Saturday, September 28, 2013

PTL video

La Petite Trotte à Léon — The long way around Mont Blanc from Jill Homer on Vimeo.

Beat carried a GoPro camera during the La Petite Trotte à Léon last month, and filmed a few segments of his race. He definitely took his camera out during some pretty times, and his footage shows just how spectacular this route is. There are hints of the brutality as well. I compiled some of his footage into a quick five-minute video to show to friends at a party tonight. The link to the video is above.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Back in the saddle again

I watched Leah disappear up the Bobcat Trail on another cross-training interval and felt my own spike of determination. "Okay, legs, we can do this!" Middle ring, head down, brow furrowed, mash mash mash. Within seconds every muscle fiber in my legs seemed to be quivering, as though they'd never pedaled a bike before. Lactic acid flushed in and I stood out of the saddle, spinning chunks of gravel into the air. Big effort. No results. Leah floated up the hill and I floundered like a beached walrus. "Remember how I was complaining in August about losing my top end fitness?" I'd told her earlier. "Well, I'm pretty sure I don't even have a middle ring right now."

I still tried to ride hard. Being out of shape is not so bad, especially if you are riding bikes. It was just over a week ago that I ended a long mountain biking drought, and ever since it's been like being a new cyclist again — slow, awkward, and having the time of my life. After a three-hour ride in the Marin Headlands chasing my cyclocross-racing friend Leah and her big-ring fitness, my legs are as sore as if I'd run a 50K, but the smile on my face is sincere. I missed bikes.

For our evening San Francisco/Marin outing, I took my old Surly Karate Monkey out for her first dirt spin in many months. I've felt guilt that my trusty Tour Divide bike now does little more than languish on the porch, but I've been reluctant to get rid of her. My sister mentioned she was interested in getting a bike, and I offered to bring "Kim" out to live with her in Utah — that way she's is still in the family, and if Lisa ever wants to get rid of the bike, I'll just take her back. I just can't part with this bike. Wednesday's ride was a reminder why. While Kim has been through a number of makeovers since she was first built in early 2008, Beat has reclaimed some of her newer parts to build up newer bikes. In his latest effort to bring her back to functioning order, Beat re-installed many of her original parts — the ancient Reba fork that I purchased used and that has been rebuilt three times, the well-used Shimano XT and XTR derailleurs, the good ol' BB7 mechanical disc brakes, the classic WTB Nanoraptor tires that I'm pretty sure you can sell as a collector's item in some circles these days, and that 29-inch wheel set that I purchased before I knew anything about quality bike parts because it was the cheapest wheel set on eBay, and was only $60, and that I rode through the Tour Divide and all the many, many miles before and since, and those wheels still work. Heavy, but solid.

After every floundering climb in the Headlands yesterday, there was a blissful and grin-inducing descent that reminded me all the ways I still love this bike. Kim's steel frame handles like a dream; nimble and smooth, and the geometry fits me like a glove. If I wasn't so in love with my Moots I would probably put her rigid fork back on and turn Kim into a touring bike, but I'm still partial to the Moots even above my love for my rusty old Karate Monkey. Plus, the wheels are like round bricks. Solid, but heavy.

Fitness, at least my own fitness, seems to fall on a bell curve. On one low end is couch-sitting, and on the opposite low end is extreme overtraining or post-race fatigue. The farther I venture over the ideal "peak" of my own curve, the closer I get to possessing the physical prowess of a couch sitter, at least in terms of power (endurance usually remains solid no matter how weak I feel.) Currently, I'm feeling some pressure from what has become one of my favorite fall traditions, the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow in Hurricane, Utah. It's just over a month away now, which means I've pretty much burnt up all of the post-PTL recovery time I can possibly afford and still do any kind of training for a 25-hour mountain bike race.

The problem is I don't feel anywhere near recovered from PTL — mainly on an emotional level. Even my "little ring fitness" is likely more mental than physical, because I feel so averse to any kind of physical suffering right now. It's hard to admit, but I probably don't have the heart for an all-day-all-night bike effort, and I'm not sure whether I'll get that back in a month's time. But I have good friends planning to make the trip to Utah, and Frog Hollow always promises good times, so I'm torn. Do I go to Frog Hollow and just plan to pleasure cruise, probably riding five or six laps before hunkering down next to the bonfire? Or do I keep my sights on my goal, which is to finally put in a consistent effort and ride more than 13 laps? I know I'll be disappointed in myself if I pick the first option, and also if I go with the second option and crap out mid-way because I lost heart. But I certainly don't want to "DNS" Frog Hollow because it's so much fun and I'm looking forward to seeing good friends. It's a bit of a dilemma.

There are some residual physical effects from PTL as well. I do feel day-to-day fatigue and not all of it can be mental. I also continue to have strange and disconcerting problems with my eyes, including light sensitivity and difficulty focusing. I finally visited an optometrist on Monday. He performed a bunch of tests and concluded that I was probably experiencing effects of excessive eye strain, resulting in fatigue and possible damage to the extraocular muscles. My eyes checked out as otherwise healthy, so he prescribed a pair of reading glasses to reduce strain when working on my computer, with the hope that lessening daily strain will help any damage heal on its own. The optometrist was surprised that my vision issues have lasted this long if eye strain during PTL was really the cause, but he did acknowledge that sleep deprivation sometimes has strange effects on the brain, which can extend to brain activity required for eye-muscle coordination and proper focusing.

I will say that one body part I never expected to injure running is my eyes. I pick up the reading glasses on Friday and I hope they help.

But I am happy to be back in California, riding bikes and spending quiet afternoons working on projects again. Travel is amazing, but it's nice to have a comfortable, familiar space to come home to.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Shadowing the Tor des Geants

Ah, the Aosta Valley. An idyllic strand of old-world villages and modern adventure hubs woven together beneath the towering spires of the Italian Alps. What better place could there be to revive tired legs and splintered spirits? As we boarded an early-morning flight from Dusseldorf back to Geneva, I was still feeling broken from PTL. Still, I hoped some good, old-fashioned mountain awesomeness would propel me through a week of intensive race crewing and active sight-seeing.

Then, of course, there's Beat. Crazy, crazy Beat. I used to believe we had similar levels of passion and drive for this sort of stuff, but his crazy is many notches beyond mine. While I was still wondering if I would find the heart and strength to climb to the top of just one col in the Italian Alps, Beat was setting out to march over 25 of them in the 200-mile, 80,000-feet-of-climbing Tor des Geants. It would be his fourth such trip around the highline of the Aosta Valley, and his second PTL/TdG double-header.

The Tor des Geants starts and ends in downtown Courmayeur, an Italian village at the tip of the Aosta Valley and base of Monte Bianco. Courmayeur reminds me of a medium-sized Colorado mountain town (like Telluride) but with old-world flavor: Stone buildings, cobblestone streets, and sheep farmers on the outskirts of town. Every street corner has a restaurant with incredible pizza and/or gelato, and every major street seems to end at the trailhead of some brutally steep and fantastically beautiful trail. I love Courmayeur and was thrilled to spend a whole week there, even under semi-broken circumstances. The TdG was slated to launch at the delightfully civilized hour of 10 a.m. Sunday morning (and didn't actually start until closer to 10:20 a.m. — gotta love the Italians.) About 750 runners started the 330-kilometer journey under light drizzling rain and temperatures in the high 50s.

Our friend from Colorado, Daniel Benhammou, visited Courmayeur over the weekend to hang out and watch the race start on Sunday. Daniel was Beat's PTL partner in last year's race, and was all set to be part of Beat's team this year before a death in his family prevented him from racing. He was in Europe on business and still bummed about missing PTL, so his trip to Courmayeur was filled with what adventure types call "FOMO" (fear of missing out.) It was fun to spend the day with him and absorb some of his stoke about the Tor des Geants. Sadly, I was still full of grump and spent entirely too much time trying to convince Daniel that I had no fun at all at PTL. As we drove up the canyon to La Thuile to meet Beat at the first checkpoint, I gestured toward the high ridge where Ana, Giorgio, and I separated during PTL, and then pointed out Elevaz, the village where I emerged from my psychotic meltdown. Still, Daniel was unconvinced by my assertions that PTL was a terrible experience. "Ah, you loved it," he teased me. "Give it some more time. You'll want to come back next year."

No. No. No.

Daniel and I parked in La Thuile and started wending our way up the canyon trail, which ascended a steep rim beside a series of waterfalls. We thought we'd climb most of the way to the pass before returning to meet Beat, but thanks to a lot of dawdling on both of our parts, Beat caught us before we even left the last village. I thought he was making great time for the first 30 kilometers, but he looked rough and said he wasn't feeling well. A chest cold and accompanying congestion and pain was bothering him quite a bit, and he was generally just run down after PTL. Well, of course. But these kinds of physical setbacks are just par for the course for Beat these days. He felt downtrodden, but not hopeless.

Daniel and I followed Beat on the little 1,200-meter climb to Rifugio Deffeyes (because in TdG, 4,000-foot-plus ascents are also just par for the course.) Thunderstorms battered us with fierce rain and hail. We could see them approaching the way you can in the Rocky Mountains, and Daniel, with all of his Colorado experience, was great at guessing how many minutes away the thunderstorm was, and just how bad the cold deluge would be. Daniel also wore shorts and a T-shirt the entire time, and chatted breezily in French with passing hikers.

As Beat continued higher into the storm, Daniel and I treated ourselves to refreshments at the rifugio. Two wonderful cappuccinos and wild blueberry pastries, served in a hut accessible only by foot and helicopter, cost only eight euros. I love Italy. By the time we left, Daniel was shivering and ready to admit he was actually very cold and wet. We ended up all but running down the steep descent as Daniel pushed to warm up and I pushed to keep up. As we descended, we encountered my PTL partner Ana, who was also nutty enough to start the TdG. She said her blisters were worse than bad, and she was "suffering." I felt a tinge of regret. "Why do we do this to ourselves?" I wondered, mostly about Beat and Ana. But I was nowhere near their position, and I couldn't begin to answer that question for them. I wrapped my arms around Ana and told her about the amazing blueberry pastries and warmth at the rifugio. It was, sadly, all I could do.

That night I stayed out past 2 a.m. to meet Beat at the first life base, Valgrisenche, about fifty kilometers into the TdG. He was still grappling with chest pain, and because of that I was nervous about him marching into what promised to be a cold, rainy, and windy night. While Beat was catching a few hours of sleep at the life base, there was a rescue effort for a Chinese competitor who had been traveling a few hours behind Beat. The man fell and hit his head on the rocks while negotiating a steep descent in the rain. He later died of his injuries — the first fatality in the TdG. The sad accident cast a somber tone over the race. Although I'd overheard the frenzied tone from some of the volunteers at Valgrisenche (in Italian, which I don't understand), I didn't learn about the death until the following morning in Cogne, when another volunteer led me to believe they'd suspended the race (they didn't.)

I drove out to Cogne early because I wanted to embark on the climb to Col Loson, which is my favorite section of TdG (that I've seen.) The trail ascends from 5,000 feet altitude in Cogne all the way up to 11,000 feet at the pass on mostly reasonable grades (with the exception of 1,000 feet of near-vertical hell), and has incredible views the entire way. Thanks to the late night at Valgrisenche, I'd only slept about four hours after becoming accustomed to ten to twelve hours of sleep every day in Germany. The first hour of the climb was especially rough, and it made me ponder how exactly Beat was managing this huge undertaking. When I met him just below the pass he was smiling. And running! He was feeling so much better after that second frigid night on the mountains. I was baffled.

Crewing for a race like TdG can be extremely time consuming, especially if one integrates hiking into the mix. Each life base generally involves a 90- to 120-minute drive along an expensive toll freeway and narrow canyon roads where oncoming trucks pass at terrifying speeds. Then there's waiting for the runner, meeting the runner, helping the runner wind down, waiting for him to sleep one to three hours, helping the runner pack up, and hiking partway out with him. Add the return drive, and each life base stop generally ate up eight or more hours, not including my own hikes. I'd forgotten how crewing a race like TdG actually doesn't leave much time for eating or sleeping, which was especially difficult to cope with PTL fatigue still weighing on my body and psyche. By the time I met Beat at the third life base, in Donnas, I was fading. "But I can't complain, of course," I told him, because relative to what he was doing, well ...

I hiked with Beat for about 90 minutes beyond Donnas before I had to turn around and drive back to Courmayeur so I could work all through Tuesday night on deadline. During this night, I got quite sick — vomiting, sore throat, and what felt like a fever. But, sigh, no complaints. How was Beat managing all of this?

For Wednesday, I'd invited my friend Gabi, who lives in Zurich, to join me on the trip to the fourth life base, Gressoney. Gabi has participated in TdG twice and had to drop both times due to pulmonary congestion. Last year, TdG doctors pulled her out of the race at Gressoney because of concerns about pneumonia. Gabi had never been beyond that point on the course. "Come out to Italy on Wednesday and we'll hike with Beat to Col Pinter," I told her. Yeah, it's only another 5,000-foot climb, and most of that elevation gain is crammed into a measly three miles. I was still sick, but I did talk Gabi into traveling all the way out there. Time to rally.

Beat, for his part, was only becoming stronger as the miles dragged on. I'd finally gotten some lunch down the hatch (pizza, of course) and felt considerably better as we followed him on the five-kilometer river path out of Gressoney. But as soon as the climb began, both Gabi and I had to work hard to keep Beat's pace. He was moving well and passing a fair number of TdG racers. It was 3 p.m. when we left Gressoney, and cold air was beginning to settle in as the sun sank lower on the horizon. Although skies were clear, temperatures hadn't even skimmed 10 degrees Celsius during the day, and were projected to drop to -5C at night with windchills around -13C. The cold remained for the rest of the race, and the weather seemed to take its toll on runners, who often arrived at life bases looking half-frozen. Beat, of course, took it all in stride. We bid goodbye on Col Pinter, elevation 2,776 meters, and then Gabi and I turned around for the long descent.

As we descended, I tried to explain the disparity in the difficulties of PTL versus TdG. "It's not just the navigational aspect," I said. "That's hard. But it's the terrain that really makes PTL tough to finish. Admittedly I wasn't as fit as I should be, but all the fitness in the world isn't going to help you much unless you have a fair amount of mountain scrambling experience and aren't afraid to move fast on sketchy terrain." Since we were working our way down a pass that had nearly 10,000 feet of elevation change in six miles, Gabi wondered how PTL terrain could possibly be harder. I pointed to the trail we were on. "See how we're on this nice trail. It's steep and loose and rocky, but it's defined; it carves a walkable surface. That's TdG." Then I pointed to the avalanche gully directly to our right, a steep rockslide of boulders and loose scree. "If there was no trail and we had to climb straight up and down that, that's PTL. Not all of PTL, of course. But enough to matter. It's the difference between moving 3 to 4 kilometers an hour with medium effort, like we've been doing, and 1 kilometer an hour at strenuous effort for the same distance and elevation."

Darkness fell by the time Gabi and I reached the river. About a half mile from Gressoney, we encountered Ana, who was traveling with a Canadian woman named Claire. Gabi and I accompanied them for four kilometers back to the base of the climb. Claire was chatty but Ana was quiet, understandably, so we didn't learn much about how she was doing. "I'm curious about how Ana is coping with TdG emotionally," I told Gabi later. "Only because I have more knowledge of what her PTL experience was like compared to Beat's, and honestly, I'm still a bit shell-shocked by the whole thing. I wonder if Ana feels similarly about it, and I wonder what it's like to put herself through it all over again. For sure, Ana is tough. I don't think I've ever met another woman who's so mentally tough."

Gabi and I didn't make it back to Gressoney until 10 p.m. We didn't bring much food with us, and next on the agenda was driving straight to Valtornenche to wait for Beat. I was particularly bummed about no dinner, and Gabi suggested we wander deeper into town. Gressoney is a tiny village whose population can't be more than a few hundred, and September is the Aosta Valley's off-season. Still, we came across a small restaurant that was open until 11 and served reasonably priced fresh polenta and gigantic lettuce, carrot, and tomato mixed salads. Fantastic. I love Italy.

My plan was to park the small rental car at the life base and sleep for a few hours in the back, as there wasn't enough time left before Beat's arrival to drive all the way back to Courmayeur. Unfortunately, I didn't have any blankets or really anything more than a spare coat to stay warm, and the temperature dropped to 1 degree Celsius by the time we arrived in Valtornenche. The TdG doesn't provide accommodations for crew — you're not even supposed to wait in the tents — so we were stuck. I was exhausted and slept for about 40 minutes before I shivered myself awake, but poor Gabi was especially miserable. She decided to go wait in the tent while I stubbornly opted to stay in the car (I'm self-conscious about being unwelcome as a non-racer.) After about 20 minutes I woke up again with completely numb hands and feet. It was concerning enough that I went for a run through the streets to bring the circulation back to my limbs. Then I continued to lie in the car and shiver until Beat arrived at about 4 a.m.

Gabi had planned to stay another night, but when I warned her about another frigid overnight wait at the final life base, Ollomont, she booked the first train back to Zurich on Thursday. I don't blame her; it really was miserable, and I had become ill again, so I wasn't optimistic about embarking on any more hikes. We didn't make it back to Courmayeur until 10 a.m. and I was back on the road to Ollomont at 4 p.m. after more vomiting and little sleep. Honestly, it was brutal. But I had done it to myself.

I expected to arrive at the village of Close around the same time as Beat, but when I looked around the checkpoint, I couldn't find him, and also didn't see him as I sat outside to watch racers come in (as it turned out, he was napping inside at the time.) I decided I must have missed him, so I grabbed my pack and started power-hiking up the next pass, Col Brison. I was nauseated and hiking harder than I should in a hopeful effort to catch Beat. Common sense told me to just turn around as it was getting dark and I was too sick to pleasure hike, but I still held on to the attitude that "I'm only in the Aosta Valley for a few more days so I might as well soak up as much as I can. Rest can happen next week." But Col Brison proved to be my unraveling. By the return trip I felt nine-tenths shattered. As it turned out, Beat had been behind me, and I intercepted him on the steepest part of the pass. Although I felt awful at that point, I decided to join him for some of his climb since my whole intention in going to Close was to hike with him. Beat was also very tired and we climbed in silence for about five minutes before he said, "Wait, am I hallucinating you?" After about 25 minutes I had to turn around so there would be enough time to hike down and drive all the way around this huge mountain to meet him in Ollomont.

The Ollomont stop also kept me out until the pre-dawn hours, and when I returned to Courmayeur at 5 a.m. I was quite ill, yet again. The entire time I was in Italy, I felt like I was operating on meager strands of energy reserves that I'd managed to restock through whatever sleep I could grab. But once those reserves were spent, I was fully spent. By Friday morning I was nearly as bad off as I'd been two weeks earlier when I dropped out of PTL. There had been hopeful plans to join Beat on the final big climb of TdG — the stunning 9,600-foot Col Malatra — but there was really no way to make it happen. Honestly, someone could have offered me a check for $5,000 to climb that pass and I would have regretfully turned them down. My body outright refused and then locked me in the bathroom for good measure. It was impossible.

And then there's Beat. Crazy, amazing Beat. His strength only increased as the long miles and sleepless nights dragged on. His chest cold had improved and his throbbing feet went partially numb, and he started running. He texted me on Friday morning from St. Rhemy a full two hours before I expected him to get there. Over the next six hours, he marched swiftly up Col Malatra and then ran most of the way down, a 6,000-foot descent over 11 miles into Courmayeur. In the final 50 kilometers of TdG, he moved up more than 35 positions in the standings, finishing in 140th place out of 750 starters and 383 finishers. His time of 125 hours, 14 minutes and 19 seconds was his fastest yet. Best of all, he maintained his coveted position as a "senatori" — a competitor who's finished every running of the Tor des Geants. The distinction allows him to bypass the lottery for this race, which is becoming more difficult to enter. As a four-time finisher he swore he wouldn't go back, but that assertion didn't even make it as far as the finish line. He loves the TdG.

I've always been impressed with Beat's endurance capabilities, but until this week, I'm not sure I fully appreciated the extent of how far he can take them. I've long held the belief that for most people, endurance possibilities reach much farther than we realize, and most of our limits are in our minds. I still believe this — in many ways, fear and self-doubt were my most limiting factors in PTL — but that experience, followed with my rough "recovery" week during TdG, cut my hubris about mind over matter down a few notches. A PTL-TdG double finish is a remarkable achievement to the few dozen people who care about these sorts of things, and Beat managed this in the same year he walked 1,000 miles to Nome. He does have a life outside all of this marching through the wilds of Alaska and mountains of Europe, but these adventures make him happy. They really do. I can see that now perhaps more than before, even as I grasp for understanding about *how* he can possibly make it happen.

Ana also finished the Tor des Geants, arriving after 143 hours, 8 minutes, and 2 seconds early Saturday morning. She was 19th out of 38 female finishers, and 255th overall. I was really excited for her as well, and I also don't understand how she did it. But the Italian Alps are incredible, and I think both of them agree it was worth it. As do I. 

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.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A strange one


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.

As Giorgio and I groped about to find our way out of the village outskirts and back into the woods, I thought more about just how much of a mind game PTL really was. Whether it was monitoring the GPS track, determining the best line up a scree field, steering my body through highly technical terrain, or stressing about another scary obstacle, my brain could never disengage the high gears. Not even for a second. Because even when I wasn't moving, I was still obsessing about navigation, or schedules, or upcoming obstacles. Only in sleep could my brain even begin to shut down, which is probably why I was so obsessed with sleep. My legs and feet were fine, but my brain was so, so tired.

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!" 

"Where?"

"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." 

The first hints of dawn were just breaking when we reached the 2,900-meter summit of Col du Breuil. I could tell we were nearly there because there was a line through my GPS track indicating an international border. As we slumped over the broad pass, six hours' worth of intense sickness and despair seemed to drain through the quivering fibers of my legs. In front of us, fingers of pink light stretched through a sharp skyline of snow-capped peaks, and towering over them all was the unmistakable southern aspect of Mont Blanc — or Monte Bianco, as it was known on this side. Giorgio stretched out his arms. "Welcome to Italy, the greatest country in the world!"

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.

We still had thirty rugged official kilometers to travel to Morgex and only ten hours to do it, which — despite that adding up to the inconceivably slow pace of less than two miles per hour — still felt like an impossible dream in PTL reality. But Giorgio was still pumped up, Ana was fiercely determined, and I finally felt reasonably human again after a night of vomiting foam and being stalked by imaginary wolves, not to mention the continued sinister whisperings of my Sleep Monster. We shuffled and hopped across the boulder field until we reached a steep slope covered in ice-hard snow, and no way to go around it. A three-man PTL team was lingering at the top, probably building up the courage to butt-slide down.

"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.

We followed the French team over another small pass and across a broad slope covered in large, chunky talus that was difficult to navigate — both by the general direction of the GPS track, and by the technical challenge of the terrain. My eyesight was still shot — everything was blurry and I didn't trust my own feet to go where they needed to go. But I was attempting to eat a gummy candy every five minutes, and this seemed to hold back the intense feelings of vertigo I'd experienced the day before. The candy and adrenaline rush of the snow slide had also re-booted some semblance of lucidity in my brain, which at this point was more of a liability than a gift — because it pushed my apathetic Monster away and renewed my anxiety.

"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.

This fear continued to weigh on my mind as we finished traversing the broad slope and reached another cliff that we had to skirt around. The passage was actually vertical, meaning a 90-degree angle, but there were footholds and chains along the way to aid in the lateral climb. Technically it wasn't that difficult, but my vertigo was taking hold again and I struggled with a sense that the wall was about to tilt in on top of me. Although I'd had lots of trouble in PTL coping with difficult footing, Giorgio seemed to be more bothered by exposure than I was, and he was extremely tentative on the chains. As we reached slightly less vertical terrain, we had to put our feet down on wet, pebble-covered rock that was quite slippery. This part was way scarier, and I didn't trust my feet at all so I shifted all of my weight to the chain. The force made my bruised arm ache intensely, but I couldn't let go.

The process of getting around the cliffs was just too strenuous of a physical and mental effort, and it brought all of my dizziness and nausea back. I tried to eat a granola bar, but I was pukey again, and I could only take a few bites before it threatened to come back up. My legs wobbled with every step and my head spun. Another indication that PTL was fine when it was fine, but things could go bad very quickly. "Wait for Col Batallion," Monster sneered. "You have run out of survival mode, and you will not survive."

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.

"Wow," I said as I slumped toward Ana, who was waiting for me and Giorgio at the col. "I feel really bad. Really, really bad." I hunched over and coughed up some more water and foam — involuntarily, I promise — but it did drive my point home. Then I started laughing. "This is maybe the worst I've ever felt. Maybe. I don't remember right now. But it's so bad it's funny, because if I felt this bad at home I'd be in bed, not thinking I'll just go ahead and keep walking for the rest of the week."

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.

Instead, I followed Ana and Giorgio as we continued to trace the sharp edge of the ridge. Giorgio had fired up his GPS to take the main navigational role, as I had become more distracted and made several wrong turns, once leading everyone more than a half mile out of the way. Meanwhile, my nausea became severe. It had gotten to the point where any amount of exertion would cause me to gag and sometimes cough up foam, so I moved extremely slowly along the relatively gentle climbs and descents. Ana and Giorgio were patient with me but they did have to stop and wait often, and seemed frustrated when I plopped down on the trail and demanded sit-down rests.

"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?"

Still, as we climbed through what I felt was intense heat, my nausea really clamped down again. I drank water but it only made me feel worse. I'd been taking electrolyte tablets as well, but those hadn't seemed to help, either. At what seemed to be the summit, we collapsed next to two other teams who were laying in the grass. I consulted my paper. "I'm not sure," I said. "But it may still be sixteen kilometers to Morgex," I said. "In fact, it probably is sixteen kilometers." I looked at my watch. 2:30 p.m. Ten miles. In just over three hours. Such a pace would probably be the fastest we'd moved during any given hour of the entire PTL.

"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. 

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.