Monday, September 29, 2014

Winter dreams

One of my favorite moments of 2014, Cache Mountain Divide during the White Mountains 100
Being laid up with an injury isn't so bad, especially after the persistent soreness finally goes away. This end of pain seems to coincide with the end of excess energy, leading to a constant loop of directionless inner dialogue: "I feel fine. Should I try to ride a hill today? But the doctor said to do nothing for six weeks. Beat wouldn't approve and will give no sympathy if I re-tear something. Maybe I could still hike across the Grand Canyon. Then again my knee is still too weak to walk a half mile the movie theater without stiffening up. I'm finally making good progress on my book now that I'm not so distracted. Maybe I should do nothing at all. Eh, feeling lazy today anyway. Doctor's orders."

One thing that does quiet this useless mental meandering is dreaming about winter adventures. The day after I hurt my knee, when I was feeling most bummed out about the prospect of long-term injury and scratching from TDG, my friend Danni sent me a sympathetic note that concluded with the phrase, "F*** the Alps, you're an Alaska girl." I have to say, this sentiment actually made me feel a whole lot better. Thanks Danni! It also started the wheels turning on what I should do with my favorite month of the year, March.

I've landed on two ideas for Winter 2015. The first is a solo bike tour, probably about a week in length, along Alaska's western coast on the Idiatrod Trail. Unalakleet to Nome is about 250 miles and includes some of the most difficult terrain and volatile weather of the route. The nature of the region and the amount of self-sufficiency I would need to attain makes this prospect incredibly daunting, much more so than returning to the 350-mile section from Knik to McGrath. But, ultimately, nothing could prepare me better if I do decide to attempt the full-length journey to Nome in the future. The appeal of starting in Unalakleet is to take on this section when I'm fresh, to learn more about winter travel on the coast when there isn't a thousand-mile journey at stake, and to have a greater range of flexibility in my schedule. My plan would be to start the trip with all of the supplies I need, but utilize shelters and village services when available. I'd make an effort to be as self-contained as possible, starting and hopefully staying ahead of most of the ITI racers, and staying out of the way of dog sled racers. I actually don't love winter camping so much, so my plan would be to stop for only eight or so hours per day, enough to sleep and melt snow, and stay on the move the remainder of the time. It's scary but any amount of time spent out there would be an incredible experience. After all these years, this is still the kind of stuff I dream about when I close my eyes at night. The siren call of the tundra is at once irresistible and inexplicable.

My other goal completely conflicts with this one, but in my dreams I find away to make it all work out. I'd like to return to the White Mountains 100 for a fifth year, but this time race on foot. And by race, I mean I'd like to actually race it. I'd like to see how well I can perform in a hundred-mile foot race that plays to my strengths. The White Mountains 100 has no required gear, so in reasonable weather I could potentially go fairly light. As far as foot races go, the WM100 is essentially self-supported: There are no drop bags, no crews, no pacers, and aid stations every 20 miles provide only a small meal, no supplementary calories. I'd need to prepare for temperatures down to 25 below, which means keeping myself warm even if I'm sick or injured, which requires some bulkier gear. So I'd have a larger kit than a typical hundred-mile trail race, but I'd have some big positives: No heat, a nice mix of climbs and runnable descents, and a soft running surface. And no heat. Provided I put in the work to strengthen ankles, stability, etc. — not easy to do in California — and work to build some decent running endurance, I could potentially achieve one of my better performances. And it would be so much fun to try! It could also end in meltdown at mile 40 and a slow walk to the finish or a ride on the Snowmachine of Shame. But to be honest I'd rather try for a strong White Mountains 100 than simply try to finish a race I've already finished four times. That's also really the only way I can justify not biking what is possibly the most-fun hundred-mile bicycle race, anywhere, ever.

Could I attempt both? Well, ideally I'd finish my tour ten or so days before the White Mountains 100, but between a week of slow biking/walking and a taper, I'd probably zap any speediness I managed to achieve in winter training. Not that I need much in the way of real speed — this is still snow racing after all. If I focused on running through the winter with my usual bicycle cross-training (ideally with lots of weight) I think I'd be fit enough for the tour. Both are still a bit of a long shot — I have to get through the White Mountains 100 lottery first. And put a lot of planning into the tour.

Oh, and get my knee working again. I nearly forgot about that part. But it sure was fun to dream for a few minutes.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Flailing and awkward, still

From two years ago, doing things I maybe shouldn't be doing in the mountains. 

My name is Jill, and I’m an endorphinaholic. It’s been fifteen days since my last run.

 I figured I wouldn’t have much to post on my outdoors blog for a while, but I do like to record a post-mortem about race attempts, especially unsuccessful ones. The dreaded “what went wrong.” What went wrong? I fell down in an embarrassingly ungraceful way and hurt my knee. Why? Likely a number of factors — first, there’s the obvious fatigue; then lack of specific training on technical terrain; another likely candidate would be poorly developed core strength; yet another possibility might be a real and potentially unworkable problem with balance.

 It’s that last possibility that makes me feel uneasy. A friend was recently diagnosed with Ménière's disease. He and I have clung to the same exposed rock outcroppings and shared the similar rushes of vertigo at inopportune times. I’m not saying I suspect I have Ménière's or any other balance disorder. It only led me to realize that such issues can crop up well into adulthood, and that maybe it’s possible to make one’s way through life without incident until you’re somewhere on a high mountain ridge in the dark, in the rain, suddenly feeling slightly dizzy with blurred vision and not fully understanding why. It’s easy to blame these bouts of disorientation on the overdoing of things, fatigue, nutrition, bad luck … but maybe, just maybe, there’s more to it.

 This evening, Beat and I were sitting in the sauna and dreaming big about the Great Himalayan Trail. I let my imagination run wild across high plateaus and 6,000-meter passes. And then I thought, “I can’t even handle the Alps. The nice hiking trails in the Alps. The Himalaya, Jill. Really?

 In the midst of this latest trauma-based injury recovery — the disappointment about scratching from the race, the longing to go rushing up into the mountains while I was limping around Courmayeur, the withdrawals from happy exercise hormones and daily shots of fresh air, the acceptance and efforts to do productive things with my extra time — there’s be one dominant emotion: Trepidation. Trepidation that maybe this whole clumsy thing isn’t “Ha ha, I’m new to running, I get lazy with my feet, I daydream” — the maybe it’s something I can’t just easily get over. That maybe being injured because I fell, ungracefully, is going to continue to be a regular thing. That maybe “running” — as in pushing my physical limits in the way I most enjoy — on mountain terrain is simply something that I just can’t do, without higher-than-average risk at least.

 So what could I do? Embrace this as an added incentive to work on un-fun things like core strength and balance exercises? Train for something with single-minded focus, and figure out for sure? Risk that dizziness and blurred vision in a truly dangerous place? Give in, slow down, give up on the really rugged stuff? Figure this is just the endorphin withdrawals talking and do nothing differently the next time I want to go for a tough, long hike? All possibilities.

I should do something differently, though. I'm not exactly proud of my accumulating scars. And I had one rather scary tumble on an exposed section of trail when I was just day-hiking — not racing — in France, the felt like another wake-up call. But what to do?
Monday, September 22, 2014

Living in color, part three

In endurance racing and in life, few moments are more satisfying than those first glimmers of light after clawing one's way out of a dark hole. I tossed and turned quite a bit in Cogne but managed some decent rest and, more importantly, a full plate of pasta that stayed down. As I marched out of town, I passed a table set up by a local cafe, giving away shots of espresso. It was after midnight and the women had no affiliation with the Tor des Geants — just good old Italian hospitality. Have I mentioned before that I love the Aosta Valley? "This is the best thing ever," I exclaimed while hammering back a couple of shots. I took off jogging down the cobbled streets and continued running on the gravel river path, passing others who were still staggering drunkenly through the haze of our too-short sleeps.

I crossed a bridge back to the main paved road, turning off my headlight to jog beneath the ochre glow of street lamps. Bright flashes frequently filled the sky — the muted reflections of distant lightening rippling across a thin ceiling of clouds. The route seemed to be heading directly toward the electric storm, but at this point I was ready to welcome a little rain. It was after midnight and still sweltering from my point of view. Yellow TDG marker flags veered away from the street up a dirt path that shot straight up the mountain. I shrugged and commenced the marching. This was going to be my life for a little while yet.

Feeling physically okay again was perhaps both a blessing and a curse, because my attitude became a little too complacent. The march up to Rifugio Sogno felt easy, but instead of continuing toward the col and banking the time, I stopped for another half hour to drink more coffee and savor a bowl of soup. Eating was always a good thing, but I didn't need to spend quite so much time lolling around. Light sprinkles fell as I crested Fenetre di Champorcher, where the relative ease of upward marching was replaced with dread about what Beat warned me was an interminable and painful 8,000-foot descent (actually, there was still a whole lot of climbing left in this section, not to mention thirty kilometers of horizontal distance.) Dawn broke and violet light reflected on thick haze boiling up from the Aosta Valley, still far below. I often struggle with first light more than any other time of day, and sleepiness nagged at every thought. Instead of scolding myself to push forward until the feeling passed, I promised a short snooze at the next rifugio.

I walked in at sunrise, straight past the tables of food, into a quiet back room where I found a couch. I wasn't entirely sure I was supposed to be there, but I saw an empty container for blister patches that looked like one of Beat's, so I figured it was all right. I had been asleep for ten minutes when I heard a roar of laughter and people speaking in English. As I sat up and put my shoes back on, the group of four introduced themselves as two British, one New Zealander, and one South African hiking the Alta Via trail to Courmayuer.

"Oh, South Africa, I was just there in June," I said. I also happened to be wearing my Freedom Challenge buff and pullover, so I explained the mountain bike race that I participated in. As it turned out, the South African man was an old family friend of Liehann's. He knew exactly what I was talking about.

"Small world!" I exclaimed.

"You must be a real glutton for punishment," he observed, and I agreed. They invited me to join them for breakfast and I nearly sat down. Then I looked at the time on my phone and remembered this whole schedule I was trying to keep. "Argh, I really should go," I said. "But thanks." They urged me to sign the poster at the door. Nearly all of the rifugios and life bases had these posters for runners to sign, but I'd avoided them so far. I had no idea whether I could finish the Tor des Geants, and it didn't seem appropriate to put my "mark" on the 2014 race paraphernalia unless I could finish the thing. It's regretful, but I can fall into that mindset that unless you finish what you set out to do, the experience doesn't count at all. I don't even actually believe this, but the shame seeps in all the same. Still, they were urging me on so I signed the poster at Rifugio Dondena. The proprietor even insisted on draping the rifugio's logo over the poster so I'd have this memory forever.

If I could go back and do it over again, I would have joined the hikers for breakfast.

Then it was a long, long way down and up and down and up and down and down into Donnas. I remained reasonably healthy, which I hate to admit prompted feelings of surliness. I'd start to run, the motion would feel fine, but my tired mind would complain anyway: "But I don't want to run. I shouldn't have to run. Blah."

And it was a hundred degrees again, and even more humid after the night's light storms. The trail skirted around a stunning river gorge on its way down to Donnas, which at 1,000 feet elevation is really low. Donnas was the 150-kilometer mark on the map. "I can't believe I haven't even gone a hundred miles yet."

In town I stopped at a local cafe for an espresso because I had watched another TDG runner do so, and reached the life base just before 2 p.m. My pre-determined schedule had me leaving there by 5, so I decided a three-hour stay was just fine. Although in truth I hoped to be ahead of that pace at this point, it was still eight hours before the cut-off, and that seemed like a healthy enough buffer.

While taking two-hour, fitful lie-downs at the life bases — supplemented by short rifugio naps  —seemed like a good idea on paper, the reality was a little harder to stomach. I felt like hell slogging out of Donnas at 5 p.m., but I knew I just needed to let the post-nap haze pass. I also needed it to stop being so damn hot and humid, and a little less foot soreness would be great, too. In truth my feet were in great shape. I had no blisters, no hot spots, no strains; they weren't even all that swollen. But they still bothered me. This is why I can't call myself an ultrarunner. I'm far too sensitive when it comes to my feet.

Instead of following the flat, road-covered valley out of Donnas and into the next canyon, the route cut steeply up one tiered slope of vineyards and down the next, up to a castle and back down into the valley, up a root-clogged but otherwise pointless slope 300 meters up and back down, again. Alta Via lives up to its name even at the bottom of the Aosta Valley. By the time I reached the aid station in the village of Perloz, I was nearing a major low — grumpy and wondering whether I could really put up with this nonsense interminably. I gave a volunteer my sticky, dirt-smeared cup to fill with Coke and plopped down on a bench, feeling forlorn. In my peripheral vision, I noticed a large empty table on the other side of the canopy surrounded by men in traditional costume, holding brass instruments. Just as I realized this anomaly, two vans pulled up and out poured a half dozen women carrying tray after tray of food. Within minutes, the entire table was filled with homemade pizza, little sandwiches, cakes, croissants, corn patties and other variations of traditional Italian party foods. As they added more plates than I thought imaginable, the band began playing and a few bystanders joined in dancing. As far as I could tell, it was still part of the TDG aid station, but there were only three runners there at the time. It seemed as though residents of Perloz decided to turn this particular aid station into an elaborate party. I walked up to the table with my sad cup of Coke and pointed to the food. "Is this for everyone?" A trumpet player laughed and nodded, and I dove in with abandon, trying so many different unique and delicious morsels  of traditional Italian fare that I had to waddle out of there. It was worth it — a wonderful example of what makes the Tor des Geants truly one-of-a-kind.

From Perloz, the trail climbs from a very low point to a very high point, very quickly. I've actually hiked this segment before but my memory did not accurately record just how relentlessly steep this climb is, up a cobbled stone "trail" that might as well be a wall. The overcast sky and thunder had been threatening rain all afternoon, but it finally started to come down hard just after the sun set. Temperatures were still warm and I was loathe to put on my rain coat, until my clothing soaked through and I was chilled. Brilliant. The route crossed an ancient stone bridge that spanned a seemingly bottomless gorge; I couldn't help but peer over the cracked rim into the yawning darkness that tugged from below. Even after the bridge ended, the trail continued to skirt the gorge. Rain-slicked rocks were like oil and I put my poles away so I could "walk" on all fours. I continued in this position for much of the climb, even as the stones transitioned into steep, cattle-stomped fields slicked with mud. It seemed treacherous. It was just the beginning.

The cattle fields ended at about 6,000 feet and gave way to the mud-smeared rock jumble that would dominate the next thirty kilometers. I crawled up a boulder-choked headwall to sharp ridge that rose two vertical kilometers over an ocean of city lights — the edge of the Alps, towering over the cities of Milan, Torino, and the surrounding communities of the plains. Wispy clouds draped over the valley like silver curtains. Wind drove daggers of rain into my eyes as I blinked rapidly at the glittering sprawl, imagining runway shows and art galas and other fashionable events that might be taking place on this stormy night. I was soaked beneath my Gore-Tex shell, dragging wobbly legs and a sleep-deprived brain over frightening terrain, and yet I wouldn't have traded my position for any amount of luxury. You don't ever see things like this in the confines of comfort. You just don't.

I hadn't planned on stopping long at Rifugio Coda, but the deepening chill of the wind and rain, combined with the fatigue of climbing 7,000 feet up grades that would register as high as 48.9 percent, coaxed me to justify taking a nap. The small, ridge-top building was clogged with dozens of other runners who were similarly trying the escape the storm. Everything was mud-smeared and it felt nearly as wet inside as outside, but the proprietors had space available in a top bunk that was still damp from the last occupant. I greedily requested 90 minutes of sleep but was shaken from a dreamless stupor after 37. Ah well. The dining area was the size of a garden shed, strewn with piles of wet clothing and writhing with people. They gave me a small bowl of broth with star-shaped pasta and it seemed I received the last available soup for a while. There was a plate stacked with fontina cheese, and I already never wanted to eat another wedge of fontina cheese in my life, but I was grateful for the supplement.

The rain had tapered off by the time I left Rifugio Coda, and the floodlight moon was blazing through breaks in the clouds. Its filtered reflection lit up the entire mountainside. The sawtooth ridges and boulder-speckled bowls were as sharply defined as daytime, but rendered in shades of indigo. I took tentative steps along the narrow trail as I turned by headlamp off and on, trying to decide which made it easier to see. Depths were better defined in the moonlight, but the colors were too monotone to discern specific objects. My vision was flickering between blurry and clear, the way it does when I'm sleep deprived, and the way it did for many weeks after last year's PTL. This made me fearful, because deteriorating vision and boulder fields don't mix well.

The route dropped off the ridge into the first of many bowls to cross, atop piles of rocks still slick with rain. I crept down the slope, using my hands and placing every step as deliberately as I was capable, but I still made a misstep near the bottom and ended up on my butt with elbows in the mud. Not a big deal; I wasn't hurt, and falls are just part of the deal — but I had been trying so hard not to fall that this failure shattered what was left of my weak confidence. I always wonder if others feel the way I sometimes feel, like they're teetering on undulating ground that could give way at any second. Balance problems have varying degrees of intensity, and mine certainly don't rise to the level of a disorder, but I have a feeling they're more pronounced than a typical mountain athlete. I run and ride bikes because I love these motions, fiercely, but I often pay for even small mistakes with gravel burns, bruises, scars that still ache in the cold years later, muscle strains, sprained ankles, and torn ligaments. Unanticipated forces throw me off, and I don't catch myself well. I've never sustained a major injury — even though I overdo distances and durations, when it comes to speed and gravity I'm extremely cautious. Still, sometimes terrain is so threatening that even my most careful movements won't ensure my safety. I rose to my feet as two enviably sure-footed runners galloped past, and quietly wondered just how long this slippery rock-hopping would last.

I managed only a couple more minor incidents as I crawled along boulders through thick mud up and over a few more minor ridges into Lago Vargno, another remote rifugio at the edge of a high-alpine lake. I had been feeling robbed by my short nap at Rifugio Coda so I requested an hour of sleep, which I was granted, but when I emerged again the sun was up. Was it really morning already? What time was it? I had been thinking I'd reach the next life base by mid-afternoon, but that was still four passes and a whole lot of boulder crawling away. Revived by sleep and a renewed sense of urgency, I made good time past stone farmhouses and cattle herds up to Colle Marmontana. Then the trail again dropped steeply off the edge a thousand feet into a V-shaped gully. The sun was high in the sky and the storm cleared out, and I felt a renewed spark of confidence now that I was no longer navigating through the dizzying shadows of night. It didn't take long — perhaps only 200 feet down from the pass — for me to make that game-changing mistake.

While working my way down a particularly steep, muddy pitch, I stepped up onto a flat, table-sized plate of a boulder angled downward at about 45 degrees. The rock looked dry but it was anything but, and as soon as I lifted all of my weight onto my left foot, traction gave way and I skidded down the rock upright and one-legged until the foot wedged in the crack between that boulder and another rock. My momentum was such that I was still falling forward, so I instinctively swung the right side of my body around to counter the fall, wringing my left leg in the process. I can't remember feeling anything in the initial wrenching, but as soon as I went down on my butt and folded my knee, a sharp pain reverberated up and down the leg.

Initially I got up and kept walking, faster and with more abandon beneath a surge of adrenaline and anger. There was a strange instability in my left knee that I didn't notice until it folded out right from underneath me, and I fell forward in the mud with another sharp shot of pain. Finally that little voice of reason started screaming, "You need to be careful!" As I was pulling myself to my feet again, a man who had caught up from behind stopped. "Are ... you ... okay?" he said slowly, as though searching for each word. In my adrenaline surge I started talking quickly about twisting my knee and how I was a little worried there might be some damage, but it was soon apparent he didn't understand. "I am okay," I said, and pointed to my knee. "It hurts, but I can walk."

"Can ... I help ... you?" he asked.

"No," I said. "I will be fine. But I do appreciate that you stopped. Thank you."

There was an emergency bivouac in the gully. I stopped briefly for a roasted potato but could feel my knee stiffening up as I sat, so I didn't stay long. The next pass was one of the more frustrating efforts of my life. It was a full boulder crawl, one uneven block after the other, and at times I could scarcely coax the knee to bend at all. I can be overprotective of my knees and prone to limping when they're just sore, but some internal function was really trying to prevent me from using the knee, and I didn't have many choices. As I spider-crawled up a rock tumble that gained a thousand feet in 0.6 miles, a helicopter swooped into the narrow valley and hovered over something, probably someone, who was just out of sight. "That's the alternative," I thought. "The chopper."

Through the narrow notch of the pass, I got my first glimpse of Gressoney, way at the end of the valley. An Asian woman crested the pass right behind me and pointed to the village far below. "Is this Gressoney?" she asked.

"This I think is Neil, or actually Gaby," I said of the town directly below. "Gressoney is out that way."

"Do we go down now?" she asked.

I could only shake my head in shared bewilderment. "No, we have one more col to climb. Then to Neil, and then over Col Lasoney. Gressoney is still very far." To myself, I thought, "This section is impossible. It's completely impossible."

I went a little way down the rocks and then stopped to wrap my knee, which was rapidly swelling, with a bandage. I could already see purple bruising forming beneath my patella even though I had no memory of bashing the knee directly, although I did hit the mud on my latest fall. Still, even then, I wrestled between the rational voice that said, "You might have torn something. This is bad," and the louder voice that berated me, "You can still walk. This knee will come back around. It's fine." This crazy, pointless denial. Where does it come from?

There was another emergency bivouac just below Col della Vecchia. Eight or nine volunteers were crowded around a campfire in a tight circle grilling meat on a stone. There wasn't anyone manning the aid station at the time so I poured myself some Coke, grabbed a few tortilla chips and limped over to the periphery to feel sorry for myself. Unlike Perloz, this felt like a party I hadn't been invited to. Just a few minutes of sitting left the knee completely rigid again, and I gimped away slowly until I could bend it enough to continue hobbling on rocks. A lot of us look like this at this stage of the Tor des Geants. Nobody said a word.

Tears started to come even before I hit the mud, largely from a place of self-loathing. Optimism flickered in and out, but mostly I berated myself for sabotaging this experience that, although very difficult, up until this point had been more parts amazing. I knew my race was over. I wouldn't admit it to myself, but lamented that even if I could pull it together, my hobbling pace had deteriorated to a point that I might not even reach Gressoney before cut-off, despite an eight-hour buffer I held fewer than forty kilometers earlier. "If you make it in time at least go up Pinter. Pinter's easy, straightforward, steep but there aren't many rocks. Not sure what the other side's like, but if you miss the Saint Jacques cut-off, then it was not to be. At least make them drag you out of this race. Don't give up on your own."

The route dipped into a steep gorge lined with cliffs. I could hear a waterfall roaring somewhere below, and the trail itself was an absolute mess — a muddy slip-and-slide would be too kind of a term. A better description would be grease chute, sprinkled with enough sharp rocks to keep conditions treacherous. Often we had to work our way down backward while grabbing bushes as leverage. Many described this descent as the hardest on the course; for me, it was just the muddy icing on a consistently difficult traverse. Staying upright required frequent jerky movements that kept knee pain on the forefront of my thoughts. I moved extremely slowly and was passed by dozens. Around 2 p.m. I passed a trail sign that said Neil was still an hour and fifteen minutes away. "How is that possible? How is that even possible?" It had already taken me eight hours to cover what I had of a distance that only spanned fourteen kilometers.

Beat called. I sprawled with my leg straight out on a grassy patch next to the trail and explained my situation. "How long did it take you to cross Col Lasoney?" I asked him.

"About five hours," he said.

I starting doing the math out loud. "I'm probably something like two hours from Neil, that's 4, and your five hours is at least seven for me, maybe eight at this point. I have to be in Gressoney by 11. I'm never going to make it."

"Don't be stupid about this," he implored. "Col Lasoney is steep and the descent is really slippery. There's still another climb before you get to Neil. The trail gets better but not much. At least go see the medic in Neil. If they tell you you're done, then you're done."

It was raining hard again by the time I reached the village of Neil. My knee was so stiff I was walking peg-legged, and it was 4:37 p.m. — which meant I was moving twice as slow as the trail sign predicted. At first I just bypassed the aid station and sat with my legs out, head down, in the rain. A woman who was waiting for her husband saw me and came up to offer encouragement. "My knee is very stiff," I explained, so she brought me some arnica gel. "I know this trail," she said. "It will take just five hours. Six if you are very slow."

"I am too slow," I shook my head.

"You must at least try."

She was very sweet and meant well, but the conversation left me feeling even more like dirt than I felt before, so I limped over to the medic. He did not seem to speak much English but understood that I had a stiff knee, similar to most of the runners making their way into Neil at this point. He noted the swelling and bruising, and offered me a bag of ice. Great. Although I hoped for miracles and didn't expect much, this somehow seemed worse than nothing. More blind encouragement rather than help. There was another runner who had wrapped bandages around ice on both knees, and the medic was stuffing his pockets with six more bags to carry up Col Lasoney. I could only shake my head in bewilderment.

"This is nuts," I thought. "It's just nuts."

I understood that quitting the Tor des Geants was going to leave a wake of disappointment and regrets. I understood that priorities shift and I might never have another chance. But I also was ready to acknowledge that I didn't have a choice.

190 kilometers, and all I got was this knee injury. But those are the breaks.

A week later I was back in California and went to see my doctor, who is also a sports physician. After thirty minutes of prodding and torturous tests he diagnosed the injury as a partial, grade-two tear to the lateral collateral ligament, near where it attaches to the fibula. Recovery time for such an injury is six to eight weeks. Since surgery seemed unlikely and rest is the only treatment, my doctor didn't think it necessary to get an MRI to confirm unless I make no improvements in the next three weeks. So the diagnosis isn't certain, but if an LCL tear is the case — and right now I'm operating under the assumption that it is — than this will be the longest I've had to stay "off" cardiovascular exercise since 2007. I have to cancel, yet again, my annual rim-to-rim hike across the Grand Canyon with my Dad. All this, while remaining deeply disappointed about the outcome of the TDG.

Those are the breaks. I recognize that it could be so much worse. I could have made a poor decision and turned a partial tear into a full tear, or something else that requires surgery and months of recovery. And at least I was able to go as far as I did, and experience what I did. Sometimes we paint in red and create something intensely beautiful. Other times, the result is harsh, even painful. But either way, the experience is memorable, and the lessons indissoluble. 
Thursday, September 18, 2014

Living in color, part one

If I were to try to distill individual life into a trite analogy, it would be this — life is a mural, painted in moments. Our experiences are the conglomeration of colors; we smear them on the canvas of ourselves inevitably, but also deliberately. We refine our moments into memories, shaped by personal values and perspectives. We’re all artists, and we all interpret our world in different ways, different colors. But, like many, I have a tendency to lapse into easy patterns — the Bob Ross formula of simple smudges yielding blandly pleasant landscapes. And, like many, I also have on my palette a primal streak of passion, a desire to slash bold red lines across the wispy pastels. Then I stand back, astonished, as crimson paint bleeds all over my happy little trees and fluffy clouds. And I think to myself, “Now that is beautiful.”

This might be why I keep finding myself back in these places — the places with majestic mountains and charming cabins rendered in idyllic perfection — clutching my red paint. The Tor des Geants is such a place — the high route around Italy’s Aosta Valley, 330 kilometers up and down steep and imposing mountains — 24 vertical kilometers’ worth. I could spend three weeks working my way around the valley and taking in the nuances of this brilliant segment of the world — and probably should. Why try to do it in six days? It’s not a socially advancing achievement; few people care, even fewer actually understand what it really entails. It’s not something for which I’m particularly talented or even acceptably adept. I’m more likely to fail than not, and in that failure I’d be worse off than if I had never tried — physically downtrodden, possibly injured, spiritually adrift. So why? Why? My answer — those streaks of bold beauty. Those moments are worth it.

But the sacrifices start to sink in by the beginning of the second pass. I'd just spent about four hours making my way across the first twenty kilometers of the course, over the 5,000-foot ascent of Col Arp and the winding plummet into the valley of La Thuile. Sunlight shimmered over distant glaciers and saturated the greens and golds in the early-autumn grass. Unfortunately, I can’t pass through this place without seeing the ugly shadows left behind from my last visit here, a previous attempt at bold abstraction — the 2013 Petite Trotte a Leon. Here is the valley were I was finally beaten into submission, hollowed out, and filled with a black paranoia and disconnect from reality so severe that I still only remember those moments as a dream, uncertain what even took place in the physical world. Not that the line between reality and non-reality matters much anymore. It was real enough to end up slashed across my canvas in an image so visceral that it still casts shadows one year later. “I shouldn’t have come back here,” is a thought that crossed my mind. “I don’t belong here.”

Maybe that’s part of the reason for coming back. When you aim for full intensity you never know whether you’ll create darkness or brightness. Usually both. September 7 was a bright day, with a stream of happy, tired faces making their way along the cobbled streets of La Thuile into a stone building full of blueberry tarts and oranges. I sunk my teeth into fruit wedges and let the sticky juice dribble down my chin and neck, too amped up to care. The crossing of Col Arp was the kind of thing most of us would call a full, hard day before retreating happily to pizza and beers, but it was just the first of 25 or so passages in the Tor des Geants. We had a long, long way to go, and that knowledge combined with the fatigue in my legs was exquisite.

I joined the California contingent — Beat, Dima, and Sarah, along with Dima “Crankypants” from Boston, on the march toward the next 5,000-odd feet of climbing. “Wait, didn’t we just do this?” I exclaimed as the trail veered steeply toward a tiered series of waterfalls. The long descent into La Thuile had steeped my legs in a lead-like solution of lactic acid, blood, and broken muscle fibers, but the healthy climb seemed to flush all of that away again. I love a good climb, I really do. I run out of energy just like anyone, but no physical sensation makes me feel more alive than forcing my body away from the oppressive pull of gravity. Beat and Crankypants, who had both participated in PTL the week before and were as acclimated to the effort as they were worn down by it, disappeared ahead. California Dima and Sarah, who bounded past me down the first descent while I quietly scolded them for risking “quad death,” fell back. Beat and I agreed to move at our own paces in TDG, and I had a feeling I was going to find myself alone most of the time. Alone among many. The starting group of 800 or so runners was still fairly bunched together, and there were at least that many spectators and day-hikers making their way down the narrow trail as we lined our way up. This is the kind of experience you sign up for in an organized race — a chance to strive together, to share palettes with others who understand the strange and beautiful process. We seek the company, but we also quietly hope we'll eventually find ourselves alone again. “It won’t feel claustrophobic for long,” is a thought that crossed my mind.

Soon enough, we crossed a threshold in Tor des Geants that finally became "far" — far from the spectators, from the barrage of cowbell clanking, and even from the delicious orange wedges and blueberry tart triangles that were surprisingly abundant in this race. Yes, the Alps can feel far away from the hum of ordinary existence while simultaneously feeling remarkably close to modern life. I am continually astonished by these mountains, by their ruggedness contrasted against the ease at which humans seem to make their way here. How did large stone buildings spring up on the point of narrow pinnacles, guarded by slopes that require hands-over-head scrambling, and yet stocked with fresh espresso and warm beds, and occupied by 5-year-old-children playing barefoot in the grass? In the United States it's difficult to find accommodations this inviting just off the Interstate, let alone at the top of mountains. Rifugio Deffeyes is such a place, the first where it's really a pity to make such a hurried stop. But espresso and warm beds really aren't the experiences we came for in the Tor des Geants. We think about these things all the time, joke about them, yearn for them, but they're not really what we want. Not really. Not just yet.

What we do want are the stark slopes of Passo Alto, drenched in afternoon light, and the slow breakdown of our emotional defenses against the awe and also anguish that these landscapes can provoke. How do I put this simply? These landscapes are beautiful. They're more beautiful when I'm tired ... and the shell that's formed around 35 years of expectations begins to crack. That's the truth, for better or worse, and I gain such deep appreciation of the experiences I encounter at my most raw and exposed. It's the second best thing to being a child again, to seeing the world through an untouched and uninhibited lens. This mindset doesn't come free, or easily, at all. But when it happens, it's quite astonishing. I walked beside the boulders, occasionally running my fingers over the smooth surfaces, dipping my hands in the streams to splash clear water on my face, and feeling so wholly alive at times that I could scarcely breathe.

Then it was time to descend and do it all again. Looking back, if I were to try to define the moment I first realized there was going to be a kink in my ideal situation, it was the descent off Haut Pas. I stumbled on some rocks near the pass and managed to catch myself but knocked an elbow on a nearby boulder. "It's all right, just have to take it slow," was a thought that crossed my mind. I'd been strong on both climbs that day and passed dozens of people who were now running past me like I was standing still. Funny how being passed by others becomes such a source of frustration in a race, probably because it's a visual gauge of our own progress. Their footfalls looked so effortless compared to my clunky steps. "It's all right, just have to take it slow."

One aspect of the Tor des Geants that is difficult to convey to North American trail runners is just how relentlessly steep it is. There are a few somewhat flat, actually runnable sections on the route, and some long technical traverses, but for the most part you're either working your way up the most ridiculously steep trail you've ever been on, or down. For this reason, it's a really tough race to train for locally. Pretty much all Bay Area trails are buffed-out cruisers compared to the Alta Via of the Aosta Valley. Even trails in the Sierras, as long as you stick to the more well-established trails and not difficult-to-access high routes and off-trail scrambles, are also similarly too "flat." What I know of western Montana also includes a lot of "logging" grades and buffed trails (disclaimer: Most of what I know of Montana is from mountain biking.) I've hiked some trails in the Wasatch Mountains that better fit the bill — Lone Peak, Twin Peaks, even Mount Olympus and the west side of Grandeur Peak are good training grounds. Colorado and Southeast/Southcentral Alaska have some good spots too, of course. But most of us are stuck with inadequate training unless we make a concerted effort to mimic conditions unique to the Alps. I spent the spring training for long-distance biking and the summer riding and recovering from the Freedom Challenge. So I think it's fair to say I was woefully undertrained for what would matter most in my case — steep and rocky descending.

Still — you know what they say about hope. Springs eternal, and all that. Frustration about my crappy descending faded as soon as we started up Col Crosatie. The light was fading into the cool hues of evening, and I'd stuffed my face with a bunch of polenta at the rifugio in the valley while smiling and nodding at an older man who continued to tell me a long, expressive story in Italian even after it must have been obvious that I didn't understand a word. All of the elements of PTL that caused me so much anguish — the difficult navigation, the outright terrifying routes, the impossible cut-offs, the limited and openly unfriendly "support" — were so far entirely missing from TDG. It was all of the good and none of the bad. And of course, I knew TDG would be hard, but it was already amazing. "I can do this, I can probably actually do this," was a thought that crossed my mind.

The pitch steepened as we approached the col, rising up along a series of cables and stacked-boulder scrambles that I attacked with all the energy I could muster. I had little to lose by going hard on a climb. As I crested the pass, my pounding heart seemed to leap out of my throat, leaving only stunned silence. The full moon hung over a skyline of 4,000-meter mountains while the immediate world dropped into a purple-hued abyss below. Cool wind whisked around the pinnacles and friendly volunteers in an emergency bivouac handed out free energy in the form of shots from a two-liter bottle of Coke. It was, at least for that moment, the most beautiful scene I had ever witnessed.

As I dropped off the col, I passed a memorial to a Chinese runner who fell on these rocks and died during last year's Tor des Geants. I stared at the stone rectangle blankly for a few seconds before I realized what it was, then became all choked up at let a few tears fall as I picked up a small rock to place it near the English side of the plaque. It's good, sometimes, to let oneself operate in this state of heightened emotions, to cry for a stranger we never knew. It helps shape a new perspective on life — more bold hues to replace the cracked and faded brush strokes of complacency.

It was a long descent into the first life base at Valgrisenche, and I felt good and did some running. I reached the small village at 11 p.m., meaning the first fifty kilometers — and four vertical kilometers — of the Tor des Geants took thirteen hours, which I considered not bad at all. Still, I arrived too late to see Beat, who had just slipped upstairs to take a nap. I planned to nap as well — extreme sleep deprivation had caused no small amount of distress during PTL, and I was resolved to sleep at least some every chance I had, as long as there was still time on the clock to stop. I joined Crankypants for a dinner of champions — penne pasta, red sauce, an egg, and ham. Then I slipped upstairs for 90 blissful minutes of shut-eye before leaving town just ten minutes after Beat, resolved to catch him.

"I could maybe even push a little harder," I thought. "There's a good chance I'll need to bank the time."
Saturday, September 13, 2014

I walked, cause you walked, but I probably won't get very far

I just wanted to visit the glacier ... to stand at the edge of a high frozen plain with my face to the wind until the chill whisked away the circulation in my fingers and toes and the throbbing soreness in my left knee, until I felt numb or at least something else besides raw disappointment. The cable car, under heavy construction, stopped about a hundred meters below the ice. There was a path, as steep and rocky as anything else in the Alps, winding up to the rifugio, so I followed it.

"Are you okay?" asked a Pakistani man behind me. "You do not walk very well."

"I'm okay," I replied. "I never walk very well."

"But you like to climb to the mountain?"

"Oh yes, very much so."

The man grinned through his wheezing — later he would tell me he was a heavy smoker — "Me too."

We continued chatting as we limped and wheezed to the edge of the ice, and he apologized for bothering me.

"No," I said, "It's nice to have someone to talk to. I haven't met many English speakers in the past few days."

"You are here alone?"

"I am here for the Tor des Geants ... my boyfriend runs every year. He's still out there."

The Pakistani man lives in Italy now and knew all about TDG. "This race takes a very special love of mountains," he said. I nodded my head in agreement.

"How did you hurt your leg?" he finally asked.

"I was hiking the other day and I slipped and fell. Twisted my knee. Now I have too much pain to hike anymore, but I already missed the mountains. So here I am."

Of course there was more story there that I wasn't ready to divulge, even to friendly strangers. How before the fall I'd been hiking for 180 kilometers, and things were going really well. I was staying on my pre-determined schedule, I was getting adequate sleep, I was blister-free with still-strong legs, I was even running when the terrain allowed. I was enjoying myself, I really was. Sure, there were hard moments, some difficult bouts of nausea, post-nap sleep monsters that took a while to fight off, and of course sore feet. But even the tough moments had thus far been outweighed by incredible, heart-wrenching, jaw-dropping moments of amazement. I couldn't wait to see what was next.

Then, it all fell apart. I can't reconstruct the precise moment where it started to go wrong, but there was heavy rain through the late evening, right before I reached a rolling traverse along a steep and rocky ridge line. The rain and hundreds of muddy footprints smeared the rocks in a greasy film, and suddenly I couldn't stay on my feet anymore. I was falling all over the place, legs and butt smeared in mud, fingers jammed, confidence shattered. I tiptoed along, fixated on the yawning drops beside me, passed by a constant stream of more sure-footed runners.

"It's okay. I never walk very well."

Hours trickled away, yet too quickly. I was losing too much time. Daylight came, a soft pastel glow on the rocks to compliment the sharp contrasts of the night's full moonlight. I kept looking at my phone and GPS measurements. I was just not covering ground fast enough. I couldn't face chasing cut-offs; I wouldn't. No time to sleep, no time to dry my feet. I'd be miserable. Runners kept passing. How did they stick so well to the ground? I recalled all of the falls I took in France two weeks earlier, and how I concluded they were provoked by being overcautious. Feet, come on now, pick up the pace.

Of course I made the same mistake I made two weeks ago, a bad foot placement at the top of a large ramp of a boulder. Left heel slipped out and I flailed wildly like a cartoon character on a banana peel until the foot wedged in the small crack between the bottom of the boulder and more rocks. Instinctual reaction to arrest the forward fall prompted me to swing the whole right side of my body around, wrenching the left knee badly. Went down on my butt and folded the knee into a shot of sharp pain that wasn't quite to the level of "Oh no, I'm screwed," but was shocking all the same. Stood up, collected my senses, and looked toward the seemingly endless expanse of rocks in front of me.

"I fell and hurt myself. Of course I did."

There, of course, is more to the story. But after ten more hours of battling the increasing rigidity in my knee, painful footfalls, limping, mud-slipping, boulder crawling, whimpering, screaming, and finally crying on the phone to Beat who was resting in Gressoney, I limped into the village of Niel. I'd left the previous life base, Donnas, more than seven hours in front of the cut-off, and lost every single hour of buffer while crawling over rocks. Now I had only six hours to cross Col Lassoney before the absolute cut-off in Gressoney, a painful pace that had deteriorated to something considerably slower than that, another steep descent off the col, and heavy rain again falling on the rocks. Beat had already scolded me about the egotistical stupidity of risking long-term knee damage for a race that, mathematically, I already stood a low chance of finishing now. Yet, still, I visited the race medic, hoping he'd have a magic cortisone shot that would fix everything. He noted swelling and offered to wrap my knee in a bag of ice. He'd done so on both knees for another runner who was also faced with the realities of racing cut-offs. This runner was walking even more stiffly than me, and had this fierce, thousand-yard stare fixed on a far distance while the medic stuffed six more replacement bags of ice in his coat pockets.

I felt a deep admiration for the runner's audacious fortitude, and watched in disbelief as he limped up the trail and out of sight. I knew then exactly what had to be done. I limped back to the checker table and asked them to cut my bracelet.

It would be lying to say I have no regrets. Finishing the Tor des Geants was something I very much wanted, yet I didn't do the necessary work to better my chances. I again made the wrong assumption that endurance and a little determination would be enough, writing off the level of technical skill that I clearly lack, weighed against my natural — below-average —balance and motor skills. I wouldn't go as far as to say I have no potential to complete a technical Alpine race. But without proper training, which is nearly impossible to obtain on the smooth trails of the San Francisco Bay Area, it's perhaps not realistic — and possibly reckless — to cling to hope.

But Beat can do it ... again and again and again. He finished his fifth Tor des Geants at 1:44 a.m. Saturday morning, alongside a new young Belgian friend named Pieter with whom he shared many miles. Beat frequently makes new friends during these adventures, which I think is one of the reasons he loves them so much.

And he makes it look so easy, which is partly why I ended up drawn to these Alpine "races" that are really more like mountain puzzles, and every footstep an effort to solve another problem. I like to think someday I'll figure it out. But much more than that, I'd be happy just to maintain an ability to hike unhurried distances through these fiercely incredible mountains. I lost that ability this week, one might say to greediness, although I'm still hopeful the universe will gift me with a swift recovery. Maybe after all that it isn't about speeding up, but slowing down.