Thursday, September 19, 2013

Aftermath

I had been hopeful about Ana and Giorgio's chances after I left the team. Although I started out strong, often climbing well in front of them, I seemed to decline more rapidly than they did as sleep- and calorie-deprivation took hold. By the fourth day, there was no question that I had become the anchor, and I had a difficult time with that reality. It's stressful to be the slowest member of a team fighting cut-offs, and I suspect that my dramatic downswing on the fourth day was partially a result of expending more energy than I had to give so I could keep up. Still, there were indicators that both of them were really starting to struggle as well. Although I'd watched their Zombification begin to manifest, I still hoped their impressive determination would push them through.

Ana still hasn't had time to tell me the full story about what happened that night, but shortly after they left Morgex, Giorgio hit his own swift decline. Ana told me he was "very, very asleep on the dangerous pass," meaning Col Bataillon, and then they had an incident that convinced them they needed to stop. I don't know exactly what this incident was; Ana and I only had brief contact after PTL and I did not press her for details. I got the sense that Giorgio either fell or nearly took a fall in a dangerous spot. He wasn't injured, but whatever happened, it was frightening enough to convince them to stop right there and bivy on the pass, and then return to the Aosta Valley to scratch. I think they would have continued in daylight if they had more time, but at that point the Champex cut-off was unattainable.

Dima and Beat enjoy a post-race dinner-slash-nap after finishing PTL. 
As for Beat and Dima, I learned that they had picked up a third team member earlier in the race — an American woman whose partner dropped on the first day. There was some resulting drama and team discord that I'll have to say is Beat's story to tell. But as a three-person team, they also slowed down and had to fight cut-offs with little sleep later in the race. Still, Beat is amazingly resilient, and his team finished in Chamonix after 135 hours and 14 minutes.

Our team had contact with a few veteran teams who gave us the sense that this was a more difficult year for the PTL than past years. Every year the course is different, and often significant changes are made at the last minute, so it's conceivably difficult to gauge "average times" on the largely untested course. On top of that, the final cut-off was two hours shorter this year thanks to an early UTMB start. Whatever the reasons, PTL had a high attrition rate this year, and the majority of the finishing teams came in within hours of the cut-off. It's difficult to determine exact finishing results, as some teams broke apart and members joined other teams. But after a quick scan of the finishing list, these are the numbers I came up with:

92 teams started
42 teams finished 
36 teams finished within the official 136-hour cutoff
7 representatives of other teams finished — three before the cutoff and four after
The fastest team, three fell runners from the United Kingdom, finished in 103:08:14. 
15 teams finished before 130 hours
16 teams finished within three hours of the 136-hour cutoff
9 of these teams finished within one hour of the 136-hour cutoff
7 mixed teams — teams with women — finished
Beat's team was the only "outside Europe" team to finish, although he's officially Swiss and Dima is Russian.

(Edit: I adjusted these numbers to reflect Dima's accounting, as his was more accurate than my original counts. Dima also noted that there were about a dozen teams who were rerouted in Switzerland shortly after their team went through a control. The weather was good, so presumably this reroute was approved because the teams behind them weren't going to finish in time.

As for my own effort, I plugged my GPS tracks into Strava to get 140.8 miles with 60,330 feet of climbing, and 70 hours and 5 minutes of moving time out of 92 hours elapsed. The moving time is the most interesting stat for me, because it only registers measurable horizontal progress — meaning all of the time spent waiting to climb down ropes or slide down snowfields, stopping to examine the GPS, working out route puzzles while scrambling, and other "pauses" aren't included. The distance and elevation stats don't begin to reveal just how hard the PTL course makes you work — in my opinion, the moving time comes closer to telling the story. For every 24-hour period, we were on course for 21-22 hours and making measurable forward progress for 18. I was close to my limit much of that time. 

As soon as I returned to Chamonix on Friday night, the best way to describe my condition is "low-functioning." I left PTL headquarters and wandered around the entire town for nearly an hour, unable to find the hotel where Beat and I stayed the night before the race started, and where we still had a room. I actually think I acquired the only blister I picked up at PTL during this confused meander, because my shoes were untied and I was walking very quickly. The blister happened either then or during my psychotic sprint through the woods, but I did end up with a single blister on my left heel after PTL.

Despite being exhausted, I did not sleep well for another four or five days. Especially the first night, I would wake up every 20 or 30 minutes in a startle, sweating profusely and convinced I needed to get up and go, right now. I also felt anxiety about Beat, who was still out on the course for another day and a half. 

Another thing that took a few days to come around was my appetite. After being sick all day on Friday, I didn't bother eating that night. I crammed down a small breakfast in the morning, a salad at 2 p.m., and then forgot to eat for the rest of the day Saturday. Sunday morning, I still did not feel hungry and again had to force down breakfast. My appetite didn't reboot until Tuesday, after we had flown to Germany to visit Beat's mother and her partner, Peter. I never did any weigh-ins, but I think it's possible I lost 7 or 8 pounds during my week in France. My body's always been quick to re-set after these particularly diminishing endurance events, and a lot of bread and yogurt in Germany, followed by pizza and gelato in Italy, helped with that. Now in California three weeks later, I'm still about three pounds down from pre-Europe weight. 

My vision also did not come around as quickly as I expected. The best way to characterize my sight issue is "lazy eyes." For most of the first week after PTL, my default setting was blurry, and focus would only come with concentration. I had difficulties reading, especially on a computer screen, and developed a sharp headache during my Wednesday workday, when I had to stare at the computer for most of 8 hours straight. It was getting to the point where I was considering visiting an optometrist, but after a week the blurriness began to improve. Three weeks later, I still find my eyes going lazy after long work sessions, and driving also occasionally requires straining, especially under direct sunlight. I do plan to go see an eye doctor. I don't use glasses or contacts and have never had such issues with my vision before. I have no knowledge of any incidents of endurance events hurting eyesight, but I do have some concerns on that front. 

Although I had no injuries or even specific physical complaints after PTL, it took me a week to pull myself off the floor, so to speak. On Wednesday afternoon — 5 days after I dropped from PTL — I went for my first "run" through the city streets and gentle trails of Bielefeld, Germany. Actually it was a four-mile walk with perhaps a half mile of jogging, and I stopped three separate times to take sit-down breaks. Thursday, despite his plan to start another crazy 200-mile endurance event in three days, Beat joined me on a five-mile jog. He was in considerably better shape than I was, and we ran until I had another vertigo episode while working my way down a semi-steep and rooty but relatively benign trail. The reason I was forcing myself into these runs was because we were going to Italy the following week, and I'd been planning to do a bunch of hiking on the Tor des Geants course while Beat ran the race. I'd go as far as to say that I'd been looking forward to this aspect of the European trip most of all, since hiking around the Aosta Valley is awesome and I always knew PTL was going to be a grueling slog. The fact that I was so weak, and in such horrible shape, really bummed me out. A five-mile run on Friday, in which I was at least able to actually run most of the time, helped boost my confidence. 

Besides those three short "wogs," I didn't do much in Germany. Beat and I would sleep 11 to 12 hours a day including naps, eat his mother's cooking and fresh German bread, and try to do a little work, although my brain wasn't functioning well at all. I did get through an Alaska newspaper deadline day while working in a time zone ten hours ahead, which felt like a especially large victory that week. But for the most part, productivity was low. I tried starting my PTL race report three or four times before I got past the first paragraph. Usually blog writing is the "fun" writing I do to unwind, but I did not really enjoy writing my PTL report. Even though nothing particularly bad happened in PTL, the stress and fear I carried all week still weighs on my psyche, in such a way that I would characterize it as a traumatic experience. The fact that I did not finish undoubtedly contributes to this negative impression. Although my physical recovery is still only sluggishly moving forward, it's farther along than my mental recovery. I'm sure I'll write more about this soon, but there's definitely some more soul-searching to be done on this front. 

I also need to post about the week in Italy, which was awesome. Both Beat and Ana ran the Tor des Geants and both of them finished — Beat in his fastest time of four TDG finishes. The fact he was able to do this one week after PTL astounds me, even more now that I've attempted PTL and entered such a difficult non-injured recovery. I'm still trying to wrap my head around that as well.