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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Can ... I help ... you?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I will be fine. But I do appreciate that you stopped. Thank you."
"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."
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.
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.