Monday, December 05, 2011

Total immersion

Steve and Martina greeted us sympathetically at the finish line, having arrived at camp hours earlier. Amid my relief at having simply survived stage one, I launched into a hyperbolic (and uninformed) diatribe about my conviction that alcohol poisoning or drinking household cleaners had to be more fun than that stage. "If I feel this way tomorrow, there's really no way I can finish another stage. There's just nothing left."

By this point, Beat was in the throws of The Battle of the Bug. We barely mustered the energy to unroll our sleeping gear on the floor of the tent and collapsed into unconsciousness by 4:30 p.m. He stirred me awake at 6:30 and we shuffled to the medical tent to see if they would give us any more drugs. Beat suspected bacterial infection and wanted antibiotics. I was still convinced it was a flu virus and sure enough, the doctor told us to wait at least 24 more hours. Not that we'd make it another 24, anyway.

The camp was abuzz with activity and chatter. One of the draws of Racing the Planet events is the social energy of camp, where runners from Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Scotland, Spain, Germany, South Africa — really, everywhere — share their tales of adventure over a campfire and dinner. I was not in mood for any of it, and felt like I was wading through a exhausting obstacle course as I made my way through the crowd. Friends who had a good day and were excited about it flagged us down, and I tried to smile and listen even though the smell of their expedition food was almost unbearable. We made it back to our tent by 6:45, and, except for a couple overnight bouts with the runs, remained there until morning.

Beat woke me up early, at 4:45 a.m., insisting that we needed to try to eat something first thing and see how it took. "Are you two starting today?" asked one of our tent mates, Peter Clarke, a retired British investment banker who lives in Hong Kong.

"Gonna try, have to keep water down first, though," I said. Peter later told us that he didn't think we stood a chance, given our demeanors the previous night. "I admire that you went out for the second stage," he said. "I didn't think I was going to see you again."

We tried to share one freeze-dried breakfast, a package of raspberry granola with milk. I only forced down about five bites because it was revolting and made my stomach do bad things. I did manage to eat several spoonfuls of my strawberry jam without issue. In fact, the small but immediate surge of energy felt like an electric jolt amid my extremely depleted state. For all of the bad press sugar receives, it is the only thing that works for me when my stomach has shut down. I regretted that my pack wasn't filled with candy.

On paper, stage two had looked like a moderately easy one to me. It was 32 kilometers (20 miles) with 1,364 meters (4,475 feet) of climbing, but really only one sustained climb followed by rollers. But then I neglected to realize that climbs are listed in meters, and climbing from 900 to 1,800 meters is actually kind of a grunt. I tapped one of three bags of my "reward" gummy candies for the climb. It wasn't much, only 260 calories, but even that small contribution made a world of difference in my energy levels and outlook. It was clear my body was willing to keep down water at this point as well, although my stomach wouldn't accept it in large amounts. I felt desperately thirsty, but big gulps caused intestinal distress, so I held a bottle in my hand and nursed it as we walked.

Stage two connected a series of porter trails along the Modi Khola Valley, following routes that have been used in the same way for hundreds of years. Most of these trails are what one might consider "off the beaten track," through villages that see few tourists. Racing the Planet had been announcing the coming of the race via radio, and local children gathered along the road to cheer us with loud "Namaste" greetings, practice their English ("What is your name? Where are you from? Where are you going?) and only rarely (at least in these non-tourist areas) ask us for chocolate. (I personally felt desperate enough for more sweets that I might have bribed some off the children if I thought I could get away with it.)

Finally conscientious enough to actually see the things I was looking at, the nature of the landscape was revelatory to me. The Himalayan "foothills" are not wilderness by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, they are wholly steeped in human activity. Entire faces of steep mountains have been cut into staircases of cultivated fields, but not in an overly invasive way. Forests still grow up around them. Ancient stone trails connect small villages built of brick and stone. People often conduct their household chores out in the open — separating millet grains by beating the straw, cooking, drying clothing, and washing their hair and bodies. Water buffalo, goats, mongrel dogs and occasionally sacred cattle wander the central "streets," which are nothing more than singletrack trails themselves. Most people get where they need to go by walking, and groups of schoolchildren wear crisply laundered blue shirts and ties as they run up the muddy steps. "I bet the best mountain runners in the world live here and they don't even know it," Beat speculated.

Although I felt the grip of the virus diminishing, Beat was still battling diarrhea and nausea. The tables turned for the two of us on the big climb, and I found myself able to hike more easily as he struggled. And I of course waited for him when he stopped to rest. Our original plan had been to race individually and not travel together. But it was becoming clear that Racing the Planet Nepal was going to be a heftier challenge, physically and mentally, than either of us had anticipated, and we wanted to see it through as partners.

I still couldn't stomach more than small amounts of mostly simple sugars, although I had at least moved on to granola bars. Still, even late in the day, my successful energy intake for the entire race wasn't more than 1,000 calories, and even that number was debatable given I was still experiencing bouts of diarrhea. It is interesting to experience the gap of what we think we need and what we actually need. Bodies can do impressive things if they have to. My <1,000 calories of simple sugars was enough to sustain the fat- and muscle-burning process, carrying my body for 38 miles and nearly 10,000 feet of climbing on fumes. A person can't move fast in this mode, and it certainly isn't sustainable indefinitely. But the fact I was still moving at all made me feel grateful for human biology.

The final two miles descended into an incredible river gorge beneath peaks that were 5,000 feet higher than the valley floor (Yes, these are still the foothills.) We were still both too weak to entertain the effort of running — even on a gentle downhill grade — but at least we were emerging from the sickness fog. We walked with a Spanish woman, Ana Sebastian, who is usually a fairly fast runner but was also battling "The Bug." I could sense her frustration with struggling in a race she expected to do well in, for reasons she couldn't control. I also admired her willingness to keep at it even though illness forced her out of top competition. It must be especially difficult when expectations are dashed, although I don't think anyone could be disappointed about the opportunity just to travel through these incredible mountains.

We reached the finish at 2:12 p.m. for a stage time of seven hours and 12 minutes — an hour and a half faster than stage one even though the distance was a little longer. Basically, this just means Beat's low gear is faster than mine. At least it offered a few more hours of downtime before we really had to worry about eating dinner. I was still dreading that chore. 


  1. Wow Jill, I just don't know how you do it, but you always find a way to pull through. You are the walking definition of courage and perseverence!

  2. I'm so enjoying this recap - although not necessarily enjoying the fact that you were all so ill - I've experienced that before on a windsurfing holiday a couple of years ago in Egypt and it was miserable .... and that was staying in a 4* hotel and able to take 36 hours off from what I was doing .... not that you can really risk heading out to sea when you're still potentially nauseous! I hugely admire your drive to succeed and make the best of the situation - inspirational!

  3. Experiencing it as partners was in God's plans, I think. And I am not really religious:)

  4. Great writing.
    You and Beat are a couple of tough cookies.
    I've ridden centuries in the throws of altitude sickness and can't imagine doing the two stages you describe while in the grip of some major bug.

  5. OK since it's been used twice now - that would be "throes", not "throws", although a stream is getting thrown :)

  6. Funny, I'm actually aware of the meanings of throes versus throws, but the writer in me tends to make a lot of grammar mistakes that the editor in me would usually catch. Poring versus pouring is another the writer in me always confuses, not to mention all of the spelling mistakes, tense disagreements, redundancies, etc. that run rampant through my blog. The editor in me often gets annoyed by it all whenever I go back and read old posts, but I rarely take the time to edit my own blog posts. It's a blog for crying out loud. ;-)

  7. I can literally felt your illness, I had the exact same thing last year. I am dying to think you hauled yourself all the way to Nepal and ended up sick. Well, its a do over.

  8. When I had Delhi Belly in India, it was all I could do to drag myself back and forth between the bed and the bathroom...I can't even imagine covering 20 high altitude miles. You never cease to amaze me!

  9. Can't believe you have the time and energy to post this stuff after each stage. But it sounds like you're over the hump - keep up the good work.

  10. ..."that would be 'throes', not 'throws'...

    Really thru me.
    Glad someone with mad english skill hangs here.

    Climb down from your thrown.

    I'm hear to appreciate Jill and Beat's stunning adventures.


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