Sunday, December 04, 2011

Harder than I imagined

A chorus of muffled voices jostled me into half-consciousness. I stretched out my curled body only to ignite an intense cramp in my right calf. In a blinding instant, an invisible vice gripped down on my leg and sent a ripple of electric pain through my body. Temporarily paralyzed as cramp passed through, I lay helplessly while droplets of condensed moisture dripped from the tent ceiling directly onto my forehead.

"Jill, it's six-forty. You need to get up. Jill, are you okay?" I heard Beat's voice echo through my pain tunnel.

"Errgh," I groaned. My head was pounding. "I am really dehydrated."

"You okay to start?"

"I guess. I mean, we'll see." I struggled with the simple effort of sitting up in my sleeping bag.

Beat handed me two pills he acquired at the medical tent — some kind of anti-nausea medication and Imodium AD. "I think I'll stick with you today," he said. "You do not look good."

"You don't have to do that," I said. "You shouldn't give up your race for me. I'll be fine. Really. I can just walk it slowly. I won't pass out. Promise."

"We can walk together," Beat said. "It's better that way."

In a daze, I managed to pack up my gear and attach my race bibs to my backpack and shirt. As I struggled toward the starting line, my 27-pound pack resonated away from the luxury I had thought it was to the burden it really was. It was one thing to hoist a heavy pack to the starting line with flu-like nausea, dehydration and fever. It was quite another to imagine all of stage one, which contained 28.5 kilometers (18 miles) of rugged trails with 1,306 meters (4,285 feet) of climbing.

"The cut-off is as 5 p.m., so we have ten hours to walk it," Beat told me.

"Oh, you can do that easy," our friend Steve replied.

"You'd be surprised ... surprised how slow I can go," I sputtered. "I was averaging one and a half miles per hour during my sick point in Susitna, and I felt substantially better than I do right now."

"Well at least this race has a lot of climbing," Steve offered with a wry smile.

The first 4.5 kilometers of the stage were almost entirely flat, along the cultivated fields that lined the Mardi Khola River. The morning was clear and the contours of Annapurna glistened with startling clarity. I tried to muster a brisk walking pace on the flat jeep track, but my efforts were pathetic at best. Even though I started near the back, the rest of the back-of-packers passed us until I could look over my shoulders and see the sweepers not far behind. Meanwhile, Beat pressed several Hi-Chew candies into my palm. "Try to eat something," he urged.

"I need to keep some water down first," I said. I took tiny sips from one of my liter bottles and fought the subsequent waves of nausea as I plodded unhappily through the stunning landscape.

My water showed signs of staying down, but the nausea remained intense. We reached the first checkpoint in about an hour, which I thought was not terrible for 4.5 kilometers, but we were definitely at the back of the race — also not surprising as it was supposed to be a running race. I took a few sips of water in front of the volunteer waiting to fill my bottle and nearly lost it in front of him. Involuntary gasps erupted from my throat. I clutched my neck in an reflex to force oxygen back down while water tried to come up. My gasps must have sounded as though walking 2.7 flat miles in an hour was the hardest effort I had ever made in my life, during an easy section of a relatively easy stage in a 210-kilometer foot race through the rugged mountains of Nepal. Hardly confidence-inspiring.

"Um, are you okay?" the volunteer asked.

"Yes ... just ... trying ... not ... to ... throw ... up," I gurgled. I figured honesty was the best policy.

The the trail started up, on what would become a ubiquitous feature on the trails in the Himalayan foothills — slippery, steep stone steps. This section is mostly a blank for me, as my mind retreated into the special place it sometimes goes to block out pain — like a Kathmandu black out, cutting consciousness to save the grid from overload. I must have been moving very, very slowly, as Beat — who was starting to feel not so hot himself — asked me if I wanted a tow. I would normally be too proud to accept such physical help, but flickers of consciousness understood my body's desperation. "Yeah, that would actually probably help a lot," I said.

Beat grabbed the end of one of my trekking poles, and I held on as he tugged me up the stairs. Even though I still had to walk, Beat's assistance took a good amount of pressure off the climb. I began to feel more comfortable with a faster walk — that is, not taking breaks after every other step. But the effort still felt intense. We passed two beautiful, smiling Nepali children, who were no doubt laughing at the strange white people holding onto each other and gasping as though we were climbing Everest instead of a benign village trail. "Namaste," they called out. "Namaste," I whispered back. Just speaking the words through heavy breaths sent my gag reflex into high gear.

"Beat, I have to stop," I gasped. I hunched over my poles and breathed heavily before an impressive geyser of liquid — I figure about a liter of water and the three Hi-Chews I had managed to force down so far — erupted from my mouth.

The little girl and her brother rushed toward me. "You vomit? You vomit?" the girl said in English.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," I sputtered and turned in embarrassment away from them.

The effort of assisting me quickly cut Beat down as well. We both acknowledged that the intensity was too much, but it was too late. Beat was starting to feel the first symptoms of what would become infamously known around camp as "the bug." I hadn't successfully digested a single calorie or ounce of water since more than 24 hours before. We stopped to sit on a rock about a kilometer shy of checkpoint two to try to settle our stomachs, and also process exactly what were up against. We were already at the back of the pack and nowhere near camp.

We managed to motivate ourselves to checkpoint two, where the medical volunteers showed little sympathy, in a good way. "Several people seem to have that bug," the leader of the medical team said. "We think it's a 24-hour virus. You'll probably start to feel better soon. Have you been peeing?"

"Peeing?" I said. "How can I pee when all of my liquid is coming out the other end?"

"Well, as long as you're not too dehydrated," the medic said. "Just keep going. You'll be fine. Make it your goal to pee before the end of the day."

I remember glowering at her. I felt really awful, and now Beat was sick as well. He mentioned quitting the race, and I wanted to quit, too. And I wanted the medics to give us a guilt-free excuse. At the same time, I knew the volunteer was right. What we were doing, walking slowly through sickness, wasn't going to kill us. It wasn't fun, but it wasn't going to kill us. Beat knew this as well, so reluctantly we got up.

"At least we're sick in one of the most beautiful places in the world," Beat offered as we plodded up the stone steps. Soon we caught up to other racers who were taking long breaks in strange spots. They too complained of flu symptoms, and I realized that a whole contingent of sick people rounded out the back-of-the-pack during that stage. At the steepest section, I had to take a short break for every single step I climbed. Loud wretching noises echoed through the still air as we traded break spots with the other sickies. I started to feel marginally better near the top. I managed take in half of a fruit bar and the rest of the Hi-Chews I hadn't thrown up already, for what I figure is an impressive 120-140 calories for the entire 18-mile hike, with no glycogen in the reserves.

Low energy didn't feel as bad as nausea and vomiting, however, and my mood began to improve. It was about this point that three Nepali women carrying triple their mass in grain stalks — while wearing flip flops and skirts — passed us on the climb. I could only shake my head at my own good fortune. "Just when I think I have it tough, Nepali porters pass us again," I said to Beat. "We have it so easy."

We crossed the finish line at 3:38 p.m., for a stage time of eight hours and 38 minutes. Of the 215 or so people who started Stage One in the morning (seven never left camp), only ten people came in behind us. One person dropped during that stage. Another seven would drop out before the race finished. "The bug" was waging an impressive war, and the race hadn't even really begun.


  1. I am enjoying this recap so much, but I feel for you and your suffering that first day. Glad to read of improvement beginning ... this is good stuff, and I eagerly await the next installment!

  2. Wow, I'm amazed you were still able to take such awesome photos through all of that. (Please turn off Blogger's lightbox feature so we can see them in full size!!) What an adventure!

  3. A whole slew of "bugged" people on the mountains high up...hmm...a new perspective on endurance.

  4. Another amazing "once in a lifetime"'ve had more than your share! Hate that you were so sick, but even that adds to the memories. I look forward to reading the rest and enjoying your stunning pictures. Thanks for bringing us along!

  5. Unbelievable (to me I mean) that you can be THAT sick and still do the first stage. You are quite an inspiration...chuckling at your observation on the Nepali porters...funny how no matter tough you THINK you've got it, SOMEBODY out there has it WAY tougher, and isn't whining about it either. I always try to remember this when I start sniveling about how hard it is or how tired I am. And your pics (as always) are just amazing. What an adventure!!

  6. Wow, that's impressive that you could keep going through all that. That does not sound fun... Beat was right, though - at least you were sick in an amazingly beautiful place. Awesome pictures!

  7. You are one tough woman. I am amazed. I'm loving your race recap and can't wait until tomorrow to read the next one.

  8. Glad you were able to tough it out because the pictures are absolutely amazing.


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