Saturday, December 03, 2011

The bug

Arriving at the Fulbari resort in Pokhara was like stepping through the gate of a chaotic playground into a highly organized running camp for adults. Dozens of people clad in tights and compression sleeves milled about the lobby, and signs listed the schedule of pre-race activities for the following day. Racing the Planet is known for its consistency and organization amid remote trails in developing areas, which is why they're such a popular provider of adventure racing and trekking, attracting endurance junkies from all over the world. Racing the Planet makes a point to provide a wholly immersive experience in a unique country, and it's true that many competitors come for the adventure of the race more than the competition. Beat and I fell solidly into this category. I mean, we were in the shadow of the Himalayas, steeped in a culture a world apart from our own. Why would we want to rush through any of it?

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.

In the morning, 220 registered participants from all over the world gathered to finalize the logistics. Race officials checked off my required gear and weighed my pack at 10.5 kilograms without water –still on the heavy end of the scale in a list that ranged from 6.5 to 15 kilograms. This wasn't entirely surprising as I had definitely planned a luxury tour as far as self-supported racing goes – 2,500 calories a day, treats in the form of peanut butter and jelly, and enough clothing to stay warm regardless of what the weather did. Again, this was our relaxing vacation. I could afford to move a bit slower if it meant peanut butter-slathered granola bars in the morning. Mmmm.

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.

It was 11:34 p.m., about two hours after I went to bed, when the unholy Thai Chicken made its first attempt to exorcise itself from my gut. The sensation lurched from waking stomach rumbles to wide-eyed panic within just two or three seconds. My pad was all the way at the end of the tent, and it was all I could do to wrestle out of my sleeping bag, stumble awkwardly over a row of reclined bodies, rip apart the fragile zipper of the tent and rush into the cold evening. I made it about 50 meters from the tent to an empty rice paddy before the undigested Thai Chicken exploded in an impressive fountain across the mud. I stumbled a few more steps and vomited again, twice. Believing I had successfully emptied my stomach, I turned toward the tent to find toothpaste and water before I felt urgency at the other end. Just a few meters away at that point, I barely made it to the open-pit latrines in time.

I felt fully emptied the first time around, so it was disconcerting to wake up five more times in the night after little sleep with a similar sense of urgency and nothing left to purge. Between painful bouts with globs of yellow foam, I managed to force down enough gulps of water to expel nearly clear liquid out of both ends. I have never before experienced such an intense purging session, violently convulsing to expel tiny amounts of bodily fluid and then writing with full-body muscle aches, fever and chills at the same time. It felt as though my own body was trying to reject itself.

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."


  1. Thai Chicken will never be the same.

  2. This is killing me ! I want it all at once :)

  3. I had a similar experience in Italy -- hit me while I was at St. Peter's Basilica; I ended up puking my guts out in a public bathroom right outside the church and then it took forever to get home with the chills and shaking. My boyfriend came down with it about six hours later (pretty sure it was food poisoning from sandwiches we'd both had). We had a ten-hour flight the next day and it was pure hell, but I'm sure nothing like starting a trek across the Himalayas!

  4. "I have never before experienced such an intense purging session, violently convulsing to expel tiny amounts of bodily fluid and then writing with full-body muscle aches, fever and chills at the same time. It felt as though my own body was trying to reject itself."

    Hmmmm, sounds like my life with Celiac Disease. Of course I don't have to go to Nepal to experience this. I can get it at a local restaurant 2 miles from my house. And that was at a restaurant that offered a gluten-free menu. Now I don't risk eating away from home unless I can fully research where my food is coming from, what's in it, and where was it prepared. I have no idea how I would eat while traveling abroad. Traveling in the US I bring all my own food.

  5. I love reading about your racing adventures, but I often wonder about the difference between people. I'd love to do a trek in Nepal. The hardcore racing stuff not so much. Sometimes I feel sort of wimpy when I read about Racing the Planet or Susitna. AAArgh...bloggy guilt! You rock, doing the race when you felt like that.

  6. I agree with Gwen, and the race hasn't even started yet...except for your night before trips. If you didn't give us a prelude to know you are OK, I would be dying now. Sure most of us have been sick before AND can remember most of the occurrences. Now I'll remember your's too !
    In hindsight(good one heh?)this makes the memories stronger.

  7. I've been that sick only once in my life - from food poisoning. I hope to never live through that again. And that happened in my own house, with my nice cool tile bathroom floor to collapse onto - I can't imagine not having even that small comfort. Fortunately I had only 12 hours of misery. The suspense of your race experience is killing me!

  8. Jill try downing bananas and yogurt the entire day, it really works well.

    Yogurt adds good bacteria, and bananas can help bulk up.


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