Nirvana by the Numbers

By Christopher Cudworth

Nirvana StoryIn going through some files in search of reference material for this blog, I happened upon a story written in 1984 when I was doing freelance journalism for a publication called Illinois Runner. The newsmagazine was ahead of its time in some ways. It featured stories on the track and road racing scene in hopes of capitalizing on the running boom of the early 1980s. Rich Elliott was the editor and publisher. 

At one point during this period I was approached by an optician with an interesting story about going to train in the Himalayan Mountains. Jack Gardner had the means and the interest to travel to India in company with other runners as part of an experiment to test the limits of physical endurance. 

What follows is the story I wrote that never got published. Illinois Runner ceased publication abruptly in late 1984 due to advertising ups and downs. This story has sat in a yellowed folder ever since. It was typed on my jury-rigged IBM Selectric in a Chicago apartment with no air conditioning and lots of urban grit blowing in through the window. Imagining myself as a sort of running Studs Terkel, I interviewed Jack at his offices in Orland Park and returned home to crank out this piece. It’s a pretty interesting tale even in today’s world. 

NIRVANA BY THE NUMBERS

HALPIt is New Year’s Eve in Thansing, India, the Himalayas.  A group of eleven American doctors is gathered in a dark-walled hut. Their faces shine from firelight and the occasional flare of a camera flash. They are dressed warmly because heat from the fire does not spread well across the room from the open hearth.

Conditions at this New Year’s celebration are primitive, but spirits are high. Members of the expedition discovered a new resolve in pushing themselves through an itinerary designed to stress their bodies at high altitudes and low temperatures. The doctors hiked as high as 18,000 feet, up to twenty miles a day and tolerated sub-zero temperatures during the two-week excursion.

Dr. Otto Appenzeller, a physiologist and sports medicine specialist, organized the Himalayan trip as part of his research on the reactions of well-conditioned individuals to physical stress. Marathoners, ultramarathoners, triathletes and endurance performers of limitless genres; young and old, male and female, answered the call to test themselves under Appenzeller’s direction. As doctors, they would also be monitoring fellow expedition members in their specific areas of medical expertise.

url-3The region in which they travelled is rich in mountaineering history. Peaks such as Everest are full of the mystique and challenge that has emboldened men in their climbing assaults to pare their efforts to minimalist terms, to climb each face as they can, with less equipment, no oxygen supplies, solo, until it is only man and mountain.

In the Appenzeller expedition, the goal was not to reach any peaks but those of physical performance. Appenzeller and crew relied on the guidance of Sherpas while in the mountains, and porters were hired to transport supplies from point to point, leaving the doctors to hike as fast and far as they could.

Still, the cold fate of men left stranded or alone in the Himalayan world of ice and stone remained near in the minds of the doctors as they began their expedition. In mountains such as these, the challenge is always to return with senses and body intact.

Appenzeller began the trip out of Darjeeling, India, an urban center of 64,000,000 people. Once out of the glut, and glad of it, the doctors began putting each other to the competitive test, racing each other on trails between farm and forest before ascending to the alpine regions. There they would find the air thinner and the going less easy. By the third day of hiking, having climbed thousands of feet in elevation, and descended as often, attitudes about competition began to change.

The accumulative fatigue was as great as any of the participants had experienced. One of the doctors, optometrist/marathoner Jack Gardner, had whipped himself into good running condition on the hilly forest preserve trails near his office in the suburbs of Chicago (Orland Park/Palos Hills). He soon found the severe climbs and descents had greater effect than his flatlander legs had anticipated. Even the mountain runners who had competed in races such as the Western States 100 miler found the Himalayas an extra challenge.

Himalayan_mountains_from_air_001“You had to concentrate not to hurt yourself,” explained Gardner. “It would have been very easy to look up and bust an ankle. It happened to one of our group members when he looked across a chasm and caught his boot heel on a rock. Fractured his tibia. He got a free ride down the mountain on the back of a yak.”

“While hiking you felt so insignificant and frail in the perspective of that place,” Gardner continued. “Destinations that looked close took entire days to reach. I expected as much, but the tired legs made things seem magnified.”

Jack Gardner’s resting heart rate normally reads in the mid-fifties. Above 13,000 feet it never fell below ninety beats a minute. Doctors who adapted better kidded Gardner about being out of shape. Some began short runs around camp to shake out kinks from climbing all day.”

Gardner awoke one night gasping for air in a pattern known as Cheyne-Stokes breathing. At lofty altitudes the diaphragm muscle that pumps the lungs sometimes forgets its normal rhythms and the lungs convulse in a series of huffing breaths that don’t allow full exhalations of air.

Fear jangled in Gardner’s body and brain when Cheyne-Stokes hit. He had watched that day as one of the toughest members of his group that had previously finished races over hundreds of miles in rough terrain lost his lunch from exertion during the afternoon hike. Gardner questioned himself at that point, thinking, ‘If that tough cookie got sick, where am I…” and here he was, propped up in total darkness, unable to get a full scoop of oxygen as he inhaled. He was exhaling though. If there came a point of diminishing returns, would his number be up?

He treated himself as he would a nervous patient, trying to calm his apprehension, but he had to force it. Finally he breathed evenly, but the ability to lay back and sleep came much harder. His tired mind finally gave up the ship and his exhausted body took control. He flopped back for a few hours of rest.

himalayas_2815_470x353Gardner was not the only one to experience fear and illness on the expedition. Some woke up in claustrophobic panic in the crowded tents. Others discovered a previously unknown fear of heights. Those are bad things to have determined on an expedition to the Himalayas.

There were humorous moments as well, albeit at the expense of some pride. Gardner had to survive an acute case of midnight diarrhea. He awoke with the urge only to find that his tent zipper was stuck, perhaps frozen. He frantically yanked the tent open and climbed out into absolute darkness. The temperature was below zero degrees. He knew he had better not wander far from the tent. His urgency sent him scuttling hand over foot in search of a suitable release area. Once positioned, his bare buttocks grazed ice somewhere in the Himalayan landcape and Gardner let out a small shriek.

A voice from the tent inquired, “You all right, Jack?”

“Yes, fine,” he squeaked, but only in the spirit of cooperation.

Otto Appenzeller’s previous trip to the Himalayas had been on an October expedition. That meant the January trip provided plenty of surprises for Otto and his group of Sherpa guides. The weather was tricky. They found themselves actually going up in elevation to avoid snow squalls. Ice formed on many of the trails.

Appenzeller had prepared a list of of equipment needed to prepare participants for every kind of weather and condition. Somehow he wound up the sole possessor of a pair of ice crampons for his boots. No one else could recall their inclusion on the equipment list. Though not absolutely necessary at any point on the trip, ice crampons did make walking more efficient for the one member of the trip who had them. Some good-natured grumbling ensued.

It was hard to be mad at the ebullient Appenzeller for long, equipped as he was with a wild mustaches that gave him the appearance of a hyper-learn circus strongman as he traipsed ahead of his band of bone weary doctors. At fifty years of age Appenzeller was a picture of fitness even for a man fifteen years younger. He trained with extra weights welded onto sets of HeavyHands barbells. With these he ran ten miles a day, ten pounds on each arm. This routine, he contended, optimized the constructive stress on heart and lungs.

The nature of the Himalayan journey appealed to Appenzeller’s eclectic temperament, wandering toward a distant goal in the name of science. The expedition did’t sit well with the sone of the head Sherpa, a man of 26 years that had studied in Wales and knew something of Western culture. “What does a group of well-vested Americans get our of running around these mountains?” he wanted to know. “It is your culture’s instinct for capitalization on nature.”

Appenzeller was inclined to answer him philosophically. But somehow he knew this was not an argument to be won or lost, merely defined. “We do it for research,” he plainly stated. “And for our own self aggrandizement.” Western culture may never have been summed up so neatly.

The doctors on the expedition were indeed involved in the research aspect of the trip by monitoring each other’s physical and mental reactions to the stress of exertion. As Gardner explained, “Most of us were careful not to be oversensitive to our own physical reactions. With all the ‘tough athletes’ on the trip, no one wanted to be listed as the hypochondriac.”

As the optometrist, Gardner found few severe visual reactions to altitude, nor was there any snow blindness. Everyone but Gardner had protective eyewear, an irony forced on the eye specialist when his suitable shades were lost with a bag of luggage that never made it out of New York.

“The one guy who had slight visual problems was losing sight in one eye at odd intervals,” Gardner related. “He also happened to be the same guy who broke his ankle stepping on a rock. But he wanted me to know that it wasn’t because he couldn’t see. He just wasn’t looking where he was going. I told him I couldn’t help him with that.”

The doctors turned to one another for group  introspection when the trip began to wear out their individual constitutions. Campfire discussions became exercises of friendly interrogation, evidenced by conversation designed to relieve as much as examine stress:

Doctor 1: “Think of the accumulative years of education sitting here. It’s really a gathering of well-trained minds. 

Doctor 2: “And think of the total earning power present around this fire.”

Doctor 3: “Neither of which goes anywhere in explaining why someone with the least bit of an analytical mind would put himself through this, much less pay to do it.”

UnknownVerbal barbs became a daily form of entertainment. The ripest quotes were aimed at a Dale Carnegie type whose ever-positive attitude had begun to grate on tired nerves. Sometimes the best response to over-positivity is a health dose of happy negativity.

The verbal jibes had their good effects. It gave everyone a release of tension. Some odd, amusing relationships formed as those with a fear of heights teased the claustrophobics and so on. Even the Sherpas and porters jumped in the fray of jests. Friendships grew out of the interplay.

Jack Gardner shared observations with a newfound hiking partner, Ed Feller. The two used the intensified realm of experience to measure and compare their lives and philosophies. They talked much about their families, practices and their loves. They traded running stories and made plans to get together in Boston that spring for the Big Event, the marathon, and run together.

They did meet. As is so often the case, others on the trip did not remain in contact as they had promised. The trip had been a lot to assimilate. The doctors had all come for different reasons. The common thread had been the need to escape the confines of civilization and the demands of a medical practice. That they were in turn contributing to medical knowledge across a spectrum of physiological responses by participating in the expedition was a plus. The group had also learned to better cooperate as a team and to tolerate both the strengths and weaknesses of others. The joy of finishing each day was the manner in which each could quantify their efforts. So there were both philosophical and empiric benefits.

SnowbankForemost in all their minds was the struggle with fatigue. That wrought an attitude of coexistence rather than a conquering attitude with the mountains. From lowland forest to barren alpine slopes the natural elements offered a changing version of nirvana.

The raw passage brought about a change in perceptions. Comforts of food, fire and rest became an obsession. After days of extreme cold, a thirty degree day saw everyone stripping to rub down and scrape off built up sweat and to escape what seemed like a prison of layered clothing.

By the time the doctors reached the hut where they celebrated on New Year’s, their days and nights in the Himalayas had long since been lost to the significance of numbers and become what seemed like one strong and very recent dream.

“That place taught me there are no limits,” Gardner recalled. “You can never afford to stop learning about yourself, not matter how busy, old or preoccupied you are. You must keep on going, and keep on learning.”

Note : Dr. Jack Gardner’s optometry practice is in suburban Chicago at multiple locations.

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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @gofast and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and at 3CCreativemarketing.com. Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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