across the nation
you found myself racing
forgetting the strange and the hard
and the soft kiss
in the dark room
— From "Strange Form of Life" by Bonnie Prince Billy
The violet-tinted daylight and first glimpse of a white tent canopy in the valley 2,000 feet below seemed to revive Giorgio and Ana, and we broke into a stiff shuffle down the first developed trail we'd used in eight hours. As my leg muscles struggled to open to this new motion, it occurred to me that eight hours ago was probably also the last time I tried to take in any calories, when I ate half a Snicker's Bar after the electric cattle fence jolted me from my own sleepy stupor. It's really strange, I thought, to be nearly 60 hours into this extremely difficult endeavor, eating close to nothing, sleeping very little, and moving constantly — and yet find the wherewithal to run even when common sense told me my body should be shutting down.
"Survival mode," I thought. It its own unique way, PTL was such a mentally taxing struggle that the physical difficulties of the race hardly registered. PTL was like trying to solve a complicated puzzle while heavily sedated and punch drunk, and the consequences of mistakes could lead to grave injury. In that heightened state of stress, it doesn't matter much that your feet hurt and your legs are stiff and your arms are bruised and you haven't had a thing to eat in eight hours. It really doesn't.
Despite this growing conviction that my physical complaints weren't important, I was still desperate for sleep. "Sleep will make all of the difference," I thought. But pessimism was seeping through the cracks. Although my course notes were now gone, we had a small piece of paper that I tore out of a pamphlet, which indicated the distance and altitude of the cols and few checkpoints, as well "slowest time" cutoffs. The limit at Plan de la Lai was 6 a.m. This wasn't one of the three official race cut-offs, but it did mean that when we arrived just before 8 a.m., the checkpoint was closed. The volunteers informed us that they would still prepare us (small) plates of pasta for the set price of 17 Euros, but we wouldn't be able to stay and sleep. The news upset me so much that I could only choke down a few bites of pasta. I was defiant, and told Ana and Giorgio that I wasn't leaving Plan de la Lai without rest. We noticed at least four or five teams snoozing on the cots in the second tent, and decided that as long as they were there, we could stay, too.
The tent was unheated and the cots had a single thin flannel blanket and no pillow. Cold wind pushed in from an open wall and whisked underneath the cots, making it feel like I was laying on a block of ice. My teeth chattered and my shoulders quaked, but I still managed to lapse into unconsciousness. After what felt like three minutes, I awoke to hammering sounds, and discovered that volunteers were removing empty cots and taking the canopy down around us. They did tell us the checkpoint was closed, but I was still stung by their passive aggressive maneuver to kick us all out. Personally, I would rather just participate in a completely unsupported race than what the PTL provides. The promise of limited support left me more unprepared to take care of myself than I should have been. I needed a sleeping bag. I needed a ground pad. I needed sleep.
Desperation churned in my stomach until I felt a pressing need to vomit. As I rushed to an outhouse that was at least half a kilometer away, I noticed a trail sign for Col du Bonhomme — a name I recognized as part of the UTMB course. "Oh UTMB," I thought as a hunched over a piece of plywood with a hole cut in the center. "Nice, flat, easy, friendly UTMB." Even though I had no idea if this was in fact the same Col du Bonhomme, it occurred to me that I could possibly follow the trail signs and then take the UTMB course back to Chamonix. No more PTL. No more suffering. No more fear.
Ana and Giorgio were packing up when I returned from the outhouse. "I quit," I said, throwing my half-filled backpack down to emphasize that I was serious. "I can't do this race on no sleep. It's too far. It's impossible."
Ana laughed at me. "You not quit," she said with way too much cheerfulness. "You come with us."
"You don't need me," I continued with unveiled desperation quivering in my voice. "We are a team of three and you only need two to finish. We're running too far behind the cut-offs. I'm too slow, Ana. I'm not strong enough for PTL."
Giorgio joined Ana in overbearing cheerfulness. "You can't leave, Jill. We are a team! We cannot quit! Never quit! We are Too Cute to Quit!"
His response made me laugh out loud, because we all hated our team name and I pretty much only thought about quitting, at least when I wasn't thinking about dying. But the fact that we'd had such a rough night that I had to do the lion's share of work to get through, and then got almost no sleep in Plan de la Lai, only stoked my anger at their enthusiasm. "No, you go!" I yelled, the meltdown bubbling up from my empty gut. "I stay here. You don't need me! You don't understand how upset I am! I can't do this race on no sleep!"
The other teams being kicked out of the checkpoint overheard and a few chimed in. "At least go as far as Morgex," one guy suggested. "If you don't make it in time, that is what it is. But if you quit, that's pretty definitive."
"If I fall off a mountain, that's pretty definitive, too," I growled.
"You come with us," Ana said. "If you quit, you will cry."
"I'm crying right now!" I blubbered, but I was beginning to realize that I wasn't going to extract myself from this situation unless I made an actual physical escape by sprinting away from Ana and Giorgio. Throwing a temper tantrum was only wasting all of our time. "You're a grown ass woman," I thought to myself. "You can run away if you want." But even in the fog of my emotional meltdown, I did realize how cowardly and childish that would be. "Fine," I said, angrily jamming my crap back into my backpack. "I'll go with you to the next checkpoint. But if we can't sleep, that's it. I mean it. That's it."
My promise didn't last long. Out of Plan de la Lai, the GPS track directed us into a maze of cattle paths along a steep and grassy sideslope. How such large animals make such narrow trails, I'll never understand, but discovered I had a lot of difficulty keeping my feet on the path. The night before, my vision started to become blurry and sometimes wobbly, which I assumed would improve during the day. But now, under broad daylight, my eyes still had difficulty focusing on any point without heavy concentration. And if I applied too much concentration to an object, my field of vision would begin to wobble until it seemed like the whole world was about to tip on its side. This led to disconcerting vertigo and dizziness, sometimes severe enough that I'd have to stop walking and lean on both of my trekking poles to regain my composure. While walking on the cattle paths, I let my vision go lazy long enough to accidentally plant my right foot well off the trail on the steep grassy slope, which caused me to roll my ankle violently and topple over.
"Are you hurt?" Ana asked.
"Fine," I grumbled as I rolled back onto the trail. "It's just, I can't see very well. My eyes are blurry." I held my hand in front of my face and moved it back and forth to illustrate my point in case Ana didn't quite understand. "I got dizzy and I fell down."
To myself, I was thinking, "In the wrong place a mistake like that would be really bad. Really, really bad."
Well, of course, Iron Man would just summon his iron suit and fly over the damn mountain. That's what Iron Man would do. Still, the silly movie thoughts did help bring my head back to the surface, and I was able to catch my breath and stand again.
"Sorry," I again apologized to Ana. "I am having anxiety. Do you mind going in front for a while?"
Ana eventually worked her way back over to me as I left the snow and started scrambling over the rocks. The boulders were the size of basketballs or larger and all seemed to be loose. I felt like I was trying to climb a ramp covered in balls that had been wedged together, and pulling even one of them loose was going to send the whole mountain tumbling down. The slope was even steeper and the surface was much worse than Breche de Parozan; I'm not really sure why I wasn't more frightened, but I wasn't. It was almost as though a weakened adrenal system can only produce so much fear and stress in a day, and mine had emptied itself out. Giorgio still beat us to the top, with some blood smeared on his arm and a grin on his face.
"Look at all this," he said to me as he spread his arms out. "If you didn't come today, you would have never seen any of this." I could see his hands quivering around the grips of his trekking poles, and it made me smile. How was this guy keeping himself so upbeat and enthusiastic all the time? Was it his youth? Some kind of mania I didn't possess? Or maybe forcing a positive attitude was his coping mechanism, in the same way feigned indifference had been mine.
"I suppose you're right," I said with a shrug.
At sunset we crossed a small stone dam with a 10-foot drop on one side and perhaps a 30-foot drop on the other. The dam was about three feet wide — not exactly narrow, but as soon as I stepped onto the span, the fingers of vertigo pulled me sideways and made me feel like I was tilting into the void. I froze. "I'm stuck," I whimpered to Giorgio, who was directly behind me. "I'm extremely dizzy. Can you help me, please?" He grabbed both of my shoulders, which gave me a feeling of being righted, and then continued to hold on and walk with me the rest of the way across the dam. The experience made me feel very grateful for my teammates, but it also shattered my confidence. I was struggling to cross a damn dam. How the hell was I going to keep traversing technical and exposed passes? It was dangerous. It was horrendously, stupidly dangerous, to do what I was trying to do in the physical state I was in. But maybe if I could sleep. Maybe everything would change if I could sleep.
"Next checkpoint," Ana said of the Parking Bonneval Les Baines, which our little sheet showed should be coming up in about four kilometers of descending. "We eat, one hour of sleep, and change socks. New feet." The only thing Ana had complained of so far in the PTL were blisters. She showed them to me at the previous stop, and they were quite bad — stretching across the balls of her feet as well as her heels, they were bright red and leaking puss, definitely infected.
"Maybe two hours of sleep," I offered. "I think we could move a lot faster if we sleep at least two hours. Maybe even three. We'll save time in the end." I looked again at the list. The checkpoint was supposed to start closing down at 7 p.m. I looked again at my watch. It was 8:12. I didn't have the heart to tell my teammates.