Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Toward Annapurna

I dug through my pack to find the blandest, highest-carbohydrate dinner possible. I purchased all of my freeze-dried meals back in August and couldn't even remember what I had in there. Each one sounded progressively less appetizing ... Chicken Korma, Chicken Tikka, Vegetable Tikka, Pad Thai, "high-energy" Spaghetti Bolognese with more than 60 grams of fat in a serving, and one whose name struck particular fear into my nauseated stomach, Kathmandu Curry.

"They're all curry," I said to Beat with dismay. "Every single one of them is spicy, fatty curry. What the hell was I thinking?"

Beat dug through his pack and found he mostly had the same. He had one meat lasagna that sounded marginally okay — but, no, I couldn't think about it. I couldn't even think about it. Anything freeze dried only evoked horrific memories of the demon Thai Chicken. "I can't deal with this," I said.

"You have to eat."

"I'll eat tomorrow. Breakfast. Promise."

"You need to eat tonight."

I wandered miserably around camp until I found Martina. "You should talk to Jack, he has soup," she said. Jack was Martina's tent-mate. The South African was developing a reputation for being the MacGyver of RTP Nepal, because he had a 15-kilogram pack that contained practically everything under the sun. Jack offered me a small package of powdered corn chowder. Corn chowder is probably the last soup I would choose of all of the soups in the world, and it only had about 80 calories, but it was a start. Anyway, my body was low on electrolytes. However, when I added water and tried to eat the corn chowder, I only made it through half before my stomach protested with lurching grumbles and an instant urge to use the restroom. I dumped it out when Beat wasn't looking.

Beat insisted I eat more, so I went back to my pack and dug out one of two Snickers bars that I had brought specifically for use during the long stage. But if I didn't even make it to the long stage, hoarding Snickers bars wouldn't make a difference. "I'll eat a Snickers," I told him. "Sugar I can eat."

The Snickers did indeed taste like a little chunk of heaven, and melted perfectly into the hole in my stomach. "I should know this about myself by now," I said to my friends. "Candy just works for me. I always think I should try to eat healthier while I'm racing, but in the end my body just wants sugar."

Breakfast was not much more successful. Beat brought out a package of "high energy" strawberry porridge that was loaded with powdered cream and tasted to me like strawberry porridge that I had thrown up already and was trying to eat post-regurgitation. Again my stomach lurched and hurt after just a couple bites, but I did manage to chase the disgusting taste with a Nature Valley granola bar slathered in strawberry jam. It would have to do.

Just before the race started, a man turned around and approached me. I instantly recognized him from the author photo in a book that I recently downloaded (before I even knew he'd be at RTP Nepal) — Marshall Ulrich. "I just wanted to say that I'm proud of you for being out here today," Marshall said. "I saw you after stage one. I got the bug, too, and I was so sick. Just so sick. I couldn't continue. I had to drop. I'm going to stay with the race but I'm not racing anymore."

"Oh wow," I said, a little bit starstruck. "I'm sorry to hear that. Really."

Marshall smiled sadly and reached out to shake my hand. Being complemented on my own grit by man who's accomplished what he has — climbed all seven summits, ran across America, and completed more than 120 ultramarathons, to name a few — meant a lot.

The night before the race began, RTP finally revealed the final course notes and elevation profiles that had been shrouded in secrecy until then. I was stoked when I saw the profile for stage three:

Under normal circumstances, I am an enthusiastic climber and a terrible downhiller, so a stage that was entirely uphill was exactly my kind of thing. Stage three was 38 kilometers (24 miles) with 1,478 meters (4,850 feet) of climbing. The final three miles gained 2,200 feet by themselves. In my current state, "On the Bug," I flip-flopped from enthusiasm about stage three to dread. It was like an steep uphill marathon with 25-pound packs. How was I going to finish this one if I didn't have any energy?

I packed my day's allotment of two granola bars, two fruit bars and one Clif Bar, and added a few extra bars because I knew I was still running a severe calorie deficit and because I didn't eat any on day one, I had a few to spare. In an effort to fire up my fragile digestive system, I started the stage by snacking on the second of three precious packages of gummy candies. The bug was definitely subsiding, but my stomach still seemed to protest everything I tried to put in it. I theorized that the 36-hour purging session so fully scrubbed my system that I lost all the good bacteria I need to aid in the digestive process. My stomach is sensitive under normal circumstances; on endurance it becomes especially persnickety. On "The Bug" it was all but useless.

The first 14 kilometers of the stage fluctuated between a flat jeep track and rocky shoreline along a river. The gummies started kicking in for me and Beat was feeling quite a bit better, so he suggested we try running some. We upped our 17-minute-mile hiking pace to an 11- or 12-minute-mile shuffle that most every cell in my body seemed to object. My stomach churned and growled, my legs burned with lactic acid, my arm and back muscles ached, my shoulders slumped and my head spun with exhaustion. I was in no shape to run in this running race. In fact, I felt like I just might be in the worst shape of my life, like I hadn't trained for the race at all, like I hadn't done anything all year but sit on my couch and eat peanut butter cups. Oh, if only I had some peanut butter cups.

I felt incredibly weak, and so dizzy that I began to fear for my coordination and safety, even on a dirt road. I believed my body had coped well up to this point, but now I was nearing the bleeding edge of an absolute and binding bonk. We crossed the big river on a foot bridge and began to follow Kaligandaki Nadi, a roiling whitewater river that tore down a stunning gorge. The rolling jeep track became steeper, which forced more hiking. For this I was grateful, because it gave me a chance to finally try to eat some of my bars. I started with an all-sugar fruit bar. Just a few minutes later, I felt a surge of energy in my blood — so much joy, happiness, sheer elation at the simple act of moving and breathing that makes a person believe they finally understand exactly what it means to be alive. And then, just a few minutes after that, crash. The needle dove back to empty. Bonkville.

So I ate a granola bar, and for a few more minutes there was joy, happiness, elation ... and then it was gone. I ate a fruit bar, and experienced a surge that felt a little closer to a normal burst of energy. Then it was gone. Beat and I alternated hiking the uphills and running the short downhills. I sent another granola bar down the hatch that quickly disappeared. I didn't have many bars left in my pouch, and wasn't sure I wanted to pillage the next day's supply of bars, given bars were the only food I could stomach so far.

"I feel like all of my bars are going down a black hole," I told Beat. "But I guess, well, at least I can eat again."

The Kali Gandaki Gorge began to open up, revealing the bald face of Annapurna South, 26,545 feet into the stark blue sky. Annapurna is a Sanskrit name that literally means "Full of Food." In Hinduism, Annapurna is the "universal kitchen goddess, the mother who feeds." As Beat and I shuffled along the road, I gazed at Annapurna's snow-swept slopes, jagged knife ridges, terrifying coloirs and almost unfathomable mass. I remember reflecting on the stories I had read about the mountain and giving silent thanks for my ability to eat again. I mentioned to Beat a book I read, written by British mountaineer Chris Bonington, about his harrowing Annapurna expedition in 1970 — the first attempt on a big wall at altitude.

"I can understand why people come to these mountains and become obsessed with them, and risk their lives climbing them," Beat said. "I thought the Alps were incredible mountains, but the Himalayas are truly incredible mountains."

We took a 20-minute break at checkpoint three. Beat traded me a precious Payday Bar for my Clif Builder Bar. I felt a new surge of life-giving food energy, and charged open-eyed and joyful into the 2,200-foot ascent. We climbed hundreds of stone steps as the Kali Gandaki Valley dropped swiftly below us. Each step seemed to pump fresh blood into my aching muscles, for a self-perpetuating cycle of endorphins and vitality. I remember wishing the climb could just keep going the next day, just up and up and up, maybe all the way to Annapurna's summit. I hadn't felt so awake in three days, and I hadn't felt so alive in a long while.

Beat, unfortunately, had been stuck with the protein-packed Builder Bar, so he felt significantly more weighed-down on the steep climb than I did. But he kept up just fine as we climbed over a small pass and approached a mountainside dotted in rural villages.

What seemed like the entire population of the village of Ghara came out to cheer racers at the finish line of stage three, perched as it was on a narrow ledge above the town.

It was gratifying to see so many people, who had so much hardship and yet so much natural richness in their lives, show their support for our little racing endeavor. I hope they understood how grateful I think all of us were to be there.

School children adorned us with flower garlands. We finished at 1:59 p.m. for a stage time of six hours and 59 minutes. We were getting faster, and slowly beginning to feel stronger. Even though freeze-dried dinner still sounded to me like the third world war in my mouth, I let myself believe the worst was over.