Friday, December 09, 2011

Thanksgiving march

As the race director rattled through her morning announcements, Matt the ex-Marine pushed through the crowd toward me. He reached out and gave me a hardy handshake. "Happy Thanksgiving," he said.

"Oh wow, you're right," I said. "I totally forgot. It's Thursday. It's Thanksgiving."

"I brought a package of mashed potatoes," he said. "I'm going to eat them at the overnight checkpoint, the one with the hot water."

"That was a great idea," I said. "I didn't bring ... anything."

Matt grinned and turned to spread his holiday greetings to other Americans in the crowd. I sighed heavily as nostalgia pangs churned in my empty stomach. Warm images replaced the ashen faces of the crowd. My aunt shouting at the Dallas Cowboys above the chatter of my cousins. My now-deceased grandfather cracking corny jokes. My grandmother admonishing everyone to rattle off a long list of thanks as the turkey gets cold. My sisters and I sneaking Peanut M&Ms from the candy dish before dinner. My mother's pies. Oh, my mother's pies. Coconut cream. Heaven.

I returned to reality in a jolt of cold obviousness. "What the hell am I doing here?" The day's plan spread out before me like a sentence: "The Long March," 72 kilometers (45 miles) with 3,249 meters (10,659 feet) of climbing, on tough and often steep terrain. This in itself would make for a tough day, but now it followed four solid days of racing to a combined 79 miles and 18,600 feet of climbing, on rugged trails, running what amounted to a starvation diet of about 1,200 calories a day.

I felt nauseated from the morning's granola bar, or maybe it was nervousness. Honestly, I don't know how much of my inability to eat was remnant symptoms of the bug and how much of it was psychological. My body was exhausted and so tired of feeling sick, and my mind both blamed food and obsessed about it. I just wasn't sure how much farther I could go, and yet I had come so far. Of course The Long March was worth a shot.

And then, the race began. I think my expression in this photograph shows how I felt. My eyes were droopy and tired, my posture slumped and my legs were dragging. But there's a spark there, and a genuine smile. I was still enthralled with the landscape and culture, and excited to see what lay ahead.

And the morning was gorgeous. We had been incredibly lucky with the weather. The week before the race, it rained so continuously that the race organizers sent out an e-mail warning of a wet and cold slog with a decent chance of snow. And the week after the race, the mountains were always shrouded in thick clouds. But for that one week the sky was clear, and temperatures held a mild range from 1 to 30 degrees Celsius (yes, it does get quite warm in Nepal in November.) Plus, the mountains were always out. If Hindu karma does exist, the perfect weather was probably a fair exchange for how sick I felt.

After two rolling kilometers the trail shot skyward, gaining 600 meters in two kilometers. That's an average grade of 30 percent or a gain of 1,600 feet per mile. Pretty steep. I actually had to go back and re-read to course notes to get this number because in my memory it was not much of a climb at all. I don't think that's as much a result of poor memory as it is an indicator that our health really was improving. As we recovered, the miles seemed easier, even if they really weren't.

The miles were numerous though, and for much of the stage my mind fell into that Zen place that can often be described as "auto-pilot." Because of this, my memories of this stage are more fragmented than the others, so I have many pictures with fewer stories to tell. We were marching.

Nepalis seem to spend lots of time relaxing on the side of the trails, where I imagine the most entertaining action takes place. I was always impressed with the way they sat, with their knees fully bent or even squatting in a way that made my own knees ache vicariously. Steve and I discussed another seeming anomaly in rural Nepal — an almost complete lack of middle-aged people. We saw many hundreds of children, and strikingly beautiful young adults up to about age 25. Everyone older than that looked to be at least sixty, with wrinkles spread across their faces, sagging postures and tired eyes. We couldn't decide whether there actually is a large generation gap, whether most of the middle-aged adults were  working the fields away from town, or whether the hard lives in rural Nepal just leave people looking much older than they are.

After 15 kilometers, we traversed a mountainside jungle along a disconcertingly slippery trail. It actually felt strange to reduce our pace to a slow walk, as we had been jogging for a while. During our training, Beat was always significantly stronger and faster than me while carrying a pack. It's one of the reasons we decided not to race together, as I feared his pace would burn me out and mine would bore him. Even though I was stronger in stage five than I had been yet, following Beat's pace kept me right at my upper limit. And yet, the sensation of dripping sweat and breathing hard felt really good, because it wasn't sick, and it wasn't weak. It was running, which is what we came to our running race to do.

But I knew my body was significantly broken down and couldn't even begin to recover until I rested, which wasn't going to happen during a 45-mile continuous march. I accepted this willingly, even gratefully, because I knew that life doesn't always hand you the best timing and I believed the journey was worth it.  But I braced myself for hardship.

One interesting aspect of climbing mountains in Nepal is that there is nearly always some kind of religious shrine at the top. This is one of the more elaborate pagodas we passed, but it represents well the strong Buddhist presence in the mountains. Even though Hinduism is the dominant religion in Nepal, Buddhism is growing thanks to a large influx of refugees from Tibet, as well as an explosion in the general population. The purpose of the pagoda is to house sacred relics and writings. I once looked into a small structure that housed a naked Barbie doll among the many candles, flower petals and glass bottles. It seemed more likely that this was just someone's idea of a disrespectful joke, or the work of defiant child ... but then you never really know what holds spiritual meaning to another.

I respect spirituality and believe my own lies in the awe of living, which is why I do the things that I do. When I was in college I read a lot of Joseph Campbell, "follow your bliss" and all that. He has one quote that particularly sticks out in my mind as closely paralleling my own beliefs:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” ("The Power of Myth")

The rapture of being alive. It would hit me sometimes as we jogged along the rocky trail, even through a mental molasses of fatigue and physical deterioration. "I'm in Nepal. Those are the Himalayas. I'm really here." I do realize that meeting Beat has opened up opportunities for me that I would not have otherwise had, possibly ever. For that I am grateful. But more than that, I'm grateful just to have Beat in my life. He does understand that I'd be happy to spend all of my weeks and months in California with him if that's what it took, but I'm glad he too so zealously values the experience of being alive that he'll go to the other side of the world to find it. There is just so much to discover in the regions and experiences far outside our comfort zones. And I'm grateful that Beat not only values these experiences, but also values me enough to sacrifice some of his own experiences to stick by my side while I stumble through a sick fog. That truly made the difference in my struggle to push on or give up during the first stage. I am grateful. (Beat's probably embarrassed reading this right now, but my grandmother sitting in front of the Thanksgiving spread would be so proud.)

The general route of stage five wrapped around the Pokhara Valley and emerged on the far side of town via a rippling series of mountain passes, three big climbs in all. The second took place in the heat of the day, that 30-degree-Celsius range, and was a real crusher. A few times, I flirted with the notion of just passing out alongside the trail, and then I would eat another few gummies from my last oh-so-precious bag of candy. For all of this post-race blather about the rapture of being alive, if I am honest with myself, it was a 99-cent bag of candy that really got me through.

The sun set over the distant Annapurna range as we climbed the third pass. We reached the top, kilometer 45, just as it was becoming too dark to hike without lights. Racing the Planet set up what it called the overnight checkpoint here, meaning you could either stop and sleep for a few hours or keep on moving into the night. Either way, the clock kept running. I didn't care about the clock, but I was also intrigued by the prospect of moving through this strange land in the dark and quiet of the night. It was less intimidating because Beat was with me.

We pulled two stools to the edge of the ridge, and for the first time I saw the city lights of Pokhara spread out before us. Beat dropped his pack and fished out two packages of ramen noodles that he had purchased that morning in Birenthanti for 40 rupees (about 50 cents.) We cut empty water bottles in half, crushed the noodles into one cup, dropped packets of powdered cappuccino into the other, and then filled them with hot water. As I sipped the foamy beverage and devoured the still-crunchy soup, I felt a rush of well-being and warmth every bit as satisfying as a full turkey dinner served by loved ones. It was, for those fleeting minutes at least, the best Thanksgiving dinner ever.

Instead of collapsing on the couch with full bellies and football on the television after dinner, we chased our 300 calories of ramen and cappuccino with 30 kilometers of running in Nepal in the dark. The final 30K was less hilly and we actually did run some, although not fast, and of course with much silliness. Because it was not all that late, we still had to contend with dodging the lights of oncoming motorcycles and passing groups of local children and spectators who could see and yell at us even though we couldn't see them (Nepalis must have excellent night vision.)

I was amazed I didn't feel worse in the final miles — if fact, except for the struggles during the hot climb, my physical state seemed to remain in a state of equilibrium for the entire day, as though the pace of my continuing recovery from my illness perfectly matched the deterioration of endurance racing. I didn't feel great, but really, I didn't feel bad either. In fact, I felt a lot less bad than I believed I should after 45 miles even under normal circumstances. My knees were still okay. I didn't have any blisters. I didn't even have any chafing from my huge pack. Most importantly, I didn't have any foot pain. I've never traveled that far in one shot without getting "hurty foot," at any speed. For that, too, I was grateful.

But most of all, I was grateful to be done. We finished at 11:47 p.m. for a finishing time of 16 hours and 32 minutes (the race started at 7:15.) It was good enough to come in about 95th or so, which out of 170 who started the stage wasn't an awful position (at least not as awful as tenth from last.) Despite all, we really were improving, and all of the hard parts of the race were over with. Or so I thought. 

8 comments:

  1. Really enjoying this report, Jill. What an adventure!

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  2. I wonder if you started to feel slightly stronger because you were acclimating to the altitude day by day. That happened to me in the Uintas I think.

    How sad is it that I would gladly endure "the bug" and all this hiking on no food if it meant I could have long skinny legs like yours. Of course, I could have the bug for months and never eat and it wouldn't happen :-)

    Finally, I think your lack of hurty foot is HUGE! You may have finally beaten your feet into submission. Yay!

    More finally, thanks for you and Beat's comments on the Annapurna Circuit. I will include you in plans/discussions because I think you'd be a good person to go, along with Meghan :-) (Assuming this actually happens and I want it to).

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  3. Anonymous7:46 AM

    I don't think I've seen mention of what the 'average' or base altitude is that the elevation gains start from. It would add an additional reference to gage the efforts involved.

    The Joseph Campbell quote and following several paragraphs are even better than your usual great writing.

    Hope you do more books.

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  4. Campbell was a modern day prophet. That's a wonderful quote to get you through a tough time and help you appreciate all life has offered--both good and bad. Really enjoying your posts and photographs, Jill. We're living vicariously through your rapture.

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  5. Jackie10:52 AM

    Love of life, love of self and self-less love of another. That's what your post said to me Jill. Thanks for sharing it.

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  6. Aw, Danni, thanks. :) I would never wish the bug as a diet for anyone. Judging as best I can by pre- and post-Nepal-trip weigh-ins, I'm fairly certain I lost at least ten pounds during a single week of racing, possibly as many as 15. Of course, losing weight in this manner is always extremely short lived for me. Probably because a fair percentage of it is fluid. But I also remained convinced that I lost some muscle, which is replaced by body fat in the initial gain. So really, it's a net weight gain. Not good.

    As far as elevation, I have a hard time believing it was much of a factor. I'm not sure of average elevations, but I'm guessing it is somewhere near 5,000 feet. Because of altitude sickness concerns, Racing the Planet purposely kept the route low. We usually camped at 3,000 feet and only rarely went above 6,500. Our highest point on the whole course was about 10,500 — but only for a few minutes and we dropped back to 3,000 really fast. The week before we left for Nepal, I was in Utah sleeping at 4,500 feet, racing for 24 hours at 3,500 feet, and snowshoed up to 10,000 feet, all without issue. I'm not suggesting I was perfectly acclimated, but I can't see how elevations that didn't affect me at all in Utah would suddenly ravage me in Nepal.

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  7. OK, Danni's comment made me laugh because here I've been following your adventures in Nepal in amazement, just taking it in and not commenting, and here the first time I really thought to comment was about how amazing your legs looked in that top picture. So I was really glad that somebody else said it first. :)

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  8. As usual this post is just awesome. And quite honestly, the opening picture just blows my mind...I think it's probably one of the most amazing pictures I've seen. WHAT a view! That you and beat are (well, were) actually THERE...words fail me, but thanks for taking us along. I think a HUGE part of life is having someone to share it with. Pretty amazing you two have found each other and SO share in each others passions.

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