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."


  1. I would like to use some of your colors on my canvass, life is a journey, make it count and paint it with your favorite colors !!!!!

    Keep on painting !!!!

  2. Not sure if it's accurate, but my theory is New England offers steep trails generally more directly up mountains whereas south and west trails developed later with erosion etc in mind...?


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