No Harm, No Foul

As a child, the neighborhood was my playground as I free ranged with other kids from yard to yard playing kickball, hide-and-seek, capture the flag, and wiffle ball. We built forts, climbed everything from trees to fences, and explored places that we did not necessarily have permission to. We didn’t wear watches or have cell phones, and were oftentimes simply given the instruction of, “Be home by dark.” When we got hungry, we dared each other to eat worms or grubs. When we got thirsty, we drank from puddles, streams, and garden hoses that were used for much more than watering the plants. These innocent days allowed for a lot of time outside and permitted us kids to just be exactly that, kids.

During this time, what we did seemed common and normal. Our parents never screamed or shuddered when we gave them glimpses into the day’s affairs. Regarding our welfare, I came to learn and understand the phrase, “No harm, no foul.” Fast forward 30 years and this seemingly simplistic phrase has stuck with me.

In my last race, the Georgia Death Race, I drank from a stream. A combination of factors led to this happening. I missed my crew at mile 27, and then when the temperature went from warm to warmer, I began to waver. While working my way through a section of the course that was very exposed to the sun, I began to feel dryness in my mouth and throat. As I entertained myself by opening and closing my sticky, parched mouth, I passed several small streams that were flowing from what appeared to be a high point above. Not allowing myself to slow, I calculated my time to the next aid station as I lifted my head ever so slightly to glance at the long climb ahead. Not wanting to think about the distance, I attempted to distract myself by counting my steps, trying to keep my counting rhythm methodical.

Aliza Lapierre - 2017 Georgia Death Race

Aliza Lapierre during the Georgia Death Race. Photo: Jobie Williams

Admittedly, my pattern faltered. The sound of running water on the embankment to my left triggered my desire for water to feel more and more prevalent in my mind and body. I looked at my watch and saw that I was at over 4,000 feet altitude, and for some reason in my mind this altitude warranted a stop to examine the source more carefully. The water was clear, cold, and running at a good pace. I splashed it up and down my arms and on my dirt-laden legs, then took a sip. It tasted crisp and clean, so I drank a little more and then a little more. Then I figured, why not fill up my hydration bladder before taking off running again? I vividly recall having a sense of fulfillment very similar to that feeling when I was a kid and being ‘resourceful’ while playing in the neighborhood.

Needless to say, I survived the race and didn’t have to endure for hours the feeling of thirst and the consequences of dehydration. Just like I learned as a kid, I thought, No harm, no foul.

A couple weeks after the race, I found myself with a painful and upset stomach, nausea, and fatigue. I assumed that I must have eaten something bad. After a few days, my stomach issues didn’t resolve and anything that I put into my body came right out the other end. From liquids to food, nothing wanted to stay with me, and eventually I was dehydrated and feeling extremely depleted. Feeling defeated, I called my doctor’s office, explained my symptoms, and was seen that day. The doctor’s first questions for me were, “Have you left the country or drank potentially contaminated water?” Recollecting my creek indulgence at the Georgia Death Race, I timidly answered in the positive and then was tested for parasites. That day, I was diagnosed with Giardiasis and this reiterated several lessons to me.

As unpleasant as this occurrence was and still is, it helped remind me that life isn’t always black and white. Drinking stream water quenched my thirst, cooled me off, and got me to the finish line, therefore I quickly deemed it acceptable. Not until my stomach turned from feeling normal into literally a shit show was I reminded that my instant gratification of drinking cold stream water was just that, instant. In that moment, I had still yet to learn if that action was truly benign or malignant. It wasn’t like when as a kid out playing and a ball struck a window and in that moment I knew that either the ball broke the glass or simply bounced off.

This event also reminded me that just because I see images, videos, and stories about ultrarunners drinking from their cupped hands in mountain streams, it doesn’t mean that this comes without risk. Sure, it makes for pure-looking photographs where we are fueled directly from nature, but let’s be reminded of the wildlife and human sources that can contaminate those seemingly clean resources. There are easy ways to treat stream water. Yes, it requires carrying one more thing, but something as simple and light as a LifeStraw can help save your gut and leave you truly saying, “No harm, no foul.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have a ‘no harm, no foul’ story from your time out in the mountains? An example of you making a choice with potential consequences where everything worked out without a problem?
  • How about a story where your time out in the mountains had consequences that required a steep and perhaps uncomfortable learning curve?
Aliza Lapierre - 2017 Georgia Death Race 2

Photo: Jobie Williams

Aliza Lapierre

finds peace and a sense of belonging while trail running. Her passion began by exploring the trails in her home state of Vermont and has been regenerated by exploration across the world. She continually works to redefine her perceived boundaries, while trying to inspire others to explore their capabilities as well.

There are 12 comments

  1. John K

    Thanks for posting.

    I have drunk from streams here in the Berkshires for 25 years with nary a problem, and no giardiasis. No harm, no foul, I guess.

    I remember once getting terribly hot and thirsty one summer day coming down off a mountain, and literally lying down in the stream at ~1500ft, before drinking heartily.

    All that said, I bought a Sawyer filter two years ago, and now when I go into the wilderness I bring the filter – it’s easy to fill the bag and drink through the filter, and the water tastes just as fresh as it does directly from the stream.

    Yes, I’ve been lucky, but I think you’re right – a portable filter is a small thing to carry, and it can save your run from being unpleasant or even dangerous.

  2. Tropical John

    I think you did the right thing. If a stream is moving fairly rapidly (i.e., it’s oxygenated), you have to be a bit unlucky to get giardia. If it were a training run in a remote location, I would totally agree with carrying a portable filter, and generally have for years. But in a race you sort of expect that you’ll get what you need from the aid stations. If it turns out that the aid is too far apart, or it’s too warm, or you should’ve maybe carried a second bottle, I wouldn’t hesitate to drink from a rapidly flowing stream. And, even if you are unlucky and get giardia, typically you won’t have any symptoms for a couple of days – well after you’ve finished.

    I always joke that your episode is why god invented flagyl. Plus, it’s a great weight loss regime!

  3. Luke

    I used to backpack with a guy (M.D) who never treated water. He always figured symptoms would hit well after he got back. Can’t remember him ever getting sick, fwiw. Instead I learned to appreciate the taste of iodine. Tastes like freedom.

    My plan never counts on natural water sources, but that’s just the plan. I have a small bottle of iodine tablets in the ‘stow and forget’ pocket of my hydration pack, alongside the emergency space blanket and the TP. Grams aren’t worth obsessing over.

    And like Tropical John says, I wouldn’t second guess your decision. Dehydration is dangerous and dialysis is a real bummer.

  4. TabK

    I too drink from streams more than I like to admit. I chronically run out of water on training runs and lucky have never gotten sick. I have even stooped so low as to drink from a little waterfall next to a road when my car was only a mile and a half ahead. Just a few drops that dribbled onto my lips after splashing my face, then another little sip won’t hurt. I have been thinking of one of those Katadyn soft flasks to keep in my hydration pack to remedy this bad habit. I have a life straw, but rarely carry it. It’s kind of long for a tiny pack and it’s not like you can take the water with you. It’s only a temporary quencher.

  5. JJ

    I carry a small dropper bottle of pre-mixed Aquamira in my running vest. Weighs almost nothing and is the size of my thumb. 15 drops per bottle, wait 15 minutes and drink. No shit.

    1. Scott

      Aside from AM not purifying water, it also has an efficacy point that deteriorates after being mixed. Both of these things are explained clearly by the company itself.
      Premixing a solution takes a product that does nothing and makes it somehow do even less.
      You can just leave it at home.

      1. JJ

        Scott, not sure by what you mean about Aquamira not purifying anything, please explain? It has the right ingredients and lots of satisfied customers. Also I premix it before each run, it’s still effective for the duration of the activity.

  6. Ingo

    No one mentioned the Steripen yet? I’ve got the Adventurer Opti and it’s hands down the best piece of gear in my arsenal. Even removes the risk from viruses that would otherwise require nanofiltration. Battery lasts forever, quick to deploy, instantly drinkable, no funny taste and you can add your favorite powder unlike some other solutions. I pair it with a reusable camping coffee filter to remove sand and grit. If you run in a water rich environment you will never have to carry more than ~1 liter of water plus the Steripen no matter how long you’re going to be out there.

      1. Ingo

        Ok, so how about a view on what actually works rather than knowing what or why something doesn’t? That’d be pretty helpful.

  7. Andrew

    A good rule is, if there are cows, beavers, or humans likely to be above the spot you are drinking, then it is a bit of a risk.

    Otherwise, you will likely be ok.

    I typically filter anyways, but there are some (guidebook author Michael Kelsey!) who seems to constantly drink from streams and follows those rules. Apparently he’s never been sick.

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