One might ask why we'd bother to enter a race rather than just plan our own trek. But I generally feel similarly about most of my race experiences - I enjoy the camaraderie with other people of similar mindsets, the new friendships forged amid the dirt and distress, the push to challenge myself physically and emotionally beyond what I could in tourist mode, and the personal rewards therein. And especially since I'm not a particularly talented runner in any capacity, I find it difficult to care whether my flailing efforts land me in 67th or 89th or 145th place - just as long as I have fun, meet cool people, take a lot of memorable photographs, and experience an adequate amount of challenge/suffering to fully enrich the adventure.
We crammed into several small Indian buses and lurched down the rough road toward the river. Nepali musicians and holy men greeted us as we stepped out of the bus, dabbing our foreheads with a streak of red paint that would stain our skin for the rest of the week. Camp One was set up atop a cultivated field, and consisted of two rows of basic and poorly ventilated Coleman spring-bar tents with a massive fire pit on one end. Each racer was pre-assigned a tent. Ours contained seven people and hardly enough floor space to accommodate that many sleeping pads, with no room for gear. This was going to be our roving home for seven nights
It was also the beginning of complete food independence. As a competition, Racing the Planet forbid local food purchases during the seven-day stage race. I believe this rule was set mostly to ensure a fair race at the top, and also to prevent the higher risk of illness from strange foods cooked in less than sanitary conditions. Beat and I planned a series of freeze-dried meals for each of our breakfasts and dinners. We rolled out our gear in the cramped tent and walked to the bonfire with our vacuum-packed meals. For the first night in camp, I choose a entree from Backpacker's Pantry called Thai Chicken. It wasn't great but it was tolerable enough to stuff down my throat with the promise of peanut butter and jelly for dessert. Strange to look back now and realize that this was the only freeze-dried meal in my 10.5-kilogram pack that I actually ingested in an entire week. A last meal in more ways than one.
After one of my trips to the latrine, the fever flared up with such intensity that I had no choice but to drop to my knees in the field before I lost consciousness. I still felt dizzy so I laid down atop stubby stalks of harvested millet, right in the mud. The paddy was along my "route" and could have been covered in vomit for all I knew, but I didn't even really care. I shivered and sweated on the soft ground and grasped for understanding. Was this simply food poisoning/traveler's illness? I'd been as careful as I possibly could. I only drank and brushed my teeth with bottled mineral water, and the only non-packaged food I'd eaten was two breakfasts at the hotels. Even then I basically stuck to cooked grains and vegetables, avoiding meat, fruit, milk, yogurt, even cheese. But then again, everything about Nepal was foreign to me. Perhaps some things were just too foreign.
I coughed a few times to expel bits of white foam before rolling on my back. I gazed up at an explosion of stars; the only dark space in the entire sky was encircled by a sliver of the moon. The glittering starlight was enough to light up the snowy face of Annapurna South, far above the surrounding "foothills" that were nearly as tall as the Rocky Mountains by themselves, with Annapurna nearly 25,000 feet over my seemingly broken body. I breathed a happy sigh in spite of myself, simply grateful to be in the presence of such an immense mountain when I was so small and so weak. But the peaceful feeling soon gave way to dread. Was this all I was ever going to see of the Himalayas? What if I had a parasite or other serious illness? Was I going to have to transfer to a third-world hospital in Pokhara, or worse, home? I couldn't remember the last time I felt so sick, and I sincerely believed I'd be lucky to stay mobile, let alone attempt the 17 miles with two huge climbs and descents that was simply the first stage of Racing the Planet Nepal. The race began in less than two hours. But if I didn't start the first stage in the morning, that was it for me. I'd either have to wait it out in a hotel room or go home.
But the mud-streaked truth remained that I was too sick to really care one way or the other. I pulled myself up from the exhaustion and plodded back to the tent, finally admitting to Beat that I was really sick and "who knows?" about morning.
"Don't bother waking me up for breakfast if I'm sleeping," I said. "But maybe I'll feel better in the morning."