Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Steps forward

In my mind, the real challenge began after the stage ended. Other racers had already devoured their late lunch and were moving onto pre-dinner tea and, for the heavier packers, snacks. I watched them tape their blisters (of which I had none) and massage their sore knees and shoulders (mine were fine.) But as I observed them shoveling in spoonfuls of slop with glee, I would have welcomed all of their maladies just to have what they had — an appetite.

They looked happy and content; I felt ragged and empty. They sprawled out comfortably in the sunlight; I was unnaturally tense and my muscles ached all over. My body was consuming noticeable portions of itself that I was convinced included a fair percentage of muscle (there are conflicting studies out there on the science of starvation, but I have read about research which concluded that a depleted body in motion turns to muscle proteins, which are more easily converted to energy than fat, even if there's plenty of body fat available.) Of course I don't know exactly what was happening biologically, only that I was losing weight and weakening by the hour.

But it wasn't such a simple dilemma as just stuffing down more food. Food I had. It was my stomach that seemed to cease functioning with any sort of effectiveness. As long as my body was in motion, I was fine. I could consume my simple carbohydrate energy food and feel restored as the glucose passed directly into my bloodstream. But simply eating my bars was like using kindling to stay warm on a winter camping trip. The flash-flame wore off too quickly, and if I burned up all of my bars, I stood no chance of igniting the disgusting freeze-dried logs that comprised the rest of my energy source.

One of our tent-mates, Patty, overheard Beat and I analyzing our dinners and offered us one of her bland meals, a benign-sounding, low-fat entree called Chicken Noodles. When we tried to trade one of our meals, she refused. Patty and her husband fell ill with the bug during the second stage. Her husband dropped out, but Patty, miserable but determined, continued. I felt guilty because I was the first one in our tent to catch the bug, but I had been as careful as possible with removing shoes, using wet wipes, and dousing myself in hand sanitizer. Anyway, how could any of us really have known?

Beat and I shared the chicken noodles. They went down well, but not long afterward my stomach revolted. After two dashes to the open-pit toilets, which were perched precariously on a rocky ledge above camp, I was fed up. "I'm not really digesting any of it anyway; what's the point?" I skipped the camp social scene and planned second dinner, and went to bed early again. I was still nauseated, but more than that, I was frustrated.

Morning came with a renewed spark of hope. Waiting out sickness in camp was such a tedious challenge compared to hiking tough terrain while burning kindling. Even through my weakness, I preferred the latter. I prepared a strawberry jam granola bar for breakfast, and, with temporary vigor, practically skipped to the starting line.

Stage four connected us with a portion of the Annapurna Circuit, climbing to an elevation of nearly 3,000 meters before plummeting 2,000 meters into another narrow valley. The route itself was 27 kilometers (17 miles) with 1,524 meters (5,131 feet) of climbing and a soul-crushing 2,275 meters (7,463 feet) of descending in that relatively short distance. But before that, I told myself, at least we could enjoy a big climb. The first six miles alone gained 4,100 feet of elevation. Since the steep climb of stage three had been my strongest section of the race so far, I looked forward to another ascent.

The climb actually went well. Powered by bars, I marched up the stone steps, happy to breathe cool air and absorb awesome views of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. Beat and I actually held a solid spot in the front half of the pack that I knew would disintegrate on the way down, but I didn't mind. We were climbing a mountain, glucose was coursing through my blood, and all was right with the world.

The views during stage four were striking, but, as part of the Annapurna Circuit, the route had a decidedly different vibe than the other stages. For starters, the trails were packed with tourists (in a relative sense. There were still probably more of us than them.) Instead of seeing Nepalis herding buffalo and carrying massive loads of straw, we saw Australians carrying bulky external-frame packs and a large group of Japanese teenagers who took photos of us as we passed. Instead of farm villages constructed around animal shelters and grain paddies, we saw three-story hotels and signs in English advertising hot showers (heated by firewood), clean rooms and "best mountain views." This wasn't a bad thing, just different — the modern (and lucrative) face of trekking in Nepal.

It was also terribly tempting. Outside each of the tea houses were friendly-looking cafes stocked with soda, Mars Bars, and other valuable sources of kindling. We had already heard rumors that the night's accommodations would be in village tea houses. We also had a sense that the race organizers might be more lax than they let on about their "no outside food" rule. But I wasn't quite willing to go there yet, not unless I knew that everyone had been given the okay to buy food. I may have been close to desperate, but my own race ethics aren't willing to defiantly break rules.

The descent soon took my mind off obsessions about Sprite and Fanta, and planted it solely on a few square feet of uneven stones directly in front of me. The course notes indicated a descent on "thousand-year-old Gurung steps" of which there were reportedly more than 3,000. The problem with that description is that the 3,000 steps only comprised the steepest two kilometers of the descent. Just to get to the Gurung steps, we had to descend thousands of stone steps. Racers who were keeping track started to lose count at 5,000; some reported 6,000. For my clumsy feet and weakened legs, it was a slow grind. My right knee began to hurt for the first time in the race. Lots of people passed us, including casual trekkers and 5-year-old children wearing flip-flops (the last one was not surprising.) I am certainly not the master of descents.

I like to think that I at least looked like this down the 7,000 vertical feet of steps ...

But more often I probably looked like this.

I was grateful to see the bottom and the final water stop at checkpoint two, where an extremely upbeat Marshall Ulrich was helping racers take off their packs and refill water bottles. He's quite famous in the ultrarunning world, and I admit I (wrongly) assumed that he'd be too busy or filled with a sense of importance to actually remain with the race like he said he would. But even though illness forced him out of competition, he remained to volunteer for all kinds of exhausting checkpoint jobs. The guy has class.

The final five kilometers into the village of Birethanti were enjoyable jeep track. I had mowed through my day's supply of bars and was feeling pretty good at this point. I mainly posted this photo to prove that we actually did do a little bit of running during our running race.

We finished at 1:53 p.m. for a stage time of six hours and 53 minutes. The rumors proved true; Racing the Planet had rented out what appeared to be the entire village and put everyone up in various tea houses. Beat and I were assigned a simple room with two single beds and one light bulb that worked occasionally. The walls were paper thin and the floorboards were right above a large local family's living quarters (and open-fire kitchen.) I think I preferred the tents but I wasn't complaining, because we also received a meal ticket to eat Dal Bhat — a nicely bland local dish consisting of lentils and rice — and a wink-wink-we'll-look-the-other-way okay to order extra side dishes. Beat and I drank three 250 ml bottles of Fanta each and shared a small plate of fries and an equally small pizza with a Canadian racer, Patrick. After the sodas my stomach felt full, but I managed to work through the food and it seemed to be sticking. Which was good, because tomorrow, we had 45 miles to run.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post. You must have enjoyed this trip a lot. Sceneries are great and climbing experience seems great.

  2. My friend Elisa and I were talking about running the Annapurna Circuit in 2013 -- sounds like it might be pretty touristy? Did you hear anything about cars being allowed on the "trail?"

  3. You certainly have stamina & guts to be so sick, continue racing & blogging! We truly don't know what we are capable of until pushed and shoved to the edge.

    Are the "grain paddies" you refer to the some kind as the trampled ones in your photos in "Toward Annapurna"? If so, how are subsistence farmers compensated for their loss of crops?

  4. Danni — we only saw this small part of the Circuit, probably about 20 of 250 kilometers. There was plenty of infrastructure to support the tourists but not really that many tourists, at least in late November. I wouldn't plan on much camping — really nowhere to do it that isn't farming property or desne forest — but the tea houses are reasonably priced and pretty nice. There certainly weren't any cars or motorcycles on the stone-step trails, but I have heard a road is being build on a later part of the route. I would have to research it more, but I personally would definitely go back and hike the Circuit someday myself. I also would like to go to Annapurna Base Camp (and Beat of course is still eyeing Everest. We'll see about that one.) But yes, I'd do it. Nepal is amazing.

    E — It was late November and most of the grain (millet, mostly. Some rice) has been harvested. We did very little trekking through fields (usually on raised platforms that farmers used) and the entire route was cleared first with both the Nepali government and locals. We also camped on top of already harvested fields, but the owners of those lands were compensated and the race organization cleaned up camps and trails afterward. Racing the Planet pumped A LOT of money into the local economies, including charitable contributions on top of economic support and individual spending.

  5. Danni ... if you're worried about being taken back by tourists on the Annapurna Circuit ... let's put it that way: There aren't enough tourists to spoil this incredible scenery. It's simply far beyond anything I've ever seen. And to be honest you should start out staying where at least some infrastructure is, because should you get hurt out there it can be days before you can get to a hospital. Some of the trail is extremely slippery - and that's only the few miles we were on.
    As for running ... careful. You can pretty much die if you climb too quickly without acclimation, and the course goes up to 17000ft. People have gotten pulmonary edema & worse going too quickly to lower elevations. But then again, it's unlikely one will be fast anyways ... better start climbing stairs for training.
    We were also on some of the most popular parts of the circuit. The "backside" is more remote.

    Again: remoteness is cool, but out there, it means you can't simply expect to press your SOS button on your spot and expect someone to come get you ...

    Lastly, the circuit isn't particularly well marked, and there are a LOT of trails that are well built and used, because Nepalis live there. It's fairly easy to get lost without a guide I think. There might be good descriptions, but there certainly seemed to be many intersections per mile. That said, locals will usually point you in the right direction.

    I'd be a bit careful. Hikers disappear on the circuit every year ...

    I thought about running the circuit, but when I go back I think I would like to go to the base camp of either Everest or Annapurna (not that I'd ever think about climbing Annapurna, it's suicide thanks to avalanches). I want to get closer to those mountains ... Another option is going to the Mustang region, but for that I think I'd have to learn at least basic Nepali.


  6. Wow, Jill. I'm just getting caught up on what went down in Nepal. Holy crap, literally, in your case. Yuck and I'm sorry to hear you and Beat had a sufferfest. I'll look forward to the next blog posts, as I suspect the only direction this story could go is up after what you'd already been through.

  7. Jill, It's your reality touch-stone, Zman.
    This trip isn't fun, it sucks too much to even say it sucks.
    You mean to tell me you guys paid good money, used vacation time to travel around the other side of the world, to puke, and uh, etc. yourselves nearly to death?
    There's the slippery slope and then there's the abyss. You two throw out your shovels and come out of the hole.
    This is not green travel-far from it. It's pure insanity and not in a good way.
    Go ahead and disparage my comments, but we've had these discussions before and you know I'm right.
    Come on now....

  8. If y'all are going to climb Everest do it with some pizzaz, like Goran Kropp who biked there from Sweden and did it unsupported. Say no to $50,000 expedition mule camps.

  9. Z-man, I don't disagree with you. Flying to the other side of the world to participate in a large expedition-style race is certainly not "green" travel. I never claimed it was. I also didn't claim it wasn't "insane," at least in the sense of what a majority of people choose to do with their own resources.

    Ultrarunners and other enduro-nut types like to say, "If you don't get it, you won't get it." It's trite but it's generally true. I wouldn't have chosen this particular outcome for my Nepal "vacation" but I wouldn't trade it away, either. As always, I learned a lot, and took away more good experiences than bad.

  10. As an 18 year old soldier.... let's just say that I learned the difference between living and being alive. That was a million years ago.
    That was endurance in a hostile environnment (SE Asia) where one had the added "thrill" of experiencing a violent death almost everyday-for 13 months.
    These ultra endurance sports for the most part are just another form of "private-parts-measuring". I've seen the pictures, you don't don't look good, you're not just tired, you're not vital. Vow to return to that place someday but not under the spector of competition against others. Compete against yourself, if you must compete, to make the next day better than the previous one. There a plenty of people wandering this planet you'll find a kinship with. Plus you'll have the added, life-extending benefit of being able to lay-low if you're under the weather. One of my best friends is a doc, and I've heard countless stories of later-in-life Ironmen/Ironwomen who have punished themselves this way and are now suffering with mystery ailments/breakdowns that make life miserable and put those good memories far back in the rear view mirror. I too, like you guys, believe that a good long life is no good unless it's filled with good memories. But as the great philosopher David Lee Roth once said, "Man, if you're in for the long haul, you have to learn to craft your buzz".
    This just one strangers concern for your well being.


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