Malaria and Mud Pies

There is a story behind this picture.

Rewind just a bit. So, I contracted malaria on a recent trip to Africa. Yeah, that’s right, malaria. I know what you are thinking. This is another self-absorbed story about me and my bout with a tropical disease – like that time I told you about my early make out sessions with Andy Gibb, alter egos or jumping off a cliff with a Korean named Ki.

I promise, this one is entirely different. Ok, maybe not entirely, but stick with me because this story starts in the mud, ends in the mud and is chock full of amazing people helping others. Who doesn’t love mud and good peeps?

Last year a friend convinced me to join a team he was putting together for an event called Tough Mudder. Sounds silly, but I had never done anything like it and was all in. There was plenty of time for training and with that other little challenge we had planned, I thought I would be in prime shape. Here he is in seasonal attire. How could I not agree to this challenge?

But then there was that helicopter rescue at Barranco hut that never was. Scared and unsure of how Rene would endure the physically-challenging descent during the night to the base of Kilimanjaro, the only choice was to walk it down one step at a time. It took eight hours to descend that night with only the first two hours in the daylight and the last four in the jungle. I had to be the strong one at this moment. But, luckily we weren’t alone. There with us was an impromptu team of eight new friends supporting us every step of the way.

Just keep moving forward.

It was my first time in the jungle at night and we had only two head torches between us, which Rene and I wore to cast light on the trail for us all. Rene was still hurting, but doing better now at lower altitude. There had been strong rains and the trails were deeply rutted and muddy. I put on my big girl pants and tried to keep a sense of humor. Jungle-sized trees had been downed and were blocking the trail, which forced us to trek into the dense vegetation without a machete to go around them. Was this somebody’s idea of a sick joke?

Just keep moving forward.

The darkness was profound and the sounds amplified without the benefit of sight. Gobs of insects swarmed in our lights, which we constantly swatted away, but not before a shit-ton managed to fly into our mouths and noses. The trail was never ending and there was the mud, always the mud. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of fearful thoughts that were in my mind. “Push them back,” I would say to myself.

How much longer now?

Just keep moving forward.

This impromptu team sang out loud when we were losing faith, caught us when we fell, told us it was another 20 minutes when it was really another hour and a half and turned their backs when I needed to pee. We all emerged from the jungles of Kilimanjaro in the early hours of the morning, covered in mud, our feet and knees shredded and exhausted beyond words. On this night, Rene needed me and we both needed this team pushing us forward.

These men were so very much stronger than I – in body, mind and spirit. Wrapped up in my own fear, I regrettably have no photos of the those who supported us that night, only Lazaro seen here with Rene…

A few days later, we were back home and I didn’t take these pills like we were told.

The reasons why are many and include a smidgen of me thinking “like I am ever going to get malaria.” These reasons have no relevance to this story, so I’m just going to skip over them so I can get to the dirty part faster. Remember those bugs in our headlamps?

Chills, 103 fever , sweating, crazy wicked dreams. Yep, that’s it. I’ll save the details as it was your average run-of-the-mill bout of this tropical parasitical wonderland. Lots of medicine later, the bout was over, but I was left weakened. I hate even saying “weakened” out loud, but that’s what I was.

Hey, remember that race I signed up for with that vampire guy? Yea, it was time. And another impromptu team of new friends had taken shape. Rene also had planned to participate, but was still recovering from that pesky little embolism. And me, well I backed out. Why? Because I was convinced of my own weakness in the face of another intense challenge (read: I didn’t believe in myself).

But the vampire guy, he insisted that I could do it and he convinced me too. He is in this picture, you see him? On the left in the red shorts.

So we all showed up for this muddy challenge – this new impromptu team. Some of us knew each other well, some of us barely knew each other’s names.

It promised to be muddy. Really muddy and for almost 12 miles mixed with some borderline crazy obstacles to scale along the way. Lot’s of them. But it didn’t matter, we had pink elephants on our shirts. Yes, pink elephants.

And this guy would do it with a fractured ankle. I’ll call him Steel.

He wasn’t going to let that hold him back.

Almost immediately, I fell behind the others. It was simple, I was just not as well conditioned. The mental chatter began almost immediately, “You can’t do this. You are too weak.”

Just keep moving forward.

Oh, and there is another character in this story. He is a Frenchman with a name that us Americans can’t pronounce. I’ll call him Max.

He could have easily been an early finisher. But, he forewent glory and stayed behind with Malarial Mary. He wouldn’t let me quit. And, if I had tried, he would have insulted me into running till I puked. Here he can be seen dragging my ass out of a tube.

He wasn’t amused when I asked if I had any mud on my butt. He cursed something at me in French. So testy.

Just keep moving forward.

Here is our impromptu team supporting Steel when he severely sprained his other ankle. He went on to walk it to the end.

We all crossed the finish line with mud packed into every possible orifice, scratches and bruises and each with a smile from ear to ear. I wish Rene could have crossed it too. This smile in particular is my favorite. That’s pure celebratory bliss right there.

Six weeks. My love with a pulmonary embolism. A nighttime jungle adventure. A shit-ton of mud and bugs all in our finer features. A parasitical tropical disease. An endless series of real and perceived walls to be overcome. Two of the hardest things I have ever done.

Just keep moving forward.

But most importantly, only made possible by two impromptu teams of new friends and a vampire who talked me into this craziness. Through this experience, I got a heaping scoop of humility, a boatload of great memories, some amazing new friends and a reminder of a few simple truths. Sometimes you are strong and when you are, extend your hand to help others. Sometimes you are weak and when you are, reach out your hand to take the one extended to you. And when life gives you malaria, make mud pies.

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14 Comments on “Malaria and Mud Pies”

  1. CGV says:

    Way it go, Life is the best teacher. “We are messengers expressing hope, love and respect”.- Caballo Blanco. Best wishes to you, Rene and the kids. Cgv

  2. Robert says:

    A great read!

  3. Vampire Josh says:

    You’re a tough nut, Amber Gracia! Quite a series of challenges overcome, and just knowing you have earned that orange headband gives a foundation, a mental certaintude that you can overcome other less physical obstacles in life. Great writing as always. Oh, and I’m glad you didn’t get shocked in the head and put down unceremoniously face-first in the mud like a couple of us dummies. 🙂

  4. jacob stapp says:

    …and it’s only April. Can’t wait to hear what other experiences 2012 brings you.
    You’re one badass lady.

  5. josh r says:

    …Great writting, great passion, and one Tough Mudder who with the one she loves beside her is Brave, Strong, and Tender!! On a day that the Dallas Metroplex was blasted with over 15 tornado’s- no one died; on Kilimanjaro 8 new friends met 2 who ” kept moving forward” and no one died!! If it doesnt kill you, your story never – ever – ends! And even if it did – your legacy will never end. I am now… a mud pie follower.

  6. Maria C. Gracia says:

    Awesome! Congratulations on your achievement! Great effort = Accomplishment!!!
    I will also “keep moving forward” Thanks! 😉

  7. What a great read. And the photos are beautiful. And you had malaria?? You said it so nonchalantly, so you are definitely a badass. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  8. Mike C. says:

    Amber and Rene, As you know, I did the same trail a few hours earlier, also going around all the trees downed across the trail. My question – why didn’t the helicopter show up?

    • Hey Mike, thanks for stopping by.

      Regarding the helicopter rescue that never was…we left you along the trail to turn back to Barranco Huts and call for the rescue. We arrived some 15 min later and finally were able to get a call into the closest rescue organization in Nairobi. We found out the hard way that the National Park at Kili does not have its own helicopter and that logistics (even with full coverage) were challenging, to put it lightly. Once they finally got approval from the insurance company, they (rescue) then had to wait hours for approval from Tanzania to enter their airspace. This took many more hours. Then, by the time they departed Nairobi and landed at the base, the clouds were firmly in place. At this point, we could’t see into the valley that runs below Barranco. They attempted landing, failed and returned to Nairobi to try again the following morning. It was now 4:30 in the afternoon. 7 hours had passed since we saw you along the trail and now we had no other choice but to descend in the impending darkness. An experienced mountaineer and EMT, Kurt Wedburg, also crossed our path at Barranco and evaluated Rene. He managed to get him some O2 and organized extra porters to help us down.

      I often think about the improbability of encountering you, a physician with experience in cardiac events, along the trail at the exact moment that we did. I would say it was good luck, but it is more like providence.

      Thank you for being there when you were. Rene and I send you our best and wish you well.


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