Sunday, August 31, 2014

Still too dumb to quit

Well, team "Too Dumb to Quit" put their intelligence in question once again by completing yet another insanely routed loop around Mont Blanc. Daniel and Beat arrived in Chamonix at about noon on Sunday, after five and a half days of off-piste adventures of the sort that render distance and even elevation statistics meaningless. Numbers don't convey the degree of difficulty in La Petite Trotte a Leon, which is why a select few love it so much ... and the people who love them, not so much.

I sure am proud of these guys, but mostly I'm just glad they're done. It's probably obvious that I don't hold much love for PTL. The course creators go out of their way to make every kilometer as difficult as possible. Steep talus, icy boulder fields, snow slopes, knife ridges, glacier moraines, frequent 35-percent-plus grades, via ferrata, exposed scrambling — basically, any terrain that doesn't fall into the "Class 5 rock climbing" range of technicality is fair game in PTL. And that's fine — it's meant to be an adventure. But combining difficult and dangerous terrain with tight cut-offs, extreme distances, and the necessary speed required to finish, create a risky environment where mistakes can cost more than just a DNF. Even small mistakes compound quickly. I feel more comfortable with Beat trekking a thousand miles across Alaska in the winter than I do about his safety in PTL.

It's all a matter of perspective, I suppose. My own experiences with this race definitely cast a long shadow over my view. But Beat loves it, so I make an effort to be supportive. And he and Daniel did really well this year. They banked a lot of time early, which worked in their favor later when Daniel grappled with a knee injury that slowed him down considerably on the descents, and Beat fought stomach issues that stripped away his energy for the climbs. To say they were shattered at the finish would be an understatement, and I still haven't heard about Beat's wilder adventures out there — but he's snoring away, so I can tell he's satisfied.

 I admit I did a lot of fretting this week, but managed to keep myself busy with both work and heavy play. While most of the PTL passages are rugged and technical, there are always four or five that organizers make a point to note as particularly difficult. One of these was Arête des Autannes, on the border of France and Switzerland. The PTL teams were actually routed around the ridge due to heavy wind and rain on the first day, so no one went over this particular pass. But I was curious, and armed with the freedom to turn around if I didn't feel comfortable, I headed back to Le Buet to check out the next 15 or so kilometers of the PTL course.

The weather was a volatile again on Friday — high winds above tree line, and intermittent thunderstorms. I reached Col de Balme, which is part of the UTMB route, and decided to take the same sneak around the mountain that the PTL teams took, rather than climb what looked like a vertical wall into ominous dark clouds. However, as I picked my way around the rocky, side-sloping route, I was filled with stoke once again and decided to try Arête des Autannes from the backside.

Chunky talus, my favorite! Actually, the truth is I enjoy off-trail exploring and would probably find most of the PTL course to be fun in the same small doses I tried this year. Still, as I approached the arête, the weather closed in again and my own self-imposed cutoff had come and gone. In order to ensure I made the last train out of Le Buet, I set an absolute turn-around time of 4 p.m.. If I could gain the ridge and descend the original PTL course, the return trip would likely be a lot faster. But low clouds were ripping along the ridge in a way that warned me winds were fierce back in France. It was raining again, and from a stance less than 500 horizontal meters (and about 150 vertical) from the top, I just couldn't find a line through the cliffs that I felt comfortable climbing. There was one steep scree couloir that looked doable, but it was well off "course" — meaning the straight line drawn by the GPS track. I had no idea how sharp or exposed the ridge would be if I needed to make my way along it, and also uncertain whether a climb deemed technical by the PTL organization would even be possible for me to descend. If I checked it out and had to turn back, that would mean likely missing the train. So I turned around, feeling defeated. Ah, PTL. Foiled again.

Rain continued to fall as I contoured back around the mountain. The route cut a thin notch into a steep side-slope, which often involved scrambling up and over small rock formations that rippled down the mountain like veins. While rising to my feet at the top of one climb, my right foot slipped out and I slid a couple of meters down the smooth, wet surface of the rock into a cluster of bushes. As I thrashed to untangle myself, I had this sense that there was nothing holding me to the mountain besides brush; the angle of the slope was steep enough that there wasn't much in the way of ground below the brush. Eek, eek, eek. It was my second major clumsy incident this week, and a scary one at that, even though I was moving about as slowly and carefully as I'm capable. (Which is to say, super over-cautious. Maybe that's the problem.) I sustained a swollen bruise on the outside of my left knee that causes sharp pain when I run (which I learned an hour later, while racing toward the train.) Strangely, walking didn't hurt at all.

Then, just as I neared the edge of Switzerland, the weather really closed in. High winds, rain, near-zero visibility. I had to put on both a synthetic puffy and a shell to stay warm. UTMB had just started and I was feeling sorry for those suckers, but as it turned out this was a localized thunderstorm and short-lived. Still, through only fault of my own, I was subjecting myself to experiences I set out to avoid this week by not racing PTL.

Friday's excursion turned out longer than I planned — another 20-mile day with 7,000 feet of climbing — so I was going to take it easy on Saturday: Relax on a longer train and bus commute to Les Contamines, eat a crepe, maybe take a mellow hike or even a gondola up to the life base at Col du Joly to see if I could catch Beat before it was time to take the train home. But, perhaps predictably, mountain stoke hit as soon as I stepped off the bus, and I was soon making my way backward on the PTL course up the steep face of Mont Joly.

The weather was much better but still not ideal — the cloud ceiling was around 6,000 feet and above that there was not much to see. I encountered a handful of the leading PTL teams and chatted for a few minutes with the Finnish team. I met one of them before the race and he struck me as stern then, but up here he had this loopy, playful demeanor. Amusing.

Then the clouds started to clear — oh wow, there are some views up here!

And this is a pretty sweet ridge.

The summit of Mont Joly, with the sign situated right next to some solar panels so selfie-taking hikers can capture the full splendor of the Alps in the background.

Although I had another turn-around deadline — as missing the bus in Les Contamines would effectively make a 25-kilometer hike on the UTMB trail my only means of getting home — I couldn't resist the temptation of a ridge walk toward Col du Joly.

Clouds continued to move through and views remained intermittent, but when they did open up, the scenery was incredible. The ridge became narrower and sharper until there were only cliffs on one side and steep, grassy talus on the other. It was often breathtakingly exposed — at one point I encountered some tape strung along the trail, and when I stepped around it I noticed a small notch of a couloir that went quite literally straight down — one misplaced step would be like stepping into a manhole that dropped two thousand feet to the bowl below. This notch cut right into the worn surface of the spine that formed the trail. Good thing someone strung up that tape. Several dozen sleepy PTL participants walked this way.

Again, fun during the day with plenty of energy. I wouldn't necessarily want to be here in the dark, which is when Beat and Daniel traversed the ridge of Mont Joly a few hours later. But he said they had a fantastic experience, with the ethereal hues of moonlight reflecting from the cliffs, and village lights twinkling 5,000 feet below. It sounded magical, and I do understand what Beat sees in this endeavor. Even I question what I actually think is going to be so different about Tor des Geants. I won't know until I try it, but I'm quite excited for my chance. Despite a couple of crashes, this week of "training" couldn't have turned out better. Although my five days in the Alps pale in comparison to PTL, it was still 75 miles with 31,700 feet of climbing. And beyond cuts, bruises, and a bashed knee, I experienced few negative physical effects. My legs weren't even sore. The feet complained as feet often do. And I made silly missteps, but this week definitely helped me find my "mountain legs" again. I'm glad I had this opportunity. It would have been far more nerve-wracking to go into an endeavor like TDG cold.

Now for a week of rest, work, and visiting Beat's mom in Switzerland. He claims that three cowbells (the "prize" for finishing PTL) are enough and he promised not to return. Even though I actually do want a rematch with UTMB (the 2012 race was rerouted due to blizzard conditions and the course I ran was very different from the "real" UTMB), I'd be just as happy to let that go if it meant no more PTL for Beat. I'm not sure I believe him, but I intend to remind him of this promise. 
Thursday, August 28, 2014

On the "trail" of the PTL

Oh, PTL. I intended to post more regular updates about Beat’s progress in the race, but this week in Chamonix has gotten away from me in a big way. My phone’s sim card died and there’s nothing I can do about it because the phone is AT&T-locked (I hate phones. Up until a month ago I was a proud smart-phone holdout; I had a dumb phone that I rarely used and carried with me only sporadically, and I already miss it, so much.) So our communication is worse than it would be if pay phones were still a thing. But I digress from this retro-grouching. Beat and Daniel are still alive. In a race like PTL, that’s pretty much all that matters.

 Here’s a slightly longer summary: We flew SFO-Zurich-Geneva on Saturday/Sunday, and took a shuttle to Chamonix, arriving too late for dinner, probably sometime around 10 p.m. local time. I never weather jet lag well, and stayed awake another full night while Beat dosed himself with enough Ambien to wake up with a hangover. Bank, grocery store, packing, pre-race briefing, terrible pre-race pasta, and then the race started at 5:30 p.m. Monday — which was so blissfully early! (It started at 10 p.m. last year.) As the PTL teams zig-zagged up the first mountain, it started to rain. Then it rained a lot.

I figured I'd put in a good "training" week here in the Alps — by which I mean fortifying the mental weaponry and testing how well the legs work rather than accomplishing any real physical conditioning. So on Tuesday I boosted myself out in the deluge and climbed through tedious fog until there were no more trees, only the blurred outline of rocks, a river gushing down the trail, and fierce blasts of wind. Gusts were well above 40 mph. Any time I turned straight into the wind, I was forced to gasp through a fire hose of rain. I felt like I was drowning; I really couldn't breathe. This is what I imagine waterboarding must be like. And the whole time I felt vaguely nauseated because I knew Beat was out on steep and exposed terrain in this weather. I have this conviction that PTL is so dangerous, but then I took a big tumble while attempting to run downhill —  slipped on a wet boulder and managed a full somersault and a highly painful jarring (though luckily no dislocation) of my right shoulder. This is why I'm so cautious-to-a-fault and frightened on exposed terrain. People who make a lot of mistakes do not belong in no-fail zones. 

 So I worried about Beat, but his tracker kept creeping forward, so at least I knew he was moving. My Alaska-time-zone deadlines kept me up all night on Tuesday. As in, I actually didn't sleep at all. I was going into day four of the vacation with single-digit hours of sleep. This made for the perfect opportunity for Tor des Geants training — a long hike on extended sleep deprivation. I opted to explore the first segment of this year's PTL course, 20 miles between Chamonix and Le Buet.

 I was quite sleepy, but at least the weather had cleared and it was a beautiful day.

 Because I was traveling on unknown terrain given the stamp of approval by the PTL organization, I carried a headlamp and another spare light just in case I needed to turn around late in the one-way trip. My hard tumble the day before left me bruised and rattled, and I wasn't about to go scrambling up any class-four couloirs or cliff faces "protected" with bolted bits of twine.

The climb up to Col Brevent gets 4,500 feet of vertical out of the way fast. One final glance at the Chamonix Valley before descending into the beautiful and remote-feeling Reserve Naturelle de Passy.

 I really loved my hike through here. Big country, imposing mountains, steep trails, a satisfying burn in my leg muscles.

 And another huge climb up to Col de Salenton, elevation 2,526 meters.

New views from the top of the col. I was 9,000 feet of vertical into the day and very full of stoke at this point.

 Then came time to drop off the face of the Earth. It was the kind of descent that's a constant horizon line — you think you're on top of a cliff the whole time, and there can't possibly be a way down, but as you pick out another cairn from the rubble and peek over the edge, you can discern the only doable line down walls of stacked boulders. Ah, this is the PTL I know and (don't) love. At least this was just "classic" PTL — not "terrifying" PTL — so I didn't have to turn around and hike 15 miles back.

 And at least there were cute baby ibex to keep me company. I imagine that in a past life I was an evil mountain goat, I did something bad, and was doomed to come back in my next life as a clumsy human with a fierce love for mountains and decidedly below-average talents when it comes to traveling this terrain. But it was a wonderful day. I noticed on the way down that I had none of the leg fatigue that I usually have on my day hikes in the Alps, despite a 13-mile, 6,000-foot effort the previous day and the 20-mile, 9,000 feet over much more difficult terrain on this day. It seems the Freedom Challenge has left me with great leg endurance; if I can keep my feet happy (and more importantly, keep the earth below them) during the Tor des Geants, maybe I'll be okay.

On Thursday, I took the bus into Italy to catch Beat and Daniel in Morgex. Despite weather and other hardships, they're making good time on the course and feeling relatively good. They've had some tough nights — 100 kph winds and rain on a high ridge on the first night, and a class-four scramble with an exposed ridge traverse on Col d'Annibal. The usual. The navigation is also tricky this year, with lots of off-trail travel, lost-in-translation route descriptions, and a GPS track that mainly just connects distant points with straight lines.

This is what you get when you ask tired people to smile. See that mat on the left? That's where they were permitted to sleep for a few hours in Morgex. No blankets, no pillows. Just a hard mat in a loud gymnasium. Yup, that's the PTL I know and (don't) love. 

 I had a bus to catch but I was able to accompany them for four miles out of Morgex. It was an enjoyable segment — essentially a friendly road walk, and it was nice to spend stress-free time with the guys. They had a good sleep and two meals in Morgex, so they were feeling pretty good.

Bidding them goodbye at the rifugio Arpy. This next segment of PTL has more than 6,000 meters of climbing in 60 kilometers. Even Daniel, who lives in Colorado and has climbed a large number of mountains in that state, was trying to wrap his head around what it meant to climb 20,000 feet in just 36 miles. I really don't like to think about it ... because there's almost no way to parse those numbers without throwing in some "terrifying PTL." So I'll likely wake up a bunch tonight in cold sweats and a need to refresh Beat's tracking page. Oh, PTL. 
Saturday, August 23, 2014

Lessons from PTL

2013 PTL start in Chamonix. Photo by Joe Grant
Beat and I head to Geneva and then Chamonix on Sunday afternoon, just enough time for him to grab a few last-minute supplies, attend a pre-race briefing, and start Monday's Petite Trotte a Leon properly jet-lagged and travel weary. I finished up my packing rather effortlessly, having streamlined the process enough that I can fit three weeks of travel and one major multiday race into a small suitcase and carry-on (my secret: I just use nearly the same supplies and gear for every endurance race I do, winter or summer, bike or foot. Works!)

Beat has a case of pre-race jitters and rightly so. Mine can hold off for a couple more weeks. While Beat races the PTL I'm going to take buses around the valley and attempt trace pieces of this year's PTL course as my one week of TDG "training." Some of my friends have hinted at whether I feel regret for not attempting to avenge my PTL DNF from last year. No. None. I have no intention of ever returning to PTL. It wasn't right for me. It was both too arduous and too dangerous relative to my personal abilities and skill set. With a similar geographical location, distance, and elevation profile as the Tor des Geants, some might wonder how the two races could be all that different. Granted, I have only seen what amounts to about 20 percent of the TDG course — but all of these sections were comparable to the easiest passages of PTL. The *easy* stuff in PTL was incredibly steep trail and boulder fields. The hard stuff was bolted cliff faces, exposed scrambling, loose boulders, avalanche chutes, extremely slippery mud or scree slopes, steep snow fields, and other types of terrain where, while not technically "climbing," were technical and often exposed enough that any mistake had very serious consequences. It was all doable, but the speed at which my teammates and I had to approach that stuff to feel remotely secure ensured that we were near or behind every single soft and hard cut-off, from kilometer 30 on. This cut-off chasing ensured we couldn't find time to sleep, eat, or even collect snow for water (I ended up with mild frostnip on the tips of my fingers from clawing frantically at the frozen crust because I had been out of water for three hours and was parched, but needed to catch my teammates before they hiked out of sight, since I was the only one navigating.) We held on for 92 hours and 200 official kilometers (about 145 GPS miles) before I slowed down too much to accompany my teammates as we chased the checkpoint two cut-off. My race ended in a genuine psychotic episode that I still can't explain (although I think it was something similar to an anxiety attack.) Much of the experience was a nightmare, a true nightmare, and I never, never, never want to go back.

So will TDG be all that different? Enough so to take an experience I hated and flip this whole thing around to become something I love? Ha, who knows? That's part of the strange and wonderful reasons why we run. We can't explain it, so we just run with it, and let the story sort itself out in the aftermath. I did learn many valuable lessons during PTL, several of which I think I can use to improve my chances of a positive experience in TDG.

1. Fear is powerful. I know this, but I need reminders, a constant mantra to keep the monster at arm's length and force myself to rationalize my way through tough situations rather than flail at them in an emotional whirlwind.

2. Food is important. For the more disconcerting symptoms I experienced in PTL — dizziness, blurred vision, intense nausea, and hallucinations — I initially blamed lack of sleep. In hindsight, I think the more likely culprit was lack of food. I'm not sure I even realized how little I was eating, but it couldn't have been much — we were cut off from meals at two support stations, each about twenty hours apart, and the two meals we ate during the four days of the race were both reheated TV-dinner-style plates in both quality and quantity. Other than that, I had what was in my pack, which with one resupply amounted to maybe 6,000 calories total, for four days. There were two instances where we went through a town and stopped by a refuge when my teammates grabbed a quick snack and I opted to curl up on a chair and nap, because I had become obsessed with getting more sleep. Those types of low-rolling bonks are difficult to detect but swift to deteriorate. I sure was a mess on the last day.

3. Sleep might not be as important as I thought. The jury's out on this. I think the sweet spot is four hours per 24-hour period, and acceptable mental functionality can be had in three. Less than that might bring the stalking-wolf hallucinations and blurred vision back. I have a hunch that I will not be able to afford even this much sleep, but a lot can be accomplished with short naps at times that the sleep monster hits. I am considering carrying a light bivy system for trailside snoozes.

4. The input of other people does help keep me centered. I had teammates in the PTL. Their low points were not my low points and vice versa. I think we moved slower overall because of this, but the company of others also helped stave off the meltdowns (Evidenced by the major meltdown I lapsed into as soon as I was alone.) I will not have teammates in the TDG, and I have asked Beat not to stick with me as I think this is an experience I need to tackle on my own. That said, I do hope to make some trail friends.

5. Dry feet are happy feet. During PTL, both of my teammates were burdened with terrible blisters, and they expressed jealousy in my "perfect mountain feet." I've never had much success finishing anything with hurty feet, so my only option is to keep them happy. I do this with diligent reapplications of Beat's homemade, moisture-repelling Hydrolube, and by removing my shoes and socks at absolutely every stop, even if it's only five minutes. It's worth it. Enough time on feet leaves them beaten up no matter what, but a lack of open sores helps greatly.

6. Shut up legs. I have yet to develop a leg pain that persists for more than a few days after a race is over. Horrible shin splints from the seven days of the Iditarod Trail Invitational included. I have a fairly good sense now of all the pains I get that are not long-term injuries, just short-term irritation.

7. Losing one's mind ... avoid at all costs. So I had what I think was an anxiety attack after I already understood that my race was over and I was making my way into the Aosta Valley on the fourth day of PTL. I got "lost" and went tearing blindly through the woods, with what felt like no rational control over what my body was doing. It was very unnerving and downright scary. Not worth it. If lack of sleep sends me down this path in TDG, I've vowed not to let it go this far.

Regardless it's going to be a wild ride and I'm actually very excited for the Tor des Geants. There are still two weeks to go. In the meantime, I'm going to be tracking Beat and his teammate, Daniel, in the PTL. And, similar to past TDGs, plan to check out small sections of the terrain he's experiencing ... with the wonderful freedom of knowing this time, if I don't like it, I can turn around. 
Tuesday, August 19, 2014


 My birthday is this week. It's my 35th. This also marks three and a half years of living in California; both numbers baffle me. It's not that I feel young — I've been more of an "old soul" ever since I was actually young — but I just can't believe that half of a decade has passed since I climbed on top of Mount McGinnis to embrace my thirties. "It's such a cliche but it's true that once you hit 30, the years really start slipping away," I told my friend Leah as we headed out to Big Basin for a ride on Saturday. She reminded me that I've filled these California years with adventures, which is one of the reasons they've gone by so fast. I actually think routine is what really makes our perception of time speed up, because days that are filled with sameness are the ones that tend to disappear. I have plenty of habits, but also a sense of curiosity that injects sparks of wonder into even the mundane days. Wonder is what keeps me young. It's certainly not my skin, because 35 years around the sun has not been kind to that.

We enjoyed a fantastic ride on Saturday. It's been a while since I coaxed Leah out to the Peninsula, but I had a fun idea for a loop through Big Basin — descending the steep and narrow spine of McCreary Ridge, rolling along the coast, and climbing Gazos Creek fire road. I thought if any trails around here had even the faintest hint of tackiness left, those sheltered by sixty-foot redwoods would. I couldn't have been more wrong. I don't think it's rained around here since sometime before my last birthday, and the parched ground has been stirred up to a chunder that resembles granola mixed with powdered sugar. Leah is back in training for cross season and I told her that she'd probably be fine with her cross bike, but the McCreary Ridge descent was loose and sketchy. There were a few instances of chunder-surfing with a locked rear wheel, some downhill hike-a-bikes, and blasting through curtains of cob webs and moss dust on a baked-mulch descent to the coast. I don't think McCreary Ridge sees much use, by anyone.

It was a beautiful afternoon at Waddell Beach. We still had to make our way up Gazos Creek on a steep dusty road ripped up by logging truck traffic, the kind of surface that keeps you close to red-lined even in granny gear — but if it wasn't for that obligation I probably could have relaxed here for a few more hours. This is probably something I'll do more frequently someday if I have the privilege to get really old — sit on a beach and stare at the ocean.

I'm wrapping up some final training runs before we head to Europe for Beat's third year of PTL, which starts next Monday. Today I headed up Black Mountain to hike the steeper pitches with my trekking poles. I haven't done much trekking pole training recently, but I don't think that matters. I use them frequently and juggle them well when I'm running; I've had a lot of practice yet. I've been trying out the Hoka Stinson trail shoe; put about a hundred miles on them so far. This is my first venture into a different model of Hokas since I found the Mafate 1 in 2010 (I like to joke that I'm not a Hoka convert — more like a native born, since I ventured into running while using Hokas.) I like the Stinsons but I'm worried the durability may be lacking; I've already torn the tongue twice and fear for the mesh outers on rocky Alps trails. I have one more new pair of Mafate 2s and may break those in for Tor des Geants. My older pair of Mafate 2s has nearly 950 miles. I was going to try to push them to 1,000, but the now-bald soles are beginning to separate so I may have to accept their early demise.

I planned a longer run today and assumed it would be tedious so I downloaded some new music and settled in for a grind. But what I found was this cool, almost autumn-like breeze wafting along the ridge, a cape of sea fog draped over the mountains, and rich evening sunlight that reflected off the golden hillsides with a mesmerizing shimmer. I shuffled along with my trekking poles and cackled at Weird Al's new album, which I downloaded because until recently I didn't even realize Weird Al was still making new music, but he was one of my favorites when I was 12 and listening to Weird Al makes me feel young. As it turns out, his parody of Imagine Dragon's "Radioactive" makes a great running song, even if it's about being "Really Inactive."

"I'm giving up. My energy is shot. I'm never moving from this spot."

Singing and clicking my poles and just like that, 17.5 miles with 4,100 feet of climbing was done. Maybe it's true that once you hit 35, even the miles start slipping away before you notice. 
Friday, August 15, 2014

Dog days

August is the month for reluctant training, stirring up clouds of dust from the chunder trails, wiping the burn of salt from my eyes, and running without water for eight miles in the midst of a 20-mile run in 85-degree heat because my region is in exceptional drought and the groundwater taps are dry. Through it all, I wonder why I so ambitiously signed up for a late-summer race. But I know the reason. Registrations for these things always take place in January, when California's outside temperatures are tolerable and spirits are still fresh. (I wouldn't call my January legs fresh, however, since I'm usually in training for some hard Alaska race. But at least the legs are peppy in January, because they're going to Alaska.)

Then late summer comes around and the legs are tenderized, spirits over-ripened, and the consequences of January ambition ... those are still the same.

I actually wouldn't mind hibernating through August. One of these years I probably should. But I really do want to participate in the Tor des Geants, and so I need to do at least some physical preparation. Since mid-July I've been aiming to balance more frequent rest days to continue recovering from the Freedom Challenge, slow runs and hikes to add a little more spark to the legs, and some cycling as well because I do really like cycling. Slow is all I've been able to accomplish, but both my speed and energy levels are improving with every run. Since I'm not experiencing much in the way of overtraining symptoms besides being slow, this ongoing improvement suggests that I'm not burned out — I'm just out of shape. It makes sense. I did focused running training through March, which developed into a routine complete with pace expectations. Then I turned to long-distance cycling for three and a half months. I can't just expect to pick up where I left off with running, regardless of how much cycling I did in the interim.

I've been analyzing the data from the Tor des Geants course because — while I am slowly regaining fitness — in truth my only real chance of finishing this race is to go in with a well-understood plan that I can use to crack a whip on my less-than-peppy legs. I never make race plans because plans fall apart, every time — but PTL last year taught me that if I don't adequately judge my abilities against the cut-offs, I'm going to end up chasing them for four days and DNF anyway.

The Tor des Geants is 205 miles with 78,740 feet of climbing. That's an average elevation change of 768 feet per mile, but the reality is usually north of 1,000 feet per mile with the occasional flat section thrown in just to really piss off your feet. Yes, that is a higher average than Hardrock and yes, the TDG is twice as far, and yes, my plan is to hike the entire thing. There may be an occasional shuffle on the infrequent lower grades just to mix up muscle use, but personal experience has taught me that — unless you happened to be named Kilian or are sponsored by Salomon — a focused power-hike is both more enjoyable and more efficient over a long enough period of time. The most common reason people drop out of the Tor des Geants is because they went out too fast and tore up their feet, crushed their knees, and shredded their quads. They didn't think it was too fast. It was probably slower than they'd ever run in their lives. But it was too fast.

Still, to actually finish the Tor des Geants in its 150-hour cutoff, you still need to cover 33 miles per 24-hour period. At a glance, it doesn't seem that bad. A 50K a day? Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers do that all the time! But what's contained in that 50K is what matters. The first 49 kilometers, for example, has 13,110 feet of climbing. (When analyzing run data I often think it terms of kilometers of distance and feet of climbing. It think this is because I grew up with imperial units of measurement but focused the bulk of my running on either 50Ks or Euro-races, so I visualize kilometers.) But to reiterate, that's 49,000 meters of horizontal with 8,000 meters of vertical change, otherwise known as the takeoff angle of a jet. The whole course is more or less like this for 330 kilometers. You can see why I would love this, right? It's a foot race more or less designed for strong and determined hikers. I only wish I was in better shape.

But I am trying to figure out how capable I might be at any given section so I can design a plan with expected rate of travel along with the best, or at least most strategic, places to rest. To do this I tapped my four-time finisher boyfriend for recommendations and then dredged up old Strava data from some hikes I've done on the course. There are 25 prominent "peaks" on the course and I've seen seven of them, some several times because the timing for a crewperson in the Tor des Geants usually works out to hit the same places year after year. Here's a profile of one of my favorites, Col Pinter:

Why, yes, that is 4,500 feet of climbing in 3.5 miles. So fun! Probably even more fun after 120 miles of slogging through much of the same. The blue line is my pace chart. Not sure why it fluctuates so much (guessing stops to catch my breath) but the higher ends are probably most accurate. Shooting for 25-minute miles seems an ambitious but worthy goal. I realistically have to keep my overall moving average below a 30-minute mile to make this work, while still finding the necessary time for sleeping, feet-drying and repair, and eating ... in that order. (Actually eating is the most important thing in an endeavor like this and the hardest to keep up with. That's actually another very common reason people drop out of a multiday event ... they just run out of gas. Low calorie intake was likely my biggest physical setback during the PTL and greatly exacerbated my psychological meltdowns.)

Here's another fun one, Col Loson, and the reminder that there are definitely going to be some 60- and maybe even 90-minute miles in the mix. This is why I'm doing the math even though I doubt I'll be able to adhere even loosely to any kind of race plan. But I have experienced pieces of this route, and feel like these previews will help me set reasonable expectations for myself. The Tor des Geants will be the kind of 90-percent-mental mindgame that I both love and fear the most. Three and a half more weeks to go.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Before it gets dark

I learned about Rob's death the way many of us learn about tragic events involving friends and acquaintances these days — on Facebook, a day before any concrete information was out there. From the timing and a few vague statements, I could only discern that the likely cause was an accident during the Alaska Wilderness Classic, an unsupported adventure race through the Wrangell Mountains. The news had a somber impact on the early part of this week. I did not know Rob well, but he was someone who was kind to me when I was scared and vulnerable, and left a lasting impression.

Rob was a perennial volunteer for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and always manned the checkpoint in Rohn — a remote, spartan outpost on the far side of the Alaska Range. We first met in 2008 when I stumbled into his lovingly outfitted wall tent after spending nearly thirty hours making my way over Rainy Pass. I was physically shattered, emotionally spent, frightened by my night out at thirty below, and had a wet boot and frozen drivetrain after accidentally dropping my bike in Pass Creek. And yet I was in the middle of this race so I felt obligated to either quit or keep going. "Just sleep for a while," Rob encouraged me. "It's okay to sleep."

We met again in February of this year after a tough slog through the slush, mud, glare ice, and puddles of a freakishly warm Dalzell Gorge. Rob greeted me with his characteristic big bear hug and an offer of bratwurst that he was warming on a tiny camp grill. Although it had been six years, he remembered a lot about our first encounter and teased me about leaving my bike at home. "Last time you told me you always felt sorry for cyclists and their anchors," I reminded him.

"Yeah, you certainly picked the right anchor this year," he said, jokingly referring to my sled and the fifty-odd miles of bare ground beyond Rohn.

After too few hours of rest, I was waiting for Beat to finish packing up and chatted with Rob about the upcoming winter version of the Alaska Wilderness Classic, which he planned to start a few weeks later.

"The Ski Classic is something I would love to try someday, if I ever actually learn how to ski," I said, and then continued to ramble about how I could never aspire to the bushwhacking-and-packrafts summer version of the Wilderness Classic because of a paralyzing phobia of moving water.

Rob told me that he, too, felt nervous on the water. "But that's what we do, isn't it? Go beyond where we feel comfortable."

Rob was the type of experienced outdoorsman and endurance athlete who knew how to achieve the edifying balance between comfort zones and reckless risks. He turned back from the Ski Classic this past March after his partner came down with stomach flu. During last week's summer Wilderness Classic, he and his partner hacked through the brush several miles out of their way to avoid a section of Class IV whitewater before preparing to launch their packrafts on the Tana River. Shortly after Rob put in, his boat disappeared into a swirling eddy. He never emerged. A search party located his body 2.5 miles downstream.

When things like this happen to people we know, people who lead lifestyles that we admire or aspire toward, it's human nature to look for the reason. What mistakes were made? How could this be avoided? We cling to illusions of control, whether it's asserting confidence in our own skills or assuring ourselves we'd never do something so dangerous as we sit complacently in a thin metal box hurtling down a freeway at 80 mph. Life is fatal and only we, as individuals, alone, can determine its value. I feel saddened by Rob's death but comforted by the notion that his life was filled with moments that were meaningful to him, and actions that had a meaningful effect on people who knew him, and people who loved him. Ultimately, regardless of how we go, that's all that remains.

John Muir said, "The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark."

Rest in peace, Rob in Rohn.
Friday, August 08, 2014

"8,000 Miles Across Alaska"

Tim and I in the Ptarmigan Valley of the Alaska Range in February 2014. I had the pleasure of spending much of
my time in the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational traveling in close proximity with Tim and his wife, Loreen.
For the past few weeks, I've been finishing up the details of a collaborative book project I worked on with Tim Hewitt, a biography about his many adventures across Alaska. Like everything I do, this one is long overdue, but I'm excited to announce that "8,000 Miles Across Alaska: A Runner's Journeys on the Iditarod Trail" will be released on Aug. 18 in paperback and eBook from online retailers worldwide. For those with Kindles or related phone aps, the eBook is already available on Amazon. The eBook also can be pre-ordered from iTunes and Barnes&Noble. As of yet there are no plans to sell signed paperback copies directly, but that may change.

I'm happy that this project came together. I've long been a fan of Tim's — I wrote a short letter to UltraRunning Magazine advocating for a "Performance of the Year" nomination in 2011 before we'd properly met — but never anticipated being approached to help tell his story. Tim has been racing the Iditarod Trail since 2000 and has amassed an overabundance of amazing adventures in that time — along with volumes of notes. Tim wanted help refining these notes into a book. It seemed like a dream project, but turned out to be quite challenging. How does one capture someone else's experiences and make them come alive? My own autobiographical storytelling is heavily based in inner thoughts, and I didn't have this luxury with Tim's book. I spent far too much time trying to develop a nonlinear storyline that just wasn't working, so I scrapped the whole thing and started from page one with a traditional timeline, keeping much of Tim's voice intact. I think it turned out well. Response has been good so far. And, if nothing else, it's high armchair adventure entertainment for the price of a few gels.

The scrapped early versions of this project became the genesis for another book project I've been working on. I realized I was inserting far too much of my own voice in Tim's book, where it didn't fit. And yet I feel compelled to write about this ongoing love affair with the Iditarod Trail and the intensity of experience in winter and multiday endurance racing, and how that expands to the experience of everyday life. I know, I've written a lot about such things. I have a whole 9-years-old-and-still-going blog about such things. We'll see where this goes. But for now, this is "next project" until I can get the Ann Trason biography moving and/or light a fire under older projects that I haven't abandoned fully, just yet.

"8,000 Miles Across Alaska: A Runner's Journeys on the Iditarod Trail" will be available on Aug. 18. I will post links when it's released.

Order the eBook for Amazon Kindle here.
Pre-order the eBook for iPads from iTunes here.
Or for Nook from Barnes & Noble here.
Or a generic ePub for all eReaders here.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Bellingham to Baker and Back

During the last week of June, while I was still in South Africa, Beat flew up to Washington to join his friend, Dan Probst, and seven other runners in an attempt to run from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mount Baker and back, a 108-mile round-trip excursion that included a roped glacier climb. Daniel has ambitions to recreate a 21st-century version of the Mount Baker Marathon. Arguably one of the world's first adventure races, the Mount Baker Marathon was held from 1911 to 1913 with the objective to travel by automobile or steam engine to the base of the mountain, run up to the summit, and return the way they came. The race drew tens of thousands of spectators, as well as some major mishaps — a train derailment and two crevasse falls (this risk, along with the onset of World War I, is what shut down the race after only three years.) 

As far as Dan knows, no one has traveled the entire distance on foot. He's made several attempts at this; the latest one was shut down by wet weather and avalanche risk. Eight people started the run six weeks ago and stopped when the summit was deemed unobtainable. Dan, Beat, and a young Bellingham runner named Aaron still ran all the way back to Bellingham, completing a 100-mile distance despite the failed summit attempt. Dan still wanted to make the whole thing happen, so he watched the weather all of the following weekends until a window opened on Aug. 1. Aaron, who wanted to see the summit, would return for another hundred-mile run — his second overall. Beat still wanted to be a part of the fun, so he made last-minute travel reservations for Bellingham. This time, I was able to join for crewing and tagalong fun. 

 Daniel is pretty good at promotional stuff and enticed quite a few sponsors for the adventure run. Humorously, some of his main sponsors were a brewing company, a donut shop, and a small-town diner. He loaded up our crewing rental car with six packs of beer, donuts, and ice cream packed on dry ice. "Don't you want some water or electrolyte stuff?" I asked. He just shrugged and assured me another friend would bring them Gatorade later.

 Dan also recruited a friend with a boat to take them out on the bay so they could catch a glimpse of the peak before starting their 45-mile approach. There was no landing on the starting line beach, so they jumped off the vessel for a below-sea-level start at about 12:30 p.m.

 One of Dan's friends, Cam, joined me for crewing in the first 25 miles. Cam is an Army veteran who is now on disability following a Humvee explosion in Iraq, and she had lots of interesting stories to share. Her disabled status is actually thwarting her career dream of becoming a federal agent, so she moved back to her hometown of Bellingham and works as a full-time volunteer for several running groups and other organizations.

 I handed over the keys to the crew car and joined the boys for the traverse from Lake Whatcom to the town of Acme over Mount Stewart. It was 12 miles through some beautiful forest and over a powerline cut, and the temperature was sweltering. The weather window opened in a big way, and this usually cool and rainy region was experiencing temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, with high humidity to add to the suffering. By mile three I was so drenched in sweat and mildly feverish that even light breezes felt chilly.

 Descending into Acme, we could see the objective still in the far distance. The boys took a long break at the diner and Beat enjoyed a milkshake and breakfast sandwich at 7 p.m. It would be another long 23 miles to the base of the mountain on the historic approach from the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River.

I arrived at the trailhead around 9 and found two friends of Daniel's who planned to assist us with the climb. During their June attempt, Dan had recruited a few experienced friends to guide, but no one was available to guide this attempt. Of the four of us, three have never traveled in a rope team and Dan had only been up Mount Baker once before, with a guide. Dan's friends, Max and Chris, planned to ski the glacier but would remain close by in case there was a mishap. At the trailhead, I found them scouting out the river, which we'd have to cross. After several hot days the water level was high and the hydraulics were sobering. "There's no way we can cross that," I whispered, and Max and Chris assured me we'd figure "something" out. I remained awake for the next four hours, fretting about this river crossing. I know stressing does no good, but I have a difficult time controlling anxiety when it comes to my fears, and whitewater is the deepest of my fears. There I was, preparing to attempt my first-ever technical glacier climb, and I could not get the image of rushing water out of my mind.

 I had just dozed off when Beat, Aaron, and Dan arrived around 2:30 a.m. and started loading up for the climb. We were all carrying an enormous amount of gear — axes, crevasse rescue stakes, carabiners, helmets, harnesses, crampons, emergency sleeping bags and pads, trekking poles, water and food, personal supplies, and cold-weather clothing. Dan had a rope and Chris and Max carried ski gear, but I'd guess my pack weighed at least 35 pounds. I also broke out my old pair of Montrail leather hiking boots that I don't think I've worn in at least six years.

I focused on Zen breathing as Dan led us through a bushwhack along the shoreline of the river to a log that he and others had thrown over a narrow section of the river several weeks earlier. The river was high and he wasn't sure it was still in place. It was, but it was only about a foot wide and tapered at the end, crossing about thirty feet over an especially turbulent channel, because it was so narrow. Beat and Aaron scooted over on their butts, but when it was my turn to do this, the whole world started spinning and I felt precariously close to blacking out. Panic was bubbling up and Zen breathing was not working. "I can't do it, it's too scary, I'm sorry," I called out. I believed this was the end of my Mount Baker attempt, but Daniel offered to shuttle my pack across to see if I'd feel more comfortable going over unloaded. I wasn't, actually, but logically I knew I'd be more stable, so I threw my legs over the thin trunk, pressed my feet against the wet, bald surface, and started scooting. The irrational and extremely unhelpful panic started to boil over and I needed to focus on anything else so I started mouthing the words to "Peaches" by the Presidents of the United States of America. Where that inclination came from, I have no clue, and I can't say it worked exactly ... but I did make it to the other side without falling over in a dizzy fog and slamming against rocks on my way to a painful death downstream. Daniel shuttled my pack across by walking foot-over-foot across the log. I was impressed.

 From the river crossing we followed the mostly unused and highly overgrown Ridley Creek Trail, a strenuous haul through thick brush, deep trenches, and over, under, or around endless deadfall tree trunks, sometimes five feet thick. Sometimes packs had to come off to get around the monster timber, and headlamp beams reflected an ongoing curtain of spider webs complete with monster spiders. Flies and moths swirled through the air and lodged themselves in our noses and throats. After two and a half miles of fading trail we veered up a ridge for a proper bushwhack. As we hacked our way up the brushy slope, we'd pick up remnants of a track that Daniel said was part of the original pack route used by the racers in 1911. The reasoning behind this approach was that it's the closest access point from Bellingham Bay — but it's also one of the most difficult and least used glacier approaches on the mountain.

 By sunrise, about 6:30, we had covered a mere four miles with less than 3,000 feet of climbing. On paper, especially as part of a 108-mile run, the distance was minuscule — but the effort was huge. There's really nothing that quite compares to bushwhacking with heavy packs (or bikes) in tow. I was exhausted and having flashbacks of the Stettynskloof, and we still had an entire mountain to climb.

 Happily, some friends of Daniel's had hacked their way up Ridley Creek the night before, and woke up in the middle of the night to cook bacon for the boys. From their gorgeous camp by Mazama Lake, they served the bacon, fresh bread, and apricots for breakfast. It was a nice boost despite being devoured by mosquitoes while we lingered.

 Even after being awake for the past twenty-four hours with long travel and very little sleep the night before that, Beat was stoked. You can see why.

 The morning was perfect although already very warm at 8 a.m., and reflective heat was radiating from the snow fields as we climbed toward the glacier. Lesser known fact — under direct sun on a warm day, snow will actually increase the "feels like" temperature, because of all the sunlight reflecting off the white surface. So temperatures in the high 70s will feel like 100 on a glacier.

 At portal camp, we roped up to scale a steep headwall and climbed onto the glacier around 6,000 feet elevation. This was our first view of the massive seracs of Mount Baker. It's impossible to depict the scale, but this wall was well over a hundred feet high.

 The roped travel was important because there are crevasses everywhere, and a few steeper pitches at 40 degrees or more where falls are difficult to arrest. Daniel was the only one of the four of us who had traveled in a rope team before, so he led.

 I was a little nervous about climbing without a guide and my own very limited experience with glaciers (mostly seeing them from above while ridge-walking in Juneau, and watching movies.) But it was a good day for a glacier climb, with high visibility and soft, forgiving snow. As the day heated up, the snow conditions progressively deteriorated from "forgivingly soft" to "molten lava." We were postholing up to our shins and slipping a few centimeters backward with every step, which made the already steep climb even slower and more strenuous.

 The skiers stayed close at first and Chris even took a few shots with a helicopter drone that Max carried up in his pack. However, as the elevation increased, Max struggled with the altitude and they slowed substantially. We pressed on ahead, following the main boot track until we came to a split. The freshest track veered left between two scary huge seracs, and the older track went up a nice, low-angle slope with no crevasses in sight. I advocated for the track on the right even though it soon became clear that no one had been up that way on that day, and we had climbed another 400 feet by the time we realized why — a snow bridge collapsed and opened up a crevasse across the track. It was only about two feet wide, but we couldn't see the bottom. Jumpable, but scary. We belayed as best we could and went across one by one.

 Beat remained giddy the whole time. I have a feeling he's soon going to acquire a new hobby with all of this cool new mountaineering gear.

 When we reached the caldera, we stopped on the rim to gaze at the steam pouring from the volcano. At 9,760 feet elevation away from the sun-reflective snow, it was actually a bit chilly, especially with a stiff breeze cranking along the rim. Daniel chose this place to wait for Chris and Max, and promptly fell asleep curled on his mat. I sat on my pack until my frostbite-damaged toes began to hurt badly. I was anxious to get moving again but couldn't do much about it because I was still roped to three snoozing ultrarunners.

 Finally, after about forty minutes and on the brink of shivering, we radioed Chris who informed us that they were still coming up, and still probably another half hour or more back. We opted to push on to the summit over the crux of the climb, the "Roman Wall." I found here that being on the back of a rope team is not so fun, because by the time the other three reach the flatter traverses, I was still making my way up a 40-degree pitch. Their pace increased and I had to match it on the toughest terrain, and then match their slower speeds while I made my way across flat traverses and they climbed the walls. Still, I didn't have 45 extra miles on my legs, so I couldn't exactly complain about the pace.

 Crossing the summit ridge with high clouds above and haze below. It was breezy and coolish, but any wind-protected spot still felt like an oven.

 Views from 10,800 feet. We could look down and see the Nooksack River branch where we started 9,000 feet lower.

 Summit obtained at 2:25 p.m. It had taken eleven hours to cover nine miles of a 108-mile run. The trail register was signed "Second ever summit from Bellingham Bay on foot. Now for the return." Dan had been the first during an attempt one year ago, but altitude sickness forced him to abandon the return effort. This is what they were going for this time — the full summit plus return trip.

 Aw, don't we look cute in climbing gear? Beat and I both lack some of the important temperaments of a climber — patience, no debilitating fears of heights, and (in my case) even average balance and coordination. But we both love the result of climbing mountains, so we'll likely work on increasing our skill set for future (mildly technical) ascents.

It was still a long way down, with a super-heated glacier descent, a steep downhill hack, and the hardest miles on the Ridley Creek not-quite-a-trail right at the end. Once we were past the glacier and the summit buzz wore off, I spent the rest of the descent fretting about that river crossing, again. I resolved to Zen through it, I'd sing "Peaches" if I had to, it's not so bad, it's really not so bad. But no amount of logic seems to work on my inner panic button. As soon as we could hear the roar of the rapids, my heart started racing. I practiced Zen breathing until we reached the log, and then the hyperventilating began. I was very angry with myself. "Why do you have to go and be like this?" I didn't have a choice about crossing the river this time around, but now I was fatigued after no sleep and an 18-hour hard effort, and my hands were shaking. Argh!

Daniel was pretty shattered himself but offered to carry my pack again. I fear that he may have thought he didn't have a choice because I was crying. I actually was. I realize the silliness of being so afraid — although a fall into the river likely would have been disastrous, the log crossing was not hard. The river was flowing even higher at the end of the hot day, and spray splashed against my feet and pants as I scooted across. Nothing else was stifling the panic so I focused on Beat's face and simply counted in fast breaths — one, two, three, four ... until I lost count, and started over. I wish I could do something about this fear of water, which has been a major part of my psyche ever since I was temporarily caught by a rope and trapped beneath an overturned raft on the Colorado River in 2001. I suspect I may need hypnotherapy.

 We returned to the trailhead just before 10 p.m., and everyone was fried — both by the sun, and the surprisingly huge effort of climbing Mount Baker. The boys still had 45 miles to run back to Bellingham and I wondered if it would really happen. They took a thirty minute nap and rallied to go, knowing they'd regret passing up the opportunity to complete a journey that has been in the making for over a hundred years. I was responsible for crewing them the rest of the way to the finish. They were kind enough to grant me a reprieve for the first half so I could drive back to Acme and catch a few hours of sleep (and hopefully be conscious enough to drive for two hours to the SeaTac airport the following afternoon.) Along the way I left little care packages of Gatorade, water, and cans of beer for the boys.

It was just before 1 p.m. by the time they returned to a few inches below sea level in Bellingham Bay, for an elapsed time of 48 hours and 17 minutes. They actually put in a negative split on the final 45 miles — despite the half-hour nap, they ran that section nearly an hour faster than the way out, when Daniel admits they spent a lot of time goofing off. What really surprised me about this run is just how much effort a proper mountain climb really adds to a typical ultramarathon. Daniel is interested in turning the Mount Baker Marathon into an official race, and it won't be easy to bridge the divide between running and climbing, not to mention organizing all of the necessary logistics. But I admire his ambition. He did a lot of work, and rallied a lot of helpful volunteers and supporters to make this run happen. I'm grateful that Beat could be a part of it, and that they let me tag along.