and a strange form of life
kicking through windows
rolling on yards
heading in loved ones' triggering eyes
a strange one
— From "Strange Form of Life" by Bonnie Prince Billy
A damp, viscous sort of cold accompanied the darkness as we jogged the final two miles into a dirt parking lot somewhere just beyond another tiny village in France. The PTL organization had set up a tent that I fully expected to be kicked out of the minute we arrived, but a volunteer standing outside informed us they weren't shutting down until 1 a.m. "That's nearly four hours from now!" I said with unveiled giddiness, but Ana was skeptical. Morgex was still officially 43 kilometers away, but that number was supposedly short — "it's probably closer to 50," the volunteer offered. Leaving at midnight would give us 18 hours before the hard cutoff, and at PTL pace even three kilometers an hour was overly optimistic.
Giorgio, who had talked only of food for the last three hours, had already disappeared into the tent to scope out the organization-provided refreshments. What we discovered was a barren table that had been entirely scoured by the teams before us. The only calories remaining were an empty jar of jam with remnants that could potentially be licked clean, a hacked-over pad of butter, and a plate of cracker crumbs. The volunteers had cobbled together some broth and noodles for everyone left, but their supply must have been limited because we were each served one half bowl. I'd say fifty calories, tops. Even in the dim light I could see the color flush from Giorgio's face. Poor Giorgio; he craved food even more than I craved sleep. There were no villages or refuges between here and the Aosta Valley, and even I was growing perilously low on trail snacks. "Why didn't I leave Plan de l'Aar with more than 2,500 calories?" But it was too late now for regret.
After slurping up my prisoner's ration ("you eat soup like a baby," one volunteer joked because I didn't bother to use a spoon), another bout of nausea erupted and I rushed outside in case the soup came back up. Just before we ate, I had removed the bladder from my backpack to refill it and discovered that the water I'd been drinking was full of dirt and bugs. In the past two days, we'd only come across two fountains; after running out of water twice, I'd taken to stuffing my bladder with snow in the higher altitudes. I frostnipped my index finger trying to claw at the ice to reach deeper, cleaner snow, so I thought "what the hell" and started skimming right off the top — nice, soft slush seasoned with who knows what else? "Rodent droppings," I thought as I hunched over the dirt outside the tent. It was probably only a matter of time before I'd be taken down by the hantavirus.
Vomiting wasn't happening so I turned around to pee instead. The urine had a strong ammonia smell and I considered what that meant. "Ketosis? Or is this what happens when the body starts breaking down muscle protein for fuel?" Either way, I was in rough shape on the metabolism front.
Back in the tent, Giorgio was still angling for more soup so I took the opportunity to crawl into a cot before my teammates had a chance to further discuss the cutoffs. As I was removing my socks, a woman walked up to me clutching a blanket. "Here," she said. "Put this underneath to stay warm. Is very cold without." As I readjusted my bedding, she grabbed two more blankets from empty cots. "You will need these," she said. "Very cold." I accepted the mound of blankets with a lump in my throat. Why was she being so nice to me? This was PTL. I was beginning to believe that being treated like a internee was just part of the whole fun challenge. But I was not about to refuse any manner of hospitality. I wrapped myself in a cocoon of scratchy wool and felt a rush of warmth and peace unlike anything I had experienced in recent days. It was as though I had never been comfortable before, and never would be again, but for these brief stolen minutes, I had discovered secret depths of requiescence.
Giorgio had to burst in on this blissful retreat from reality, shaking my feet as I lurched awake in a loud startle. "We sleep 90 minutes!" he exclaimed. "Is a wonderful thing." I looked at my watch. 11:18 p.m. We actually had slept. I blinked rapidly to test my eyesight. A screen of blurriness remained, but if I squinted at a single object, I could force my eyes to focus. It felt like a lot of work. I shook my head violently, as though I could somehow rattle my vision back online. All that did was wrench my neck, and I slumped my shoulders in defeat. "Sleep didn't help at all," I thought.
My stomach was raw as well, and when I took a sip of water the jet pool of nausea activated again. There was no floor in the tent, so I leaned over and spit up small pools of yellow foam on the dirt. I felt like crap but I couldn't blame no sleep at this point. Ninety minutes wasn't much, but it should have had some effect if sleep was as important as I was convinced it was. It occurred to me that lack of food was probably the main culprit. "Total bonk," I thought. But I was reluctant to rifle through my backpack so I could learn just how many calories I still had. Forgetting to eat was one thing, but knowledge that I was out of food would crush my willpower absolutely.
I did remember to reapply Beat's special Hydro Lube. As I smeared the gunk across my toes, I examined my feet. It was incredible how great of shape they were in. The skin on my soles was tight from maceration, but once it dried out, I didn't even feel a tingle. I had two blackened toenails that died back in Iceland, but the rest looked freshly pedicured. There wasn't a blister to speak of. My feet often look worse after fifty-kilometer runs that take me six hours to finish than they did at hour 70 of the PTL. I put on socks and started massaging my calves. The muscles were still cramping occasionally during steep climbs, but that was really the only complaint I had about my legs. Otherwise they felt strong; as long as my head wasn't dizzy, I could climb well. What happened to my wonky left knee? My sore shin? Forgotten in the war zone of PTL, where the brain relegated pre-race injuries to the "not important" category. My right elbow was stiff to the point of being rigid; when I held it to the dim light, I noticed it was actually quite swollen with a black and purple bruise that stretched halfway up my forearm. "Also not important," my brain told me. And brain would know. Brain was effectively doing all of the work in this race.
And now, after four days in which I snagged less than three hours of sleep, that one truly crucial organ was beginning to fail me. As we jogged down a narrow paved road into a dark canyon, my vision blurred enough that I decided to slow down and figure out exactly where I was on the road so I didn't step into the steep void to the right. But as I stopped and squinted into the woods, I saw a cluster of sparkling eyes looking back at me. They lingered for a second and then began stalking sideways, never leaving the glare of my headlamp. Then I saw dark shadowy figures moving out of the trees and across the road.
"Ana, wolves!" I hissed. She turned to me with an expressionless look on her face and continued jogging. Either she didn't understand the word or didn't believe me, but as I stopped to scan the woods for more eyes, the fading lucid side of my brain said, "Wait. There are no wolves here." When I turned my headlamp back into the woods, I could still see eyes, and I really wasn't sure what to believe. They have wolves in Europe, don't they? Wolves made appearances in fairy tales, so they must have been here at one point. As I fixated on the shadows stalking just beyond my peripheral vision, I rolled my ankle dramatically and stumbled into the road, skimming the tarmac with the palm of my hand but managing to catch myself before I went all the way down. It was the third or fourth time in the PTL that I'd rolled an ankle enough to lose my balance without spraining it. For that, I credit my training in Hokas. The shoes have a high center of balance and provide little ankle support, and I think that's spurred me to build strong ankles.
At the bottom of the canyon, I picked up my speed to catch Giorgio. "We need to turn here!" I called out. "Now!"
"Here!" there was a muddy pullout but no sign of a trailhead. As I hacked toward the woods, sure enough I found a faint hint of a jeep road that seemed to morph into a more well-defined trail. "Where do we go now?" Giorgio asked.
I consulted my piece of paper. "Up, for a long time," I said. "For 1,900 meters." Nothing like a 6,000-foot climb to wake you up in the morning. Neither Giorgio nor Ana understood me when I used terms like "nineteen hundred." They interpreted that as 119, which took me most of PTL to figure out. "Is a long time?" Giorgio asked with a look of confusion on his face.
"It's twelve kilometers to the next col, but nineteen hundred meters higher," I said. Giorgio still looked confused.
"Two thousand meters," I said. "Basically it's two thousand meters up."
"Oh!" Giorgio said as though a light came on. "Good climb! We go now."
Giorgio was especially perky at the time, and repeatedly chanted his adopted Obama slogan at us. "We can do it! Yes we can!" And occasionally, when I stopped moving to dizzily slump over a rock so I could spit up little globs of yellow foam: "Come on, Jill! You come all the way from California for this race!" I was too sick to be irritated by his enthusiasm, but I wasn't especially motivated by it, either. "Actually I came here so I could go to the Aosta Valley with Beat next week," I said. "I love the Tor des Geants. I hate this race."
"Me too," Giorgio agreed. "Which is why we need to finish so we never come back!"
The climb started out manageable but quickly, predictably, became very steep. My stomach was raw and burning; I had vomited the granola bar and peanut butter that I ate first thing in the morning, so I decided to wait until we finished climbing to waste any more food. The rocks and grass along the slope were wobbling, and I became so winded and nauseated that I had to stop and rest for five seconds of nearly every minute that passed. Giorgio was frustrated with my stop-and-go pattern and went ahead. Ana stayed behind me. I continued to glance up at the string of headlights from other teams making their way up the mountain. They never seemed to get any closer. During one break, I looked up in time to see one of the headlights rolling over and plummeting through the black void. My heart sank into my stomach. "No! Oh no! Oh no!" I said breathlessly to Ana.
"What?" she replied. "What is it?"
My heart was beating faster than I'd ever felt it beat. I looked up again and realized that the lights I had been fixating on were actually stars in the sky. The person I was convinced I had just watched fall to their death was a meteor, most likely. I breathed out. "Oh, it's probably nothing," I said. "My mind is playing tricks on me. Hallucinating."
Just as it had yesterday and the day before that, dawn became the bright light at the end of the crushing tunnel of despair that felt so eternal as we plodded through the night. I felt a surge of new energy and used the relative sense of wellness to eat a few pieces of gummy candy. The sugar hit my bloodstream like crack. Just like that, I was on top of the world, in the greatest country in the world. "Italy!" I exclaimed. "I love Italy." As I looked out over the jagged spires and 4,000-meter peaks surrounding me, I decided this precise spot was one of the most incredible places I had ever visited.
"It's not so bad," I announced. "If you go up that way just a bit, you can slide down the center where there are no rocks, and from there looks like there's a long run-out at the bottom." I was reluctant to go first, though. A braver man on the other team stepped out from where we stood, slipped, and slid on his side in the general line I had pointed out. He was entirely out of control but his body stopped on the run-out before he reached the rocks. Another of his teammates quickly followed. The sleeves of his jacket pushed up as he clawed the ice, and at the bottom we could see him examining a crimson patch of ice burn on his forearm. The last teammate dawdled for at least ten minutes while he teammates screamed up at him in French, before he slid down.
All three of us had grown very chilled waiting our turn. Ana impatiently stepped onto a steep part of the snowfield just below us and slipped immediately, headed right for the rocks. She skimmed over a few small boulders while I bit my fingers in horror, and two of the guys on the French team rushed out to grab her before she slammed into the rocks at the bottom, as her line had no run-out. Despite the treacherous nature of her slide, she bounced up uninjured and laughing like a maniac. "That was so fun!" she called out. Giorgio went next without incident and I followed last, clutching my pathetic plastic tent stake like it would actually help me control my slide. For the record, it didn't, but I also reached the safe run-out without incident. Ana was right that it had been a lot of fun. I was fully awake and alive again.
"Even if we make it to Morgex by six, what then?" I thought. "Surely they'll kick us out right away, with no sleep, and then it's another very long night and Col Bataillon."
Col du Bataillon d'Aosta. Although I'd lost the detailed course notes, this name stood out as one to be feared. In a short briefing before the race, the organizers had warned us of all of three *particularly* technical passages. In all of the difficulties I'd had on the PTL course, there were three spots we were especially supposed to worry about. The first warning was about the fixed ropes and class-four scrambling below the limestone cliffs on the first day. The second was the col we detoured around because of ice and snow on the second night. And the third was Col du Bataillon d'Aosta.
"This section is quite exposed and requires care and risks causing problems if crossed at night or in bad visibility," the notes had warned. What about crossing the col extremely sleep deprived with failing vision, intense vertigo, muscle cramping and vomiting, and an increasing tendency toward hallucinations and delusions? What about that? One the very first night of PTL, Giorgio and I were running down a muddy and slippery slope together when Giorgio said, "this is very dangerous." Another PTL runner in front of us overheard Giorgio and said, "Oh no, this isn't dangerous. Wait until Col Bataillon. There's a very narrow passage over a thousand-meter void, and it's sandy." I was intensely fearful of Col du Bataillon d'Aosta, the first col beyond Morgex. I was convinced it would be downright deadly to try to cross it during another night without sleep. But sleep was something we wouldn't be granted even in the best of outcomes, as a 6 p.m. arrival in Morgex was probably the best we could hope for.
Still, it's weird, but when Monster was with me I didn't care so much, and it seemed to smooth the edges around what was by far my worst emotion in the PTL — my fear. The weaker my body felt, the better my mind felt, if that makes any sense. My apathetic coping mechanism told me that none of it mattered, because nothing mattered — all of this was just the slow, hard, meaningless passage of time, same as the rest of life. It was grim, but strangely comforting.
Ana, who never complained about anything, said, "My feet are blisters. Only blisters. Walking is ... suffering. But when we arrive to Chamonix, it will be amazing."
"Chamonix?" I blurted out. "Really, Chamonix? Really? Do you really you can make it? It's still so far. It's completely impossible, Ana. It's impossible."
"It's not impossible!" Giorgio interjected, slowly returning from his own stupor. "We go to Chamonix!"
I looked toward Mont Blanc, shimmering in the rich morning light. It was the most beautiful bluebird day, and the sun was beginning to burn hot after so many cool days and frigid nights. "I have been here before," I told Giorgio and Ana. "Very near to this spot — Mont Fortin — one year ago. I hiked here from Courmayeur while Beat was running TdG. It was a beautiful day just like today, and I felt really good. I felt amazing then. Not now, though. I've actually managed to ruin this place for myself." I hunched over my poles and nodded toward the trail. "If we take that trail, six hours from now we'll be in Courmayeur. Just six hours all on good trail." I looked at them hopefully, as though they would agree to abandon PTL and take the easy way down. They didn't react to my suggestion at all, which brought a surprising feeling of relief. As much as I wanted to abandon this race, in a strange way, I really didn't want that. I wanted to go to Chamonix, too.
"Jill, we must move faster," Ana said.
My own frustration came boiling up and overflowed as tears, the first I had shed since my previous morning meltdown. Still, I was definitely showing myself to be the drama queen of the group. "I know, I know," I blubbered. "Do you think I want to feel this way? Do you think I choose this?"
But as I pulled myself to my feet, I thought about it more. What are my choices? What can I choose? Obviously the root of my nausea is lack of calories. I feel like eating means puking, but I have nothing to lose. I must choose to eat, and will my stomach to keep the food down.
I had a king-sized Snickers Bar in my backpack. As far as I could see it was one of the few snacks I had left, having exhausted all of my gummy candies and all but two granola bars. I crammed down half of it and felt okay, so I ate the other half. Aw, what the hell? Ana and Giorgio had already started back along the ridge when I glanced down at my GPS. "Ana, Giorgio," I called out. "We must turn again! Very soon!"
Again, the track plummeted right off the nice trail into the void of a steep, rocky, snow-filled bowl below. The renewed stress of navigation seemed to jolt my senses awake again; I temporarily forgot about my nausea, managed to keep the Snickers Bar down, and stepped with renewed vigor onto the rocks. The terrain was very steep and loose — the kind of stuff where speed was paramount to not sliding on your ass. But neither Ana nor I could muster up the courage or energy to just run down the scree — which was not nice small scree, but rather large, foot-grabbing, ankle-breaking boulders surrounded by patches of slippery grass. It was a relief to reach the snow fields, but I could not manage to stay on my feet. I continually fell onto my ass or side, slid a short distance, jammed my bruised and throbbing elbows into the snow, and pulled myself up again. The falling and getting back up was also more strenuous exertion than my body could handle, and the rapid heartbeat and nausea returned.
In the midst of this we were surrounded by four or five other teams — an army of 12 or so racers bringing up the rear. Because we were surrounded by so many people, my team largely broke apart. Giorgio was way ahead and over to the right. I followed Ana's clan in the general direction of the GPS track. Still, we all managed to end up on a jeep road descending toward La Thuile, a village in a narrow canyon above the Aosta Valley.
The other teams were jovial, as everyone seemed to believe it was all downhill road from here, but I knew better. I still managed to follow the crowd a half mile out of the way before I finally consulted GPS again. "Ana, Giorgio," I yelled. "The trail! We must go up! Up there!"
Sure enough, the track followed a faint trail away from the road and back up the side of the mountain. We had to climb back up the road to reach it, and continue to ascend the steep, grassy slope. Sweat poured down my forehead and the intense sunlight made me feel awful yet again. "It's so hot today," I said. "It's very, very hot."
"Is not hot," Giorgio said. "Only to you it is hot, because you are from Alaska."
"I'm not from Alaska, I'm from California," I said.
"But really you are from Alaska," Giorgio said. "You never are cold, even when it is very cold." I smiled.
Ana, who was directly behind me, started laughing. "Jill, your bum is full of holes!"
I looked back, and sure enough, my tights were completely shredded. They had been ripped before, but sliding across scree and snow all morning had done them in. "Maybe I could take them off," I offered in all seriousness. "The Italians aren't against bottomless, right?"
"We have to run," Ana said.
"Ana, I know, but I can't run," I said. "I promise, I really cannot. You and Giorgio have to go. You do, you have to leave me. I'll be fine; I know the way. I will keep walking toward Morgex, and maybe I'll make it. But if you and Giorgio want a chance to go to Chamonix, you'll have to go without me."
Ana seemed skeptical. "You will follow behind to Morgex?"
"I will," I said. "If I make it there by six, maybe I'll keep going. But I don't know. I am really not well and I need to recover. I need to sleep. Without it, I'm not sure I can continue. That's why it's not worth dragging me to Morgex. It only means none of us will make the cutoff. I will try. I promise I'll try. But if I'm not there by six, you should go without me."
Ana agreed and got up to run toward Giorgio, who had already left with one of the teams. Five minutes later, I eventually pulled myself up and started shuffling toward them, stomach churning and throat burning. "If you make it there by six, at least you'll have choices," I thought to myself. "You should try."
I could walk at an okay clip and decided it was probably faster than forcing myself into a shuffle, and with less pukeyness. Still, occasionally the nausea would take over and I'd have to sit down. Once I found a wooden bench and laid down. Even as pieces of my heart urged me to keep up the fight, my entire body and most of my brain had launched a mutiny. And Ana and Giorgio were no longer around to aid in the resistance.
Then it happened. I looked down at my GPS after quite a long while of forgetting about it, and noticed that I was nowhere near the track. I zoomed out, and zoomed out, and and still my own line diverged. Shit! I had ventured way off route. Somehow while descending a steep path through the trees, I joined a side path toward La Thuile rather than making my way left toward the Aosta Valley. I had lost a lot of elevation off route! And I was lost! Panic gripped my brain and without deciding too, I left the trail and started tearing through the woods. Which direction I was going, I couldn't even say. I had completely lost it, sprinting as fast as my legs would carry me through thick grass and brushy undergrowth, winding through the trees like a scared deer. And the whole time I was doing this, I could hear my own voice pleading, out loud — "Please stop running. Please stop running. Please turn around and go back." But the part of my brain controlling my legs was possessed, as though by Monster — "You can't go back up that mountain. You'll never make it."
After several long minutes of having completely lost control, I reeled myself back in and slowed down. I felt hopeless, broken, lost in the woods with hardly any strength left to function, and to top it all off, I was obviously becoming psychotic. I had no idea what to do. Runners are always quick to give advice about coping with sore knees, quad death, nausea, cramping, blisters, Achilles pain, plantar fasciitis, and hundreds of other obscure running maladies. But no one ever talks about what you need to do when you start to lose your mind.
I decided the best course of action would be to continue walking, calmly, downhill through the woods toward the valley. I eventually reached the village of Elevaz. From there, I followed the road back to the PTL course, and took the trail into Pre-Saint-Didier. As my brain calmed down, all the adrenaline that had rushed through my body during my psychotic episode fizzled out. It felt like there was nothing, absolutely nothing left in my body. Now, several weeks later, it's a bit difficult to determine exactly why, but I was convinced I couldn't continue walking if my life depended on it. Perhaps not physically, but psychologically I was done. I looked at my watch. It was 5:47 p.m. Ana and Giorgio would be leaving Morgex in 13 minutes, and I was still four kilometers away. I sat down on a bench in the middle of town, feeling nothing besides relief. My race was over.
I'm not sure how long I sat there in a stupor. It was probably a while. Eventually, my brain started to come back online and question what my next course of action would be. I couldn't just sit on a bench in a tiny Italian village for the rest of my life. I pulled out my phone to call Ana and Giorgio —which I had promised to do before 6 p.m. but admittedly forgot — only to see that it had turned itself on at some point and the battery was dead. Now I couldn't call anyone. I should probably hike into Morgex to let the PTL volunteers know I was out of the race, but they seemed to be quick about abandoning checkpoints, and surely they'd be gone by the time I got there. And anyway, what did I owe them? I did not want to go to Morgex. I wanted to go to Courmayeur, which was also maybe three or five miles away in the other direction. I knew Courmayeur; I could find my way around town, I knew where the bus station was, and I could go there and catch a bus back to Chamonix. But Courmayeur was too far, and I was too tired. "Tonight I will sleep on this bench," I thought. "I will figure it out in the morning."
Then it occurred to me that I should wander through town to find something to eat, but even that seemed like an impossibly big effort. I felt completely defeated, and couldn't even decide what to do about it. "Go find a pay phone and call Beat. Go to a hotel and get a room. Go find a store and buy some soda to settle your stomach. Go get on a bus and go somewhere," the more rational side of my brain suggested. But instead I did nothing.
I was still sitting on that bench, tear stains on my cheeks and eyes staring off into space, when a van pulled up beside me. Two men I recognized as PTL volunteers stepped out and ran toward me. "We have been looking for you," one guy said. "Are you okay?"
I was really surprised to see them. The PTL doesn't offer this kind of support — if you drop out of the race, you're on your own. I expected Ana and Giorgio to tell them I had dropped, and that was that. The volunteers informed me that, actually, Ana and Giorgio weren't supposed to leave me behind like that. It was against race rules for them to leave me alone unless we were at a control where I could officially drop. An local driver saw me walking down the road off course and reported that to the PTL volunteers, who then went out looking for me. I felt really bad for causing this trouble.
"It was my idea for them to leave," I said. "I was moving too slow and we weren't going to make the cutoff. They really wanted to go on and it wasn't fair for me to hold them back. I really hope they're not in trouble."
"If they talked about it with you then it is fine," the volunteer said. "We wanted to make sure they did not just leave you behind. They arrive at 5:45 and stay fifteen minutes, because they must leave at six. They eat and go."
"So they didn't stay to sleep?" I asked.
"No, they must go. They leave at six."
The volunteers offered me a ride in the van to Morgex, which I gratefully accepted. From there, he said, they had a bit more cleaning up to do but then they would take me back to PTL headquarters in Chamonix. The guy sitting next to me was a Frenchman who lived in Toronto and was still learning English. He asked me to comment on his sentence structure and verb use, and cracked jokes about French Canadians. It was really weird to have PTL volunteers show me so much kindness. After just four days of this difficult race, my spirit was so broken that I had come to believe I was no longer subject to basic human decency.
I asked about Beat and Dima, and was told they also left around 6. (As it turned out the volunteer was mistaken and they actually left the checkpoint closer to 3.) "How did they end up so close to the cut-off?" I wondered. As we neared Morgex, the volunteer pointed to yellow lights moving up the mountain. There was a long stream of them — all of the many PTL racers who were crammed right against the cut-offs, chasing impossible dreams. "There is your boyfriend," he said. "And your team."
All of them marching toward Col Bataillon, I thought. The crushing claws of fear hadn't released their grip just yet.