest base camps. The first pass, known as Rohtang in the local language, translates to “pile of corpses” because of what it can do to travelers who attempt to cross it at the wrong time of year. All that ascending and descending results in about 30,700 feet of total climbing, and the effects can be brutal. One year, a race volunteer had such a crushing altitude headache that he started to weep until he got on a plane in Leh, destined for somewhere much closer to sea level.
Everyone who starts the race has to get to the first cutoff at 71 miles in 22 hours. There are two more cutoffs before the finish, which runners have to reach in a minimum of exactly five days. That’s about 60 miles per day, a pace that requires stuffing peanut butter sandwiches in your face on the move and sleeping just enough to prevent yourself from zonking out mid-stride in the middle of the road, which happens.
“It is possible,” Sindhu said of the race which has only ever had one finisher. “But it is very close to impossible.”
This year, for the Hell Ultra’s fourth edition, seven runners would try to accomplish the “close to impossible.”
Let me just say there are many good reasons why only seven people would want to attempt this race. Once you’ve been on it, the Leh-Manali “Highway” becomes a hilarious misnomer. It’s little more than a 1.5-lane road that is often not a road at all, but rather a smattering of craters, the results of snowmelt and near-constant landslides. Drivers lucky enough not to be obliterated by falling boulders often have to wait in miles-long traffic jams until soldiers clear debris. Sitting alongside Sindhu on the way to Leh, I watched as he swerved around a gigantic rock in the middle of the road as if he was casually navigating a roundabout. Later, we waited to cross a strip of mountain that soldiers had recently flattened. Just to the left, all that remained of the road was a jagged edge of asphalt, not thick enough for a single tire.
Sometimes, the road is actually a river. The highway is only open for six months in a good year, because the rest of the time it’s so choked with snow that it’s impossible for cars to pass. As the snow melts, water floods over stretches of road with such depth and force that, well, things can go very wrong. This year, Sindhu parked at the bank of one such river as a family on the opposite side shoved their half-submerged Hyundai back onto dry land. As temperatures drop, melted snow puddles in potholes and freezes into pools of black ice. Just a short slide away are the crumbling edges of a railless road where, down below, you can spot rusted truck bones, a reminder of the cost of impatience, imprecision, and bad luck.
The road at some of its highest points this year was walled in by sheets of snow three to four times the height of Sindhu’s SUV. Storm clouds frothed over the mountains like steam from a cauldron before bringing a blitz of horizontal flakes. Even on cold days—and that pretty much meant all of them—the sun pierced the thin atmosphere and blistered my skin. My nose, as I write this 11 days after returning home, is still peeling.
The Hell Ultra started just after 10:00 p.m., in front of a juice shop where pineapples hung from the ceiling. Manali’s main plaza was choked with people, many of them tourists fleeing the roasted streets of Delhi for some hiking, rafting, and paragliding in the cool mountain air. They darted in and out of shops selling samosas, phone accessories, and soft serve ice cream. Nobody seemed to have any idea that one of the most brutal ultramarathons in the world was about to start right in front of them.
The thing about a race that features only seven competitors is that it’s hard to gin up much fanfare. Staff and volunteers did their part by walking into foot traffic and inflating a butter-yellow arch that was meant to serve as the starting line. Two police officers descended on Sindhu to ask just what the hell he and everyone else thought they were doing, but Sindhu waved them off without looking away from his phone, telling them he just needed two minutes.
In front of Sindhu stood Rao, who was the favorite if for no other reason than the fact that he had paced the only man to ever finish the Hell Ultra, a Hungarian named Ferenc Szőnyi, for about 155 miles during the previous year’s race.
Rao was a cricketer until the sport’s best passed him by. He’s from Bengaluru and spent his early 20s selling ads, drinking and smoking like a lot of people his age until he turned 25, quit his job, and drove across the country on a motorcycle. He knew he didn’t want to spend more time staring at a screen, but he was also broke. He went back to his city and started at Cric Info, a cricket site now owned by ESPN, where he curated stats.
By then Rao was running to work, racing road marathons, and socking away cash, dreaming of the mountain solitude where he could pad along hours of trails.
He qualified for the UTMB and his stomach flipped into his throat. How was he supposed to train for a race alongside the planet’s best amid Bengaluru’s incessant traffic? So, once again, he quit. He eventually found himself in the Solang Valley just a short (roughly nine-mile) run from Manali, where he lives in a cabin with little more than a sleeping bag in a nameless village cut into the hillside. The scenery is gorgeous, but the winter can be suffocating.
“Listen, I’m a South Indian,” Rao said. “I haven’t seen snow in my life. Every day was so tough. Waiting for the sun to come out, then shoveling snow... chopping wood...”
Money is far from abundant. He’s collected discarded paragliding wings and run them back to tourists for a few rupees, and with some help he raised funds for a flight to France for the UTMB. He slept in a park, ate a lot of McDonald’s, waited anxiously for someone to call him an imposter, and afterwards concluded that “the race was a disaster.” He finished, though, and in 2018 he paced Szőnyi through the Hell Ultra and knew that, though he doesn’t run on the road much anymore, he was either going to come back and try to conquer those 480 kilometers for himself, or think about them forever.
Rao is easily recognized among the still-small Indian ultra community, which is not at all true of the younger Jain, who stood quietly nearby at the starting line wearing the same slack expression he would hold throughout the race. Nobody involved in the contest seemed to know much about Jain, and though they’d raced in the past, Rao later said that the only competition he’d expected was the 120-hour time limit.
Jain knew as soon as he started running that he’d never be that quick. He’d never been a “sports person,” as he put it—wasn’t interested in speed, in digesting piles of Strava data, in glancing at his Garmin to check his pace every minute.
“When I started, the whole purpose was to get fit and to be in shape,” Jain said. “But then I realized what I enjoy is not running just as exercise.” What Jain liked about running was the act itself.
That revelation came in college, and soon he was using his feet to rediscover areas he thought he knew and explore even the touristy spots of places he’d never been. He wanted to feel what it was like to get farther and farther away, and so that’s what he did.
Jain entered some short races, slowly moved up to marathons, then ultras. He’s now in Mumbai working as an electrical engineer who deals with offshore oil platforms, and so his time is as constrained as anyone else with a job in a megalopolis. But even when he’s on one of those platforms he finds time to run in the gym or in circles around the helipad. Running now satisfies an elemental impulse. He wants to find out exactly how far his limbs can carry him before he crumbles.
“I was looking for that breaking point,” he said about a week after the race. “I maybe thought I would find it in this 480.”
They were off at 10:02:30 p.m. on June 17. Sindhu locked his eyes with mine and asked that I please not forget the exact time of the start.
On the second day of the race, Sindhu glanced at me from the driver’s seat and said, “Today we will enter into the barren land.”
Nearly all green fades as the road gets closer to Leh, but in its place the landscape offers maybe a dozen colors of dirt. Sandy gray swirled with brick-red in the mountains that framed the road. The earth shone like pyrite when wet, and darkened to chocolate as snowmelt thickened it into mud. Water like chai rushed around tires and trickled to streams far below.
The next morning—day three—we stopped atop a series of switchbacks known as the Gata Loops, coiled on top of each other like a swirl of black soft serve. Below us were unopened water bottles piled outside a small shrine where, according to one version of the story, a truck driver once got stuck in a snowstorm and died of dehydration. He was the last to attempt the route for days. Dozens of Indian Oil trucks rumbled by in caravans, belching charcoal-colored clouds into the thin Himalayan air as they jerked through a series of stops and starts, coating our nostrils with the greasy smell of diesel.
Rao, dressed in royal blue, a walking pole in each hand, turned around near the top. He dropped one pole, lifted the other like a rifle and aimed it at a grinning Jain, who was maybe 15 meters behind. Rao handed him a pole to walk with, and the two chatted on their way to the crest.
Rao had been hours ahead by the end of the first day. That seemed normal, given his plan to eat up a bunch of ground before 24 hours had passed, so seeing Jain around the halfway point must have been a little surprising. But up ahead were the Morey Plains, a 40-kilometer stretch where the Leh-Manali Highway is paved and flat, and Rao had been excited to cross it at night and look up at the hefty sprinkling of stars. He’d be able to relax a bit, maybe even distance himself.
The plains are a nice break from the constant rise and fall, but they’re a bit of a mind-fuck. Imagine running into a landscape where distant mountains are unchanging and ever-present. You’re surrounded by monotonous dust and low-slung hills for so long that it’s like you’ve been set on a treadmill in a room where every wall is a green screen, the Himalayas just a projection. Flat ground may feel nice for a while, but it smacks the same joints again and again, and its very flatness allows you to forget that this mundane stretch of pancaked earth is still 15,400 feet up, nearly 9,000 feet higher than Manali.
Then imagine night setting in. I don’t know about you, but the only thing I find more terrifying than being encased by four walls in near-total darkness is near-total darkness that’s constrained by no walls at all. This is what the Morey Plains offer after the sun goes down. Light flickers from stars scattered across a canvas sky, but that’s about all you get aside from a headlamp. Maybe you’ll see a string of green and purple lights tied to a pole marking the outside of an army outpost. Headlights might unfold their beams across the ground, stretching your shadow like taffy until the car passes and the night swallows the road. The soft crunch of your footsteps, the whir of the wind as it ruffles your shirt—these are the only sounds for miles. Then there’s the cold, the way it sinks into your clothes, the way darkness makes air more frigid.
This was the void Rao found himself in as he tried to make his way through the plains in the middle of the night. He had been hoping for some easy running and a morale boost, what he got instead was exhaustion and hallucinations. Eventually, he fell into a heap on the side of the road. Jain was ahead of him by the fourth morning, a day before he would again pass Rao with about 20 miles to go, when Rao seemed barely able to walk.
On that fourth morning, hours after he had slipped by Rao in the night, Jain sat up and feebly waved me away as I snapped his photo, protesting that he’d never looked worse in his life. Then he laid back down and pulled a thick blanket up to his chin.
He and his crew were inside a dhaba, one of the cavernous huts or tents that sit three or four in a row and offer respite to travelers on either side of the mountain passes. They’re usually run by a man and a woman and sometimes an extra helper, and here the two proprietors wove around each other in a small nook of a kitchen, broiling chai and cooking roti over little flames that flicked from their burners. Dhabas tend to serve rice and beans, fried rice, omelettes, stewed potato and onion, and more, all on a tin plate. They’ll open a packet of hard Maggi noodles and boil them soft and hot for anyone who asks.
The space not for cooking or sitting is used to store everything that comes ready-made: Thums Up, Snickers, butter cookies (which I bought like three sleeves of), cashew cookies, pulpy orange Minute Maid, a juicebox called Jumpin Mango, Coke in a plastic bottle, some alarmingly red drink called Sting, ruffled Lays of the regular variety but also “Spanish Tomato Tango” and “India’s Magic Masala,” cream wafers, Kingfisher soda water, Mountain Dew, Red Bull, Aquafina, and a lot else.
Outside, little dust devils danced and disintegrated. Jain walked into daylight and headed toward the final pass as Rao rounded a distant hill, behind but no longer out of sight.
Everyone had heard the rumors. First the problem was Rao’s foot, then his ankle, then some other part of his leg, though it wasn’t clear which. He got to the dhaba Jain had left some 30 minutes before, pulled up his right pant leg in his crew car and moaned as the skin throbbed, puffy and red. Rao asked questions about Jain while the crowd tried to calm him, or wondered aloud whether continuing could leave him with a limp for a month, a year, who knows.
“You can’t think who is ahead of you and who is behind,” Sindhu told him.
“He’s being cool, you have to be cool,” said someone else.
Rao was hobbling down the road a few minutes later, having slept a bit the previous night and munched on a peanut butter sandwich on his way to the cutoff. His focus made people nervous and exasperated.
“He’s too competitive,” said Siddharth Kansal, a volunteer who crewed for more than half of the Hell Ultra runners, including Rao and Jain.
“[Rao] is not going to finish, I’m quite sure,” Sindhu said shortly after Rao was gone. “It’s not about legs or anything. He’s only thinking about [Jain]. How many kilometers ahead is he, what is his pace. So he is not running his race anymore. He is running [Jain’s] race.”
As the two began to climb the final pass, puffy gray clouds rolled over the mountain like a thousand smoke grenades. The sun vanished, and the wind swept down to rip at our clothes and flip the dhaba’s plastic chairs. Snow streaked sideways across the doorframe, dusting the sandy ground with a fuzzy white film.
For as brutal as their race through the Himalayas had been, Jain and Rao were having a relatively pleasant experience compared to what other runners in the field were going through. The day before the race I had spent some time with Bhupendrasing Rajput, 50 years of age and the only Hell Ultra veteran, and Luc Hale, a 31-year-old American who had seemed very nervy and anxious about what was ahead.
Just beyond the first day’s cutoff, Rajput walked through the door of a restaurant in a small village, laid down behind a table, closed his eyes, and began rhythmically punching his right quad. The muscles in his face pulled his lips in strange directions, like he was trying out three grimaces at once. He and Hale had spent the first few hours of the race side by side, but by this point their paths were beginning to diverge.
Hale walked into the same restaurant maybe half an hour later, minutes before the deadline. He found a spot at the back and laid his forehead against the table. Someone wrapped him in a blue sleeping bag, and he pulled it over his head, blotting the harsh overhead light that brightened the pink walls. A short while later, he lifted his eyes and raised his right hand like it held an invisible sheet of paper, seeming to mime for a menu. A puzzled volunteer asked what he wanted, and Hale said, “So sleepy.”
By this point Rajput had somehow risen to sit at the table he’d laid behind, his face relaxing into blankness. He scrolled through his phone with one hand and quietly lifted handfuls of rice and dal to his mouth with the other.
Hale’s stomach had sent back much of what he’d put into it since the race began, and he’d refused to take food the first afternoon, until Sindhu pushed a peanut-buttered slice of bread into his hand.
“My stomach has a funny sense of humor,” he said the next morning, sitting on a lawn chair at a roadside hotel and at last crunching on some dry cereal. “It’s like, you’re hungry, but you can’t eat.”
Sindhu tried to coax him into realizing that his shot at the second cutoff was close to mathematically impossible, but Hale walked on until midday, when Sindhu pulled his SUV to the side of the road and asked me for a pen and paper. He opened one of my skinny notebooks on the hood and, alongside a volunteer, wrote out a list of requirements for Hale to stay in the race, which included remaining conscious and keeping his blood oxygen level high enough to avoid speaking with imaginary mountain friends.
Sindhu signed at the bottom, held up his phone to take a picture, and sent it off to a volunteer providing Hale with support.
All this might have been familiar to Rajput. He’d come back to this race largely because his 2017 attempt ended with Sindhu begging Rajput’s sister to save her brother’s life. Rajput had lost hours after his driver refused to go past a certain point, and soon he was exhausted and woefully off pace, trudging along at a single kilometer per hour. At the hotel in Leh, he couldn’t even walk.
Hale, when he at last called it off, was slack-jawed and buckled into the passenger seat of his crew car, his head lolling to the right.
Rajput made it to the end of the fourth day, passing through the Morey Plains and over the final pass before he called it off at the last dhaba, where race staff had stopped for food and sleep before the push to Leh. When my eyes fluttered open on that last morning, Rajput stood at the far side of the room, bathed in a rosy glow. I was confused. I knew he’d arrived at the dhaba the night before, but he should have been back out on the road well before sunrise.
“Bhupendra?” I said.
He was staring up at a mural of some nonexistent city that seemed to decorate every room and hallway of the two-story building. Rajput turned and smiled softly, then sat on the edge of the bed nearest the door, calm as always. I had no idea if he’d slept, but his face was relaxed as though he had. He answered whatever questions fogged through my mind with the same thoughtfulness he’d given me before the race, and somehow I felt like the one fending off exhaustion. After a few minutes, Rajput stood fluidly and walked out as though rising from bed on any other day, his hips and knees and feet bearing no visible sign of the damage done by 96 hours of near-constant motion.
Rajput had seemed almost serene in that moment, but his voice came heavy over the phone when I called a week later. His crew had been exhausted, he said, and he should have planned to switch them out for fresher legs. He’d made it farther than 2017, but this time he felt he’d had steps left to take, that he’d been stopped not by time, distance, or wild exhaustion, but by a logistics problem. That was hard to put out of his mind.
“I was pretty confident this time,” Rajput said. “I wanted to finish it, and I couldn’t achieve it.”
Before hanging up, he said, “We will realign and we will start again. That’s all.”
Slowly, on the final morning, Rao and Jain began to see signs of civilization.
They’d plowed over the icy final pass, and now the road from the final rest stop wriggled by homes, restaurants, a research center, and even a school where boys laughed and jostled outside, dressed in red ties, white shirts, and black jackets. Sindhu had sped off early in search of the two runners who were now pushing each other through a duel the likes of which the Hell Ultra had never seen.
By the afternoon, Jain was all alone. Two guys on his crew had taken turns running alongside him over the past 4.5 days, but now they were either injured or wrecked, and so it was just Jain going on like a metronome. His face tensed into a little snarl as the sun baked the dusty, crumbled ground.
Rao, newly stretched, had tucked into a racewalking stance and powered after Jain for a while before his back straightened again, nearly perpendicular with the ground. LSD’s “Thunderclouds” trickled out of tinny speakers carried by one of his crew members. He saw the group from Sindhu’s SUV and half-shouted a line from the song, “Where did love go?”
Sindhu drove by Rao and shouted a reminder that the last 10 kilometers are “game-changing.”
Rao tapped his head and said, “I know.”
On May 6, 2017, at the Autodromo Nazionale Formula One racetrack north of Milan, Italy, Eliud Kipchoge, current holder of the marathon world record, set out to run 26.2 miles in under two hours. Though he had a wall of wind-blocking pacers in front of him and two other pros were attempting the same feat that day, Kipchoge ran mostly alone.
His body was fluid, his legs a seamless flow that hid the relentlessness of his pace. He crossed the halfway point in under an hour and kept on, the muscles in his face betraying no sign of the effort until the final miles, when he faltered just slightly and finished in a still-astounding 2:00:25.
No doubt Kipchoge’s race plan had everything to do with a performance few expected. Yet, as Alex Hutchinson asks in his book, Endure, it’s hard not to wonder whether competition would have pushed him across the line in 1:59:59. Runners talk a lot about “running your race,” which usually means “don’t blindly chase the person in front of you until you burn up like a satellite coming back to Earth.” This often makes sense, but doing so sacrifices a slim shot at greatness for a wider shot at something good. Out in the Himalayas, Jain and Rao refused to slip from each other’s’ orbit. Sometimes it’s reckless to chase, and sometimes a runner has to burn up the road until recklessness morphs into a kind of epiphany.
It looked like they were fighting over the same pool of energy.
Jain had seemed to sap Rao’s strength just before midday, but his steady footsteps had slowed to a walk as Rao’s right leg stiffened and pushed him back into a trot. Passing a military base at the start of the last ascent, Rao—dressed in a yellow singlet with lime-green trim—caught an ambling Jain and that was it. Their crews and supporters—tired, hot, hungry—snipped at each other, but by all accounts the runners didn’t bicker.
Some 20 minutes later Rao ran through an unfurled banner atop Shanti Stupa and covered his face with open palms. Jain mostly walked the rest of the way, grinning at the finish 33 minutes later.
Everyone hugged. Half the crowd was taking photos, even tourists who couldn’t have known what was happening. Rao and Jain stood with the national flag between them while phones and cameras flashed, capturing photos of the first Indians to ever finish the Hell Ultra.
“How far can you go?”
Jain said this to me over the phone in the days afterward. This is what he likes about running, the basic questions it asks of a person’s basic parts. Have legs; can run; don’t know how far.
Mary Louise Adams, a professor at Queen’s University in Canada who studies the intersection of sports and sociology, talked with me about the “romantic idea” that running offers the chance to transport yourself “to another realm or something by the distance and just moving,” that pushing a body through that many miles “is absolutely this kind of spiritual, physical trance.”
And in the Himalayas, arriving at that state wasn’t just about how far you could go, but how much you could go through. Jain and Rao didn’t pick the Hell Ultra because it was 298 miles, but because each mile was able to ask questions they hadn’t considered. The mountains, sleeplessness, cold, enveloping dark, hallucinations, hunger, anemic air, and pace heightened the race in ways that made it impossible for them to do anything but, as Jain put it, live as though the race was all there is.
Both runners came into the Hell Ultra with a plan—Jain opted for a steady pace and patience while Rao, aflame from the start, white-knuckled his way through the mountains—but the thing about racing is that it involves other people, and that bit of human chaos has a way of weaving itself into the fabric of the contest, whether those people acknowledge each other or not.
Jain saw Rao flailing on the last morning and attacked, because why not? He’d already gotten what he came for at that point: knowledge that the breaking point he hopes never to find wasn’t anywhere on that desolate highway. By the time the sun rose on the fifth day he knew he would see the top of Shanti Stupa.
Rao was after something else. Becoming the first Indian finisher of the race had been the only thing on his mind until becoming the second rose as a possibility. He’d bolted off the starting line and cracked his tibia well before Jain showed himself to be a contender, and if Jain hadn’t caught him at the Gata Loops, who’s to say that the angels or demons in Rao’s head wouldn’t have whispered that he should rest his leg and try again in 2020? That the title of First Indian Finisher would still be waiting for him? But of course Jain did meet him at the top of that whiplash road, and that moved something in Rao, a man who had quit his job in the city to go pro, spent the last year running up mountains in preparation for these five days, and had every intention of making Shashwat Rao a name runners knew well outside the borders of his home country.
“No way I was gonna let him go,” he wrote to me, about Jain, a few days after the race. “No way.”
Running can obliterate you, because few sports expose people to themselves with such brutality. Its trick is to throw you against the barriers you’ve built for yourself, then step back innocently to ask what you’re going to do about them. Maybe the best way to answer that question is to understand what you want from a run before you begin, and to be prepared to meet something—or someone—out there on the road that can change all that.
Colin Daileda is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru, India. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Roads & Kingdoms, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and others. Before Bengaluru, he was a national correspondent for Mashable based in New York City, where he traveled across the United States writing about social justice. One time, running a marathon in Boston, he was passed by a man dressed as though it were 1776.