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. 


  1. Well, Beat is clearly not human. I think you underestimate your ability; most people would not have made it that far. You did great-anyone can fall.

  2. I'm sorry you had to drop out. I can relate to having a partner that runs all the same races as me but seems to do it effortlessly while I struggle. Trying to navigate rocks is tough enough while that fatigued, but add in rain and mud and that only magnifies the risk of falling---for everyone. You did great with the circumstances you were given! Rest up and you'll be on your feet again soon.

  3. I think you finally got it, kiddo.

  4. Although I don't think I've ever commented on your blog, I have read and devoured your posts and photos for the past year or so. This seems to be the perfect time for me to comment and tell you how much I enjoy reading about your outdoor adventures. What amazing stories you tell! I'm just a first grade teacher in my mid-40s in rural Texas, but I wanted you to know that your courage and determination helped me complete my first "big" backpacking adventure this past summer. My teenage son and I hiked 85 miles in 10 days at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. While 85 miles is probably a walk in the park for you, it was a huge achievement for me. I thought of your hikes, runs, and bike rides several times when I was in the mountains, and your perseverance and strong-mindedness helped me get through the difficult hours and days. So thank you very much, and I hope your knee heals quickly!

    1. Thanks, Heather. Your trip sounds amazing. My longest backcountry backpacking trip was also in the 10-day, 90-mile range and it was a rare life experience to really feel "out there" in the depths of the Utah desert. Congratulations!

  5. You always inspire me. Your a true free spirit

  6. I think you underestimate yourself too. For the record, reading your stories--both the triumphs and struggles-- has inspired me take a look at some of these races too :)

  7. Heathet G., congratulations, that is awesome!

    1. Thank you! I really enjoyed the whole experience. Some days were easier than others, but I am proud of myself for completing the trek. I loved the beautiful mountain views, the new friendships I made, the priceless time I got to spend with my son, the solitude and time to reflect while hiking, and the opportunity to prove to myself that I could do it.

  8. Hi Jill,

    Sarah and I have read your posts leading up to the Tor, so it was awesome to finally meet you there!

    The section leading up to Niel was brutal. Especially the final mudslide descent. I got there 2.5 hours after you did, also battling knee pain. I decided to call it right there.

    Sarah and I have also been thinking about how to train for the Tor in the Bay Area. We've been doing lots of runs on Mt. Diablo that has single track steep sustained ascents and descents. Most don't even approach the Tor technically though. We also thought of doing repeats on the Dipsea or Matt Davis trail in the Marine. The steep stairs, while not technical enough, can at least somewhat stimulate what is required of the knees. Maybe we'll do some training runs next year!


    1. Thanks Dmitriy. It sounds like you and I had a similar experience into Niel. I too have been contemplating potential training grounds since the race. There are some truly difficult trails in the Ventana Wilderness — steep, loose scree and boulders, probably the closest such trails to the Bay Area that I can think of. Of course there are plenty of scrambles in the Sierras, but not easy to access on a regular basis. As a drive, Diablo isn't that much closer to my home than the northern Ventana, but it is fairly convenient. I have some steep trails to choose from nearer to where I live (there are some grueling fireroads along Long Ridge, for example.) But nothing that I think could adequately prepare me for thousands of feet of descending while finessing my clunky feet around endless rocks.

      Next summer I have my heart set on an as-yet-undetermined long-distance bike tour. If I ever get a wild hair to attempt TDG again, I'm going to take it seriously and spend the whole summer specifically training for mountain running — so unless I change my mind about the tour, it won't be next year. I'm not necessarily about getting redemption for everything I've failed at. I'm willing to admit when something is better than me. ;-) But I never say never. It's likely that someday I will find myself again pinning a number on my tights in the Aosta Valley.

  9. Come what may, your writing is second to none. And your pictures put postcards to shame. That scenery is just stunning.

  10. I would love to paint my canvass with some of your colors !!!

    All the best and make every moment in life count !!!


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