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.