Monday, September 16, 2013

In a dark little room

in a dark little room 
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."

We marched down the trail and I continued bawling. I felt like a pathetic child but I didn't even try to stifle the tears; controlling my emotions just took too much energy at this point, and I no longer cared what Ana or Giorgio or anyone else thought. But thanks to the wild pendulum of endurance-addled emotions, the negative feelings quickly swung toward gratitude and relief. "I'm sorry I had a meltdown," I blubbered as I hugged Ana and laughed through continued gasps and sniffles. "I'm just so tired. I'm so tired. But thanks for pushing me out of there. I really do appreciate it. I'll try to keep it together from now on."

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."

And then we rounded a corner to see something I interpreted as really bad: the veritable wall of Breche de Parozan. It was a near-vertical scree slope that I now had to ascend while dizzy and sleep-deprived and calorie-depleted, with poor vision, intense bouts of vertigo, and the emotional stability of a two-year-old. Even Giorgio hung his head as we looked at the wall. Just then, my throat seemed to close up and I could no longer breathe. My vision narrowed to a tight tunnel as I knelt down and gasped for air, clutching at the grass as I tried to slow the hyperventilation. Had I completely lost it? What was happening? One of the first images that came to mind was a scene from "Iron Man 3," which Beat and I watched on the plane on our way to Europe. It was the scene where Robert Downey Jr. lapsed into an anxiety attack while questioning a 10-year-old kid. I'm not sure whether I was having a full-blown panic attack, but those few minutes were as debilitating as any feelings of anxiety I've experienced before. And yet the whole time I was gasping for air, I was actually thinking, "What would Iron Man do? What would Iron Man do?"

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?"

The ascent to Breche de Parozan was not as bad as it looked from the distance, although the loose scree did make for difficult footing and unreliable handholds. As usual, I opted to stuff my poles in my backpack and crawl up the mountain like an awkward chimpanzee. There were at least a dozen PTL competitors who all left Plan de la Lai around the same time, and we were all bunched together on the face of the col. Rocks rained down from above, and more than once I thought, "This is a really dumb thing to do without a helmet." My calf muscles were quivering and even my quads felt like they were on the verge of failure, but slowing too much would often result in backward skids on the talus, which sent more rocks tumbling down toward the teams behind us. In the wake of my anxiety episode, Monster had returned, whispering disturbingly comforting thoughts in my head. "If a rock smashes your skull it will all be over. Finally over."

Just fifty feet from the col, the most intense cramp I've ever experienced clamped down on my left calf muscle. The cramp twisted with such force that I crumpled to my knees, skidding several inches down the talus in the process. I tried not to think about the precipitous spot I was in as I curled in on myself and clenched my teeth. The tension on my muscle was so tight that it felt like the fibers were about to snap simultaneously. "Let go, just let go," Monster whispered, which prompted me to reach through the tunnel of pain and grab onto a boulder. I probably wasn't in any real danger of tumbling, but I hadn't looked back in a while and didn't know just how steep this section actually was. Seeming long minutes passed, although it was probably just a few seconds, before the tension released and I was able to uncoil myself and finish scrambling to the col.

Although fear and trepidation had gripped my heart many times during the PTL, there was always this sense that my anxieties, like Monster, were conjured by my overtired mind and did not necessarily reflect reality. Trust in the seemingly grounded attitudes of my teammates, along with self awareness of my often overzealous imagination, helped me push through many anxiety-filled situations that would have certainly turned me around if I were alone. But I was beginning to experience what I felt were very real and dangerous physical issues — first my failing vision and subsequent vertigo, and now debilitating muscle cramping. What if a cramp grabbed my leg in the midst of an exposed scramble? What would I do about the vertigo once it got dark?

The visual wobbliness returned as I stumbled toward Ana and Giorgio and continued traversing the sharp edge of the col. My calf muscle was still spasming, so I reached into my pack to grab a couple of salt tablets — for the record, I'm not one who buys into the idea that salt is a cure-all for cramping and don't even use it in most circumstances. But I carried electrolyte tablets in the PTL just it case and at this point I was willing to try anything. I also realized that I hadn't eaten since I vomited in the morning, and told Ana and Giorgio that I needed to sit down for just a minute and stuff some candy down my throat because I was feeling very dizzy. Admittedly, these two actions helped a lot (I still think it was the sugar and sit-down rest that helped more than the salt) and I felt more lucid and strong as we started down the other side of the col.

My little piece of paper indicated that the next summit, Col de la Nova, was three kilometers from Breche de Parozan and somehow 100 meters higher. "Where the hell is it?" I thought to myself as we descended deeper into a steep bowl. Supposedly this col was now less than a mile away, and yet all I could see were towering cliffs surrounding us on three sides. The map seemed to show a route straight ahead, which couldn't be right if we had another big col to climb, and GPS as usual was of little help in tracing the route any farther than a few hundred meters away. "I don't know where we're going," I admitted to Giorgio. "I'm a little confused."

Giorgio consulted his own GPS and pointed at the cliffs directly to our right. Although he had been the most sure-footed on technical terrain so far, even his face betrayed some trepidation. "We go there now. Are you happy?"

I'm not sure if Giorgio was poking fun at how erratically I'd behaved all day, or if he was assuaging his own fears, but I thought about his question. Another insanely steep pass that involved at least one snow-field crossing. Was I happy? No, no I wasn't happy, but I could deal with this. I could deal with this. It was still just one foot in front of the other, one hand in front of the other, repeat. Maybe Monster was right and the struggle would never end. But that was okay. This was still life, and I was still alive. A tranquil warmth washed over my skin and filled my blood with renewed vigor. "I think the best line is to climb the snowfield and then cut over to the left," I replied as I returned to my navigational position at the front of the team. "Up the col," I said with a breathy sigh. "Up the col."

It probably goes without saying that Giorgio and Ana didn't follow me. Giorgio almost instantly cut left and Ana followed him as they climbed into an extremely steep boulder slope. I kept to my plan of climbing the snow field, which looked like the least-steep line and also provided some happy relief for my tired feet. It was still very steep, and if the snow wasn't soft I probably wouldn't have risked it. But Giorgio's and Ana's line looked treacherous, and my heart would skip a beat every time I heard rocks tumbling down. "Giorgio? Ana? You okay?"

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.

Next on the agenda was a 2,000-meter descent (with a few more steep climbs) to some semblance of civilization below. When traveling through the heavily developed Alps, I hadn't expected to experience feelings of remoteness and solitude, but there were sections of the PTL that felt every bit as difficult to access and devoid of human presence as real wilderness. In 150 kilometers we had traveled through all of two villages and passed only a handful of refuges, most of them closed at the time. We'd had almost no non-PTL human contact, interacting only with race volunteers and other teams in the past three days. The organizers of PTL have carved out an interesting cross-section of modern France, one that provides glimpses into what a trip through the Alps might have been like hundreds of years ago, following faint foot paths through farm meadows and over rugged mountains.

My vision continued to wobble. Vertigo returned on the long descent, which forced me to move frustratingly slow. But Giorgio and Ana weren't moving any faster, even when they were in front of me — we were all extremely sleep deprived, and both Giorgio and Ana had become distant and quiet. I was probably the most lucid at the time, but my eyes wouldn't focus. As twilight descended I could no longer coordinate my vision with my footfalls, and felt tentative about every step. I started using my trekking poles as a guide, planting one where I thought my foot should go and then stepping in that direction. It helped me improve my sense of balance, but also meant I was no longer using the trekking poles as support. Not a win-win situation for stability.

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.


  1. Hi Jill,
    Knowing you and Beat are safe makes this story easier to read... wow. Excellent writing and beautiful photos. Eagerly waiting for the next post.


  2. Jill, How you do it I just don't know. I have severe panic attacks (even medicated) and I know how terrifying they are but I could never image having one under your circumstances. But I did learn that it's physiologically impossible to have one while singing of laughing and it really does work. You really are so brave and so strong, just like your book says. And having lived in France for 10 years I know that the french aren't always that welcoming or empathetic, but you pushed on regardless. Your pictures brought back my memories for me, thanks for sharing them. Again I'll be looking forward to the rest of the story.

  3. "At sunset we crossed a small stone damn 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 like the typo in the first sentence. Damn, indeed. This just does NOT sound fun.

  4. Enjoying the report very much! How intense. I have a hard time navigating with my gps in some circumstances but there is no way I could do it in the sleep deprived, vision blurred, calorie less and exhausted state that you were in. And to have two people impatiently waiting for and questioning your directions would be very stressful. If you did not have that duty and could have just trudged along for the ride, it would have been so much more doable.
    Also, not sure how you manage to photo document in that state but thanks for remembering!

  5. Sooooo....
    Sounds like a nightmare.

  6. Z-Man: Yes. Exactly what I called it.

    In writing this I'm trying to be honest about my experience even though it doesn't necessarily reflect well on me. In hindsight, I went into the PTL with entirely too-low expectations. I really don't possess the necessary skill set or experience for this kind of endeavor. This really is an endurance event designed for Alpine mountaineers, and I'm, well, a cyclist who lives in manicured coastal California.

    I'll eventually get around to writing a post-mortem post on the whole thing. Let's just say that after nearly three weeks, I still can't decide if this experience was a positive one or a horrible thing that I did to myself that will leave me broken for a little while.

  7. I now know you are truly crazy...WONDERFUL, but crazy!

  8. Jill, I hope you'll post that follow up cuz I'd like to know where/why you feel "...will leave me broken for a little awhile". Mentally? Physically? Spiritually? Emotionally? All of the Above? And the healing will be?

    To me you have incredible strength in so many areas, that it's difficult to imagine a crack let alone a break.

    Ride long and prosper..and run...and walk.....


Feedback is always appreciated!