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.