Sunday, August 31, 2014

Still too dumb to quit

Well, team "Too Dumb to Quit" put their intelligence in question once again by completing yet another insanely routed loop around Mont Blanc. Daniel and Beat arrived in Chamonix at about noon on Sunday, after five and a half days of off-piste adventures of the sort that render distance and even elevation statistics meaningless. Numbers don't convey the degree of difficulty in La Petite Trotte a Leon, which is why a select few love it so much ... and the people who love them, not so much.

I sure am proud of these guys, but mostly I'm just glad they're done. It's probably obvious that I don't hold much love for PTL. The course creators go out of their way to make every kilometer as difficult as possible. Steep talus, icy boulder fields, snow slopes, knife ridges, glacier moraines, frequent 35-percent-plus grades, via ferrata, exposed scrambling — basically, any terrain that doesn't fall into the "Class 5 rock climbing" range of technicality is fair game in PTL. And that's fine — it's meant to be an adventure. But combining difficult and dangerous terrain with tight cut-offs, extreme distances, and the necessary speed required to finish, create a risky environment where mistakes can cost more than just a DNF. Even small mistakes compound quickly. I feel more comfortable with Beat trekking a thousand miles across Alaska in the winter than I do about his safety in PTL.

It's all a matter of perspective, I suppose. My own experiences with this race definitely cast a long shadow over my view. But Beat loves it, so I make an effort to be supportive. And he and Daniel did really well this year. They banked a lot of time early, which worked in their favor later when Daniel grappled with a knee injury that slowed him down considerably on the descents, and Beat fought stomach issues that stripped away his energy for the climbs. To say they were shattered at the finish would be an understatement, and I still haven't heard about Beat's wilder adventures out there — but he's snoring away, so I can tell he's satisfied.

 I admit I did a lot of fretting this week, but managed to keep myself busy with both work and heavy play. While most of the PTL passages are rugged and technical, there are always four or five that organizers make a point to note as particularly difficult. One of these was Arête des Autannes, on the border of France and Switzerland. The PTL teams were actually routed around the ridge due to heavy wind and rain on the first day, so no one went over this particular pass. But I was curious, and armed with the freedom to turn around if I didn't feel comfortable, I headed back to Le Buet to check out the next 15 or so kilometers of the PTL course.

The weather was a volatile again on Friday — high winds above tree line, and intermittent thunderstorms. I reached Col de Balme, which is part of the UTMB route, and decided to take the same sneak around the mountain that the PTL teams took, rather than climb what looked like a vertical wall into ominous dark clouds. However, as I picked my way around the rocky, side-sloping route, I was filled with stoke once again and decided to try Arête des Autannes from the backside.

Chunky talus, my favorite! Actually, the truth is I enjoy off-trail exploring and would probably find most of the PTL course to be fun in the same small doses I tried this year. Still, as I approached the arête, the weather closed in again and my own self-imposed cutoff had come and gone. In order to ensure I made the last train out of Le Buet, I set an absolute turn-around time of 4 p.m.. If I could gain the ridge and descend the original PTL course, the return trip would likely be a lot faster. But low clouds were ripping along the ridge in a way that warned me winds were fierce back in France. It was raining again, and from a stance less than 500 horizontal meters (and about 150 vertical) from the top, I just couldn't find a line through the cliffs that I felt comfortable climbing. There was one steep scree couloir that looked doable, but it was well off "course" — meaning the straight line drawn by the GPS track. I had no idea how sharp or exposed the ridge would be if I needed to make my way along it, and also uncertain whether a climb deemed technical by the PTL organization would even be possible for me to descend. If I checked it out and had to turn back, that would mean likely missing the train. So I turned around, feeling defeated. Ah, PTL. Foiled again.

Rain continued to fall as I contoured back around the mountain. The route cut a thin notch into a steep side-slope, which often involved scrambling up and over small rock formations that rippled down the mountain like veins. While rising to my feet at the top of one climb, my right foot slipped out and I slid a couple of meters down the smooth, wet surface of the rock into a cluster of bushes. As I thrashed to untangle myself, I had this sense that there was nothing holding me to the mountain besides brush; the angle of the slope was steep enough that there wasn't much in the way of ground below the brush. Eek, eek, eek. It was my second major clumsy incident this week, and a scary one at that, even though I was moving about as slowly and carefully as I'm capable. (Which is to say, super over-cautious. Maybe that's the problem.) I sustained a swollen bruise on the outside of my left knee that causes sharp pain when I run (which I learned an hour later, while racing toward the train.) Strangely, walking didn't hurt at all.

Then, just as I neared the edge of Switzerland, the weather really closed in. High winds, rain, near-zero visibility. I had to put on both a synthetic puffy and a shell to stay warm. UTMB had just started and I was feeling sorry for those suckers, but as it turned out this was a localized thunderstorm and short-lived. Still, through only fault of my own, I was subjecting myself to experiences I set out to avoid this week by not racing PTL.

Friday's excursion turned out longer than I planned — another 20-mile day with 7,000 feet of climbing — so I was going to take it easy on Saturday: Relax on a longer train and bus commute to Les Contamines, eat a crepe, maybe take a mellow hike or even a gondola up to the life base at Col du Joly to see if I could catch Beat before it was time to take the train home. But, perhaps predictably, mountain stoke hit as soon as I stepped off the bus, and I was soon making my way backward on the PTL course up the steep face of Mont Joly.

The weather was much better but still not ideal — the cloud ceiling was around 6,000 feet and above that there was not much to see. I encountered a handful of the leading PTL teams and chatted for a few minutes with the Finnish team. I met one of them before the race and he struck me as stern then, but up here he had this loopy, playful demeanor. Amusing.

Then the clouds started to clear — oh wow, there are some views up here!

And this is a pretty sweet ridge.

The summit of Mont Joly, with the sign situated right next to some solar panels so selfie-taking hikers can capture the full splendor of the Alps in the background.

Although I had another turn-around deadline — as missing the bus in Les Contamines would effectively make a 25-kilometer hike on the UTMB trail my only means of getting home — I couldn't resist the temptation of a ridge walk toward Col du Joly.

Clouds continued to move through and views remained intermittent, but when they did open up, the scenery was incredible. The ridge became narrower and sharper until there were only cliffs on one side and steep, grassy talus on the other. It was often breathtakingly exposed — at one point I encountered some tape strung along the trail, and when I stepped around it I noticed a small notch of a couloir that went quite literally straight down — one misplaced step would be like stepping into a manhole that dropped two thousand feet to the bowl below. This notch cut right into the worn surface of the spine that formed the trail. Good thing someone strung up that tape. Several dozen sleepy PTL participants walked this way.

Again, fun during the day with plenty of energy. I wouldn't necessarily want to be here in the dark, which is when Beat and Daniel traversed the ridge of Mont Joly a few hours later. But he said they had a fantastic experience, with the ethereal hues of moonlight reflecting from the cliffs, and village lights twinkling 5,000 feet below. It sounded magical, and I do understand what Beat sees in this endeavor. Even I question what I actually think is going to be so different about Tor des Geants. I won't know until I try it, but I'm quite excited for my chance. Despite a couple of crashes, this week of "training" couldn't have turned out better. Although my five days in the Alps pale in comparison to PTL, it was still 75 miles with 31,700 feet of climbing. And beyond cuts, bruises, and a bashed knee, I experienced few negative physical effects. My legs weren't even sore. The feet complained as feet often do. And I made silly missteps, but this week definitely helped me find my "mountain legs" again. I'm glad I had this opportunity. It would have been far more nerve-wracking to go into an endeavor like TDG cold.

Now for a week of rest, work, and visiting Beat's mom in Switzerland. He claims that three cowbells (the "prize" for finishing PTL) are enough and he promised not to return. Even though I actually do want a rematch with UTMB (the 2012 race was rerouted due to blizzard conditions and the course I ran was very different from the "real" UTMB), I'd be just as happy to let that go if it meant no more PTL for Beat. I'm not sure I believe him, but I intend to remind him of this promise. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On the "trail" of the PTL

Oh, PTL. I intended to post more regular updates about Beat’s progress in the race, but this week in Chamonix has gotten away from me in a big way. My phone’s sim card died and there’s nothing I can do about it because the phone is AT&T-locked (I hate phones. Up until a month ago I was a proud smart-phone holdout; I had a dumb phone that I rarely used and carried with me only sporadically, and I already miss it, so much.) So our communication is worse than it would be if pay phones were still a thing. But I digress from this retro-grouching. Beat and Daniel are still alive. In a race like PTL, that’s pretty much all that matters.

 Here’s a slightly longer summary: We flew SFO-Zurich-Geneva on Saturday/Sunday, and took a shuttle to Chamonix, arriving too late for dinner, probably sometime around 10 p.m. local time. I never weather jet lag well, and stayed awake another full night while Beat dosed himself with enough Ambien to wake up with a hangover. Bank, grocery store, packing, pre-race briefing, terrible pre-race pasta, and then the race started at 5:30 p.m. Monday — which was so blissfully early! (It started at 10 p.m. last year.) As the PTL teams zig-zagged up the first mountain, it started to rain. Then it rained a lot.

I figured I'd put in a good "training" week here in the Alps — by which I mean fortifying the mental weaponry and testing how well the legs work rather than accomplishing any real physical conditioning. So on Tuesday I boosted myself out in the deluge and climbed through tedious fog until there were no more trees, only the blurred outline of rocks, a river gushing down the trail, and fierce blasts of wind. Gusts were well above 40 mph. Any time I turned straight into the wind, I was forced to gasp through a fire hose of rain. I felt like I was drowning; I really couldn't breathe. This is what I imagine waterboarding must be like. And the whole time I felt vaguely nauseated because I knew Beat was out on steep and exposed terrain in this weather. I have this conviction that PTL is so dangerous, but then I took a big tumble while attempting to run downhill —  slipped on a wet boulder and managed a full somersault and a highly painful jarring (though luckily no dislocation) of my right shoulder. This is why I'm so cautious-to-a-fault and frightened on exposed terrain. People who make a lot of mistakes do not belong in no-fail zones. 

 So I worried about Beat, but his tracker kept creeping forward, so at least I knew he was moving. My Alaska-time-zone deadlines kept me up all night on Tuesday. As in, I actually didn't sleep at all. I was going into day four of the vacation with single-digit hours of sleep. This made for the perfect opportunity for Tor des Geants training — a long hike on extended sleep deprivation. I opted to explore the first segment of this year's PTL course, 20 miles between Chamonix and Le Buet.

 I was quite sleepy, but at least the weather had cleared and it was a beautiful day.

 Because I was traveling on unknown terrain given the stamp of approval by the PTL organization, I carried a headlamp and another spare light just in case I needed to turn around late in the one-way trip. My hard tumble the day before left me bruised and rattled, and I wasn't about to go scrambling up any class-four couloirs or cliff faces "protected" with bolted bits of twine.

The climb up to Col Brevent gets 4,500 feet of vertical out of the way fast. One final glance at the Chamonix Valley before descending into the beautiful and remote-feeling Reserve Naturelle de Passy.

 I really loved my hike through here. Big country, imposing mountains, steep trails, a satisfying burn in my leg muscles.

 And another huge climb up to Col de Salenton, elevation 2,526 meters.

New views from the top of the col. I was 9,000 feet of vertical into the day and very full of stoke at this point.

 Then came time to drop off the face of the Earth. It was the kind of descent that's a constant horizon line — you think you're on top of a cliff the whole time, and there can't possibly be a way down, but as you pick out another cairn from the rubble and peek over the edge, you can discern the only doable line down walls of stacked boulders. Ah, this is the PTL I know and (don't) love. At least this was just "classic" PTL — not "terrifying" PTL — so I didn't have to turn around and hike 15 miles back.

 And at least there were cute baby ibex to keep me company. I imagine that in a past life I was an evil mountain goat, I did something bad, and was doomed to come back in my next life as a clumsy human with a fierce love for mountains and decidedly below-average talents when it comes to traveling this terrain. But it was a wonderful day. I noticed on the way down that I had none of the leg fatigue that I usually have on my day hikes in the Alps, despite a 13-mile, 6,000-foot effort the previous day and the 20-mile, 9,000 feet over much more difficult terrain on this day. It seems the Freedom Challenge has left me with great leg endurance; if I can keep my feet happy (and more importantly, keep the earth below them) during the Tor des Geants, maybe I'll be okay.


On Thursday, I took the bus into Italy to catch Beat and Daniel in Morgex. Despite weather and other hardships, they're making good time on the course and feeling relatively good. They've had some tough nights — 100 kph winds and rain on a high ridge on the first night, and a class-four scramble with an exposed ridge traverse on Col d'Annibal. The usual. The navigation is also tricky this year, with lots of off-trail travel, lost-in-translation route descriptions, and a GPS track that mainly just connects distant points with straight lines.

This is what you get when you ask tired people to smile. See that mat on the left? That's where they were permitted to sleep for a few hours in Morgex. No blankets, no pillows. Just a hard mat in a loud gymnasium. Yup, that's the PTL I know and (don't) love. 

 I had a bus to catch but I was able to accompany them for four miles out of Morgex. It was an enjoyable segment — essentially a friendly road walk, and it was nice to spend stress-free time with the guys. They had a good sleep and two meals in Morgex, so they were feeling pretty good.

Bidding them goodbye at the rifugio Arpy. This next segment of PTL has more than 6,000 meters of climbing in 60 kilometers. Even Daniel, who lives in Colorado and has climbed a large number of mountains in that state, was trying to wrap his head around what it meant to climb 20,000 feet in just 36 miles. I really don't like to think about it ... because there's almost no way to parse those numbers without throwing in some "terrifying PTL." So I'll likely wake up a bunch tonight in cold sweats and a need to refresh Beat's tracking page. Oh, PTL. 

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.