The first thing that one is told on a visit to Ladakh is that oxygen levels are low and breathing can be hard; that’s just for people from the plains doing normal activities like walking fast or climbing the stairs. Imagine running 42km in these conditions. That’s just what Mrudul Jambhekar Iyer, an Indian-origin wellness expert from Singapore, did recently, finishing one of the six races within the 10th edition of the Ladakh Marathon in India, held on September 7-10, 2023.
The Ladakh Marathon is arguably the world’s highest annual marathon, with elevations of the run route ranging from 11,500ft to 17,618ft (3,505m to 5,370m) above sea level. However, the record for the highest single marathon event is so far held by the one organised on Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, in May 2022, at an altitude of 19,340ft (5,895m).
Iyer, who has a wellness enterprise named Mpowered, is aged about 47 now and has had prior experience participating in 5K and 10K runs, according to an interview that she gave to Mothership, a Singapore-based news website. She attempted the Ladakh Marathon as a post-40 challenge, in order to dispel the stereotype of fitness levels waning in one’s forties.
Following a knee injury in 2010, Iyer had healed herself through yoga and then gradually returned to running. The 2019 Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon was her first long-distance run; despite some discomfort, she finished it, becoming an official “marathoner”.
Nonetheless, her higher level of fitness (compared to the average person) didn’t let her escape altitude sickness in Ladakh. As Iyer recalled in the interview, after she reached Leh, the main city in Ladakh with airport connectivity, she began climbing the stairs to get to her third-floor hotel room — and almost immediately, she began to feel short of breath, with her heart beating frantically.
“It felt like climbing 50 floors,” she said. That made the prospect of a 42K run quite daunting, but she wouldn’t give up.
Ladakh is generally described as a “cold desert” because rainfall and vegetation are both sparse, and it can get very cold during certain times of the year. The landscape is magnificent and huge, and people appear tiny against the backdrop of nature — exactly as it really is, a fact that city-dwellers often forget. Running a marathon through this terrain requires an athlete to draw upon every bit of physical and mental power.
Iyer found herself doing so, too. She was very far from the kind of moderate, humid climate that she was used to in Singapore, and Ladakh was taking its toll on her from day one. But this was her first international marathon, and she was determined to see it through. She knew that her mind had to face the challenge before her body could. “Once you train your mind, the body adapts,” she told Mothership.
Her preparation for the 42K run included doing 5K and 10K practice runs in Ladakh. Successful completion of those came as a confidence-booster. When the day for her big race came, Iyer was in a positive state of mind. The run began early in the morning. All through the race, she stayed hydrated, enjoyed the scenery, and got the support of encouraging locals along the run route.
At the end of it, Iyer finished in the 235th position, out of 469 participants in the race. She had covered the distance of 42K in about 5 hours and 40 minutes, and was now the proud owner of a participant’s medal.
As the saying goes, it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. For Iyer, being able to challenge herself and making it to the finish line was her triumph.