Thursday, September 18, 2014

Living in color, part one

If I were to try to distill individual life into a trite analogy, it would be this — life is a mural, painted in moments. Our experiences are the conglomeration of colors; we smear them on the canvas of ourselves inevitably, but also deliberately. We refine our moments into memories, shaped by personal values and perspectives. We’re all artists, and we all interpret our world in different ways, different colors. But, like many, I have a tendency to lapse into easy patterns — the Bob Ross formula of simple smudges yielding blandly pleasant landscapes. And, like many, I also have on my palette a primal streak of passion, a desire to slash bold red lines across the wispy pastels. Then I stand back, astonished, as crimson paint bleeds all over my happy little trees and fluffy clouds. And I think to myself, “Now that is beautiful.”

This might be why I keep finding myself back in these places — the places with majestic mountains and charming cabins rendered in idyllic perfection — clutching my red paint. The Tor des Geants is such a place — the high route around Italy’s Aosta Valley, 330 kilometers up and down steep and imposing mountains — 24 vertical kilometers’ worth. I could spend three weeks working my way around the valley and taking in the nuances of this brilliant segment of the world — and probably should. Why try to do it in six days? It’s not a socially advancing achievement; few people care, even fewer actually understand what it really entails. It’s not something for which I’m particularly talented or even acceptably adept. I’m more likely to fail than not, and in that failure I’d be worse off than if I had never tried — physically downtrodden, possibly injured, spiritually adrift. So why? Why? My answer — those streaks of bold beauty. Those moments are worth it.

But the sacrifices start to sink in by the beginning of the second pass. I'd just spent about four hours making my way across the first twenty kilometers of the course, over the 5,000-foot ascent of Col Arp and the winding plummet into the valley of La Thuile. Sunlight shimmered over distant glaciers and saturated the greens and golds in the early-autumn grass. Unfortunately, I can’t pass through this place without seeing the ugly shadows left behind from my last visit here, a previous attempt at bold abstraction — the 2013 Petite Trotte a Leon. Here is the valley were I was finally beaten into submission, hollowed out, and filled with a black paranoia and disconnect from reality so severe that I still only remember those moments as a dream, uncertain what even took place in the physical world. Not that the line between reality and non-reality matters much anymore. It was real enough to end up slashed across my canvas in an image so visceral that it still casts shadows one year later. “I shouldn’t have come back here,” is a thought that crossed my mind. “I don’t belong here.”

Maybe that’s part of the reason for coming back. When you aim for full intensity you never know whether you’ll create darkness or brightness. Usually both. September 7 was a bright day, with a stream of happy, tired faces making their way along the cobbled streets of La Thuile into a stone building full of blueberry tarts and oranges. I sunk my teeth into fruit wedges and let the sticky juice dribble down my chin and neck, too amped up to care. The crossing of Col Arp was the kind of thing most of us would call a full, hard day before retreating happily to pizza and beers, but it was just the first of 25 or so passages in the Tor des Geants. We had a long, long way to go, and that knowledge combined with the fatigue in my legs was exquisite.

I joined the California contingent — Beat, Dima, and Sarah, along with Dima “Crankypants” from Boston, on the march toward the next 5,000-odd feet of climbing. “Wait, didn’t we just do this?” I exclaimed as the trail veered steeply toward a tiered series of waterfalls. The long descent into La Thuile had steeped my legs in a lead-like solution of lactic acid, blood, and broken muscle fibers, but the healthy climb seemed to flush all of that away again. I love a good climb, I really do. I run out of energy just like anyone, but no physical sensation makes me feel more alive than forcing my body away from the oppressive pull of gravity. Beat and Crankypants, who had both participated in PTL the week before and were as acclimated to the effort as they were worn down by it, disappeared ahead. California Dima and Sarah, who bounded past me down the first descent while I quietly scolded them for risking “quad death,” fell back. Beat and I agreed to move at our own paces in TDG, and I had a feeling I was going to find myself alone most of the time. Alone among many. The starting group of 800 or so runners was still fairly bunched together, and there were at least that many spectators and day-hikers making their way down the narrow trail as we lined our way up. This is the kind of experience you sign up for in an organized race — a chance to strive together, to share palettes with others who understand the strange and beautiful process. We seek the company, but we also quietly hope we'll eventually find ourselves alone again. “It won’t feel claustrophobic for long,” is a thought that crossed my mind.


Soon enough, we crossed a threshold in Tor des Geants that finally became "far" — far from the spectators, from the barrage of cowbell clanking, and even from the delicious orange wedges and blueberry tart triangles that were surprisingly abundant in this race. Yes, the Alps can feel far away from the hum of ordinary existence while simultaneously feeling remarkably close to modern life. I am continually astonished by these mountains, by their ruggedness contrasted against the ease at which humans seem to make their way here. How did large stone buildings spring up on the point of narrow pinnacles, guarded by slopes that require hands-over-head scrambling, and yet stocked with fresh espresso and warm beds, and occupied by 5-year-old-children playing barefoot in the grass? In the United States it's difficult to find accommodations this inviting just off the Interstate, let alone at the top of mountains. Rifugio Deffeyes is such a place, the first where it's really a pity to make such a hurried stop. But espresso and warm beds really aren't the experiences we came for in the Tor des Geants. We think about these things all the time, joke about them, yearn for them, but they're not really what we want. Not really. Not just yet.

What we do want are the stark slopes of Passo Alto, drenched in afternoon light, and the slow breakdown of our emotional defenses against the awe and also anguish that these landscapes can provoke. How do I put this simply? These landscapes are beautiful. They're more beautiful when I'm tired ... and the shell that's formed around 35 years of expectations begins to crack. That's the truth, for better or worse, and I gain such deep appreciation of the experiences I encounter at my most raw and exposed. It's the second best thing to being a child again, to seeing the world through an untouched and uninhibited lens. This mindset doesn't come free, or easily, at all. But when it happens, it's quite astonishing. I walked beside the boulders, occasionally running my fingers over the smooth surfaces, dipping my hands in the streams to splash clear water on my face, and feeling so wholly alive at times that I could scarcely breathe.

Then it was time to descend and do it all again. Looking back, if I were to try to define the moment I first realized there was going to be a kink in my ideal situation, it was the descent off Haut Pas. I stumbled on some rocks near the pass and managed to catch myself but knocked an elbow on a nearby boulder. "It's all right, just have to take it slow," was a thought that crossed my mind. I'd been strong on both climbs that day and passed dozens of people who were now running past me like I was standing still. Funny how being passed by others becomes such a source of frustration in a race, probably because it's a visual gauge of our own progress. Their footfalls looked so effortless compared to my clunky steps. "It's all right, just have to take it slow."

One aspect of the Tor des Geants that is difficult to convey to North American trail runners is just how relentlessly steep it is. There are a few somewhat flat, actually runnable sections on the route, and some long technical traverses, but for the most part you're either working your way up the most ridiculously steep trail you've ever been on, or down. For this reason, it's a really tough race to train for locally. Pretty much all Bay Area trails are buffed-out cruisers compared to the Alta Via of the Aosta Valley. Even trails in the Sierras, as long as you stick to the more well-established trails and not difficult-to-access high routes and off-trail scrambles, are also similarly too "flat." What I know of western Montana also includes a lot of "logging" grades and buffed trails (disclaimer: Most of what I know of Montana is from mountain biking.) I've hiked some trails in the Wasatch Mountains that better fit the bill — Lone Peak, Twin Peaks, even Mount Olympus and the west side of Grandeur Peak are good training grounds. Colorado and Southeast/Southcentral Alaska have some good spots too, of course. But most of us are stuck with inadequate training unless we make a concerted effort to mimic conditions unique to the Alps. I spent the spring training for long-distance biking and the summer riding and recovering from the Freedom Challenge. So I think it's fair to say I was woefully undertrained for what would matter most in my case — steep and rocky descending.

Still — you know what they say about hope. Springs eternal, and all that. Frustration about my crappy descending faded as soon as we started up Col Crosatie. The light was fading into the cool hues of evening, and I'd stuffed my face with a bunch of polenta at the rifugio in the valley while smiling and nodding at an older man who continued to tell me a long, expressive story in Italian even after it must have been obvious that I didn't understand a word. All of the elements of PTL that caused me so much anguish — the difficult navigation, the outright terrifying routes, the impossible cut-offs, the limited and openly unfriendly "support" — were so far entirely missing from TDG. It was all of the good and none of the bad. And of course, I knew TDG would be hard, but it was already amazing. "I can do this, I can probably actually do this," was a thought that crossed my mind.

The pitch steepened as we approached the col, rising up along a series of cables and stacked-boulder scrambles that I attacked with all the energy I could muster. I had little to lose by going hard on a climb. As I crested the pass, my pounding heart seemed to leap out of my throat, leaving only stunned silence. The full moon hung over a skyline of 4,000-meter mountains while the immediate world dropped into a purple-hued abyss below. Cool wind whisked around the pinnacles and friendly volunteers in an emergency bivouac handed out free energy in the form of shots from a two-liter bottle of Coke. It was, at least for that moment, the most beautiful scene I had ever witnessed.

As I dropped off the col, I passed a memorial to a Chinese runner who fell on these rocks and died during last year's Tor des Geants. I stared at the stone rectangle blankly for a few seconds before I realized what it was, then became all choked up at let a few tears fall as I picked up a small rock to place it near the English side of the plaque. It's good, sometimes, to let oneself operate in this state of heightened emotions, to cry for a stranger we never knew. It helps shape a new perspective on life — more bold hues to replace the cracked and faded brush strokes of complacency.

It was a long descent into the first life base at Valgrisenche, and I felt good and did some running. I reached the small village at 11 p.m., meaning the first fifty kilometers — and four vertical kilometers — of the Tor des Geants took thirteen hours, which I considered not bad at all. Still, I arrived too late to see Beat, who had just slipped upstairs to take a nap. I planned to nap as well — extreme sleep deprivation had caused no small amount of distress during PTL, and I was resolved to sleep at least some every chance I had, as long as there was still time on the clock to stop. I joined Crankypants for a dinner of champions — penne pasta, red sauce, an egg, and ham. Then I slipped upstairs for 90 blissful minutes of shut-eye before leaving town just ten minutes after Beat, resolved to catch him.

"I could maybe even push a little harder," I thought. "There's a good chance I'll need to bank the time."

Saturday, September 13, 2014

I walked, cause you walked, but I probably won't get very far

I just wanted to visit the glacier ... to stand at the edge of a high frozen plain with my face to the wind until the chill whisked away the circulation in my fingers and toes and the throbbing soreness in my left knee, until I felt numb or at least something else besides raw disappointment. The cable car, under heavy construction, stopped about a hundred meters below the ice. There was a path, as steep and rocky as anything else in the Alps, winding up to the rifugio, so I followed it.

"Are you okay?" asked a Pakistani man behind me. "You do not walk very well."

"I'm okay," I replied. "I never walk very well."

"But you like to climb to the mountain?"

"Oh yes, very much so."

The man grinned through his wheezing — later he would tell me he was a heavy smoker — "Me too."

We continued chatting as we limped and wheezed to the edge of the ice, and he apologized for bothering me.

"No," I said, "It's nice to have someone to talk to. I haven't met many English speakers in the past few days."

"You are here alone?"

"I am here for the Tor des Geants ... my boyfriend runs every year. He's still out there."

The Pakistani man lives in Italy now and knew all about TDG. "This race takes a very special love of mountains," he said. I nodded my head in agreement.

"How did you hurt your leg?" he finally asked.

"I was hiking the other day and I slipped and fell. Twisted my knee. Now I have too much pain to hike anymore, but I already missed the mountains. So here I am."

Of course there was more story there that I wasn't ready to divulge, even to friendly strangers. How before the fall I'd been hiking for 180 kilometers, and things were going really well. I was staying on my pre-determined schedule, I was getting adequate sleep, I was blister-free with still-strong legs, I was even running when the terrain allowed. I was enjoying myself, I really was. Sure, there were hard moments, some difficult bouts of nausea, post-nap sleep monsters that took a while to fight off, and of course sore feet. But even the tough moments had thus far been outweighed by incredible, heart-wrenching, jaw-dropping moments of amazement. I couldn't wait to see what was next.

Then, it all fell apart. I can't reconstruct the precise moment where it started to go wrong, but there was heavy rain through the late evening, right before I reached a rolling traverse along a steep and rocky ridge line. The rain and hundreds of muddy footprints smeared the rocks in a greasy film, and suddenly I couldn't stay on my feet anymore. I was falling all over the place, legs and butt smeared in mud, fingers jammed, confidence shattered. I tiptoed along, fixated on the yawning drops beside me, passed by a constant stream of more sure-footed runners.

"It's okay. I never walk very well."

Hours trickled away, yet too quickly. I was losing too much time. Daylight came, a soft pastel glow on the rocks to compliment the sharp contrasts of the night's full moonlight. I kept looking at my phone and GPS measurements. I was just not covering ground fast enough. I couldn't face chasing cut-offs; I wouldn't. No time to sleep, no time to dry my feet. I'd be miserable. Runners kept passing. How did they stick so well to the ground? I recalled all of the falls I took in France two weeks earlier, and how I concluded they were provoked by being overcautious. Feet, come on now, pick up the pace.

Of course I made the same mistake I made two weeks ago, a bad foot placement at the top of a large ramp of a boulder. Left heel slipped out and I flailed wildly like a cartoon character on a banana peel until the foot wedged in the small crack between the bottom of the boulder and more rocks. Instinctual reaction to arrest the forward fall prompted me to swing the whole right side of my body around, wrenching the left knee badly. Went down on my butt and folded the knee into a shot of sharp pain that wasn't quite to the level of "Oh no, I'm screwed," but was shocking all the same. Stood up, collected my senses, and looked toward the seemingly endless expanse of rocks in front of me.

"I fell and hurt myself. Of course I did."

There, of course, is more to the story. But after ten more hours of battling the increasing rigidity in my knee, painful footfalls, limping, mud-slipping, boulder crawling, whimpering, screaming, and finally crying on the phone to Beat who was resting in Gressoney, I limped into the village of Niel. I'd left the previous life base, Donnas, more than seven hours in front of the cut-off, and lost every single hour of buffer while crawling over rocks. Now I had only six hours to cross Col Lassoney before the absolute cut-off in Gressoney, a painful pace that had deteriorated to something considerably slower than that, another steep descent off the col, and heavy rain again falling on the rocks. Beat had already scolded me about the egotistical stupidity of risking long-term knee damage for a race that, mathematically, I already stood a low chance of finishing now. Yet, still, I visited the race medic, hoping he'd have a magic cortisone shot that would fix everything. He noted swelling and offered to wrap my knee in a bag of ice. He'd done so on both knees for another runner who was also faced with the realities of racing cut-offs. This runner was walking even more stiffly than me, and had this fierce, thousand-yard stare fixed on a far distance while the medic stuffed six more replacement bags of ice in his coat pockets.

I felt a deep admiration for the runner's audacious fortitude, and watched in disbelief as he limped up the trail and out of sight. I knew then exactly what had to be done. I limped back to the checker table and asked them to cut my bracelet.

It would be lying to say I have no regrets. Finishing the Tor des Geants was something I very much wanted, yet I didn't do the necessary work to better my chances. I again made the wrong assumption that endurance and a little determination would be enough, writing off the level of technical skill that I clearly lack, weighed against my natural — below-average —balance and motor skills. I wouldn't go as far as to say I have no potential to complete a technical Alpine race. But without proper training, which is nearly impossible to obtain on the smooth trails of the San Francisco Bay Area, it's perhaps not realistic — and possibly reckless — to cling to hope.

But Beat can do it ... again and again and again. He finished his fifth Tor des Geants at 1:44 a.m. Saturday morning, alongside a new young Belgian friend named Pieter with whom he shared many miles. Beat frequently makes new friends during these adventures, which I think is one of the reasons he loves them so much.

And he makes it look so easy, which is partly why I ended up drawn to these Alpine "races" that are really more like mountain puzzles, and every footstep an effort to solve another problem. I like to think someday I'll figure it out. But much more than that, I'd be happy just to maintain an ability to hike unhurried distances through these fiercely incredible mountains. I lost that ability this week, one might say to greediness, although I'm still hopeful the universe will gift me with a swift recovery. Maybe after all that it isn't about speeding up, but slowing down. 

Saturday, September 06, 2014

TOR!!!

I was falling for Beat while tracking him online during the 2010 Tor des Geants, and have followed him around the Aosta Valley every September since. I sorta always knew I'd give this event a go someday, even though it was then (and still is) out of my league. Lucky number 505 in the fifth year of TDG. I don't think it's an accident that my bib resembles an "SOS" sign. 

 I don't have much to say about it right now. Too many bundles of nerves to get introspective. We arrived in Courmayeur this afternoon after a week visiting Beat's family in Switzerland. It was quiet and relaxing and I did a few taper runs through the wald. Beat is recovering well from PTL. He has a few feet issues but doesn't seem overly worried. After four years TDG has become old hat for him. He almost doesn't remember what it's like to face this massive mountain route from the blindside.

 Calorie-cramming with the Canadians in the evening. It seems sort of silly to call it carbo-loading when glycogen stores will be diminished before even 5 percent of the race distance has been covered. TDG is one of those events that's just ridiculous enough in scope to discourage taking it too seriously. What more can you do than take a race like this one col at a time? My mantra during the tough parts of the Freedom Challenge was "Every Day Is a Gift." I think perhaps my mantra during TDG will be "At least I'm not hauling a fifty-pound loaded bike."

The following are some links to track the race. Beat set up a "Slogtastic" tracking page for both of us, and I'll be posting some tweets along the way, if I have the wherewithal to do so. If I start tweeting about orange-eyed wolves stalking me, that means the end of my race is probably nigh.

Until then ... up the col, up the col.

Tor des Geants Web site 

My individual tracking link

Beat's tracking link