Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Redwoods road ride

Big Basin Redwoods State Park
I didn't actually mean to binge on this much road biking this week. I blame jet lag, which wrestles me awake well before sunrise each morning, and a bit of writer's block, which makes me feel reluctant to return home to my computer. It's not that I'm necessarily stuck with my project, it's just that I've forgotten where I'm going with it. It's a bit frustrating, staring at blank screens, tapping out a few sentences and then erasing them. I want to reset my mind, and anyway I have that 25-hour bike race to train for. So I take to the road.

I winced as I placed my sore sit bones on the saddle this morning; of all the body parts that have fallen out of shape since my August bike crash, my suddenly sensitive butt is the most noticeable. I rode 40 miles and Monday and 45 yesterday, both with 4,000-plus feet of climbing, so I decided I'd take it easy today. I brought one water bottle and no food. The sun burned hot even at 8 a.m., foreshadowing the 95 degrees it would hit later in the day. I motored up Highway 9, feeling strong. An hour and a half later at the crest of the climb, without even really deciding too, I kept going.

Who's a big tree?
Miles sure go by fast when you're coasting downhill. I knocked off six miles and launched into a new climb, again, without really making a conscious decision to do so. Twenty miles and about 3,500 feet of climbing into my ride, I placed my water bottle to my lips and found it was empty. So I had no choice but to descend to the nearest water source — the headquarters of Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

I've never even ridden down into Big Basin before, which is inexcusable, really, because it's so close to my house and such a great route for beauty, climbing and solitude. On a weekday morning, you'd never even guess you were in the midst of one of the largest population centers in California. I saw exactly two cars, and had the rest of the narrow, shady, steep roller coaster of a road all to myself.

The unobstructed view from Highway 236
See what I mean? Forest as far as the eyes can see. And this is about halfway between San Jose and Santa Cruz as the seagull flies. It's all open land — a sliver of small mountains that people nearly forgot. Except for, of course, the loggers who deforested this area about a century ago. The entire Bay-area coastline is second-growth forest at best, but the region still contains a few stunning redwood trees that loomed like towers over my tiny bicycle. I loved this ride, and never even really noticed the effort, that is, until I ran out of water again near the crest of the final climb, and my toes developed a sharp ache from too many hours in road shoes. (Even though it's been two and a half years since I had frostbite, my right toes can still only tolerate about three hours in hard-soled clipless shoes before I develop excruciating pressure pains.)

I ended the ride at 53 miles and 7,345 feet of climbing, which is way more than I intended or really felt necessary. (Garmin map here) But at the same time, I almost wish I took the initiative (brought more water and food) to ride even farther. Sometime soon I'd love to ride all the way down to Santa Cruz, a coastal town I'm ashamed to admit I have not yet visited. The road riding opportunities in this region really are sublime, which helps temper my reluctance to get back on my mountain bike. (I know, I know. I need to get over this. But there hasn't been a significant rainstorm since June, and the trails were moon-dust on top of loose gravel before the elapsed six weeks of continuing, persistent dryness.) But I can't wait for rain forever.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Back in the saddle

Forty-six days. That's the amount of time that has passed since the last time I experienced a good, satisfying moment on a bike. Then it all came to a skidding halt on a bed of gravel and broken dreams. Forty-six days can be a long time.

There were a few rides at the four-week mark, right before I went to Europe. Three rides, actually. One was a commute, and two were short road rides on my mountain bike, because the front suspension helped protect my tender arm from the jarring pain of mildly bumpy pavement. During the second ride up Montebello Road, I lagged far behind Beat. When I finally wheezed my way to the top, where he had been waiting for more than five minutes, I announced that I was in the worst physical shape I had been in since the extended angry knee episode of 2007. Nothing felt right, everything felt hard, my arm hurt even though it seemed nearly healed, and frustrations about my abilities were mounting. I was teetering dangerously close to a fitness funk that threatened to anchor me to the couch in sheer protest of my useless body.

Then we left for Europe. The trip — one and a half crazy weeks in the Alps and one lazy week in Germany — proved the perfect medicine, the reset button I so badly needed. We returned Sunday night. Jet lag had me up at 3 a.m. Monday. I attempted to snooze, mostly unsuccessfully, until 7, then got up to face the day. At 8 a.m. it felt to me like 5 p.m., which is the time of day I like to exercise in my regular California routine. I wasn't focusing well on my work anyway, so I decided to head out for my first real ride in nearly seven weeks.

I pumped up my road bike tires, rifled through piles of gear to find my buried helmet and repair stuff, and set out into the refreshingly cool afternoon (because actually, it was still early in the morning.) It took a while to get my legs spinning, but after five miles I started to feel pretty good. Not just good — fantastic. I turned up Highway 9 and shifted into high gear for the 2,500-foot ascent. My quads burned and sweat streamed down my face as I marveled at the relative ease of the effort. (Climb a few mountains in the Alps and you will understand what I mean.) I crested the big climb and launched into the roller coaster of Skyline Drive. Suddenly coasting at 35 miles per hour, the wind pried an enormous smile from my lips. Tears welled up in my eyes, mostly from the speed, but also a little from joy — such simple, effortless joy. I had nearly forgotten what that felt like.

I thought back to a conversation I once had with a former climber who had a chronic shoulder injury and could no longer climb. He could run, ride bikes, ski, swim ... but he couldn't climb. And yet, he still identified as a climber and admitted that while he enjoyed running and skiing, they never quite filled the void left by climbing. As a non-climber, I wanted to assure him that trail running had as much potential for fun, fitness and scenery as rock climbing. But of course I was wrong, just as I'm wrong when I urge injured runner friends to ride bikes as an adequate replacement for their usual activities. It's not. I do believe most active outdoor people find their perfect medium, and these mediums are deeply individual. Like an artist who can paint beautiful landscapes with oils but only flat imitations with watercolors, we all have our one best vehicle. Mine, of course, is a bicycle. I love trail running and hiking, I have a natural ability for distance swimming, and I'm certain I'd still live a happy life even if I could never ride a bicycle again.

But there would always be an emptiness, a hole that would never be completely filled. And after 46 days, during a clear and cool Monday morning in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I savored the satisfying sensation of long-awaited fullness.

For those who might be curious (probably no one, but it's looking slightly less disgusting these days so I'm posting a picture) this is my arm seven weeks after the crash. As recently as two weeks ago that deeper wound at the bottom was still bleeding, and I developed an infection in Italy that convinced me to stop wearing band-aids all the time (thus pooling bacteria-laden sweat around it for hours on end.) It still feels a bit raw but the deep-set soreness is all but gone — 110 psi on the rough pavement of Alpine Road today confirmed that. I came home after my three-hour, 45-mile hilly road ride completely ecstatic about my progress, and when I told Beat he actually went into Active.com and signed me up for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. The 25-hour mountain bike race in Hurricane, Utah (which Beat and I raced together as a team last year) is an event I've been coveting but was reluctant to enter for a number of reasons. However, as it turns out, it's only a few days before my sister's wedding in Salt Lake City, making travel logistics easier, and not so close to our Nepal adventure that I can't recover — as long as I ride conservatively, and don't crash. So now I have a month to train for a 25-hour solo mountain bike race after more than six weeks off the bike, and a rigid goal not to injure myself. Even if I take it easy (and that's my plan), I am going to be inclined to gut out the full 25 hours and it's probably going to hurt. A lot. And yet, I'm so excited. I get to ride my bike. A lot! The binge after the fast.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Germany

Beat and I have been spending a quiet recovery week at his mother's apartment in Bielefeld, Germany. We've both used the time to catch up on work. I had a difficult time focusing enough to complete much writing — my mind is still muddled with Italian mountains, Alaska winter dreams and borderline obsessions with cycling — but it's been a good week to catch up on bookkeeping and work on the tedious, hair-pulling process of updating my eBooks. In the near future my digital books should finally be well-formatted with plenty of photographs and will look awesome on iPad and pretty good on Kindle. I'm looking forward to this, but in the meantime I'm slogging through the ePub process and exchanging communications with a company in California that is nine hours off my current time. Yes, it has not been the most productive week, work-wise, but arguably more productive than my week in Italy. Arguably.

I'm excited to be in Germany and have tried to get out for explorations, although I can only go as far as my feet will carry me, so my range has been rather limited. There are a number of beautiful trails around Bielefeld. The area reminds me of southeastern Ohio, with its rolling hills, lush green forests, and wide valleys of sectioned farmland, villages and the city. I rode my bicycle across Ohio at this exact time of year in 2003, so my explorations have filled me with bicycle touring nostalgia. Have I mentioned I am dying to go for a bike ride? Even a mellow cruise on a road bike would make me feel exceedingly happy. Although I did manage a few mellow commute-type rides in the days leading up to our Europe trip, it's effectively been six weeks since I've ridden a bicycle. My injured arm is at about 95 percent these days and my mind is almost reeling with bike lust. Seriously. I can't focus. I have to keep reminding myself that I'm in Germany and that in itself is pretty awesome. I did look into bike rentals but availability was limited and the logistics discouraging. I decided to run through the week instead.

Meanwhile, Beat's mom has been spoiling us with regular home-cooked meals, daily trips to the bakery, more chocolate that we could ever eat (I say this, although it's almost gone now), rich German yogurt in an assortment of flavors and an endless supply of Pepsi Light. I actually lost a few pounds while I was in Italy, but I'm quickly packing all of that back on and more here in Germany. It's just as well. Beat needed the recovery. He's slept a fair amount this week and even gotten out for a couple of active recovery runs. He's doing well except for some nagging pains in his Achilles. And we're both enjoying Beat's mom's kitten, Filou.

Can you tell I miss my cat Cady? I miss her.

It has been a good week for running. Thanks to the climbing volume of last week a bit of nagging knee pain I haven't put in any "fast" runs, but my progress has been good. I transitioned from completely empty legs during an hour-long walk on Monday to feeling strong during my 20-mile run today. For my "Tour of Bielefeld" I started going on walks with Beat's mom's partner, Peter. These were fairly quiet outings, as Peter doesn't speak much English and I speak even less German. But he pointed out all of the notable sights to me, including the University, a large school that is famous for its ugliness. Indeed, the buildings look like they were designed by 1960s Hollywood sci-fi set designers — futuristic retro. Beat got his master's degree there, so I'm sure he has lots of fond memories of the place.

Peter and I walked 7.5 kilometers on Monday and 15 kilometers on Tuesday (14 miles total). On Wednesday I ran twice, an 11.5-mile morning run in which I was vaguely lost the entire time, and a 5.5-mile recovery run with Beat in the afternoon, for a total of 17 miles. On Thursday we ran 7.5 miles, and I did 20 today on the Hermannsweg Trail. The "H" Trail was actually a lot of fun, all along a narrow ridge with tough climbs, rocky descents and fantastic valley views. The whole route is 156 km — might be fun to come back and run the entire thing someday.

The H Trail also allows cycling, so maybe the better idea is to come back and ride the whole thing. I admit I spent way too much time this week fantasizing about cycling. I saw these signs and imagined an illustration with a backpack-clad runner chick tackling the rude mountain biker and stealing his bike. We return to California on Sunday. I will miss Europe. But I'm excited to see my cat ... and my five bicycles.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Switzerland: Hopp! Hopp!

I admit I was surprised when Beat got out of bed at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. I expected him to pass out after his shower Saturday night and not wake up for days. Or maybe I was hoping for this. Either way, despite his apparent inability to walk without a pronounced limp, he was still all-in for the half marathon in Switzerland that afternoon.

We expected Steve and Harry to arrive in Courmayeur by early morning. But a results check revealed they were still about five hours away, so we had to roll away without seeing them finish. I drove through the seven-mile-long Mont Blanc tunnel, along the rough and narrow roads of France, around at least three dozen roundabouts (have I mentioned how much I miss traffic lights? Yes, I miss them), onto the smooth and narrow roads of Switzerland, and finally onto a real freeway while Beat drifted in and out of consciousness, but mostly out. We arrived at Beat's brother's farmhouse at 11 a.m., ate a quick brunch of fresh bread, cheese and local yogurt (all of which I absolutely gorged on), and were back on the road by 12:30, en route to Lake Greifensee.

I snoozed most of the way to the half marathon and awoke just as Andy pulled into a series of farm fields filled with thousands of cars. I got a side stitch just walking to the bus, and was still in disbelief that we were actually going to do this race. Beat couldn't even put his shoes all the way on without wincing in pain. I felt as though the liquid lead in my bloodstream had finally solidified. I took comfort in my conviction that Beat would probably be forced to walk the entire thing, and I could just walk with him, you know, in the name of being a supportive girlfriend.

Beat, for his part, did not look extremely enthusiastic either. He wrapped his feet in gauze and then removed it, then second-guessed that. We picked up our race numbers — in the 10,000s — and our suggested start time, 3:50 p.m. Because more than 15,000 people run the annual Greifenseelauf, the race incorporates a staggered start and tracks times with electronic chips. The finish area was still more crowded than Disneyland. In fact, the whole place had a very Disneyland feel — like the queue around the (fake) Matterhorn Bobsleds, with quaint Swiss mountain decor and $4.50 bottles of soda (make that 4.50 Swiss francs, which are worth more than dollars.) The main difference is that here, the sodas are warm, and instead of feeling sick to your stomach after riding too many roller coasters, you get to feel sick before a thirteen-mile run.

Still, amid the nausea and dread, there was a little buzz of excitement. I've never run a road race before, even a 5K. All of my foot races have been on trails. To run with this many thousands of people in a foreign country expanded the already large novelty of my first half marathon. We had to walk three kilometers just to reach the race start and queued up with the cattle line of runners. As soon as we reached the starting line, Beat's brother took off like a flash and even Beat started pounding the pavement to the tune of sub-nine-minute miles. I realize this isn't all that fast but given the circumstances, I had my doubts that he would hold this pace for very long. After all this time, it's strange how I still underestimate him.

Despite his hamburger feet, Beat stubbornly held his pace and I lost track of him after an aid station near 11 kilometers. After downing several cups of "wasser," my sour stomach finally started to settle, but my twisted knee was sore enough to convince me to just settle in at an easy pace. After this, I really enjoyed myself. It seemed like half of Zurich turned out to cheer on the runners, and there were big parties going on at every intersection. The race was meticulously well-organized, in true Swiss fashion, and I enjoyed the fact they put names on all of the race bibs. People would cheer me on as I passed, and I discovered Swiss people have a beautiful way of saying my name — they roll both the first and last consonants so it almost sounds like three syllables instead of one. The name Jill must have revealed me as an English speaker as well because they would tell others to "Hopp Hopp!" but I more often received a "Go, Zzzshilllll, you can do it!"

I saw Beat one more time at an out-and-back section; he was nearly a kilometer in front of me. And then, just like that, the race was over. I couldn't believe how quickly it went. I finished in 2:07. Beat finished right at two hours, less than 24 hours after finishing the 128-hour Tor des Geants.

I really enjoyed my first half marathon experience. There's something a little magical about running in a Disneyland setting, especially when you come into it with extremely low expectations and thus can just relax and enjoy the experience. Could I run faster? Undoubtably, although I'm not sure I'd want to try. Road running is pretty rough on my knees and hips; as I discovered in cycling, my body doesn't respond well when motion becomes too repetitive. I will say that running thirteen miles of road at a two-hour pace (okay, okay, 2:07) felt physically easier than any single two-hour span that I hiked in the Alps. So, as far as I'm concerned, I already ran about 22 half marathons while I was in Italy. (I kid, I kid ... sort of.)

But the fact that Beat not only showed up at the Greifenseelauf starting line, but ran the entire thing, really shows what a nut he is. Crazy Swiss runner.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Italy, day nine

Despite my inability to take care of it, my body showed surprising resilience to my demands of supporting Beat all night followed by hiking all day. But on Friday morning, that all came to a crashing halt, and I woke up feeling like someone injected liquid lead into my bloodstream during the night. I wasn't entirely surprised, given that I had climbed anywhere from 5,000 to 11,000 feet every day but one for the past eight days, endured hundreds of kilometers of stressful driving, slept an average of three hours a night, and fueled myself with a sporadic diet that contained about 90 percent simple carbohydrates. Still, I can't overemphasize how crappy I felt when Beat dialed in his daily dawn update to tell me he was starting up the final pass of the Tor des Geants. I mumbled that I would likely not get out of bed for the rest of the day. Of course, thanks to my extended bout of jet lag insomnia I couldn't sleep anyway, so I got up and cleaned the apartment, organized Beat's gear, and packed up so he wouldn't have to worry about anything after he finished. Beat called again from the top of Col de Malatra and asked me if I wanted to meet him for the final stretch. I hadn't planned to, given this was his moment to shine, but I did appreciate an opportunity to share what I imagined was the extremely satisfying experience for him.

I dragged quite a lot on the way out of town, but picked up energy again on the steep climb to Refugio Bertoni. I caught Beat running along the flat traverse a couple of miles later. He said running felt better on his painful feet, but caused a number of other problems that he was only occasionally willing to deal with. I wasn't faring too well myself with a still-sore twisted knee and deep fatigue, and whenever Beat ran I actually struggled to hold his pace. As we started down the final steep descent, he mentioned possibly leaving Italy that night for Switzerland, a four-hour drive to his brother's house near Zurich. In a twist of Beat's borderline-masochistic sense of humor, we were both signed up for a half-marathon the following day: The Internationaler Greifenseelauf, a massive event with more than 15,000 participants. The reasoning behind this crazy plan was to: A, allow Beat to spend time with his brother, who was registered for the race; B, continue one of Beat's regular traditions; C, be a unique first road race experience for me; and D, secure bragging rights for Beat ("My warmup run was only 200 miles. Do you think that's enough?")

However, over the course of the arduous week, I had come to believe that the half marathon could not possibly be a serious plan. Even less fathomable was driving four hours that night when Beat wouldn't finish the race until 6 p.m. and hadn't even given himself a single minute to recover. "You can't possibly still be thinking about that stupid race," I snapped back. My comment was mostly directed and convincing Beat that I was exhausted and had no business driving that night, but it was the wrong way of saying it, and the words "stupid race" really irritated him. I instantly felt bad about it given the last thing I wanted to do was steal his thunder, which is why I hadn't planned to meet him on the trail in the first place. I tried to dial it back and apologize, but we were both up against a raw edge. When we reached the pavement of town, Beat broke into a celebratory sprint and I let him go. Because of this, I actually missed seeing him finish. I arrived several minutes later to find Beat sprawled out in a folding chair with a huge smile on his face. All was forgotten and forgiven.

Beat's finishing time was 128 hours, 13 minutes and 55 seconds, for a position of 111th male and 117th overall among 473 starters and 300 finishers. He was happy with his time given how many struggles he experienced in the last half of the race, and very happy to have finished the whole thing not just once but twice — an admirable display of mental fortitude. We celebrated with individual gigantic pizzas at the pizzeria across from the TDG tent, cheering as dozens of other smiling racers sprinted, ran, walked, and limped into the finish.

I'm incredibly proud of Beat and grateful to have shared in a small part of his experience. The little support I offered him was really for my own satisfaction; he didn't really need my back massages, dessert deliveries and commiseration, although I like to think that maybe I contributed a small part to the mental fortitude that led to his success. And of course supporting Beat meant traveling with him to Europe, which has been such a great experience for me. Some have asked if my first venture outside North America has been strange for me, and in some ways — the terrible soda options and the driving — it has. But here in these beautiful mountains, among people who love mountains, is in other ways as close as I ever feel to home.

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.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Italy, day seven

After my ten-hour strenuous hike, having finally crawled into bed at 11 p.m., I was back up at 2 a.m. to begin the two-hour drive out to Gressoney. Timing Beat's checkpoint arrivals was a mystery wrapped in an enigma of guesswork. I at least had last year's splits to go on, and he was generally running similar times about three to six hours ahead of his 2010 pace. But timing Beat's exact arrival required exhausting margins. If I estimated he would arrive around 6 a.m., I really had to be at the checkpoint by 4, and not be terribly surprised when he didn't show up until 8. The Tor des Geants life bases were not exactly welcoming of crew members. We weren't even allowed inside the buildings unless our racers were physically there and a kind volunteer let us slip through the controls. I learned to get comfortable in my little rented Volkswagon compact, snacking on jam sandwiches and occasionally getting out of the car to jog a few blocks to stay warm, because gas is expensive in Europe.

Beat was tired and quietly cranky when he checked out of Gressoney at 9:30 a.m. I followed him along the first five kilometers out of the base along a rushing glacial river. We moved along at a pace that can only be described as painfully slow, about 2 mph on a flat river path, as Beat tried to put his game face back on. Accompanying us was a Russian runner who had become so tired on the second night that he walked right off the trail into a head-over-feet tumble down a scree slope, smashing his face and badly spraining his nose. He was wrapped in gauze and sniffing loudly through his swollen purple nose, ranting about the lack of Neosporin at the life bases. "They have everything to fix feet and no Neosporin," he repeated incessantly while Beat argued with him about the merits of the antiseptic ointment. I probably would have found this all hilarious if I wasn't grappling with my own sour stomach from sleep deprivation and an admittedly poor diet.

Pacing is prohibited in the Tor des Geants, although short periods of accompaniment are viewed as okay. So I couldn't hike with Beat, but I had driven all the way out here and wanted to explore, so I broke away and headed up the steep trail on my own. Like every pass on this wide loop, the trail was rocky and relentless. The trail signs listing elevations in meters consistently fooled me into underestimating the effort. A climb from 1,200 meters to 2,700 meters doesn't seem so bad, until you realize that the relatively small number converts to nearly 5,000 feet. But the horizontal distances are relatively short, and if you're willing to expend a gallon of sweat, these climbs can go by surprisingly fast. Despite his slow plod along the river, Beat consistently shadowed me about a quarter mile back, and admitted he used my bright green hat in the distance as a rabbit of sorts to pick up his pace.

Beat's camera battery died sometime during the night, so I waited at the pass to take his obligatory self portrait at the Col. I guess technically it's not a self portrait if someone else shoots it, but he managed to get one of these on every pass on the course but one.

From Col Pinter, I noticed yellow trail markers continuing up the shale toward a high peak, and figured I might as well go for broke. Keep in mind that I hiked ten hours the day before, hadn't slept, hadn't really eaten much, hadn't brought all that much water for my "short" morning walk, and still felt like roadkill. But comparing myself to Beat, I felt no justification to slack off or complain.

As "trail" 11A crested the summit ridge, it became increasingly more rugged and technical. I am normally extremely shy when it comes to exposed scrambling, especially when I am alone and there's no one around to spot my broken body on the rocks, but I admit I can be swept with summit fever. The marked route also fooled me into a false sense of security that landed me well outside my comfort zone, clinging to a precipice over what looked like, and literally was, a 7,000-foot tumble down to the Gressoney valley. All I can say is that if we were in the States, what passes for a hiking trail in the Alps could easily be labeled class four and even lower class five bouldering, incorporating crack climbing and all. At one point I just had to ditch my poles and was unwilling to relinquish my three-point contact, so I just propped them against the wall. It didn't seem necessary to fold them up and put them in my pack because I would be  back at this spot within minutes, and I hadn't seen a single other person since the Col.

On the final pitch, I had to press my back against the wall to allow another hiker to go by, a man who only grunted when I said "buon giorno" in a breathless whisper. I didn't think anything of it. He descended quickly and was already moving along the summit ridge while I made my final overcautiously slow ascent. I basically did little more than tag the top and start back down before vertigo really kicked in and involuntary crying commenced. (I didn't cry. I did come close.) I was angry at myself for pushing so far beyond my personal limits and blamed sleep deprivation for clouding my judgement.

I was nearly "safe" when I reached the place where my poles should have been, and they weren't there. I had laid them horizontally on a solid ledge, so the chance they fell off was extremely slim, and even so I scanned the surrounding area several times over. They were simply gone, and the best explanation I had was that this one hiker dude actually stole them, right out from under me. I was more sad than angry, as it was my fault for ditching them, and also because I really liked these lightweight carbon Black Diamond poles. I bought them in Anchorage right before the Susitna 100 and they essentially saved my race, and have been trusty hiking companions ever since. Not to mention they weren't cheap, but what made me even more sad was the fact I was now going to have to descend 7,000 feet of steep, rocky trail without poles. To the random hiker dude who didn't even say good morning back to me and then stole my poles: I hope they break and you fall on your face and sprain your nose.

I later learned the peak I climbed was Testa Grigia, a 3,315-meter (10,875-foot) peak that's famous for skiing and even has a bivy hut stationed just below the summit ridge (I saw it, but was too sad about my poles and mentally exhausted from vertigo to check it out.) Then it was just down, down, down, to wrap up a twelve-mile hike that took eight solid hours. Testa Grigia looked impressive from the valley, with its stark gray wall and crown of clouds. On the way back to town I met up with Angela from Canada and Anne from Anchorage, who were traveling together out of the Gressoney life base. I turned around to walk with them for a bit. We passed an Italian bakery and I mentioned off-hand that I was absolutely starving and would likely hit this place after I returned. Angela turned to Anne and said, "We're vacationing in Italy. I haven't even had a real Italian pastry yet. Let's go get something." We all went inside together and Angela treated everyone to apple pastries while I quietly stocked up on breadsticks, tuna and apples for sustenance for my next long life base wait.

 I was impressed with Angela's attitude. She seemed so laid back in the midst of this effort that was burying me in much smaller doses, and she appeared to be truly enjoying herself. Anne unfortunately was hurting, and during our bakery excursion decided she should drop from the race to avoid cementing a reoccurring case of plantar faciitis. I walked with her back to the base as she explained to all of the departing racers that she was dropping out and they all enthusiastically encouraged her to sleep on it first. Amazing attitudes, all of them. I also saw my friends Steve and Harry just before we reached the life base. They seemed extremely out of it and initially reacted like they didn't even recognize me.  I warned them about the rough climb ahead and Harry insisted that the trail to the first refugio "wasn't steep" because it didn't look that way on the elevation profile, even though I had just told him I was actually there two hours earlier and personally clocked it gaining 1,200 feet in three quarters of a mile. I didn't feel compelled to argue with him, because in a race like this, denial can be an effective strategy. I left my friends and began the long-way-around drive to the next life base and the long night ahead.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Italy, day six

On Tuesday I had a good block of daylight between my life base trips, so I decided to squeeze in my long hike for the week. I mapped a route following the Tor des Geants course backward to Col de Malatra, which is the last pass in the race, then crossing overland to complete a loop over two passes, for a total of three big climbs and a good chunk of distance. I slept late because, to be honest, sleep has been a rare commodity during this trip, as food has also been. The food is delicious when I can get it, but Italian culture is not conducive to an on-the-go lifestyle, with its mid-day store closures and complete lack of convenience stores and supermarkets. I often have a very difficult time acquiring food when I need it the most, and have taken to eating bread and jam sandwiches for more meals than I care to admit. At this point my stomach doesn't even really care about pizza and authentic pasta, it just wants calories. It's funny to come all the way to Italy and lose almost all interest in the quality of food in favor of quantity. My Americanism shines through.

But, yes, I at least got a more normal amount of sleep (read, more than four hours) and got going around 10 a.m. I passed the Tor des Geants course markers on my way out the Trail du Mont Blanc, preparing for the race finish. It was more than 48 hours into the 200-mile race and no one was even close to finishing. Ultimately the winner would come in at 6 p.m. Wednesday, a finishing time of 81 hours. Consider this against the 100-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which the top runners finish in just over 20 hours.

The climb to Col de Malatra was long, nearly 12 miles on a rolling traverse that included about 6,500 feet of climbing. But besides the TDG flags it was just me out there, lost in a massive Alpine moonscape.

The col itself was just a narrow notch in a veritable wall. At 2,925 meters, it's the third highest pass on the course.

Looking through the notch to the other side.

I saw mountain bike tracks on this trail. Six thousand feet of descending — must be a grunt to get the bikes up here but fully awesome to ride down. I was certainly jealous.

I left the trail and started my traverse, with two passes and lots more climbing still in front of me.

I crested Col Sapin at about 6 p.m., having walked nearly continuously for eight hours. I didn't make many stops because I didn't really have any food beyond a couple of jam sandwiches and some candy I scrounged out of Beat's rejected race food pile. I vowed to make a real effort to go grocery shopping the following day.

My legs were incredibly tired and feet sore on the final descent, which I spent contemplating the scale of the Tor des Geants, again. After all, I had only hiked three passes, and the second two were comparably small.

I finally tromped back to my apartment at 8 p.m. after 24 miles and 11,300 feet of climbing — a truly challenging and beautiful solo outing. It was too late to go to the now-closed grocery store and I was too tired and hungry to deal with the leisurely (read: drawn-out) waits and dainty portions of the local restaurants, so I scrounged some Barilla pasta and a can of crushed tomatoes for dinner. It was the most delicious dinner ever. As Beat has said about his own limited food choices in the Tor des Geants, there's no seasoning quite like hunger.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Italy, day five

My fifth day in Italy was a challenge of coordination, as Martina and I both wanted to meet our men at the second life base in the skiing town of Cogne and also do a bit of hiking ourselves. I made my second attempt at navigating the roads of northern Italy, which has only been remotely possible thanks to a GPS device that Beat purchased during his last race in France. If it wasn't for GPS, I'd probably be driving in circles down in Torino at this point. I'm still learning to read traffic signs, none of the roads are marked, and even if they were, and every street has a name at least sixteen syllables long, beginning with Strada and continuing on for several seconds in GPS's soothing female voice. The most amazing thing about driving here is the A5 highway, which is mostly routed directly through the mountains in a series of tunnels. The mountain roads are all incredibly winding and narrow and barely squeeze between centuries-old stone buildings. Even the driving here is treacherous, beautiful and exciting.

Martina and I hiked toward Col Loson, which at 3,200 meters is the highest pass on the course. I only made it five miles to 8,000 feet elevation before I caught up with Beat, who was coming down the pass two hours earlier than I expected. He was noticeably tired and limping a bit, and said that he felt more worked than he did after the 2009 Hardrock 100, just 100 kilometers into the Tor des Geants with 230 more to go.

But he did still look strong going down the steep trail toward Cogne. Col Loson looses more than 6,000 feet of pure elevation from the top of the pass to the valley. Although Col Loson has one of the more dramatic elevation changes, there are 24 similar passes in this race. Twenty four.

I was still able to catch Beat smiling on occasion.

Beat inside the life base, trying to fix his feet. My job at each of these life bases, which are generally spaced 35-50 kilometers apart, is to bring him things that he requests, massage his shoulders, fetch food, and nod sympathetically as he spews long stream-of-consciousness monologs about the why that last pass was the worst of the lot, so much worse than he remembered from last year.

But even amid the pain and fatigue, he was anxious to move on. This I can understand. It's not just about beautiful scenery and challenge — if it was, Beat would just do what I'm doing, hiking when I feel like hiking and sipping espressos at cafes while I wait for racers to come through town. The suffering is an important part of the experience, a way to draw deeper meaning and understanding from the barrage of sensory input and reduced inhibitions. I can appreciate what Beat is trying to do even as I struggle to fathom it.