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. 


  1. Ridiculous.
    Every paragraph could have been tweaked slightly to describe a personal experience in Vietnam.
    Hey, have fun with that!

    1. It is not ridiculous. It is an honest account of how it could be out there.
      We were fortunate not to have any major incidents. Yet I can relate to everything Jill writes.
      Otto, finisher PTL 2014

  2. Good luck, Jill and have a great time! Hope it all goes well for Beat and you with your races in the upcoming weeks.

  3. Considering the concentration that it must take to make it through your endurance treks, it's odd to hear you talk about losing control. The times I've been most anxious in the mountains have been when I've gotten off-route on steep slopes and kept encountered impassable areas that were beyond my abilities. Not fun to reach that point when you realize you had better get your s**t together or you're going to be in trouble!

    1. That's just it. I had been under stress and high concentration for four days. Although I was still trying to make my way into Morgex, I understood that my race was pretty much over, I was below treeline, and walking down a trail less than a mile from the closest village. I took a single wrong turn, and all of the sudden ... meltdown. It's as though by finally being out of danger, I allowed myself to let the emotions burst through the floodgate.

  4. Hi Jill! I've been lurking here reading your blog for a while and I really enjoy it. I'm also from the Bay Area, Mountain View, but my friend Julie and I are in Chamonix right now to run CCC on Friday/Saturday. I'm sure you're gonna be busy following PTL, but if you have any free time around town, we'd love to meet up over a crepe or waffle or something. My email is Lizzy.Stefurak [at] gmail [dot] com. Best, Lizzy (sorry if this is a double post, I think blogger ate my first comment)

  5. Thanks for sharing the dark side of your experiences. A small correction: anxiety or panic attacks are natural psychosomatic reactions. Seeing monsters, on the other hand, is clearly a psychotic episode, unless of course the monsters really were there.

  6. Any chance that you could share Beat's 'recipe' for the Hydrolube. I am going hiking in notoriously rainy New Zealand and keeping feet dry will be a priority. Thank you, Anne-Marie


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