Fatigue, Hallucinations & The Risk Of Death: Here’s How A 17 Year Old Became The Youngest & The Only Indian Female To Conquer The World’s Highest Race!

JYOTSANA RAWAT: THE LIMITLESS

You cry, you fall, you doubt, you curse, you shiver, you sweat. And you endure – right till you somehow painfully but proudly drag your feet across the finish line. That’s what La Ultra – The High is all about!

In 2017, Jyotsana Rawat at 17 became the youngest participant and the only Indian female along with her father, an experienced marathon runner Dy. Commandant Yashwant Singh Rawat, the oldest participant at 53 to successfully complete the 111Kms race. They are also the only father-daughter duo to participate in any La Ultra race.

The ultra distance races take place annually in the remote Trans Himalayan region of Ladakh and claimed to be the highest and toughest race on foot.

La Ultra distances range from 55Kms, 111Kms, 222Kms, 333Kms to 555Kms covering Nubra Valley to Changthang plateau to be completed within 126 hours.

Covering 5 mountain passes along the route, all above 17,000 feet with temperatures fluctuating between minus 12 to 40 degrees Celsius and oxygen level going down to up to 50% compared to sea level, this race is tough, risky, dangerous and well, even sometimes impossible to the best of athletes.

According to Dr. Rajat Chauhan, Founder & Race Director of La Ultra-The High, being crazy is the basic requirement to get into the race. And Jyotsana it seems happens to be one!

She also participated in the consecutive year for 222Kms but fell short of just 17Kms. But those incomplete 17Kms taught her the most valuable lessons of life and not the achievement of finishing 111.

Every champion also has his or her days when they’re vulnerable. But they always rise like a phoenix and conquer again.

Read Jyotsana Rawat’s journey in her own words. And let me tell you, the race of her life has just started! She isn’t running to compete, she’s in it to make her own mark, for her name and the happiness it gives to fuel her soul.

GROWING UP WITH 4AM RUNS

We are Garhwalis, settled in Dehradun. I am the eldest of 3 siblings and ever since I can remember, my sister and I used to wake up at around 4am, go for a run and then go to school. This was our daily routine whether dad was in town or posted elsewhere.

“We thought that’s normal for every kid, but later realised it isn’t. It is only me and my sister who are made to follow this 4am running schedule to make fitness as a way of life from the beginning.”

There is one important value that my father has passed on to me which I hold on to in life.  

“Money and boys are not important. Name is.”

When people start knowing you by your name, money and boys/ people will automatically follow.

THE STARTING LINE OF READY, GET SET, GO!

I was in 8th class when my father was transferred to Dehradun and just a couple of days later after moving in, he asked me if I want to run from home to his office which was 23Kms away. In an instant I said yes! We ran through the hilly jungle area along the railway track since it was hot.

When we finally reached, everyone started praising me saying, ‘Rawat Sahab ke beti daud ke aayi hai’. I felt I have really achieved something.

My first racing competition was in the same year for a cross-country run in Dehradun where I stood 4th!

“I don’t like celebrating my birthday the conventional way. I like doing something different which I can be proud of. So, on my 15th birthday I decided to run 45kms from Dehradun to Rishikesh. My mother and siblings followed us in the car and cheered us while dad and I ran.”

The same year, I ran my first ever marathon. It was a half marathon in Dehradun. I stood 2nd in the open category followed by a woman from Germany even though I was under age. I appeared in newspapers and my school mates started taking me seriously.

“I guess running is in my genes. There are days when I don’t run. But if put 10%, I get 20% result. Things get even better when I start focusing on training.”

THE BEGINNINGS OF LA ULTRA

I had no idea of La Ultra races. A friend told me about 74Kms Dehradun to Dhanaulti run. I was 16 but the organisers let me participate considering my experience in running. Dad and I finished the race in 10 hours.

Jyotsana with her father DC Yashwant Singh Rawat.

“I was congratulated for being the first Indian woman to qualify for La Ultra – The High in Ladakh. I was in the newspapers again. I was too young to understand what was happening!”

“I made my decision to participate in the 111Kms La Ultra race where people have gone through all kinds of extreme physical and mental struggles. But I was confident and too excited to go to Leh.”

I was already fairly experienced in running and mountaineering but did not train so much. I hardly trained two times in a week.

“I am blessed to have a strong will power. If I want to achieve something, I put in my all.”

“On my 16th birthday, I did something different again. Dad made me walk non-stop for 6 hours in the house from 2am after which we went to Dhanaulti, came back via a jungle route and continued our walk in the house. We completed 20 hours of walk and run that day before we finally rested.”

CONQUERING LA ULTRA 111

Representation image. Picture courtesy La Ultra video.

During the two weeks leading up to the race, my father and I trained by finding different short cuts to Khardung La, as covering a distance of 48Kms by road was difficult to achieve on foot every day.

We even went to Nubra Valley which was the starting point of the race and I came back running 20Kms to prepare for the altitude.

I kept myself hydrated and slept as much as I could before the race.

Finally, on race day the energy was high and our adrenalin racing at the starting line. Since I was the youngest and the only girl among the participants, everyone was nice and motivated me a lot.

“The race started at 8pm. It was really dark and I was shivering. My father advised me not to compete with anyone. All I needed to do was finish the race even if I took a full 20 hours cut off duration.”

Up until the first 21kms I was running well and in good shape. Towards the steeper slopes I took it easy and started walking. I was offered water and food by the crew but I refused to drink or eat.

“Running towards Khardung La was difficult. The terrain is rough and steep. The temperature and oxygen were dropping. I still refused to eat. It was a crucial juncture, because that’s when most people are not able to make it on time.”

But my crew member made me have water, a little maggi and soup. We were there for 15 minutes.

“I could hear on the crew’s walkie talkie about the people who were injured, who had given up, someone who had fallen off a cliff and so on. It was unnerving.”

“After the second check point at mid-night my eyes were heavy with exhaustion and I just wanted to sleep for a while. I told dad but he rudely snapped at me and said he will continue and a car will come to pick me up. I got so angry that I stood up and continued walking without a break.”

I felt extremely cold till the time we reached Khardung La around 7am. But then a constant temperature fluctuation began between cold and hot for most part as we started running down-hill. From being fully covered, I was in t-shirt and shorts but it got better mentally as we started spotting civilisation with more people around. I started to enjoy the way down with other runners.

“Around 4kms before the race ends, I started getting extremely restless and frustrated because I just couldn’t see the finish line. It isn’t visible until one actually reaches there.”

“We finally crossed the finish line in 19 hours 45 minutes. I was ecstatic. My father being the calm person that he is, patted my back and said ‘shaabash’. I spoke to my mom and told her, maine kar diya.”

Jyotsana and DC Yashwant Singh Rawat at the finish line of La Ultra 111Kms.

Had dad not pinched my ego when I was dying to sleep 15Kms before Khardung La, I wouldn’t have been able to finish within the 20 hours mark.

“I became the youngest and the first Indian woman and my father the oldest to finish La Ultra 111Kms.

“My true feelings after the race was a longing to go back home and sleep. Even though I travel a lot, I do get home sick very quickly.”

“La Ultra is not just about a race. It is a life & death situation.”

There was a woman I know who was practicing for months for La Ultra 333Kms in Ladakh. She had completed the route as part of her training but she dropped out just after 21Kms because her oxygen levels dropped.

May be because I am from the mountains and actively participate in adventure sports along with my ‘never give up’ attitude, I was able to complete the race without any major medical issues.

“The fact that all of us were at the starting line knowing the risks and danger that lie ahead including the possibility of not coming back alive, is in itself the biggest achievement.”

“It is not about any ranking, it is about pushing your boundaries and giving your best.”

AN EMOTIONAL LONE FIGHTER AT LA ULTRA 222

We were back for La Ultra 222 in 2018 but unfortunately my grandmother passed away and dad had to leave before the race.

“I became extremely de-motivated and a negative person to be around with. For me I had given up the moment my father left me in Leh and went back to Dehradun for his mother’s last rites.”

But dad was back a day before the race, not to participate but be there for me. My mother was handling everything back home alone during this difficult time.

“I couldn’t sleep at night as I used to see my grandmother. I was not in the right mental position to run but I was in a dilemma. I owed this to my family which was doing so much for me and invested both emotionally and financially. So, there I was at the starting line.”

Jyotsana at La Ultra 2019 222Kms starting line.

The race director Dr. Rajat Chauhan was personally crewing me. Everyone did so much for me.

“At the same point as last year some 13Kms before Khardung La, I was seeing flashbacks of dad and me running. I was crying and just didn’t know how to carry on. It was the most difficult part of the race.”

It was only because of my crew that I was able to push myself.

“I quit the race just 17Kms before the finish line even though I had 2 hours with me. I could’ve easily finished but at the end it is the mental strength that matters which I lacked at that point.”

I felt I did something wrong to myself and to all those who love me. But back home everyone behaved normal. Dad was in fact proud of me for being able to cross my limits and attempting 222Kms.

“I was not able to convince myself that what I did was also a big achievement at 18. Weird things started happening to me. I distanced myself from everyone and even shaved my head.”

I also got a panic attack during a para-gliding course. I stopped cycling. But a sports background really helped me get over that phase.

Then in 2019, I pushed myself to participate in the Delhi half marathon.

“Although 21Kms is a distance I can cover any day, I was sweating from nervousness at the starting line. I was doubting and cursing myself for participating.”

My mind was playing with me specially in the last 3Kms. I finished in my worst ever duration but I was still proud of myself for getting back on the track.

DISCOVERING THE GOOD INSIDE

In June 2019, two of my friends and I cycled from Manali to Leh in 8 days where I celebrated my 19th birthday!

“I was also scared to come back to Ladakh after the 2018 La Ultra 222 fiasco. I wanted to get over it so I asked my friends to follow me on their cycles while I run towards Khardung La. I had these flashbacks again and started crying.”

I was part of a mountaineering expedition during that trip to Mount Kun. By the time it finished it was time for La Ultra and the crew started pushing me to participate again.

Jyotsana during the Mount Kun expedition in Ladakh.

“In the 2019 edition, I decided to crew for La Ultra just a day before the race. But I feared my negativity might affect other runners and if I see that Jyotsana inside me, it will be the end of me.”

Jyotsana with fellow crew member Mukul Oberoi in 2019.

On the contrary though, I found myself encouraging and motivating everyone!

“There was one woman who was running for 222kms. I was cheering for her and really wanted her to cross the finish line which I had failed at. When she gave up, I broke down. But I could see good in me.”

 LIFE LESSONS AND GOD PARENTS

“It was not 111, it was 222 which taught me a lot. You may be physically at the peak of fitness, but if you’re not mentally strong, you lose the game.”

There is no award or cash prize for runners at La Ultra. There is a possibility of death. But La Ultra is my beginning. They are my family. Nothing else has given me so much recognition.

I even made god parents at La Ultra – my crew members Kanchan Bhat who I call Moose and Mukul Oberoi, my Panda. I never knew people can be so good who have the ability to do so much for others.

Jyotsana (left) with Mukul Oberoi(Panda) and Kanchan Bhat (Moose).
Jyotsana with La Ultra Founder and Race Director Dr. Rajat Chauhan.

“I also realised that people come and go. They live and die. You ought to move on no matter how much you love them. I know my father will not always be by my side, so I need to be independent.”

Jyotsana with her father DC Yashwant Singh Rawat.

I firmly believe in La Ultra’s motto – Failing is not a crime, lack of effort is.

“So, no matter what you want to achieve, keep trying, someday you’ll get it and if you don’t it is fine. When we talk about winning positions, we stop admiring people who failed but gave it their all.”

BEYOND JUST A RUNNER

Being a Jack of all trades and ace of none, is my reality. I love adventure sports. I am a certified skier, mountaineer, para-glider and also undertaken courses in horse riding and kayaking.

I also have a diploma degree in Kathak. I can even have my own Kathak school and teach!

“I am limitless. I can do anything I put my mind to. Nothing is impossible.”

“I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God or any religion. But I do respect my guru – my father and nature. I requested the mountains to let me pass through them. I was lucky they did.”

Jyotsana’s next big target is what is considered the world’s toughest race in South America at the end of 2021. It is an expedition which takes adventure athletes through hundreds of miles of remote backcountry terrain with just compass and maps. It involves climbing, glacier trekking, horseback riding, kayaking, mountain biking, mountaineering and rappelling.

As for her education, she is pursuing her under graduation in BA through an open university focusing on achieving new milestones in the great outdoors and just enjoying life!

Here’s a glimpse of La Ultra – The High.

Published by Geetanjali Prasad

For a decade or so, I worked as a television news reporter, producer and anchor and dabbled in genres like entertainment, business, real estate, sports and travel for different television channels. Currently since the last five years, I am taking care of the subject of climate change and green buildings by visual storytelling through digital platforms for an American organisation. I have started this blog purely for love of writing and pursuit of extraordinary stories (as the name suggests) by looking for people who have done immensely inspiring work or overcame situations that demanded exceptional grit and determination. I want to document and share these stories with the world in the hope that it motivates more people including me to be just a little kinder to everything and everyone (including animals & environment) around us, a bit more fearless to fight for what is right and the endurance to achieve what we envision.

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