Summerlin resident Molly Sheridan has added another distinction to her ultramarathon feats. She was already the first American female to complete La Ultra-The High in 2011, an ultramarathon of 138 miles in the Himalayas.
For 2013, a new peak was added, resulting in a new route of about 69 miles. It goes from the Nubra Valley over a peak of about 18,000 feet called Wari La. Sheridan ran it, making her the first American female to both attempt and finish that race. It took about 25 hours to complete it.
La Ultra-The High starts at an elevation of 14,000 feet in a town called Leh in Northern India. The original route takes runners over two peaks —Khardung La and Tanglang La — which each rise to about 18,000 feet.
How oxygen-deprived is it up there? The Federal Aviation Administration requires lone pilots to wear an oxygen mask above 10,000 feet. Even government officials expressed concern when the race was first proposed by an Indian doctor.
“The Indian government sent him a letter that said it’s humanly impossible to do it,” Sheridan said.
For this year’s event, the entrepreneur — she owns and operates Desert Sky Adventures — left Las Vegas July 12. The race was July 22.
Sheridan said she finds running to be somewhat like meditating.
“I’m totally focused on what I call ‘moving through space,’ she said. “I just really focus on ‘just keep moving.’ I get into the groove. I get into a rhythm. … Once I start, my body calms down, and my mind, and you find your zen, so to speak.”
She said the first 30 minutes of any run are “horrible” as the body adjusts.
“I understand why people don’t like to run because they’re always in the first 30 minutes,” she said. “It’s always really hard, but when you get past that, you go into remote control, seriously. That’s why I’m such a proponent of walking and running. If you power walk, you’re getting the same benefits. You’re moving. And for me, when I get to the top of the peaks, I’m power walking. You’re at 15,000, 16,000, 17,000 feet, and it’s like breathing through a straw. I think it’s only, like, 40 percent oxygen.”
Since she began running at 48, Sheridan has run more than 35 ultramarathons in the past five years, including the Marathon des Sables — a seven-day, 150-mile stage race across the Sahara Desert — and the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, an invitation-only event through Death Valley, which she finished under the 48-hour time limit. So, the possibility of running through the Himalayas piqued her interest.
“It sounded like the most amazing adventure. I couldn’t say no,” she said.
Sheridan first attempted the Himalayas after La Ultra-The High was organized by Dr. Rajat Chauhan, a sports medicine doctor in India. He contacted her in 2009 after learning of her Badwater achievement to suggest the extreme altitude race. Countless people expressed concern for her health.
She said she “had to stop listening to people because so many people were really negative and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, your brain is going to explode.’ ”
But the idea intrigued her. Her first attempt was in 2010. Sheridan was going strong at 100 miles when word came that her partner, Bill Andrews, was ill and needed to be airlifted to a hospital. Physically, she could have completed the race, but her concern was more for Andrews, so she stopped. He ended up having gallbladder surgery.
She returned in August 2011 and finished the entire distance, becoming the first American woman to do so. The 138 miles, done nonstop, took her 58 hours to complete.
In 2012, she and Andrews returned. He completed the 138-mile distance, and Sheridan ran a shorter race so she could be part of his support crew.
She returned in 2013 to run the newly added route. Andrews also returned. As a medical researcher – he holds a doctorate in molecular biology — his focus is on reversing the aging process by lengthening telomeres, which protect chromosomes from deterioration.
“I’ve learned in my research that our health declines and our performance in sports declines because our telomeres shorten as we age,” he said. “So, I successfully do everything I can to keep my telomeres long.”
He said he had no concerns that running so far and not getting sleep might be stressful on the brain, organs and muscles.
“Many research articles in scientifically peer-reviewed journals have now shown that humans (unlike mice) have reduced stress as a result of endurance exercise,” he said. “All of them have shown that the more intense your endurance, the better. The most recent publication showed that ultramarathoners are expected to live healthy 11 percent longer than nonrunners.”
A documentary is in the works and covered the first attempt. The working title is “The High.” It’s being produced by Barry Walton, a videographer from Chicago.
While in India, Sheridan made friends with the people and learned about their culture. Along with Saint Joan of Arc and Saint Christopher medals, she carries the prayer beads from her friend Lama Tsephel, a monk she met on her first trip to Leh. Every trip, she said she brings his monastery shoes and clothes for those in need.
Next up? She and Lisa Tamati of New Zealand are planning an ultramarathon that will take place in the most remote continent on Earth. “I want to be the first American woman to do 100 miles in Antarctica,” she said. “It’s never been done.”
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at email@example.com or 702-387-2949.