Monday, September 19, 2011

Italy, day eight

The days were all starting to blur together, as were the names of the TDG life bases. I'd forgotten the name of this one within minutes after I arrived around 11 p.m. Like the other checkpoints, it was stashed in a quaint mountain town at the end of a long and winding canyon road. The white tent was wedged in a small plaza between several hotels, where street lights flickered in dull streaks of orange amid the race's overwhelming flood lights. I parked the car under the artificial midnight sun, read my Kindle, and eventually dozed off only to be awoken by Beat tapping on the window at 1:30 a.m.

It's an intriguing environment, these events where people from a multitude of different nationalities come and go in the night, but all share the common and often debilitating condition of being human. In places such as this I get the sense that there is no nationalism, no language barriers, only fragile biological beings trying to endure something quite difficult and painful. They have their individual reasons for being here, their personal goals and backgrounds, but they all have the same drooping look in their eyes, the same drunken stagger in their steps, the same ashen faces, hunched postures and quaking hands as they clutch lukewarm plates of pasta. Sitting with Beat inside the white tent, I would often forget where I was until I mentioned something to a nearby racer, who would then regard me with a blank stare and mumble something back in French or German or Italian. We didn't need language to communicate, though; their eyes said so much more than words — I am tired. My mind is liquid. I have forgotten my name. But I feel so alive. I do not know why.

My own mind was starting to slip away. Despite GPS's flawless directions, I lost my way driving down the canyon road and made a few circles around the deserted streets of a stone village before finding my way back to the highway and home at 4:30 a.m. Beat called at first light, about 6 a.m., absolutely elated about the scenery he was looking at — a dramatic emotional upswing that he wanted to share. I was unable to doze back off after that, so I spent the morning attempting some work and blogging in Courmayeur before recruiting Martina to join me on my next life base trip that evening.

We arrived at Ollomont early enough to hike up Col Brison before I expected Beat to arrive at his final life base, about fifty kilometers from the finish. It wasn't quite early enough to make it to the Col and back before dark, so after the first two thousand feet of climbing, I amped up my pace to near-max. For me, few things are more physically and emotionally satisfying than a hard climb in a mountainous landscape. I love the feel of sweat streaming from my cheeks onto the rocks, of hot blood searing my calves, of biceps flexing as I dig my poles into the dirt. In the midst of a good climb, I can transition from being completely exhausted to overflowing with energy and life within minutes — no sleep, no food, no problem. Of course, I don't expect to feel this way indefinitely, but for one steep Col in the Italian Alps, even my overtired body feels like it can take on the whole world.

And, in the midst of this elation, I think about whether I could take on a race like the Tor des Geants. Like the Tour Divide, it's a race that fits many of my interests and strengths. The sheer length, steepness and technicality of the course forces even the fastest competitors into trekking mode — it's a hiking race, not a trail run. I am a clumsy and slow runner, but I'm a good hiker — indeed, I'm often faster when I'm in hiking mode versus trying to shuffle up these steep slopes. I also do a lot less damage to my own body when I don't try to run — my tender feet can feel pretty trashed after a six-hour 50K, but all of the hiking I did this week had no effect on my feet, and only a little on my legs. To a certain extent I can operate okay on heavy sleep deprivation as long as I keep the calories coming in. And as long as I don't trash my feet (admittedly, this is quite unlikely over that much distance) and eat enough, I think I could thrive in the environment of the Tor des Geants. And of course, I could just hike the whole Alta Via della Valle d'Aosta without the structure of a race. I would love this, but at the same time, there is a side of me that relishes in the extreme challenge offered by the TDG, made possible by the support of the race organization and the simple drive to complete the course in a time that might otherwise be impossible. Racing is motivation to push beyond suffering and personal limits, and in its own way, suffering becomes a meaningful and rewarding experience in itself. It's why, if I ever go back to the Tour Divide, I don't think I would be satisfied to tour the GDMBR at a leisurely pace, even though I love bicycle touring. No, the GDMBR carries a different meaning for me, and I'm not sure I could return without the drive to complete the course faster and better than I did the first time. 

Different experiences, racing and touring. Both good, but undeniably different. Indeed, I loved my tour up Col Brison. I arrived at the pass right at sunset in a wash of magical light, feeling good, with no requirement to hike down the Col, up another Col, down that Col, and up on a seemingly endless loop. I could just sit on the crest, bundle in all of my warm and still-dry layers as cold wind whisked along the ridge, spend long minutes watching the orange light fade from the horizon and turn to pink Alpenglow on distant glaciers, smile, stand up, and hike down the way I came. And indeed, even in my best element I can still make mistakes, still be clumsy. I had become accustomed to hiking with poles, which improve my balance and allow to me move downhill at a faster speed than I otherwise would. Without poles, I took a couple of bad steps and once wrenched my right knee violently, causing a burst of pain. For a few seconds, I fretted that I had done something bad enough to prevent me from continuing down the trail, but eventually the pain subsided and I was able to walk without limping — although my twisted knee did hurt, and forced me to take deliberately slow steps. I stopped at a refugio located right at treeline to watch the moon rise over the mountains and wait for Beat, who called to let me know he was about an hour away. Martina caught up to me and we waited together, eventually chatting with the race volunteer at the refugio using Martina's limited French and my subtle sign language.

Beat was in a lot of pain when he reached the refugio. His feet were hamburger, he told us, a wrap of blisters that burned like fire and muscle sensitivity that made every step feel like a plunge into a bowl of thumb tacks. After spending the evening almost believing that I could take on the Tor des Geants, looking at Beat's near-bloody feet was another dose of reality about just how difficult this race really is. A long mountain bike race is one thing, and can hurt, but not in nearly the same way. In a foot race, the body experiences all of the impact, and when something goes wrong, there's nothing to fall back on — no shocks, no coasting, no wheels. My feet are my own weak link, and in my experiences, there's really no pain quite as agonizing during a physical effort as hurty feet.

We traveled together down to Ollomont, where Beat decided to sleep for two hours before having the race medics tape his feet. Martina was sweet and waited with me until Beat woke up so I could see him off and take his bag, given this was the last major checkpoint. Beat limped away from Ollomont at about 1:30 a.m., into another long night.