Friday, August 22, 2014

Lessons from PTL

2013 PTL start in Chamonix. Photo by Joe Grant
Beat and I head to Geneva and then Chamonix on Sunday afternoon, just enough time for him to grab a few last-minute supplies, attend a pre-race briefing, and start Monday's Petite Trotte a Leon properly jet-lagged and travel weary. I finished up my packing rather effortlessly, having streamlined the process enough that I can fit three weeks of travel and one major multiday race into a small suitcase and carry-on (my secret: I just use nearly the same supplies and gear for every endurance race I do, winter or summer, bike or foot. Works!)

Beat has a case of pre-race jitters and rightly so. Mine can hold off for a couple more weeks. While Beat races the PTL I'm going to take buses around the valley and attempt trace pieces of this year's PTL course as my one week of TDG "training." Some of my friends have hinted at whether I feel regret for not attempting to avenge my PTL DNF from last year. No. None. I have no intention of ever returning to PTL. It wasn't right for me. It was both too arduous and too dangerous relative to my personal abilities and skill set. With a similar geographical location, distance, and elevation profile as the Tor des Geants, some might wonder how the two races could be all that different. Granted, I have only seen what amounts to about 20 percent of the TDG course — but all of these sections were comparable to the easiest passages of PTL. The *easy* stuff in PTL was incredibly steep trail and boulder fields. The hard stuff was bolted cliff faces, exposed scrambling, loose boulders, avalanche chutes, extremely slippery mud or scree slopes, steep snow fields, and other types of terrain where, while not technically "climbing," were technical and often exposed enough that any mistake had very serious consequences. It was all doable, but the speed at which my teammates and I had to approach that stuff to feel remotely secure ensured that we were near or behind every single soft and hard cut-off, from kilometer 30 on. This cut-off chasing ensured we couldn't find time to sleep, eat, or even collect snow for water (I ended up with mild frostnip on the tips of my fingers from clawing frantically at the frozen crust because I had been out of water for three hours and was parched, but needed to catch my teammates before they hiked out of sight, since I was the only one navigating.) We held on for 92 hours and 200 official kilometers (about 145 GPS miles) before I slowed down too much to accompany my teammates as we chased the checkpoint two cut-off. My race ended in a genuine psychotic episode that I still can't explain (although I think it was something similar to an anxiety attack.) Much of the experience was a nightmare, a true nightmare, and I never, never, never want to go back.

So will TDG be all that different? Enough so to take an experience I hated and flip this whole thing around to become something I love? Ha, who knows? That's part of the strange and wonderful reasons why we run. We can't explain it, so we just run with it, and let the story sort itself out in the aftermath. I did learn many valuable lessons during PTL, several of which I think I can use to improve my chances of a positive experience in TDG.

1. Fear is powerful. I know this, but I need reminders, a constant mantra to keep the monster at arm's length and force myself to rationalize my way through tough situations rather than flail at them in an emotional whirlwind.

2. Food is important. For the more disconcerting symptoms I experienced in PTL — dizziness, blurred vision, intense nausea, and hallucinations — I initially blamed lack of sleep. In hindsight, I think the more likely culprit was lack of food. I'm not sure I even realized how little I was eating, but it couldn't have been much — we were cut off from meals at two support stations, each about twenty hours apart, and the two meals we ate during the four days of the race were both reheated TV-dinner-style plates in both quality and quantity. Other than that, I had what was in my pack, which with one resupply amounted to maybe 6,000 calories total, for four days. There were two instances where we went through a town and stopped by a refuge when my teammates grabbed a quick snack and I opted to curl up on a chair and nap, because I had become obsessed with getting more sleep. Those types of low-rolling bonks are difficult to detect but swift to deteriorate. I sure was a mess on the last day.

3. Sleep might not be as important as I thought. The jury's out on this. I think the sweet spot is four hours per 24-hour period, and acceptable mental functionality can be had in three. Less than that might bring the stalking-wolf hallucinations and blurred vision back. I have a hunch that I will not be able to afford even this much sleep, but a lot can be accomplished with short naps at times that the sleep monster hits. I am considering carrying a light bivy system for trailside snoozes.

4. The input of other people does help keep me centered. I had teammates in the PTL. Their low points were not my low points and vice versa. I think we moved slower overall because of this, but the company of others also helped stave off the meltdowns (Evidenced by the major meltdown I lapsed into as soon as I was alone.) I will not have teammates in the TDG, and I have asked Beat not to stick with me as I think this is an experience I need to tackle on my own. That said, I do hope to make some trail friends.

5. Dry feet are happy feet. During PTL, both of my teammates were burdened with terrible blisters, and they expressed jealousy in my "perfect mountain feet." I've never had much success finishing anything with hurty feet, so my only option is to keep them happy. I do this with diligent reapplications of Beat's homemade, moisture-repelling Hydrolube, and by removing my shoes and socks at absolutely every stop, even if it's only five minutes. It's worth it. Enough time on feet leaves them beaten up no matter what, but a lack of open sores helps greatly.

6. Shut up legs. I have yet to develop a leg pain that persists for more than a few days after a race is over. Horrible shin splints from the seven days of the Iditarod Trail Invitational included. I have a fairly good sense now of all the pains I get that are not long-term injuries, just short-term irritation.

7. Losing one's mind ... avoid at all costs. So I had what I think was an anxiety attack after I already understood that my race was over and I was making my way into the Aosta Valley on the fourth day of PTL. I got "lost" and went tearing blindly through the woods, with what felt like no rational control over what my body was doing. It was very unnerving and downright scary. Not worth it. If lack of sleep sends me down this path in TDG, I've vowed not to let it go this far.

Regardless it's going to be a wild ride and I'm actually very excited for the Tor des Geants. There are still two weeks to go. In the meantime, I'm going to be tracking Beat and his teammate, Daniel, in the PTL. And, similar to past TDGs, plan to check out small sections of the terrain he's experiencing ... with the wonderful freedom of knowing this time, if I don't like it, I can turn around. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


 My birthday is this week. It's my 35th. This also marks three and a half years of living in California; both numbers baffle me. It's not that I feel young — I've been more of an "old soul" ever since I was actually young — but I just can't believe that half of a decade has passed since I climbed on top of Mount McGinnis to embrace my thirties. "It's such a cliche but it's true that once you hit 30, the years really start slipping away," I told my friend Leah as we headed out to Big Basin for a ride on Saturday. She reminded me that I've filled these California years with adventures, which is one of the reasons they've gone by so fast. I actually think routine is what really makes our perception of time speed up, because days that are filled with sameness are the ones that tend to disappear. I have plenty of habits, but also a sense of curiosity that injects sparks of wonder into even the mundane days. Wonder is what keeps me young. It's certainly not my skin, because 35 years around the sun has not been kind to that.

We enjoyed a fantastic ride on Saturday. It's been a while since I coaxed Leah out to the Peninsula, but I had a fun idea for a loop through Big Basin — descending the steep and narrow spine of McCreary Ridge, rolling along the coast, and climbing Gazos Creek fire road. I thought if any trails around here had even the faintest hint of tackiness left, those sheltered by sixty-foot redwoods would. I couldn't have been more wrong. I don't think it's rained around here since sometime before my last birthday, and the parched ground has been stirred up to a chunder that resembles granola mixed with powdered sugar. Leah is back in training for cross season and I told her that she'd probably be fine with her cross bike, but the McCreary Ridge descent was loose and sketchy. There were a few instances of chunder-surfing with a locked rear wheel, some downhill hike-a-bikes, and blasting through curtains of cob webs and moss dust on a baked-mulch descent to the coast. I don't think McCreary Ridge sees much use, by anyone.

It was a beautiful afternoon at Waddell Beach. We still had to make our way up Gazos Creek on a steep dusty road ripped up by logging truck traffic, the kind of surface that keeps you close to red-lined even in granny gear — but if it wasn't for that obligation I probably could have relaxed here for a few more hours. This is probably something I'll do more frequently someday if I have the privilege to get really old — sit on a beach and stare at the ocean.

I'm wrapping up some final training runs before we head to Europe for Beat's third year of PTL, which starts next Monday. Today I headed up Black Mountain to hike the steeper pitches with my trekking poles. I haven't done much trekking pole training recently, but I don't think that matters. I use them frequently and juggle them well when I'm running; I've had a lot of practice yet. I've been trying out the Hoka Stinson trail shoe; put about a hundred miles on them so far. This is my first venture into a different model of Hokas since I found the Mafate 1 in 2010 (I like to joke that I'm not a Hoka convert — more like a native born, since I ventured into running while using Hokas.) I like the Stinsons but I'm worried the durability may be lacking; I've already torn the tongue twice and fear for the mesh outers on rocky Alps trails. I have one more new pair of Mafate 2s and may break those in for Tor des Geants. My older pair of Mafate 2s has nearly 950 miles. I was going to try to push them to 1,000, but the now-bald soles are beginning to separate so I may have to accept their early demise.

I planned a longer run today and assumed it would be tedious so I downloaded some new music and settled in for a grind. But what I found was this cool, almost autumn-like breeze wafting along the ridge, a cape of sea fog draped over the mountains, and rich evening sunlight that reflected off the golden hillsides with a mesmerizing shimmer. I shuffled along with my trekking poles and cackled at Weird Al's new album, which I downloaded because until recently I didn't even realize Weird Al was still making new music, but he was one of my favorites when I was 12 and listening to Weird Al makes me feel young. As it turns out, his parody of Imagine Dragon's "Radioactive" makes a great running song, even if it's about being "Really Inactive."

"I'm giving up. My energy is shot. I'm never moving from this spot."

Singing and clicking my poles and just like that, 17.5 miles with 4,100 feet of climbing was done. Maybe it's true that once you hit 35, even the miles start slipping away before you notice. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dog days

August is the month for reluctant training, stirring up clouds of dust from the chunder trails, wiping the burn of salt from my eyes, and running without water for eight miles in the midst of a 20-mile run in 85-degree heat because my region is in exceptional drought and the groundwater taps are dry. Through it all, I wonder why I so ambitiously signed up for a late-summer race. But I know the reason. Registrations for these things always take place in January, when California's outside temperatures are tolerable and spirits are still fresh. (I wouldn't call my January legs fresh, however, since I'm usually in training for some hard Alaska race. But at least the legs are peppy in January, because they're going to Alaska.)

Then late summer comes around and the legs are tenderized, spirits over-ripened, and the consequences of January ambition ... those are still the same.

I actually wouldn't mind hibernating through August. One of these years I probably should. But I really do want to participate in the Tor des Geants, and so I need to do at least some physical preparation. Since mid-July I've been aiming to balance more frequent rest days to continue recovering from the Freedom Challenge, slow runs and hikes to add a little more spark to the legs, and some cycling as well because I do really like cycling. Slow is all I've been able to accomplish, but both my speed and energy levels are improving with every run. Since I'm not experiencing much in the way of overtraining symptoms besides being slow, this ongoing improvement suggests that I'm not burned out — I'm just out of shape. It makes sense. I did focused running training through March, which developed into a routine complete with pace expectations. Then I turned to long-distance cycling for three and a half months. I can't just expect to pick up where I left off with running, regardless of how much cycling I did in the interim.

I've been analyzing the data from the Tor des Geants course because — while I am slowly regaining fitness — in truth my only real chance of finishing this race is to go in with a well-understood plan that I can use to crack a whip on my less-than-peppy legs. I never make race plans because plans fall apart, every time — but PTL last year taught me that if I don't adequately judge my abilities against the cut-offs, I'm going to end up chasing them for four days and DNF anyway.

The Tor des Geants is 205 miles with 78,740 feet of climbing. That's an average elevation change of 768 feet per mile, but the reality is usually north of 1,000 feet per mile with the occasional flat section thrown in just to really piss off your feet. Yes, that is a higher average than Hardrock and yes, the TDG is twice as far, and yes, my plan is to hike the entire thing. There may be an occasional shuffle on the infrequent lower grades just to mix up muscle use, but personal experience has taught me that — unless you happened to be named Kilian or are sponsored by Salomon — a focused power-hike is both more enjoyable and more efficient over a long enough period of time. The most common reason people drop out of the Tor des Geants is because they went out too fast and tore up their feet, crushed their knees, and shredded their quads. They didn't think it was too fast. It was probably slower than they'd ever run in their lives. But it was too fast.

Still, to actually finish the Tor des Geants in its 150-hour cutoff, you still need to cover 33 miles per 24-hour period. At a glance, it doesn't seem that bad. A 50K a day? Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers do that all the time! But what's contained in that 50K is what matters. The first 49 kilometers, for example, has 13,110 feet of climbing. (When analyzing run data I often think it terms of kilometers of distance and feet of climbing. It think this is because I grew up with imperial units of measurement but focused the bulk of my running on either 50Ks or Euro-races, so I visualize kilometers.) But to reiterate, that's 49,000 meters of horizontal with 8,000 meters of vertical change, otherwise known as the takeoff angle of a jet. The whole course is more or less like this for 330 kilometers. You can see why I would love this, right? It's a foot race more or less designed for strong and determined hikers. I only wish I was in better shape.

But I am trying to figure out how capable I might be at any given section so I can design a plan with expected rate of travel along with the best, or at least most strategic, places to rest. To do this I tapped my four-time finisher boyfriend for recommendations and then dredged up old Strava data from some hikes I've done on the course. There are 25 prominent "peaks" on the course and I've seen seven of them, some several times because the timing for a crewperson in the Tor des Geants usually works out to hit the same places year after year. Here's a profile of one of my favorites, Col Pinter:

Why, yes, that is 4,500 feet of climbing in 3.5 miles. So fun! Probably even more fun after 120 miles of slogging through much of the same. The blue line is my pace chart. Not sure why it fluctuates so much (guessing stops to catch my breath) but the higher ends are probably most accurate. Shooting for 25-minute miles seems an ambitious but worthy goal. I realistically have to keep my overall moving average below a 30-minute mile to make this work, while still finding the necessary time for sleeping, feet-drying and repair, and eating ... in that order. (Actually eating is the most important thing in an endeavor like this and the hardest to keep up with. That's actually another very common reason people drop out of a multiday event ... they just run out of gas. Low calorie intake was likely my biggest physical setback during the PTL and greatly exacerbated my psychological meltdowns.)

Here's another fun one, Col Loson, and the reminder that there are definitely going to be some 60- and maybe even 90-minute miles in the mix. This is why I'm doing the math even though I doubt I'll be able to adhere even loosely to any kind of race plan. But I have experienced pieces of this route, and feel like these previews will help me set reasonable expectations for myself. The Tor des Geants will be the kind of 90-percent-mental mindgame that I both love and fear the most. Three and a half more weeks to go.