Saturday, August 31, 2013

Such a beautiful nightmare

On Friday afternoon I dropped from La Petite Trotte à Léon in Morgex, Italy, officially 182 kilometers and about two thirds through the loop course. My teammates, Ana and Giorgio, came in within minutes of the checkpoint cut-off and were able to continue. I did not manage to make this cut-off, and not sure I could have kept going if I had. Sleep deprivation issues, including some downright frightening problems with my vision, impacted my ability to keep a necessary pace. During the descent into Morgex, I asked Ana and Giorgio to continue without me if I could not reach Morgex by 6 p.m. They elected to continue without sleeping, which I wasn't willing to do.

This race was unlike anything I've tried before. To say it was an ordeal would be an understatement. I had expectations based on what Beat told me that were completely blown apart. In running terms, the PTL course is highly technical, involving a significant amount of scrambling, aided climbing, exposure, and poor footing. I don't have a lot of experience with scrambling, and took several painful but ultimately lucky (because I wasn't seriously hurt) falls on rocky slopes and cliffs. My teammates were similarly inexperienced, and we quickly had to accept that the limit of our abilities would net only 2 to 3 kilometers per hour. We also had to accept that this meant staying under the time cut-offs necessitated 22-plus hours of movement in any given 24-hour period.

We only slept between 20 and 65 minutes each day. I dealt with hallucinations, anxiety attacks, brief psychotic episodes, and even worse motor coordination than usual. Keeping my eyes open and often intensely focused for 23-plus hours each day affected my vision in frightening ways. There was constant blurriness, visual "wobbling" of objects, inability to focus, and occasional blind spots. The longer I was awake after my brief naps, the worse my vision became. I told Ana and Giorgio that if we could not nap in Morgex, I was not willing to continue into another night on technical terrain with my vision as bad as it had become. When it became obvious that we could not find time to sleep, I knew my race was over. I am amazed with Ana and Giorgio's determination to continue on in that state. I would love to see them finish this thing, but much more than that, I hope they stay safe. They were great companions, and helped me push myself much farther than I could have on my own. Despite the often humorous language barriers, we were a good fit as a team.

 All endurance events I participate in are their own unique combination of mental and physical challenge. The PTL was more parts mental than anything I've taken on yet. Physical issues almost did not matter. We moved on average for 22 hours in any given 24-hour period, sometimes dealing with climbing maneuvers that demanded a significant amount of untrained upper body strength, and yet my muscles were only marginally sore. My arms and hands are cut up and bruised from many falls, my tights are torn apart from sliding on scree and snow fields, but I didn't get a single blister on my feet or chafing from my rather heavy backpack. My bad knee and shin, which have been causing various levels of pain all summer, never bothered me. I would run out of water, sometimes for hours, and not even feel concerned even though thirst usually drives me into a mild panic. Based on Beat's recommendation, I only carried enough food for about 2,000 calories per day, thinking we'd stop for meals. We did not have the time to stop and rarely any chances, as the few refuges we walked past were usually closed. My meals during the 92 hours I spent in the race included two plates of pasta and two bowls of noodle soup with crackers. Even still, I ate only about half the food I carried; probably in total about 1,600 to 1,800 calories per day. As Giorgio put it, "We need no sleep, water, or food. We need only to walk." Obviously this wasn't entirely true, but it is amazing how well the body adapts to the things it needs to do to survive.

I did not finish the race, but right now I do not feel disappointed about that. I wanted a great adventure and I certainly got one. For as tough as this race was, there was equal amounts of intense beauty and appreciation of the gift of life. We always managed to be somewhere absolutely spectacular at sunrise. The Alps have become a special place for me, and I'm always grateful to travel through this mountain range and culture. I wish I could have seen the rest of the route, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that I'm glad it's over. I gave this race everything I had, absolutely everything, and it simply wasn't enough. Could I ever become strong enough for the PTL? It's tough to say. In many ways, it was one of the most stupid things I've done to myself, and I really shouldn't go back. But even now, fewer than 18 hours removed and still intensely sleep deprived, I wonder, "What if?"

Beat is still out there, of course. I have not heard from him and do not know how the race is going for him. I am, knowing what I know now about PTL, very worried about him. But I have confidence that he and Dima will finish strong and I hope to see them at the finish in Chamonix on Sunday afternoon. With any luck, Ana and Giorgio will be there, too.

 I have stories to tell about the PTL, and photos, of course. My memories right now are spotty but I hope with sleep they'll come back to me. For now I will hobble over to the race headquarters to watch UTMB finishers and hope to catch the occasional PTL team coming in. I have extreme respect for anyone who can finish this race. It's a monster.
Friday, August 23, 2013

On to the PTL

Biking the Grizzly Flat trail with Liehann on Sunday. 
Well, it's time. Late last year, I got this inclination to plan something more "nutty" for 2013. Something that went far beyond the edge of my comfort zone to those untested outer limits where anything can happen. 2012 had been a fun year, full of challenging events. But none of them were beyond my known abilities, and I ended the year hungry for an outlandish goal.

Many athletically inclined people prefer to take incremental steps forward. I like to take big leaps over chasms without knowing exactly how far I can jump. In most aspects of life I'm a fairly conservative person, but there's a primal allure in physical endeavors that shoves all common sense aside. I want more of it, and have ever since before I understood anything about what "it" is. Case in point: The very first race I signed up for — as in first competitive event of my adult life — was a 100-mile winter bicycle race in Alaska that took me 25 hours to finish. Contrary to popular opinions on the matter, I didn't attempt this for accolades — back in 2005, you really couldn't find a more obscure sport than snow biking. No, I just suddenly got an itch to try something big, and went for it. I've taken three similar leaps since — the Iditarod Trail Invitational in 2008, the Tour Divide in 2009, and the Susitna 100 on foot in 2011 (a big jump because I was technically not yet a runner when I signed up five months before the event.) And now, another rather insolent launch into the unknown — La Petite Trotte à Léon.

Why take these leaps into endeavors where chances of success are slim and even failure falls on the favorable side of the spectrum of possible outcomes? I seek them because of the intense experiences they promise. Much more than failure, I'm afraid of becoming complacent, of coasting through each day without even noticing how much life is passing be by. Scary goals fire up all of the synapses and rejuvenate passions that tend to become wilted over time. I am never more alive than I am on the precipices of livability, mind and body stretched beyond the cusp of who I thought I was, grasping toward something more.

Although finishing is not my sole aim in such endeavors, I do make an effort to increase my chances. Ever since that fateful after-midnight Facebook conversation with Ana back in January, I've kept a singular focus on PTL. In March, I raced the Homer Epic 100K on foot with a sled — when actually I was in more of a snow-biking mindset at the time and came close to switching to the bicycle division at the last minute — because a sled-dragging 100K would provide solid mental training for PTL. I ran the Quicksilver 50 in May so I'd be better prepared for the Bryce 100 so I'd have a good base for Racing the Planet Iceland, which happened to be well-positioned for a high-mileage "peak" three weeks before PTL.

I had some setbacks during training, as most do. Pain in my left shin kept my mileage low for most of the spring. The elevation at Bryce hit me hard and I did not recover well from that race; trying to run the Laurel Highlands 70-miler one week later was a poor decision (great mental training, but my confidence and health took a hit.) Then there was the San Lorenzo 50K faceplant debacle in June and mysterious knee injury (speculated to be a minor MCL tear) that limited running and hiking for a month. Actually, broken down like that, it was a terrible year of training. What have I gotten myself into?

Racing the Planet Iceland went well, though. I don't feel like spotty training undermined my enjoyment of that race in any way, so perhaps my fitness is not as inadequate as I fear. Despite my satisfaction with RTP, it was inevitable that anxiety immediately took over. The two weeks we've spent in California after returning from Iceland have been a whirlwind of unpacking, work catch-up, planning, stress, packing, and low-level panic.

I've been taking the taper quite seriously, and along with recovery from RTP Iceland, my stress-relieving outdoor time has been limited. I did make an exception for one wonderful mountain bike ride up Steven's Creek Canyon with my friend Liehann last Sunday. It was a surprisingly tough ride; temperatures climbed into the low 90s and my heat acclimation had taken a substantial hit in Iceland. My two-liter bladder of water was gone by the top of the climb out of Grizzly Flat. At Skyline Ridge, mile 16, Liehann continued on to more fun trails while I reluctantly held to my "no-more-than-four-hour ride" halfway cutoff, and turned around. My throat was dry, my water bladder was empty, and my quads were nicely toasted from hard pedaling — and still, I was itching to stay out for a much longer ride. Endurance cravings are high right now — which gives me a small spark of confidence, because at least there's something there for PTL to beat into submission.

Also this week, I turned 34. Besides feeling the usual unease about the relentless march of time, I had a quiet birthday mostly spent working on newspapers. It was nice — a kind of tranquil, bland milestone to buffer these two big international adventures in August. I'm meeting friends tonight to actually celebrate the thing, and then tomorrow (Saturday) we fly to Geneva en route to Chamonix. La Petite Trotte à Léon begins at 10 p.m. Monday (1 p.m. California time.) I wrote a bit more about what PTL is for my Half Past Done blog, but I wanted to include the links where folks can follow the race here:

More information about PTL is available at this link.

A Google Earth tour of the entire course is available at this link.
(To my dad: I hope you can get this link to work; I think you will enjoy this.)

PTL updates during the race will be available at this link.

Updates from my team.

Updates from Beat's team. Use the icons in the upper right to switch between elevation, list and map view.

My team is called "Too Cute to Quit." I know, I know. It was a flippant name given our original status as a "girl" team. Giorgio joined on later and got stuck with being "Too Cute" as well. Ana is technically the team captain and as far as I know, the only one actually incapable of quitting. Beat recently lost one of his team members, Daniel, due to a death in Daniel's family. His team now consists of himself and Dima Feinhaus, a Russian friend who Beat met at the Tor des Geants — also where Dima earned his nickname, "Crankypants." We'll likely be far behind Beat and Dima, which is a shame, as the two of them together are sure to provide comic relief in tough times.

It's unlikely I'll post again before the race starts. I wanted to say thanks to those who check in on this blog, especially anyone who was around in the early days of "Up in Alaska." For all of my strange leaps over the years, I've really enjoyed sharing adventures here, and I appreciate the connections that form. Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Past the ones that I used to know

Needles of rain drove in through the small opening in my sleeping bag as the plastic walls of the dining shelter reverberated a howling wind — fwap fwap fwap fwap. I'd made a midnight escape from Tent Fjallfoss after being elbowed several times by one of my tentmates. It wasn't his fault, really; most of the occupants arrived after the storm set in, and it was soaked inside. There wasn't enough dry floor space for all of us. I decided sleep was better than walls and retreated to the three-sided group shelter. Unfortunately, the open side was facing the direction of the wind, and I couldn't find a square foot free from errant daggers of rain. The temperature couldn't have been more than a few degrees above freezing, and the wind forced cold air directly into my bag. I curled up in the farthest corner on the grass and shivered.

 "This is good training for Alaska," I thought, and the notion softened the knots of stress that had been building in my gut. Thoughts of Alaska, and specifically Alaska winter racing, often do. "I'm cold," I'll think, "but not nearly as cold as the time I bivied on the Farewell Burn." "I'm scared," I'll think, "but not nearly as frightened as the time I pedaled onto the hard ice of the Kuskokwim River and into that black abyss beyond." I was okay then, and I'll be okay now. It's interesting that something that happened more than five years ago still resonates so deeply, and everything I've been through since has become doable because of it, so far.

As I tossed and shivered, the cold, gray night changed imperceptibly into a cold, gray morning. Others began to emerge from their tents with similarly ashen faces. Today was the day of "The Long March to the Arctic Ocean," slated at 41.6 miles of tired-leg running in weather that, realistically, couldn't have been much worse for an August day in southern Iceland. The race organizer told us the forecast called for similar conditions to day two — meaning temperatures in the low 40s and 30- to 50-mile-per-hour winds — the only difference is today's storm would include significant amounts of precipitation. Wet and frigid weather, and a distance that would keep the majority of the field out there for more than ten hours. Misery, or adventure? Clearly, attitude was everything on this day.

Before we set out, I decided to embrace the latter — adventure, with a dash of farce. This attitude was actually made easier by sleep deprivation and the silliness it evoked. The race organizers also contributed by insisting on busing everyone fifty feet across a river, with a goal of letting runners start the race with dry feet. It was a noble gesture, mostly lost on the fact it was raining sideways and the process with two small buses took more than half an hour — meaning everyone was soaked at the start anyways, and also chilled from standing around in the cold wind. Most agreed that crossing the river on foot would have been preferable.

The early miles of the Long March took us through the industrial infrastructure of a geothermal plant, giving the start a kind of apocalyptic feel as the fierce storm raged overhead. Beat and Dan had run ahead, so I joined a group that included two friends from Cleveland. Lee and Gabe are significantly faster runners than me — Lee actually received an unexpected and last-minute entry to the 2013 Western States race after winning a prominent 50-mile race — but had been running close to my pace in Iceland both because "backpacks are the great equalizer" and because they had come here with a goal to have fun no matter what. This attitude made them great running partners, and I made an effort to stick with them as long as I could hold on. We tore through the driving rain singing the theme from the children's show Lambchop: "This is the song that doesn't end ... yes it goes on and on my friend ... "

Being better runners than me, Lee and Gabe were also more adept on technical terrain, so I eventually faded on the horse track leading over the last pass before the coast. Sleepiness enveloped me like a warm blanket, pulling my thoughts away from the physical discomforts of sloshing shoes and stinging mist, to the dreamlike landscape beyond — fog-shrouded valleys, vanishing mountains, and soft, bumpy carpets of moss on top of jumbled rocks.

As the tide of fatigue drew my thoughts deeper into the past, time and space became more vague. Miles would pass in what felt like seconds, and yet minutes would stretch out like hours. I took quick breaths from my flickering awareness of the present as I swam through an ocean of memories. What developed was a kind of melancholy, sparked by close visual proximity to places I once loved, places I no longer know. Although it's positioned on the other side of the globe, the mist-shrouded slopes of Iceland held a strong resemblance to alpine ridges I used to wander in Southeast Alaska. It's true that occasionally I miss Alaska so much my heart aches, in the same way one might miss a good friend who moved far away. I know it's still out there; I know I can still visit. But a disconnect has been established, and the void is an unsettling reminder of the impermanence of time, the truth that you can't go home again. Psychologically pulling myself back into a semblance of "home" while I traversed the rocky tundra of Iceland was both jarring and comforting — another reminder that "home" can be everywhere and nowhere at once.

Inevitably, my journeys down memory lane met a roadblock of physiological distractions — tender sprained toe, irritated eyes, windburned lips, and of course sleepiness. For the length of the trek and the conditions so far, being blister-free and not too sore was cause for celebration, but it is easy to focus on discomforts.  As we drew closer to the coast, the route turned directly into the wind, which was cranking at a velocity that all but prohibited forward motion. Curiosity eventually got the better of me and I pulled out my GPS — confirming a strenuous pace of 2.4 mph. I groaned. At least steep climbs provide visual confirmation of effort; walking into a strong wind is simply interminable.

Eventually we reached the beach, where shards of black sand took to the air with similarly painful velocity. Despite the exciting weather conditions, I was losing my grip on consciousness. I was just so sleepy, and that sharp volcanic sand on the beach somehow looked so soft and inviting for a nap. Even an advanced ration of Sour Patch Kids did little to cut through the descending fog of fatigue.

We climbed up sand bluffs and crossed through the village of Þorlákshöfn, where I took not one but two caffeine pills — a too-high dose I always vow to avoid, but too often find myself resorting to in moments of weak desperation. I thought we were in for more monotonous sand slogging, where staying awake on my feet was a genuine concern. It was at this point that the route veered onto the lava cliffs, traversing over loose boulders and extremely slick ledges.

I caught back up to Lee and Gabe on the cliffs and attempted to keep their pace as they danced gracefully over the terrifying terrain, arms raised to the howling wind. Directly below us, waves crashed against the cliffs and roiled in eddies, flinging sea foam dozens of meters over the rocks. Iceland sits at the confluence of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. I was never clear on whether this meant the southern coast was the Atlantic and the northern coast was the Arctic, or some other variation. But either way, the sea was angry that day, my friends. With the fierce wind swirling in seeming every direction, it was difficult to feel stable standing still, let alone attempting to "run" over a minefield of slippery rocks.

Now hopped up on both caffeine and adrenaline, I was a overtightened bundle of nerves, at times clinging precipitously to some small ledge I was scrambling down, and other times skipping far too confidently over rain-slicked boulders. I still lost ground on Gabe and Lee, who seemed impervious to technical obstacles, but I did catch up to my friends Harry and Martina. Harry had come down with a horrible cold and looked even more exhausted than I felt. Martina wasn't thrilled about lava scrambling, made much more dangerous by the wet conditions and wind. But the excitement of the rocks injected some new life into my tired blood; once we returned to solid ground, I was running well again.

The final 18 or so miles of the stage were fairly uneventful, if you consider rocky beach running, driving rain and 30 mph crosswinds to be uneventful. It is interesting how quickly minds and bodies adjust to new routines — the thru-hiker mentality. I had a specific ration of food each day, and that was just enough. I had a certain number of miles to cover each day, and whether it was 6 or 40, it felt like the right amount. The climate was very different from anything I'd trained for in California's summer. But because I'd adjusted my expectations, the rough weather didn't feel like a hardship; it was just another aspect of running in Iceland, same as the hills and rocks. My main difficulty was the bout of insomnia; but while this was mentally frustrating, it wasn't physically unworkable. I think what I found most satisfying about my experience at Racing the Planet Iceland was discovering a level of enjoyable sustainability within a demanding routine. Could I run like this every day, for weeks or even months? I'm not sure, but I miss it already. The other day I found myself sighing happily at a package of freeze-dried Chicken and Rice that I found in Beat's luggage. That stuff is horrible, but it reminds me of Iceland.

Crossing the finish line of stage five. Photo from Racing the Planet. 
The format of Racing the Planet events is strange, in that after the long stage there's a mandatory zero-mile "rest" day followed by a very short (10-kilometer) run to the finish. This means the race is effectively over after stage five, but there are still two nights and one and a half days left of living on backpack rations, sleeping on the ground, and waiting for the actual finish. Because the weather was so wet, the race organizers put us up in a community gym in Þorlákshöfn rather than relegate racers to their wet tents for an entire day. The gym itself had the feel of a Red Cross disaster relief center, with two-hundred-plus people and all of their wet gear strewn everywhere — but it was nice to get out of the rain. We lounged around and bought passes to the swimming pool and spa to while away the wet afternoon. We even set out into the storm to hike back to the lava cliffs, just to spend more time gazing into the roiling sea.

Stage six took us six miles over moss and rocks to the Blue Lagoon, an iconic thermal pool and luxury resort. After watching many of my fellow competitors limp around the gym all day on Friday, I was a bit shocked how fast people ran this stage. People who were barely walking at the end of stage five were busting out sub-hour 10Ks on terrain that was quite hilly and technical. I was impressed, because I can't dig that deep in the name of speed, even with the promise of a relaxing soak and a tasty sandwich at the end. But the Blue Lagoon was a great spot to finish the race. I'm glad we had a chance to go there.

Final race results are listed here. I pulled my GPS tracks into Strava, so a map of the route with a few discrepancies is posted here. I finished 13th out of 64 among women finishers and 76th out of 228 overall with a time of 40:05:21 for 250 kilometers over six stages. Beat finished in 36:56:20 and was 56th overall. I was pleased to log a decent result after running my own race, slow and steady. 
Friday, August 16, 2013

Yeah, I move slow and steady

Tent Fjallfoss was developing a consistent order of arrival that held without much variation for the rest of the week. First to arrive was always Beat, breezing in as though he'd been out for a pleasant stroll rather than a thirty-mile backpack run. Twenty to forty-five minutes later, I'd zip open the canvas flaps, grumbling about being sore from "running too much" but always stoked on the day's travel through mossy moonscapes. Raj from Bangalore came next, quiet but thrilled to have made it through the day. Then came the two giant New Jersey Vikings, bellowing on as though they'd just been on the worst run of their lives, but with an air of confidence that told me they had no doubts in their minds that they would see this thing through. Special Forces Raj came sixth, with painful knees and a pronounced limp that seemed dire; but then he'd tell us more stories about his days pursuing Pakistani militants through the mountains, and we had little doubt he'd finish. Karley from Australia usually arrived around dinnertime, also stiff-legged but in good spirits. Last to arrive, often after most of the camp had already gone to sleep, was Chloe the New York triathlete. After running two, then three, then four of her longest runs ever back-to-back, she was hurting but determined not to quit on her own. "I keep waiting for them to tell me I'm too slow," she said. "But they haven't yet, so I guess I just have to keep going."

Stage three began on the most brilliant bluebird day, with a light breeze and temperatures that must have climbed all the way into the 50s. After the brutal gales and sub-freezing windchills of stage two, it felt like a warm summer day in California. Because we'd retreated to the relative calm of the valley the night before, the race organizers bused us back to the "Black Sand(blasted) Paradise" where we were supposed to camp before the start of stage three. The terrain reminded me of a place I used to visit in my youth to go spelunking and ruin hiking shoes — Craters of the Moon National Park in Idaho. Unlike Craters, this moonscape butted up against a massive glacier. Truly a unique corner of the Earth.

The stage starts were always entertaining. The bunch of 250-some racers spread out very quickly, so overcrowding was never a concern. But for the first half mile or so, everyone went off in a fast-paced group run as though we were starting the New York Marathon. At my unwaveringly consistent pace, I was lucky to hold onto the back third of the pack at the start, but within a half mile I'd be passing whole crowds. I enjoyed the aesthetic of the stage starts, though — open, vast, often monotone landscapes were suddenly injected with a thin vein of colorful humans.

Stage three was a compelling route, across a wide valley between a chain of small mountains and the Langjokull Glacier. We were still paralleling what passes for a main track in central Iceland, the rugged Kalvegur road. But now several dozen miles displaced and separated by a wall of barren mountains, this black ash desert often had the remote feel of recently discovered territory.

Still, even in what felt like the most remote segments of the course, we'd often come across random street (or village, I couldn't tell) signs in the middle of nowhere. The Icelandic language is a remnant of old Nordic languages, unphonetic and unpronounceable. But I've never viewed a language that looked so beautiful. It's like modern art, set against an ancient backdrop.

For much of stage three I ran with Martina, a California friend who joined the RTP adventure with her partner, Harry. Martina and I actually ran in very close proximity for the first two stages, but I didn't realize we were similarly paced until day three. I yammered on about similarities to sled-dragging as we hoisted our backpacks across soft sand basins and we chatted about life back in California. It was fun to have someone to run with on this beautiful day. But I learned that while I like to walk and make pit stops and take photos, Martina likes to run, nonstop. She had been feeling under the weather for most of the race so far, but I still had a tough time keeping up with her steady running pace, and got dropped after one of my longer pit stops.

After some time we left the jeep track and continued overland. I was relieved, because I can't run this stuff. It's bumpy and jagged and loose with hidden hollows underneath the moss that threaten to trap feet and twist them in painful ways. I'd stubbed and probably sprained my fourth toe on my left foot in such terrain during stage two, and the toe remained painfully tender for the rest of the week. I'd already decided that running the overland terrain wasn't worth risking an ankle or knee injury that would pull me out of RTP Iceland, or worse yet, unable to start PTL, and decided to take the off-trail stuff conservatively from that point on. I think this was a good decision. Indeed, after stage five I saw at least three competitors with stitches in their foreheads, and even more with more minor head wounds after tripping and smashing their faces on rocks. Plus, self-preservation was the perfect excuse to dial back the pace, look up frequently, and absorb the vast beauty surrounding us.

The off-trail hiking was pretty awesome, especially on big slabs of lava rock, so recently formed that you could still see ribs tracing the pattern of the lava flow.

About two miles from the finish, I caught back up to Martina, who was having difficulty negotiating a jeep track that had been surfaced with unpleasantly large and loose lava rocks. Honestly, it was a bad enough that I had a hard time imagining any vehicle driving that track without popping a tire; but between my trekking poles and cushy Hoka Mafates, I felt more than adequately equipped to handle such brutal terrain, and I was running again. I ran with Martina on the steep descent toward the Thingvallavatn Lake, and we finished the stage together, 27.2 miles in 6:40.

I'd managed to get through stage three without feeling too hungry during the run, and I even had a granola bar left over as well as one of my higher-calorie freeze-dried meals (Chicken and Rice, 780 calories) for dinner. Not only that, but Beat even shared his Raspberry Crumble dessert with me (you know a guy loves you when he's willing to split such a valuable ration.) Despite feeling sore from "too much running," I had plenty of energy left over for evening, so we went on another excursion up the nearby hill from our camp site. Joining us was Beat's new friend Dan, a Wisconsin native currently living in Melbourne, Australia, who'd formed something of the alliance with Beat. The two of them ran most of the race together.

Nothing stretches out the sore muscles better than a little walk on a steep slope of loose sand and lava rocks. I posted this picture because it shows my astronaut suit in all of its stylish glory. But honestly, the DriDucks gear was warm, I felt dry even after a day-long deluge during stage five, so I can't complain even though the suit combined with my buff and balaclava made me look, as Harry tactfully put it, "like a homeless person."

The quiet evening walks were one of my favorite parts of RTP Iceland. The wind had usually quieted some, and the low-angle Northern light created long shadows and delicious colors. The sunset on this evening was also quite nice. I didn't photograph it because it was nearly midnight and I was grumpy because I was still awake, traipsing toward the toilets and still hoping that this would be the night I'd finally sleep though. Insomnia is weird like that. I'd be so exhausted and sleepy during the day but unable to sleep when I finally laid down at night. Next day, I was again so sleepy that I felt I could easily lay down next to the trail and take a nap, right there. I admit by stage four I'd resorted to regularly popping caffeine pills. These probably didn't help my ability to sleep at night, but it was becoming a necessity to get through the days.

Stage four was my favorite stage, a dynamic day that included rugged horse tracks, farm fields, a climb back into the mountains, and a very cool geothermal area. It even started with an intriguing obstacle, a crawl through a 400-meter-long lava tube, which was was so narrow in spots that our Viking tentmates actually got stuck. The underground lava tube (which I didn't take any pictures of because I left my camera in my pack for this spur segment) started about a kilometer from the race start, resulting in much jostling for position on an off-trail descent through mossy rocks. I didn't want to hurt myself and I also didn't want to get caught up in the competitive half of the pack, so I held back. As a result, I got stuck in quite a traffic jam in the dark and jagged cave, with people behind me almost impatiently shoving as people in front of me teetered and scrambled very slowly over the rocks. The lava tube would have been awesome without the crowds, but the way it was positioned at the start of the stage made it less than enjoyable. Ah, well.

In my sleepless state, I had some difficulties negotiating the horse tracks in the middle of the stage. The parallel singletracks were pressed into the loamy soil with hard edges. These narrow trail canyons were also strewn with rocks and moss, making for difficult running unless I really paid attention. I did enjoy traveling through the farm fields, though — a new side of Iceland that we had not yet seen. In Iceland, horses roam the open landscapes in the same way cattle do in the Rocky Mountains. Icelandic horses are beautiful creatures, small and stocky and bred for a rugged life. This horse walked toward me and followed me along a fence for several meters. When I stopped, she stopped. She had a blotch on her face that reminded me of my cat, and I had one of those "oh please can I take the nice horsey home" moments.

Then began the climb into the mountains, and again I was relieved. I always was relieved when the terrain became just a little too difficult for running. Racing the Planet is a running race, and I'd made an honest effort to run when I could, even though running was often strenuous and exhausting and I didn't even necessarily believe it was faster for me. Earlier in this stage, I GPS-tested myself jogging along a flat farm road into the wind, "running" hard at 4.1 to 4.3 mph and walking steady at 3.6 to 3.7 mph. Still, I come to these racing events to challenge myself. Running, even slow running, is quite difficult for me. As such, it made the most sense and felt the most satisfying to run.

But it sure did feel good to climb, something I'd trained to do with some efficiency, and those same speeds — around 3.5 mph — didn't feel any harder on a solid uphill grade than they did on the flats.

And these mountains were simply gorgeous, with mossy mounds and streaks of bright colors, even in the flat light of an overcast afternoon.

As the afternoon wore on, sleepiness clamped down, and my inhibitions began to break apart. You know how some people get drunk and then believe they've suddenly become really great drivers? I'm the same way with fatigue and athletic risk-taking. I'm *not* arguing that this is a good thing. But as we started down a series of very steep and rocky descents, I thought, "Forget being careful, I am going to run." And run I did, only marginally in control, poles clacking wildly against the rocks and screaming "eeeeeee!" as a cloud of dust billowed behind me. I caught up to Martina at the bottom of the second such descent; she turned to me and, I think possibly before realizing who I was, said, "You are ruthless on those downhills." I'm not sure anyone has ever paid me such a high compliment about my running prowess. "I am seriously risking injuring myself," I said with a dopey grin on my face. "But wow is this fun."

At the bottom of the descent, we came to a geothermal area along a shallow, grassy slope. I'd seen the steam rising up from the valley and knew we were approaching a hot spot, but I didn't realize how close we were actually going to get. Shortly after stepping off the road, I nearly put my leg into a small basin of boiling mud. Whoops; gotta pay attention. But I was thrilled to be there. When I was a child, my family visited Yellowstone National Park nearly every summer. We'd tour the boardwalks, gazing into boiling springs and watching geysers erupt. My favorite feature in Yellowstone were the "mud pots," gurgling and popping like a witch's cauldron.

A group of race medics had gathered around one of the hot springs. I thought perhaps a fellow racer had been less lucky than me at avoiding clumsy disaster, but as I approached I saw one of them holding a basket of eggs. He handed me one of the eggs and said, "Hard-boiled right over there in the hot spring."

A single hard-boiled egg — a bundle of much-needed vitamins and protein that could not have been better received if it was a gold bar. When you've been living off of limited processed crap for four days, a hard-boiled egg is like a gift from heaven. Days later, after everyone had rested and showered and eaten huge banquet meals, people were still talking about these eggs.

I continued to get a big kick out of the traverse across the geothermal area, which had colorful mineral streams and boiling springs around every corner.

A nearby geothermal plant converts some of this energy into electricity.

I was extra careful at the stream crossings. Wouldn't want to melt the Hokas.

The weather was cold and windy again on this day, and the hot springs looked appealing ... if just a little too boiling.

I stepped off the route at another small mud hole to gaze into the abyss and see if I could spot the bubbling clay. While I was crouching here with my backpack partially overlapping the flagged route, three other runners pushed by somewhat impatiently. I moved over some more to get off the "trail" and looked up toward more cauldrons of steam farther up the hill, which we were going to miss entirely. I wanted to stay. It would have been wonderful to spend the whole afternoon wandering through this area, eating eggs on the shoreline of boiling hot springs and checking out the mud pots. I had one of those unsettling moments I occasionally experience, in which I question the whole endeavor — "Why are we just rushing through all of these beautiful places?"

I have my reasons for the deep enjoyment I draw from racing, and for the most part I don't feel the need to apologize for them anymore. Although I'll always be a hiker and bicycle tourist at heart, I appreciate these opportunities to break out of my comfort zone, push my limits, and occasionally chase pre-set parameters so outrageous that I'd never have the notion or courage to pursue them on my own. Reaching these limits and pushing beyond them is immensely satisfying. But every so often, honestly, I do just want to sit back and smell the roses. Or sulphur, in this case.

Happily, stage-racing events such as this let us have it both ways. I lingered a little longer by the hot springs and then reluctantly continued the last four kilometers toward camp, which was set in an open valley surrounded by steaming hills. There was one river crossing on the way to camp that I had a lot of fun with — the water was ankle- to shin-deep and just a little too wide to jump. I decided I was going to go for the long jump rather than take my shoes off to avoid getting them wet, as I watched others do. I backed up about thirty feet, launched into a sprint, and actually screamed "Geronimo!" (remember, I'm sleep deprived) as I planted my trekking poles mid-stream and vaulted over the water. I nearly made it ... the back end of my right foot did land on the edge of the stream. Luckily, Hokas are mightly tall shoes, and I didn't get anything important wet.

Stage four registered 25.1 miles in 7:18 on the race clock, although my GPS recorded 8:28 overall with a moving time of 6:01, so I'm not exactly sure how the math worked out on this day. No matter how we measured it, though, it was my favorite stage; I still felt healthy and strong and stoked about the possibilities of the final full stage of the event, "The Long March." 
Wednesday, August 14, 2013

But I feel like a waterfall

For being thirty pounds heavier than I'm used to being, and then propelling myself across more than thirty miles of rocky dirt track with a loose lava-pebble side excursion, I woke up the second morning with surprisingly little soreness. "Good," I thought. "That was a sustainable pace. I just have to hold it." All night the wind had been relentless, flapping the walls of the canvas tent like an angry animal, and I doubted any of us slept much. But on further inquiry, I learned my tent mates slept rather well through the hurricane. I'm always jealous of people who can sleep when they're exhausted. My body seems to operate in the opposite direction; the more tired I become, the more my brain holds a relentless grip onto consciousness. Eventually the scales tip, but usually by then I'm hallucinating lynxes and experiencing brief blackouts on my feet. Indiscriminate sleep is not a talent of mine.

The first few miles of stage two followed the road, losing a lot of elevation from the wide slope of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on which we slept. A gale-force wind blew at our sides and backs, with enough hard gusting to disrupt balance. At times I'd lean into the wind at a sharp angle only to have the force let off enough that I nearly tipped over. Other times it would push back just as I was landing precariously on one foot, causing me to stumble. Running was downright dangerous, but there was enough tailwind force to make walking even more difficult. I tried to keep up with Beat as he flew down the road, dancing with the gusts as I largely failed in my attempts to predict their erratic movements.

As we rounded a small knoll and launched into a steep descent, the wind and road direction shifted just enough that the wind was entirely at my back. I inadvertently increased my pace, and the incessant roaring quieted some. It reminded me of a most wonderful bicycle ride in Juneau, an experience I had once after grinding up Eaglecrest Road and giving everything I had to 3 mph pedaling into a 30 mph headwind. I turned my bike around, grabbed the wind like a sail, and flew down the road until the wind quieted completely. The air was as silent as morning, and my body was as weightless as space. Looking down at my bicycle computer, I saw I was moving at 43 mph — likely the exact same speed as the wind.

"If only I had a bike," I thought as an expanse of volcanic desert stretched out in front of me. The fastest humans in the world can't run 43 mph. But this wind felt nearly as strong, and I ran as though I could catch up to it. My legs throbbed with the effort and my ankles quivered in fear, but the feeling was amazing — like flying, with a hundred jarring landings. Now it was dangerous and beating me up. "Bad running," I scolded myself, but I couldn't help it. I was like a little girl splashing through puddles, arms raised to the wind.

I paid dearly for my playfulness in the form of a mid-morning energy bonk. Even after digging into the next hour's food rations, I felt the lead weight of fatigue drop into my legs. Beat, who couldn't stay warm at my slower pace, surged ahead. Soon the flagged route crossed a terrifyingly light bridge over a waterfall, and then turned directly into that roaring wind. Everything from my energy to my pace came to a near-standstill. People passed me like I wasn't even moving, one after the other. Although I don't care much about losing my "position" in a race, I dislike being passed by people because it shows me exactly how far I've slipped into shut-down mode. Obviously I wasn't holding my supposedly sustainable pace anymore, even though I was giving the effort everything I had.

We crawled up a steep ridge, where the wind was again swirling at storm force. Other past experiences in Juneau had me estimating the gusts at higher than 50 miles per hour — the baseline where I find it difficult to stay on my feet. This suspicion was further confirmed when I stopped to take a photo, turned my backpack sideways to the wind, and got caught in a gust that knocked me onto the ground. Elbow scraped and camera body scratched, I scrambled to sitting position and faced the gale with trepidation. I wasn't even walking and the wind knocked me over. How much worse was this going to get?

The route skirted along the ridge and dropped into a small basin beside the glacier, where gales still pummeled us from every direction. I don't think I took a single non-blurry photo in this section, as the wind was blowing so hard that I couldn't even hold my camera still for fractions of a second. The fierce weather was exciting but I admit I was a little bit frightened. I was slightly dizzy with low energy and the wind was pushing me around like a staggering drunk. There was a narrow, partially hidden gorge looming in near proximity, and sometimes it felt like I was about to be blown into it.

We finally dropped off the ridge to some relief, but the tiny glacial lake was still rippling like an ocean, with significant waves lapping the shoreline. In one hand I clutched my trekking poles, which had been helping me keep my tentative balance, because the crosswind blew so hard that they were often snatched sideways before I planted them in the ground. My head was spinning and I struggled to do calorie math. One half package Haribo, one half-granola bar, do I still have another? Oh, screw it, I'm going to eat a Snicker Bar. I need it way more now than I'll ever need it later.

Oh chocolate, oh peanuts, oh nougat, oh joy. I'm not sure one candy bar ever did so much for me in so little time. I went from feeling dizzy and wind-knocked to strong and surging within ten minutes. Calorie math told me it wouldn't last as long as I'd like, but for these minutes I could relish in the relative energy binge and march assuredly up the faint track. Snickers really does satisfy.

Suddenly becoming more coherent did me a world of good, and not just because I wasn't teetering on the verge of tipping over any more. Stage two had taken us reasonably far off the beaten track, to the edge of the Langjokull Glacier and along a black sand desert that looked and felt as far away from familiarity as the moon. I pictured myself standing there, in my billowing gray "astronaut"coat, black balaclava, and moon-boot-like Hokas, and had one of those, "Wow, I'm in Iceland" moments. A far-away traveler in a far-away land.

At the last aid station I learned they were rerouting the course yet again to take us away from our scheduled "Land of the Trolls" campsite, instead dropping us into the valley where we could camp somewhere with temperatures slightly warmer than freezing and winds slightly lower than gale force. For once, I was not disappointed with the less-adventurous aspect of this reroute. I had a fun run into the valley, although my legs felt pretty beat up from all of the running I'd done so far after a summer training regimen largely comprised of limping and biking. I encountered the first signs of life I'd seen during the race — besides the moss, and runners — in wide fields of lupine beneath a skyline of small volcanoes. It was still windy enough that I could not get the flowers to hold still long enough to take a clear picture. Sheesh.

The makeshift camp was wonderful. A local farmer had mowed his field and cleaned his horse stable at the last minute to accommodate 300-plus racers and volunteers. The clouds cleared out, the air warmed and the wind settled, leaving behind a most gorgeous evening in the rich Northern light.

People laid in the grass, stretched, napped ...

Did yoga ...

And I wandered the perimeter of the farm, soaking it in. Stage two clocked in at 28 miles, for a total of 57 in two days. There was still a long way to go, and I felt excited about the possibilities.