Friday, September 06, 2013

A hard way to come

and a hard way to come
into a cabin
into the weather 
into a path 
walking together 
a hard one 

 — From "Strange Form of Life" by Bonnie Prince Billy

Lurking in the shadows of fatigue is an unsettling presence, a force that feeds on fear and exhaustion. The weaker one feels, the stronger it grows. Endurance racers often refer to this force as "the Sleep Monster," a beast that gnaws at energy and resolve until the only choice left is to stop. I expected to meet the Sleep Monster in the PTL, but the force swooping around the rocks was more sinister than any I had encountered before. As though my now-encompassing fear and fatigue wasn't enough to satiate this monster, it sliced deeper, into the murky layers of my mind — the places where I bury the feelings I try hardest to avoid — the disenchantment and existential despair. It's the place I fear most because nothing matters here. I could sit down on the wet scree in the freezing rain and never move again; it wouldn't matter. There is no light and warmth at the end of this tunnel, the Monster whispered; the dark and cold is eternal, you must realize that. I tried to shake off the disturbing voice. "The refuge has to be close now," I said out loud to Giorgio and Ana, but mostly to myself.

"Soon we eat and sleep," Giorgio said jovially. "And then continue with this f****** race."

Ana, always the stoic one in our group, seemed more on edge. We had burned up a lot of time crawling over the muddy passes. Just that afternoon we were certain we'd reach this refuge for early dinner, but that hour had long since come and gone. It was near midnight, perhaps after. We'd been on a nearly continuous march since 10 p.m. the night before, and we'd only covered 60 kilometers. "37 miles. In 26 hours!" I thought with a touch of good-humored incredulity. Sometimes the best way to fight despair is to embrace the ridiculous.  But Ana had been doing some math in her head as well, and drew a less humorous conclusion. "There is no time to sleep," she announced matter-of-factly.

"We must sleep," Giorgio replied first, and I nodded vigorously. "Ana, we can't do this race on no sleep."

A few things about Ana before I continue with this post, because I can see I'm not adequately representing her. Ana is a warm and caring person, and fun-loving, too. She's Spanish, after all. Last year during UTMB, when she couldn't race because of a sprained ankle, she bounced from aid station to aid station carrying a beer she brought just for me, only just missing me each time. She also brought Spanish ham and chocolate wafer bars, because I told her how much I liked to eat candy while running. I'm ashamed to say I do not know Ana as a person very well, and did not learn much through the PTL only because we had to stay so focused on the absolute present during that race. And in that environment, Ana became a highly effective machine — steady and uncomplaining, with only one setting. Forward motion. So if I write about her as though she were robotic and unemotional, it's because in many ways, she was. We were all something slightly different than ourselves out there. But I was absolutely amazed with Ana's ability to press on without so much as a whimper, when both Giorgio and I succumbed to our humanity and broke down more than once. Ana was strong but she wasn't uncompassionate. When we appealed for rest, she stopped.
   
Even with Col de l'Oulettaz behind us, the difficulty of the climb hardly let up; we scaled wet rocks and wedged our way through chimneys with the actual line of the route still not entirely clear. In a way, my Monster protected me, because as long as it was present, I didn't  experience the same debilitating depths of fear. What did it matter if I fell off this mountain? At least then I'd be done.

Ana was still unconvinced we should stop when we reached Point Percee hut, a tiny climbers' refuge set on a ledge of limestone cliffs at 2,200 meters, explicitly built for "those who love the vertical." Rain was now falling as sleet and driven fiercely by the wind. The weather was as bad as it gets, it was after midnight, and the very next point on the route chart warned, "for those who do not have perfect mountain feet, it would be preferable to go down this particularly steep rock outcrop backward," and, "The descent requires the greatest attention and it is preferable to plan to do it in daylight." Despite the apathetic whispers of my Monster, I remained resolute that I did not want to die.

Just as I was stating my case to Ana, Beat's PTL partner, Dima, stumbled out of the refuge. In the past day I had only thought about Beat sporadically, either because I was worried about his safety, or because I was very angry with him for not making any attempt to stop me from starting the PTL. "He knows me and he knew better," I would think. "This is not me. This is mean, soul-crushing stuff. This is not why I do the things I do. This is not who I am." But as soon as I saw Dima, my humanity came flowing back and I was desperate to see Beat. When he emerged from the refuge, the first words out of his mouth were something along the lines of a very surprised, "You're here! You survived!"

"The mud, oh the mud!" I said through gulps of air. "The rocks were fine, whatever, but that muddy pass was really, really bad."

"He was really worried about you," Dima said.

"But now," I continued gulping. "We're behind, we're so far behind, and Ana doesn't want to sleep. She doesn't want to stop. She wants to leave right now and I'm so tired. I'm just so tired."

"You're not behind," Beat said with a confused look on his face. "You're right up with us,"

"We were supposed to leave here by 11:30," I said. "Slowest pace. Now it's what, twelve thirty? One? And if we sleep, even later? And then we have to venture out on the cliffs, in the ice, in the dark?" I felt my first tinges of an anxiety attack creeping forward.

Beat grasped my shoulder. "Stop and eat. You need to eat. Then sleep and go. They rerouted us around the dangerous pass. It's revision two on your GPS. It's longer but it should be easier and safer. It will be okay."

The anxiety quieted but I felt a new rush of anger at his allowing me to enter this horror march. Truthfully, Beat never openly encouraged me to enter PTL, but he didn't try to stop me, either. "It's the Alps," he'd say. "It will be so beautiful." Now, with Ana and Giorgio as my team, I felt trapped in this bad decision, without choices. Perhaps Beat felt the same way. I reached out for his shoulder, we exchanged a tiny kiss, and with that he and Dima stomped off into the freezing darkness.

The tiny Point Percee mountaineers' hut was crammed from door to corner with PTL teams. Bodies wedged in the tables with cafeteria trays and cans of Coke, and there was a second dark room where people were constantly streaming in and out. It was warm inside the refuge, but not terribly warm, and I suspected that bodies were about the only thing heating it. We took a small space on a table and ordered a meal we were told we could buy for 17 Euros, which turned out to be a mystery meat, some apple sauce, and some unpalatable kind of mushroom pasta. Usually when hungry I can eat almost anything, but my appetite was still subdued by stress and fear, and I struggled to choke down this not-tasty food. We asked about sleep and were told there was only one bed space left. We could take turns, the proprietor said. "We do not have time," Ana announced to us. 

A rush of desperation filled my head; we were headed out on an alternate route with no notes. There may not be anywhere to stop again for 25 kilometers or more, and at our pace that was half a day. It was too cold and wet to take a nap in the minimal emergency gear we carried. At best we could survive inside that stuff, not sleep. The refuge proprietor, perhaps seeing the panic in my and Giorgio's eyes, took some pity on us and announced there was a loft that was difficult to access, but there was space up there for the three of us to lie down. We slithered up a narrow, rickety ladder and wedged our ragged bodies under a sloping roof so low at the bottom that it touched my nose when I lied on my back. I'm normally a picky sleeper and believed I wouldn't find any respite here, but damn did it feel good to rest my weary legs. Within minutes, I was unconscious. 

I woke up in a sweat-soaked startle at what felt like two minutes later, but a glance at my watch told me 47 minutes had passed. I reached toward the spots next to me, which were both empty. Panic returned. Did they leave? Did Ana and Giorgio leave without me? As much as hated this race, I did not want to be left alone up here, high in the mountains, in this refuge that was as unwelcoming and uncomfortable as the icy air outside. I hurried to put on my socks and gather up my pack when I heard two voices downstairs arguing in Spanish. 

From what I gathered later, Ana hadn't slept at all and was becoming increasingly more agitated about burning time. She roused Giorgio and was in the midst of trying to convince him we needed to go while he angled for another hour of rest. That's when I woke up. We would go. I'd been told power naps rejuvenate the soul, but I felt like death warmed over. Before we left, I went to buy two liters of water from the refuge. The bottle cost two euros and I had only a twenty. The proprietor was so annoyed with my large bill that he gave me change in 50-cent coins, even though I could see plenty of five-euro bills in his tin. I thought about dropping the heavy mass of of metal right at his feet in disgust, but then again I didn't have a lot of cash and couldn't afford to throw away 18 euros. I hate to stereotype cultures, but I will say that I don't see myself planning a relaxing holiday in France anytime soon. 

The three of us were so sleepy we were stumbling. I even caught stoic Ana weaving in her steps. The GPS navigation had been a large source of stress, and I thought about asking Giorgio to take the lead for a while. But he didn't have the alternate route programmed into his Garmin, so again I charged ahead. As we stomped down a rough, switchbacking trail, I held my sleepy eyes to the screen and considered that my role as the main navigator was a big flaw in our team's race strategy. I'd been doing a good job of it; although there were many points of confusion, I had yet to lead the group off track. But I was also, as far as I could tell, the weakest member of the team. Giorgio is 26 years old and strong as a bull, and Ana is, well, Ana. She's much faster than me in traditional race settings. It was good to keep the pace down at my level, but the navigational duties added a layer of stress and physical hesitation that cut into my already slow pace. I'm certain I would have been able to move markedly faster with someone else at the helm.

"You're running very well this morning," Ana told me as we marched up a still-muddy field toward a new wall of mountains. The compliment filled me with confidence, and also alerted my conscious to how insecure I was about my physical abilities. "You came to this race under-experienced and under-trained," it told me. "What did you expect?" 

But physical weakness was not my Achilles heel in the PTL. Fear was. I was a confident and enthusiastic leader right until the first hints of dawn began to break, revealing a wall of white in front of us as we marched up the col. "Why is that surface so light?" I wondered out loud. "Is that snow? Is that a snow field?" 

"Is not snow," Ana replied, but she was wrong. The steep, V-shaped valley was filled with a basin of snow that in the pre-dawn hours was frozen as solid as ice. We had no crampons or ax. I had one plastic tent stake that I brought to possibly use as a self-arrest tool in case of a snow climb, but it was useless on the ice crust. Passage above the snowfields was unwise — the slope was incredibly steep and the boulders were loose and slicked in a coating of ice themselves. We would have no choice but to skitter up the snowfield in our running shoes and hope we did not slip. Anxiety rushed back in. Hyperventilation started. Breathe, Jill. Breathe. 

The Monster returned, its yellow-eyed grimace now twisted with joy. Because while Monster only nibbled on my exhaustion, it devoured my fear with glee. There is nothing, you are nothing, it cackled. Breathe, Jill, breathe. My legs trembled. Monster would have been happy to watch me stumble, watch my helpless body careen down the ice into the rocks and stop for good. I had to stay upright. I had to stay strong. 

The surface of the ice was coated in fine hoarfrost, which improved our traction substantially. Still, there were patches of glare ice that were difficult to distinguish from the snow in the low light, and I took my steps more deliberately than Ana and Giorgio. We arrived at the col just as the first hints of sunlight were emerging from the east. A layer of fog shrouded the valley, and the incredible skyline of Mont Blanc filled the horizon above the clouds. It will be difficult for me to describe this moment, and what it meant to me after crawling up the icy col so tired and so full of fear. Monster had a grip on my mind that I was certain couldn't break, a suspicion that maybe the darkness truly was eternal. And, just like that, streaks of sunlight stretched over these mountains and injected my heart with hope. Warm colors caressed the cliffs and sent a torrent of energy through my bloodstream. The depths of my despair swung just as dramatically toward heights of joy. You are not nothing. You are alive. This is not nothing. This is life.

We marched down the other equally steep side of the col into the sunlight with renewed enthusiasm, legs light and flexible, hearts no longer crushed by hopelessness. "This is a mental battle," I reminded myself. "You are not too tired. You are not too weak." Ana and Giorgio were curious how far we'd come, but since we were off the main route, there was no way of knowing. Even on the route, my GPS measurements were wildly off estimates. Here, where we were supposed to be around 70 kilometers in, it had recorded 53 miles of distance on a unit that usually measures short. I suspected that the PTL course had been measured in the same unrealistic straight lines the GPS track drew, and the actual total distance was significantly longer than 293 kilometers. But no matter how I measured it, we were less than a quarter of the way through the course at this juncture — a difficult reality I couldn't think about, even in my heightened state of optimism.

When we crossed over Col de Portette, the second such named col on the route, I realized we were back on the main track and, unfathomably, only at kilometer 70.5. It was 8:30 a.m., there were twelve more kilometers to the first official checkpoint, and we had only until noon to make the cut-off. Twelve kilometers in three and a half hours probably sounds like an amble, but in this PTL surreality, the distance seemed as insurmountable as a four-minute mile. We were still inching down a stomach-clenching steep slope, taking care not to tumble in the chunky talus.

The remaining twelve kilometers weren't even predominantly downhill. We reached a bucolic valley and began a new climb to Col de Niard. After gaining the wide ridge, my notes indicated an astonishing three more named cols to ascend before we finally traversed over to the ski hut where the checkpoint was located. Still, the trails were smoother now — not nearly as treacherous as the earlier parts of the course. "You know," I said in a defeated sigh to finally voice what everyone was thinking. "We are going to have to run."

Giorgio, always the strongest, took off ahead as Ana and I lumbered after him. We'd been engaged in strenuous hiking for so long that my muscle memory had entered a state of decay. "What is this cruel torture?" my legs seemed to say of the crude running motion. The dirt trail was hard and each footfall felt like sharp, hot coals on the macerated soles of my feet. We had increased our pace to barely more than a jog and it felt as energy-draining as an Olympic sprint. I started to feel dizzy, and it occurred to me I had not eaten a thing in a very long while — perhaps since dinner at the refuge nearly nine hours before. I reached into the side pocket of my backpack and started stuffing Haribo Raspberries down my throat almost without chewing.

"You're running very well," Ana said to me.

"We can do it! Yes we can!" Giorgio called out jubilantly from a few paces ahead. "Like your American president. Yes we can!"

There were still several too-steep climbs, and off-trail crawls up bumpy cow-stomped pastures where running was impossible. But for the better part of ten kilometers, we kept up a solid shuffle that was enormously energy-draining and foot-torturing. But our efforts paid off. We arrived at the Plan de l'Aar at 11:21 a.m. feeling toasted. Or at least we thought the effort paid off. At the checkpoint, we found out that the PTL race officials had extended the cut-off by three hours to accommodate the many teams that were still making their way in. "Will the other cut-offs be extended as well?" I inquired. No, a race official told me. You still have to make the other cut-offs on time. Well, that helps. Thanks.

We received our first drop bag at Plan de l'Aar. As I fished through my backpack, I found a lot more food than I expected, given I only started with about 2,000 calories and ate one meal during that time. All in all, I'd gotten through the first 36 hours of the PTL on two 500-calorie bags of gummies, one granola bar, one 440-calorie Snickers bar, one bowl of noodles and broth, and the small pasta meal. "You have to start taking more in," I lectured myself, but given it was starting to seem as though we really had to travel 36 hours between resupplies, I wasn't sure I had much to spare. I grabbed a few more items from my drop bag and announced to Ana and Giorgio that I was going to take a nap. I figured they'd probably whittle a bit more time away and I could steal a few moments for a mid-day snooze. To my surprise, they were both angling for sleep as well. We set an alarm for one hour.

Annoyingly, perhaps because of all the running or because it was the middle of the day, I was too amped up and could not sleep. I got up three or four times to find more water because I felt desperately thirsty, and only drifted to a light snooze about 10 minutes before Giorgio's alarm went off.

Strangely, this power nap was actually refreshing, and the three of us were in a great mood as we started down a nice dirt track below Plan de l'Aar. For the first time, we chatted about things besides the PTL. Giorgio made a pop culture reference that I did not understand, and he said, "Of course you don't know, you are old." To which I could only laugh. Life was good.

The happy times continued through a friendly, rolling climb across a ski area, where Giorgio and Ana stopped at another refuge for a snack. I decided to forgo food for another 10-minute nap (I still couldn't convince myself I was low on energy because of calorie depletion. In my mind, it was all about sleep.) I woke up shivering in the cold wind, but refreshed.


We dropped into the village of Annuit too late to purchase more food, which Giorgio had been angling for. I got the sense that he and Ana hadn't packed enough snacks to make up for the surprising lack of resupply options, but when I offered him some of my peanut butter, he politely crinkled his nose. Ah, European food snobbery. I'd been out of water for a couple of hours, and demanded we stop at a local home's fountain that Giorgio and Ana were too suspicious to use. Another massive climb began anew. As darkness fell, my Monster returned to renew his soul-crushing prowl, this time convincing me that my hopelessness could only be cured by sleep. I stumbled and faltered. "Maybe just sit down for five minutes," I appealed to my team, but we could only sit down for one minute before all of us were wracked with shivers from the cold. At one point I brushed an electric cattle fence by accident. The sharp jolt of electricity that ripped through my arm was enormously painful. It felt as though someone had dropped a hot anvil on the left side of my body. But it sure woke me up — the most effective anti-fatigue aid I'd found yet. I wondered, if I came across another electric fence while sleepy, could I bring myself to grab it on purpose?

There was no trail up the slope, which was a maze of grassy ledges, rock outcroppings, and unclimbable cliffs. The GPS track was becoming incredibly difficult to follow. As I scanned the cliffs with my headlight, I surmised there couldn't be many safe ways up these walls, and I was determined to find the right one. Other teams were fanned out across the slope, and my own shivering teammates were not pleased with my cautious progression. "I'm not going to go blindly scrambling up some rocks that I might not be able to climb down," I snapped at them. "If you're sure that's the way, go ahead and yell back at me when you find something. For now I'm going to stick with the track." Giorgio and Ana veered to the left briefly but couldn't determine the route either, and returned. At least I was making consistent forward progress, compared to other teams we could see returning from the cliffs in both directions.

Eventually I found the crest of Col de la Gitte, 5,000 feet of elevation above Annuit. As I rifled through a side pocket for my gummy snacks, I realized that my course notes were missing. I'd actually avoided putting them in that pocket for that reason, but kept them there through the last few kilometers for easy access because the route was so difficult to determine. And now they were gone. They could be anywhere. Anxiety returned. Hyperventilation crept up. Giorgio asked me what was wrong. "I ... lost ... them," I panted. "I ... can't ... believe it. I lost the course notes."

Giorgio did not seem to think this was a big deal. I'm not sure he realized how much I was leaning on them to make decisions about directions as well as time estimates. I viewed their loss as a major setback, and I felt terrible. Well, there was nothing we could do about that now except press forward, now blindly following that little green line on the GPS screen. That's when navigation really got hard.


It was obvious from Col de la Gitte that the slope plunged into a very narrow canyon and climbed just as steeply out the other side. At eye level we could see the headlights of teams on the other side of the canyon, and I knew from recollections of the notes that we had at least 3,000 feet of altitude to lose and then regain before the next col. Along the ridge ran a faint jeep trail, but the track indicated we go straight down. Other teams were already fanning out on the grassy slope that seemed to plunge off the edge of the Earth.

"We go that way," Ana said as she pointed to the jeep road.

"No, that's not the way," I replied.

She was incredulous and persisted. "That is the way," she said. "That is the track."

"It's a track but it's not the way," I insisted. "I don't even know where that trail goes. Do you know where it goes?"

She huffed with unveiled frustration and moved in front of me to follow one of the teams making their way down the slope. The brief team mutiny had begun. "Ana, I don't know where they're going either," I called out. "Ana, please, it's too steep. There are cliffs everywhere. We have to take the right way. We have to follow the GPS."

She pointed to the headlights on the other side of the canyon — headlights that were a 3,000-foot descent and subsequent climb away. "There are people over there," she said. "We go that way."

I couldn't understand what she meant. Did she really think those were lights to follow? They were five hours ahead of us, at least. "Ana, we'd have to sprout wings to follow those people," I said. "Can't you see there's a huge canyon in the way?"

I experienced my own internal mutiny and turned away. "Do what you want. I am going to follow the track," I said. Giorgio followed me, but Ana continued behind the other team.

"They'll all be back," I said to Giorgio. "This is where the track goes."

Sure enough, the GPS track led us into a narrow grassy drainage that was all but hidden from view in the darkness of night. Following a drainage was a reassuring sign, even though this direction was unnervingly steep and slicked with wet grass and rocks. At least it wasn't a full cliff to climb down. "Down here," I screamed up at Ana, and Giorgio and I sat down to wait for her. For some reason she still refused to believe this was the way. Five minutes passed and Giorgio started shivering uncontrollably. When Ana finally relented after the other team abandoned their diversion, she couldn't find a way down to us. The drainage had near-vertical rock walls on both sides, and the only way in was from the very top. "Back there and then down," I screamed, pointing my headlamp at the place where we entered the drainage. "Back there and down." But she seemed determined to take a direct route toward us when none existed, and continued to skim the dangerous cliffs. I was becoming incredibly frustrated with the situation. I was the navigator, that made me the leader, and I had no power to control my team. We were losing a lot of time to this misunderstanding.

Ana seemed upset with me as I continued to direct the team down the grassy drainage. It was very slick and there were enough waterfall-like dropoffs to convince me that it was unwise to diverge more than 80 feet from the straight-line track, which often meant making confusingly frequent switchbacking turns. I also paused often to scan the drainage for the smoothest route. Ana was still quick to push ahead and follow the other team, who were continuously turning around because they chose a bad line and ran into cliffs. I felt unnervingly close to blowing up and losing my temper on Ana, but I refrained. I just don't think Ana understood how difficult the navigation really was here, and we were all exhausted and cranky. But I was ready to sit down and give up myself. I'd genuinely had it with, as Giorgio frequently put it, this f****** race.

At the bottom of the canyon, we reconnected with a dirt road where Giorgio launched his own mutiny. He sat down on the dirt and refused to stand up. "I must sleep," he said. "I am too tired, I must sleep."

At that point the temperature was well below freezing. There was thick frost on the grass and ice layers across the creeks. It was about the worst possible time to try to crawl into my parachute-like bothy bag and attempt to snooze. Otherwise, I would have fully condoned it. "We can't sleep now," I snapped. "It's too cold. It's below zero. The bag can't keep us warm. And there's not even enough room for all of us to lay down. It's for emergencies, not sleep."

"I must sleep," Giorgio persisted. "One hour. One hour would be amazing."

I was at the edge of my patience. I was the weak one on the team, the inexperienced one, and I was starting to feel like the designated babysitter. "I felt just like you do now, six hours ago, when we were sitting by the cattle fence," I snapped. "I got through it. So can you." I surprised myself at just how short-tempered and uncompassionate I was being. Monster had a tighter grip on me than I even knew.

Giorgio staggered to his feet but continued to drag behind us, sitting down at intervals and announcing that he must sleep now. We would stop briefly but continue on until he followed suit. On this side of the canyon, the slope again steepened dramatically and the route ventured cross-country through the talus. We were lucky to join up with an Italian team who engaged Giorgio in conversation, and as dawn crept over the horizon, he emerged from his funk. Ana's impatience also seemed worn down and she was more calm, allowing me and the Italian team time to work through the latest puzzle of narrow passages and cliffs.

We reached the crest of the Roc du Vent right at sunrise, and again the new light and color drained away a seemingly uncrossable ocean of frustration and despair. My teammates had their moments, but so did I, and all and all we were a good match. We were behind the cut-offs, and we always would be, but we could continue to press forward until someone made us stop. Think of all of the beautiful moments we'd miss out on if we quit? All the adventures we'd had? All the challenges we'd overcome? But Giorgio was right. We had to sleep. And I was going to demand it.