Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The many years of Arctic Glass

The best of "Arctic Glass"
As blogs go, "Jill Outside" formerly "Up in Alaska" url "Arctic Glass" is beyond ancient. On November 3, it will turn seven years old. With the exception of a few friends, family, and my cat Cady, this blog is the only thing that has been a constant in my life for that long. (Even bodies regenerate an entirely new batch of cells every seven years.) It was a snowy evening in Homer, Alaska, when I first launched my blog on a whim, planning to use it to stay in touch with friends in the Lower 48 (this was 2005, the now-almost-unimaginable-pre-Facebook-era.) I figured I would post pretty Alaska photographs once a week or so, and maybe my mom would read it. Arctic Glass has since amassed 1,548 entries, 19,910 comments, 3,317,930 direct page views, and 2,840 Google subscribers. I couldn't even begin to guess how many words and photos fill this space ... suffice to say it's a whole lot. This blog is quite the obese oldster, so to speak.

I never diverged from my original intention for this blog, which is — and only is — a simple online journal. I don't sell ads. I don't publish how-to articles. I don't comment on politics or current events. I don't do gear reviews. I do consider commercial blogs to be worthy ventures, and while I have received many requests and offers over the years, I decided not to venture down this path. Arctic Glass is really just the story of my life — truncated, for sure, due to the content being largely restricted to my chosen theme (outdoor activity), the blog's public status, and my own time constraints. But even with these limitations, this blog has helped me generate a rich and cathartic record of my day-to-day life, which is why I continue to enthusiastically pour so much time and energy into it (even though its sheer obesity means that not even my mom has read the entire thing.)

Still, I believe that some of the content on this blog is worth revisiting. Which is why, under the urging of a trusted colleague, I worked on putting together a compilation of blog posts — the "Best of Arctic Glass." As with other projects amid my adventure-distracted lifestyle, this one took much too long to come together. And while I've been working on designing a photo-enriched physical book that I can actually afford to publish, more and more time keeps passing. Now what started as a "Six Years of Adventure" project is quickly approaching seven. As such, I decided to release the compilation in eBook form, which can be read on Kindles, iPads, or your home computer.

"Arctic Glass: Six Years of Adventure in Alaska and Beyond" is a collection of 33 essays from this blog, along with short commentary. The main question I get when I tell people about this book is whether any of the content is new. The answer is no. Yes, technically these essays are available for free somewhere on this blog (the key word, of course, being "somewhere." Even I had a hard time finding many of the posts I wanted to include.) What the eBook offers is a succinct timeline, as well as a thorough culling of 1,548 posts to get to the good stuff. Photos are not a prominent part of the eBook, but there are a few. If you're a new reader of this blog and curious about the backstory, or a long-time reader of the blog who missed a few years here and there, I think you would enjoy this book. It's a measly $2.99 on Amazon and iTunes, and your purchase will help me stay gainfully funemployed long enough to finish my other writing projects. Or waste more time pursuing yet more adventures. Hopefully both.

As for the full photo book, I plan to keep working on that. Given all of the adventures I've been trying to cram into the remainder of this year, as well as renewed determination to finish my "A" project before the year is out — it might be a while yet. But for now, you can find "Arctic Glass: Six Years of Adventure in Alaska and Beyond" at these links:

Amazon Kindle
For iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch via iTunes
PDF and other formats via Smashwords

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Nostalgia: A good reason to run 100 miles?

There wasn't a hint of breeze or wisp of fog on the first day of autumn, a rarity in the Marin Headlands at any time of the year. I was having the best day. It started with a sunrise drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, which led to a morning nap on Muir Beach as I listened to ocean sounds (I volunteered at the Coastal 50K, and a delayed start due to late buses meant there was some extra time to kill before the race.) After setting up the aid station I spent three hours filling water bottles, cutting up fruit, and preparing fresh peanut butter sandwiches, which I believe I make extra special by really piling on the peanut butter and jam, but leaving room around the edges to prevent stickiness. In fact, several runners complimented my sandwiches. "Thanks," I replied. "PB&J is my favorite during these races, too."

After coaxing the last runner out of Muir Beach, I set out to sweep up trail markers behind him. Last runner pace was perfect for me, and I marched cheerily up the Coastal Trail, pulling pink ribbons off branches as waves crashed against the cliffs below. My legs still had that strange empty feeling, but I didn't have to think about that, not this day. I reached a crest of the Miwok Trail that I recognized from my own first 50K run, nearly two years ago (and also remarkable, I thought, that it hasn't even been two years yet.) Pausing for a minute, I looked toward the hills of Sausalito and soaked in the intoxicating fusion of immediate happiness and warm nostalgia. It was a good moment. A smile-without-meaning-to-smile moment. A moment that was too quickly washed away by my empty legs' stern reminder of why I was there in the first place, logging some last-minute volunteer work at the Coastal 50K.

Stylin' during the 2010 Bear 100, somewhere much too far above Bear Lake. Not pictured: Hurty feet. 
It's my and Beat's favorite story to tell to anyone who asks how we got together — the story of a boy and a girl who met as a runner and a volunteer at a 100-mile race in Montana, became Internet friends, and proceeded to dare each other into the most convoluted meeting ever. The story of our first date. Boy had just completed the first running of the grueling Tor des Geants less than a week earlier. Girl was a cyclist who could still count her running-days-per-year on one hand. Girl was working long hours in Las Vegas for Interbike, slowing losing her mind amid the chaotic deluge of it all, when boy called her and said, "I'm still going to the Bear 100. You should come out to Utah and pace me."

Girl was not a runner, but she almost never says no to an adventure, especially with a Swiss cutie who appears to genuinely like doing these kinds of things for fun. She found a friend who was driving from Los Angeles to Salt Lake, hitched a ride to her parents' house, stole their truck without their permission while they were on vacation in Germany, borrowed a bunch of halfway workable "running" clothes from their closet, and drove to Logan. She arrived at the mile fifty aid station still wearing jeans and eating a large sandwich for dinner, expecting to wait for boy and then form a plan for much later in the race — only to have him show up less than five minutes later, look at her with his piercing brown eyes and ask, without a hint of sarcasm, "So, are you running?"

It's the story of how I unintentionally ran fifty miles with no training in cotton yoga pants and rhinestone-bedazzled sunglasses. Of how Beat's blistered feet hurt so much that he would occasionally scream Swiss-German swear words without a hint of comedy. Of how we went all through the night talking about bicycle touring and quantum physics, losing the trail, climbing above the trees and turning our headlamps off to look at the stars, collectively willing ourselves to run faster when the temperature dropped to 21 degrees, going until my own feet hurt so bad that every footfall caused me to wince, and then Beat refused to continue at his own pace in a race that was his race, just so he could help me hobble through the last ten excruciatingly slow miles. Afterward, we had several hours to kill before we could catch a bus ride back to the start, so we made out in the grass at a tiny park in Fish Haven, Idaho. It was seriously the best first date ever.

Beat during the 2010 Bear 100. So adorable.
After finishing the shortened version of Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc last month, I wasn't shy about voicing my disappointment that I had missed out on the "full" hundred experience. A hundred hard miles was something I trained for during the summer and arrived in Europe at least mentally ready to tackle the challenge, if not physically as well. But because I was so open about my disappointment, one thing led to another and I ended up registered for the 2012 Bear 100, which starts in Logan on Friday, Sept. 28, at 6 a.m. The Bear 100 sounded like a great idea when I was fast-recovered from UTMB and running mellow trails in Germany, but then I went to Italy and binged and binged on mountains, didn't sleep or eat well, and returned to the U.S. with empty legs and dread renewed.

However, I did recruit my friend Danni to pace me in the Bear 100, so I can't back down now. We had a great time last year during the Slickrock 100, when she was the runner and I was the pacer. So I have that to look forward to. Despite my current fatigue, I do feel I was in good shape for UTMB; not that much can have changed in a month. Also, I was similarly tired right before the Stagecoach 400, and while I can't deny that I felt fairly shattered for much of that 3.5-day mountain bike race, I did finish the thing. After the first twenty (steep!) miles of the Bear 100, my legs would probably feel dead either way. So really, starting with empty legs is just giving up a relatively small head start in a race like this. And the truth is, I'd really love a shot to try to finish a summer 100-mile trail race. Although UTMB was beyond my control, there is this sense of disappointment that I'm now 0-for-2, despite a 2-for-2 record in winter 100-milers. Is there a good chance I'll be 0-for-3 after the Bear? Well, yes, but the most memorable adventures for me are the usually the most outlandish ones. I'm excited.

And it's true I'm a nostalgic person by nature; more than anything, I'm anticipating a visit to the beautiful locations of a few of my favorite memories. During the 2010 Bear 100, Beat stopped me at a high point under the stars and handed me a rock that he found on a high mountain pass in Italy. He carried through the Tor des Geants and now the Bear 100, and gave it to me as he nervously asked whether I was interested in "dating" even though he lived in California and I lived in Montana. I (now famously) replied "sure" with a shrug, and we left it at that for a while. You can bet that I'll be pressing forward on Friday in anticipation of reaching that spot, and also likely carrying that rock with me as well, for good luck.

As Helen Keller wrote — life is a daring adventure, or nothing. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Jet lagged

 I had this strange dream that I came back to California. Bikes were there, and so were giant cups of soda, and I was somehow outside of myself, watching this familiar world float by as though I both never left and also hadn't yet returned. The pieces of the dream didn't quite fit together because my friend Bill from Montana was there, and really, why would Bill be in California? That part didn't make sense, but the rest of the dream was like my simple, normal life — tinted surreal because I was so fantastically jet-lagged.


I feel like I'm closer to understanding how people manage running hundred-milers, but I doubt I'll ever understand how some people can travel around the world continuously for their livelihoods, and still maintain a grasp on reality. I've traveled across an ocean only three times in my life, and every time I return home, the combination of travel fatigue, deeper-than-normal physical exhaustion, mild reverse culture shock, and significant time change, has knocked me on the floor. I made my way home by Monday evening and have been operating on a semi-conscious, semi-automatic level ever since. Amid the big catch-up game that's inevitable after a month of being away, I've been hanging out with my friend Bill, who actually is visiting from Montana. It's a longish story of cheap plane tickets and girlfriends on business trips, but he arrived in San Francisco four days before I came back from Europe. By Tuesday, he'd had his fill of "solo urban hiking" and was raring to ride.

I felt barely functional enough to drive on Tuesday so I nixed the possibility of any exercise and suggested we go watch a cross race in the city where my friend Leah would be racing. As it just so happened, this was "cross" in multiple definitions of the word, and both men and women were sporting an array of hilarious outfits. It was a rogue cyclocross race, loosely organized, at an undisclosed location to prevent unwanted inquiries. We never did figure out exactly who won, but we had a lot of fun discussing nominations for best dressed.

 By Wednesday, I'd run out of excuses and cross-dressing distractions, so I took Bill on a mountain bike ride. I set him up on my Fatback under the justification that he's a tall guy and it's my largest bike, but I also know that Bill loves fat tires. We rode my "house trail," the Steven's Creek Loop, which is still a hard 30-mile ride with 4,000 feet of climbing. I didn't feel stellar but I tried not to whine because Bill remembers me back when I used to be tough. Eventually, my quads started failing — it's hard to explain, but the muscles were twitching and it just didn't feel like they were firing, like the fuel lines had been blocked. This slowed me down a lot, and was also the point where the excuses started flowing. Bill wouldn't buy "jet lag lots and lots of mountains in Italy" as a real excuse and kept asking me, "What's wrong with you?"

 On Thursday I wanted to show him famous California redwoods and the coast, so I chose a loop around Purisima Redwoods. However, I'd only ridden this loop once before and I was being guided by a friend, so I remembered a lot less about it than I would have liked. At two major intersections with only two choices for turns, I picked the wrong one both times, and we ended up way off course in Half Moon Bay. Rather than pick my way back on circuitous and steep backroads that I didn't know well, I just jumped on Highway 1 and hoped Bill wouldn't ask why our nice mountain bike ride suddenly involved ten miles of busy pavement.

The bright side was I was able to show Bill one of my favorite secret spots in the Bay area, a shaded bluff above the beach where we could sit and listen to waves crash on the sand as vultures soared overhead. I wanted so badly to fall asleep right there. The fact we had a 2,200-foot climb in front of us filled me with dread. I can't say I handled that climb with any kind of athleticism or grace.

Bill is flying out Friday afternoon and my plan for the next week is to sleep. Yes, for a week. I'm volunteering at a 50K race on Saturday, but after that, it's all sleep. I'll expand on that soon, why extreme rest so important to me right now. And to Danni: Yes, I overdid it. Yes, I'm sorry. But no worries. Sleep for a week. I'll be fine. :-)

I will say, it was fun to be back on a bike, broken quads and all. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Last day in Italy

Goodbye, Valle d'Aosta 
Sunday marked the last full day of a long, sometimes exhausting, but incredibly rewarding trip to Europe. During the last week I had grown particularly attached to Courmayeur, and bid my personal goodbyes to all of the things I was going to miss — the light-hearted and friendly locals, the delicious thin-crust pizzas, and of course all of the mountains. So many mountains, so little time and energy in life to visit them all. But I felt like I had a good run during this trip. 

 On Sunday morning, the Tor des Geants held its final awards ceremony. It seemed like most of the town turned out to spectate. The friendly woman who ran the desk at our hotel even shut down the front office for a couple of hours to stand in the crowd and cheer for runners. All of the finishers gathered to parade down the main street of Courmayeur. This photo is a picture of Beat with his friend Dima and Dima's girlfriend Karen. Dima and Beat traveled together for some time during the 2011 Tor des Geants, which is how they became friends. Dima, whose full first name is Dmitry, is a Russian who lives in the eastern United States. He teased Beat about finding the only other Russian Dmitry to partner with in this year's running of the TDG. After the race we also got to spend a little time with Beat's 2012 Dmitry, a soft-spoken software developer who just moved to New York.

Afterward, Beat and I met Ana for our promised gelato celebration. Ana succeeded in finishing the 2012 Tor des Geants despite multiple setbacks, including her sprained ankle before the event. She stoically kept at it, and arrived at the finish line on Saturday morning. Although Ana and I vowed to each eat a liter of gelato together if she finished the TDG, in the end we both chickened out. I was about to head out for an afternoon hike that 33 ounces of heavy cream and sugar would have likely sidelined, and I think Ana was just too tired to eat more than a normal portion. But the gelato was delicious. I had cherry and Nutella-flavored scoops on a cone. This is another thing I will miss about Courmayeur. 

Because I was still dealing with frequent leg cramps, I told Beat I wanted to do something "short and easy" for my afternoon outing. The problem with climbing mountains in Courmayeur is the complete absence of anything resembling "short and easy." But it was my last day in Italy, and I just had to visit one more mountain. I chose Mont Cormet, an 8,200-foot peak that towers directly over town. I set up this timed photo to illustrate what hiking above the Aosta Valley usually entails — the "trail" shoots straight up the mountain slope on a 50-percent grade. Even at a snail's pace, my leg muscles were on fire. No wonder they've been cramping so much. As I climbed closer to the peak, I encountered some difficult terrain including traverses of extremely steep avalanche gullies, scrambles beside cliff bands, and navigating around a maze of large metal "nets" presumably constructed to prevent rockslides from tumbling all the way into town. During that section I had one mile that my Garmin registered as a 57-minute-mile. So much for short and easy. 

During the climb, I thought about Beat's effort in his two European races. The PTL was 290 kilometers with 22,000 meters of climbing. The Tor des Geants was 303 kilometers with 24,000 meters of climbing. In the context of my 57-minute-mile, the numbers were difficult to fathom. And yet, by grinding away at it one kilometer at a time, he'd managed to accomplish the impossible-seeming big picture. Runners have different agendas. Many are experimenting with how fast they can go, but some of us are genuinely more interested in discovering how far we can go. Beat just took his running farther than he has yet, and it was enlightening to observe the ways in which he became stronger as he went. His body seemed to adapt to his increasing demands, and besides his feet, he had relatively few physical issues. As for his feet, he admits he made a couple of misjudgments in the early miles of the PTL that resulted in him having to work hard to mitigate the damage for the remainder of PTL and all of TDG. But Beat's personal distance experiment went farther toward confirming a theory I've long held about endurance challenges — that beyond the limitations of our own minds, our individual potential is unimaginably extensive.

Perhaps someday I will return to these mountains to test this theory on myself. Until then, I will look back fondly to the striking beauty and the muscle-grinding terrain that necessitates 57-minute miles.

Courmayeur to Mont Cormet, round-trip distance: 9.4 miles
Total climbing: 4,377 feet
Total time: 3:48

Monday, September 17, 2012

After the TDG

Looking toward Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) from the Italian side
The day after Beat finished the Tor des Geants, he was predictably wrecked. Also predictable, for a person whose body had carried him so far over so many days, was the way he didn't fully believe he was done. One minute he'd be scheming about running 22 miles out and back to the iced-over pass that the TDG skipped, and the next he'd unintentionally doze off over an empty pizza plate. In making travel plans, we'd opted to stay through Sunday's awards ceremony. So we had two more days in Italy. Although to a much lesser extent than Beat, I was feeling fairly worn down myself. But, like Beat, I figured my body had handled these daily mountain outings just fine thus far. Why wouldn't I be able to continue indefinitely?

Before we came to Italy, I had ambitions to fast-trek the Tour du Mont Blanc trail on my own over three days. I only planned to do this if Beat ended his race several days early — mostly because the minimal support I could provide Beat in the Tor des Geants was more important to me. Not that he really needed it — but I did hate the idea of not being available if things went bad out there. So I never did get to see that much of the TMB route during this trip, but on Saturday I set out to explore a small section from Courmayeur, traveling toward France. My legs felt sluggish, and there were flashes of muscle pain and cramping in the first steep miles up to Delorme. As I climbed, I revised my expectations to the Maison Vielle refuge, only about three miles and 2,500 feet of climbing from Courmayeur. I was going to turn around after that. But as I gained elevation, the day revealed itself as the most perfect kind of bluebird — warm and brilliantly clear. Sunshine and mountains are really the purest source of energy there is.

Although I've only seen sections of the Tour du Mont Blanc trail, and even then mostly in fog and night, I have to say — this has to be one of the best sections of the whole route. A long, rolling traverse crossed the slopes above a glacier valley. It was blissfully runnable, which I tried despite cramping legs, and also bikeable. I think I actually started drooling when this guy rolled by — as much as I love hiking and running, wheels still hold the deepest affection in my heart. I mean, look at that — all that scenic singletrack. The trail was deceptively steep, and it would be a tough ride. But maybe someday I'll come back with a bike.

I crossed up and over L'Arp Sup Vielle and chatted with a two men from New Zealand who claimed they were on a "weight loss trip" and that the abundance of French food along the TMB wasn't helping them in their quest. "Wait until you go through Italy. Italians make really amazing food," I replied. "Don't tell us that!" they proclaimed. They were also noticeably distraught when I told them the gondola down from Delorme didn't appear to be running that day. "You mean we have to hike the whole ten kilometers into Courmayuer?" they moaned. Funny guys.

I wasn't ready to be done just yet but didn't want to descend too far on the TMB, so I cut over on a side trail that continued climbing up the ridge, even though I had no idea where it went. I thought I might climb about 500 feet to a better viewpoint. But the trail kept going up, and became continuously more rugged. Eventually I was crawling across boulders above 8,500 feet elevation and thought, "Huh. I must be climbing a mountain."

Mont Fortin was the name of the mountain, a little peak at a modest 9,050 feet elevation — little, but rugged. The route, marked with yellow paint, wrapped around the boulder field on a steep face, still ice-slicked despite the rapidly warming temperatures. Some of the terrain left me a little sketched out, and I nearly turned back three times. But if I looked around, I always I figured out a better way around the obstacle that was tripping me up, and continued to the top. The panoramic views were worth it.

Enjoying the last of my Reeses Peanut Butter Cups at the top. Of the six packs I brought with me to Europe, I saved these for a special occasion.

The ruins of a stone building, possibly a former refuge or bivouac on a ledge atop Mont Fortin.

An equally tempting traverse down into the next valley over. If I had a map with me and had a clue where it went, I likely would have taken it.

So many incredible views. Since I told Beat I was going to go for a short hike and now looked like I'd be out for nearly seven hours, I texted him with this as an excuse.

I had to return to the sketchy traverse on the way back down. There were only a few fields of snow left on the mountain, but they were rock-hard ice and any falls, while not fatal, would have really hurt. I took my time.

Then back down the TMB. I tried to run to make up time, but the legs were angry with me again. Still, I was bursting with energy. Mountains and sun. That's all I need (and peanut butter cups.)

Courmayeur to Mont Fortin, round-trip distance: 17.2 miles
Total climbing: 6,829 feet
Total time: 6:37

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tor des Geants, day five

Dressed for the weather above Rifugio Bertone — temperatures in the 30s and 20-30 mph winds
It was a cold night. I could tell even curled up in the back of the rental car, because my 40-degree-rated sleeping bag wasn't enough to break the chill. Beat and Dmitry arrived at Valtournenche, kilometer 236, at 5 a.m. and informed me that they planned to eat and run. However, once inside the tent, we learned that the race organization had paused the race, citing extreme weather on the higher passes. I strove to eavesdrop on the volunteers' Italian chatter, but the most we could make out was 110 kilometer-per-hour winds and repeats of the word "Malatra," a high pass that was still a day away for Beat. We guessed there was lots of new snow on that pass. 

TDG racers lining up for the restart in Valtournenche
Beat and Dmitry took advantage of the suspension to grab an unplanned nap, while I lingered in the tent to continue to eavesdrop on conversations I couldn't understand, and also chat with another American runner, Dan from Bellingham, Washington. Dan had way too much energy for 5 a.m., let alone being a Tor des Geants racer at 5 a.m. He was panting at the gate like an Iditarod sled dog, almost manic with a desire to be released. It was actually humorous to watch, as he was also too exhausted to realize he was full-on rambling at a rather impressive rate of words per minute. Finally, just before 9 a.m., the volunteers announced the race was back on. A few dozen runners who had backed up at the checkpoint lined up for the restart.

A typical "side street" in Valtournenche
Valtournenche is an strange village. There essentially was no available land, but people built a large town on the mountainside all the same. Several ten-plus-story buildings are stacked up the hill like a staircase, and many of the residential zones are only accessible by stone steps. Just for fun, I followed Beat and Dmitry up the trail out of town, but within five minutes I felt distressingly bad. My breadsticks-and-jam dinner didn't really hold me over, and I'd been up for more than four hours with no breakfast. My blood sugar was so low that I felt dizzy and my legs were wobbly. I was tripping all over myself on the stairs, and finally had to announce to the guys that I couldn't keep up so I was turning around. Indeed, I was a pathetic case.

Rifugio Bertone
Somehow I got the car back to Courmayeur and crashed hard for the afternoon. It's been a while since I've been so tired. I was less tired after I finished UTMB. It's humbling to me because what I chose to do this week was a fraction of what the Tor des Geants demands. And yet I was shattered. I took two or three fitful naps, but always woke up after fifteen minutes or so, drenched in sweat, with harrowing memories of the last scene of some terrible nightmare. These naps were far from restful. In one of the nightmares, I found a bunch of infant kittens floating in a toilet in a checkpoint restroom. Most of them were dead but two were alive and I rescued them, but I was so upset about it that I didn't even know what to do. So I just ran around the checkpoint asking volunteers if they had any blankets for the kittens, and no one would help me. It was horrible. I rarely have nightmares, let alone about something so random as kitten homicide. I must have been really overtired.

Mont Blanc, or Monte Bianco in Italian, covered in a fresh layer of white
The nightmares and the weird naps left me feeling almost feverish, and I genuinely had to get outside. It was after 5 p.m. so I set out for a "short" hike up to the ridge above Rifugio Bertone, where I hoped to catch the sunset. It was a beautiful evening but cold, deeply cold. By the time I ascended above timberline, the ambient temperature must have been near freezing, and winds were blowing around 30 miles per hour. I thought about all the TDG racers out there fighting these conditions, adding yet another layer of difficulty to the battle. And indeed, there would be more late drops from respiratory infections, and most racers had to deal with painful coughing and bouts of mild hypothermia.

Why trail running is energizing rather than exhausting — I stand by this theory. 
This grassy, rolling ridge above Val Sapin is one of the few "runnable" trails close to town. I was feeling more energetic, and also fairly chilled, so I broke into a jog and then a full run as evening light crept up the glaciers of Mont Blanc. It was breathtakingly beautiful. The bad energy I'd accumulated earlier in the day melted away. All it took was another healthy dose of elevation.

The village of St. Rhemy en Bosses
Thursday was another night of short sleep as I prepared to meet Beat in Ollomont, but ultimately missed him because he was unexpectedly fast into that checkpoint. One of the most surprising things I observed in the Tor des Geants is the way Beat seemed to grow stronger as the miles and climbing stacked up. He was still in a lot of pain with his shredded feet, but as long as his body was pumping out endorphins, he was climbing well and even occasionally running down hills. His splits were becoming harder to gauge because already he was covering ground faster than he had late in the race in 2011, and continuing to improve on his improvements. Because this race came directly after the beatdown of the PTL, it seemed as though he had descended into the depths of physical depletion and discovered that the bottom was actually just the other side of a sphere, then emerged into new sunlight, healthy and strong again. He'll beg to differ with this convoluted theory, but this is how it appeared to me and other observers — he was getting stronger. Maybe longer really is better.

Beat and Dmitry travel the final 10-kilometer gradual road descent into St. Rhemy.
I was already planning to meet him at the 303-kilometer checkpoint, St. Rhemy, when I learned of another race rumor that Col Malatra ultimately proved to be impassable, and race organizers planned to end the race there, thirty kilometers short of Courmayeur. I frantically researched the situation as best as I could at 4 a.m., and learned that dangerous ice conditions coated the steep trail to the pass. Mountain guides set out to chip steps into the icy snow, but determined that the trail could not be safely crossed without winter equipment such as an ice ax and crampons, which no TDG racer had. About sixty frontrunners had made it into Courmayeur, most who crossed the pass during the realitive warmth of the day. But already at least one racer had been injured during a night crossing, badly enough to be helicopter evacuated from the pass. There was no way to safely manage the 300-plus runners still making their way toward the finish, so the hard decision was made to move the finish line to St. Rhemy.

Beat and his new friend Dmitry cross the finish line
The final miles into St. Rhemy were a gradual dirt road descent, something that must be a mental battle of boredom for tired runners. For me, it was a pleasant early morning walk. I sauntered up the trail and intersected Beat about four miles from town. He too had heard the news that the race was ending in St. Rhemy, and, in learning the punishment was about to end, his brain shut down the endorphin production. His was in a world of hurt and not happy. I made the mistake of misjudging the length of a climb, and received a long and stern lecture about the demoralizing powers of misinformation. I don't blame Beat for his mood. I also can't hide my crankiness when I am in pain.

Beat signing the famous poster that all finishers sign. 
Still, (most of) the crankiness dissolved the second he crossed the finish line. Beat finished 166th of 630 starters and 392 finishers, not a bad result for a 2012 PTL finisher. I asked him if he was disappointed about missing the last pass and final thirty kilometers into Courmayeur. He said no, because he'd already finished the TDG twice. Plus, the thirty kilometers over Col Malatra is almost a victory lap at that point. While parts of it are steep and the pass is high, there is nothing particularly challenging about that section of trail (unless of course it's covered in ice.) "Once you've reach St. Rhemy, you know you can do it," Beat said. "So it feels like the finish already, in a way."

We also learned that Beat is one of 18 people to have finished all three runnings of the Tor des Geants. He said this means he has to go back next year for a fourth. Oi.

Courmayer to ridge above Rifugio Bertone, round trip: 9.5 miles
Total climbing: 4,219
Total time: 2:37

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tor des Geants, day four

Just before noon Wednesday, Beat arrived in Gressoney, kilometer 200, in a sour mood. Despite the near-30C-temperatures in Donnas just a day ago, the weather had taken a sharp turn for the worse. Rain throughout the night had slicked the rocks on the trail, making for sketchy and slow descending. He grabbed a big plate of rigatoni with tomato sauce and tuna, the standard (and only) dish served for the duration of the Tor des Geants. I'd taken a cue from the race food and mostly eaten this kind of fare myself. Rigatoni with tuna was an easy thing to store and cook up fast, and bread and jam was something I could keep in my car. Rural Italian grocery stores only seem to be open about six hours a day, and restaurants were never fast enough and also not open at convenient-for-me times (early and late.) Still, at this point I'd mostly run out of groceries and was down to a few candy bars and crackers that were left of my once-giant bag of UTMB trail food. I eyed Beat's lunch greedily. 

 Like last year, I tagged along with him out of Gressoney along the river valley. The weather was still drizzly and cool, and the wind had picked up since he arrived in town. It seemed like the clouds were beginning to clear, but the wind was fierce and temperatures were dropping. I was only going to follow him as far as the next rifugio and then go to the pass on my own. He checked out of Gressoney with a Russian runner named Dmitry, and they traveled together out of town.

 The steep, grassy slopes surrounding Rif. Alpenzu were populated by goats and a herd of cattle. Just after I left Beat and Dmitry in Alpenzu, I encountered the cattle just as the driver was herding them down the mountain. Dozens of cows came tearing around a large rock outcropping, mooing loudly and crashing into each other as they stampeded down the narrow switch-backing trail. I saw them coming and reacted with a completely instinctual flight response, jumping off the trail and darting straight up the mountain like a frightened cat as stampeding cattle streamed around me. They scared me all the way up to the rock outcropping, and then I had nowhere left to go. So I stood and waited, realizing that the slope I had just climbed was steep enough that I wasn't going to have an easy time getting down. Beat and Dmitry reached this point while I was waiting, and also cut directly up the slope to avoid the cattle (they were still running but the back of the herd had mostly calmed down by this point.) By the time the trail was cow-free, Beat, Dmitry and I were grouped up again. I know they're just cows, but that was one of the more frightening animal encounters I've had on a trail. The most scary was a pit bull that attacked me in Maine ten years ago. I have to say, wild animals are usually more polite than domesticated ones.

 Beat and Dmitry were moving up the mountain at a solid clip. I could barely hold their pace, let alone exceed it, even though I was relatively rested. It may have helped that the wind was driving a fierce chill. Beat didn't want to put on his jacket just yet because the steep climbing made him sweat, but it was difficult to stay warm unless we climbed hard.

 The wind reached gale force at Col Pinter, elevation 9,107 feet. Beat and I barely managed three words before he and Dmitry began the sprint down the mountain. Despite his extremely sore feet and now deeply fatigued legs, he was able to break into a solid run. Amazing what survival instinct enables us to accomplish. I spent a few minutes at the Col, huddled in the wind shelter of a rock as I devoured a couple packets of Nutella. (I was fairly bonked, and I was literally and comically out of available food.) In less than five minutes, ice had already formed in my Camelback valve — it was really cold.

 On the way back to Gressoney, I made friends with a goat. I didn't mean to, but he was so cute that I couldn't help but sneak up to shoot a photo. After I did this, he followed me for at least three quarters of a mile down the trail to Alpenzu, his little bell jingling the entire way. I'm not sure what he wanted from me. In the past, I've seen mountain goats shadow hikers because they want to lick the salt off their skin. Perhaps this goat wanted the same. He was adorable, though I admit after ten minutes of stalking I felt uneasy. He stood half as tall as me and had giant horns — he could have easily rammed me off the mountain if he wanted too.

I barely made it back to Gressoney by dark and decided to wait for a while at that checkpoint to see if my other friends came through, before swinging around to Valtournenche to intercept Beat again. I'd hoped to grab a pizza or really anything in town, but it was after 8 p.m. in the off season and I didn't find anything open except for a bar. The bar may have had food, but it was quite crowded and I was feeling shy (Italians are so friendly, but it's a bit overwhelming for an introvert like me who doesn't speak the language.) Of course it was my fault for being shy and not being better prepared, but I had to settle for a miserable little dinner of stale breadsticks and big spoonfuls of jam from the car.

I just barely missed Ana when she arrived at 9:30 p.m., and she went straight in the back to sleep. Although I was hoping to grab a nap of my own in the car before Beat arrived in Valtournenche, I decided to stay in Gressoney as long as I could to warn Ana about the cold. It was already near freezing in town, still windy, and I was worried about what was going on at 9,000 feet. Ana's a tough woman who can take care of herself, but she's also from the coast of Spain where it hit 50C just a few weeks ago. If she didn't have big warm mittens or a balaclava, I wanted to give her mine.

During my wait I also ran into Gabi, a friend of Beat's who lives in Zurich. Gabi is a tiny Swiss woman who ran all of race so far wearing big dangling earrings and a tiara, like an actual jewel-encrusted tiara. Her voice was nearly gone and her throat made horrible gurgling noises as she breathed, indicating a serious respiratory infection. She guessed she had bronchitis and was distraught. The Gressoney cut-off was in less than two hours, so she had to go back out that night if she went out at all. I hated to see Gabi give up on something she wanted so badly, but I felt compelled to emphasize just how cold and windy it was on Col Pinter. Personally, I would have felt nervous about going up there in the middle of the night being rested and healthy, let alone as sick as she seemed. Doctors took her temperature and made the decision for her, forcibly pulling her from the race and instructing her to seek medical attention immediately as she likely had pneumonia. Poor Gabi. It was heart-wrenching to be there as she accepted this.

Ana was well-dressed but extremely tired when she woke up at 11:30. At that point I really had to go to catch Beat, so we only exchanged a few brief sentences after I made my case for the cold on the pass. She's still plugging away out there — amazingly tough, that woman. I admire her greatly.

Gressoney to Col Pinter, 12.4 miles round trip
Total climbing: 5,214 feet
Total time: 5:03

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Tor des Geants, day three

The town of Donnas Pont St. Martin sits at the threshold of the Aosta Valley, the gateway to the Alps from the flatlands to the south. Its low elevation (1,080 feet) puts it in a different climate zone than most of the other villages of the Tor des Geants. Donnas reminded me of the hills above San Jose in California, with small broad-leaf trees and vineyards lining the streets. It was also nearly 30 degrees C when I went to meet Beat at noon Tuesday.

He seemed relatively limber and alert given he had been out all night and just descended more than 8,000 feet from the mountains. He took an hour-long nap and worked on taping his feet while I went to look for hazelnut gelato. In my experience, feet usually feel a lot worse than they look, and I have to say that his feet look pretty bad. The skin on his heel is almost entirely gone on his bad foot, and he has a large heel blister on his good foot. He's begun taping every one of his toes, but the abrasions that bother him the most are just above the ball of his big toe joint. He claims the pain is manageable, but tends to welcome any other challenge that will distract him from his feet — the tougher the better. The only time he really has trouble, he told me, is during flat, easy sections of road. Luckily, these sections are few and far between in the Tor des Geants.

I've been choosing my daily hikes on the fly, and the timing on this day put me in a good position to climb the first pass beyond Donnas, starting about eight kilometers beyond the checkpoint. Non-racing companions are discouraged in the TDG, so I try not to shadow Beat too closely but I still love seeing him on the course. So I drove around to the town of Perloz and began the long, hot ascent from 2,000 feet to 7,500 feet altitude. Just another pass in the Tor des Geants.

It was very cool to travel this far down the Aosta Valley and see a new face of the Alps. Just as the climate reminded me of California, the mountains also had a decidedly Sierras-like look and feel.

Because the trail was at a lower elevation, most of the climbing was below timberline on steep, grassy slopes populated by hemlock trees and cattle. But the emphasis is on steep. In the first mile out of Perloz, I gained more than 1,700 feet of altitude —  a pattern that showed no sign of slowing. The afternoon sun beat down. I was pouring sweat, regularly blinded by it, and huffing just as loudly as the racers who had 160 kilometers on their legs.

The trail topped out on a col and continued up the ridge. To the southeast, I could see the open plain at the end of the Alps. Somewhere out there is the city of Torino, host of the 2006 Winter Olympics. I was a little disappointed that it was too hazy to see much definition, but it was cool to look into what appeared to be a vast void.

I turned around just beyond Rifugio Coda, having taken two and a half hours to climb just over five miles. There was a technical boulder field for a half mile before the pass, and I'm sure there will be many more to come. I had to pick my way across this boulder field at a pace of about 1.5 miles per hour. Although there are no more big climbs on this section of the TDG, friends who have raced it have told me this is the toughest section, because of the rocks.

Just as I hoped, I caught Beat on the way back down. He still looked so cheery, maybe because there was enough heat and steepness to take his mind off his feet. In a way, I get it. You have to alter your mindset in order to adapt. Suffering, for the most part, is optional.


Perloz to Rifugio Coda, round trip: 10.4 miles
Total climbing: 5,954
Total time: 4:37