Sunday, September 21, 2014

Living in color, part two

The night was was warm and calm, and the nearly full moon saturated the forest in silver light, rendering an outer glow around silhouettes of trees. The scene was reminiscent of 1940s film noir, perhaps a murder mystery set in World War II-era Italy. There were even stone ruins and twisted wire fences to complete the eerie setting. Often I let my imagination run recklessly wild in these places, when I'm tired and susceptible to weakness and vulnerability amid lurking unknowns. But not on this night — my energy was boundless. I felt strong enough outrun the wolves that stalk my waking dreams, and so I had little reason to fear.

I caught up with Beat at rifugio Chalet de l'Epee. He had already made some new friends, a runner from Cyprus named Devrim and a Dutch runner, Eric. The three were sitting down at a table so I joined them after asking for coffee. There was no coffee, and instead of expressing this fact, the volunteer filled my collapsible cup with a strange sweet tea that I strongly disliked. I don't know whether it was the tea or the onset of stomach issues, but the lukewarm liquid created this burning sensation in my throat and ignited a gag reflex that felt as repulsive as drinking turpentine. I drank the tea anyway, forcing it down in large, wincing gulps, and left the rifugio five minutes later with the boys, feeling mildly ill.

This was the only point in the race during which I traveled with other people, and I can see why company creates a mutual advantage. The rest of the climb to the 2,854-meter Col Fenetre passed in no time as we chatted away. Eric told me about this North American mountain bike race we was interested in riding, the "Grand Divide," and I told him all about the Tour Divide without ever fully knowing whether he understood that we were talking about the same thing. "Col number four and I'm still loving this," I thought confidently.

But what goes up must come down, and as we crested Fenetre I peered over the edge and nearly had a panic attack. There were village lights sparkling right below our feet, as though placed at the bottom of a vertical wall 4,500 feet below. "That is straight down, it's really straight down," I gasped as Beat tried to reassure me. "This isn't PTL, it's the TDG," he said. "There's a trail, I promise. This is the worst descent."

I told the boys to go ahead, as I would be crab-walking down if needed. The slope itself was easily 60 degrees, strewn with boulders and enough dewy grass patches that poor foot placement could launch a tumble that would be impossible to arrest. Luckily, Beat was correct about the existence of a switchbacking trail. Even the trail was cut at 45 degrees or more, and I followed behind a Frenchman as we crept down in a near squat and occasionally skidded onto our butts. It still beats the alternative — PTL would just send runners straight down the boulder-choked couloir. "If this is the worst descent, this won't be so bad."

I saw the boys again in Rhemes, but they'd reached the village a full twenty minutes before me. Although I wanted to join them for the next climb, I opted to stay behind so I'd have time to eat soup and re-lube my feet — part of my resolve to place self-care above all other priorities in the Tor des Geants, as long as I was still keeping close to my pre-determined schedule. It seemed important to shore up strength for another 5,000-foot climb to Col Entrelor, our first pass over 3,000 meters.

The morning opened in a wash of color — fiery orange and red light saturating the limestone peaks while cool pastels remained in the shadows of the valley below. Entrelor turned out to be my favorite of all of the cols I climbed in Italy — not only one of the highest, but also the steepest. Even through the grassy fields the grades were lung-busting, and it got steeper in the rocks — the kind of climb where even shallow steps force swift breaths and eventually enough oxygen drains from the brain to quiet its incessant nagging. The final approach took a turn for the vertical as we climbed toward a knife ridge, assisted by rebar and ropes. I still felt strong, and scrambling past people provided little ego boosts to go along with the elevation gain.

I had flashbacks of "The Ladder" in Gamkaskloof, South Africa. Really, there were small sections of the Freedom Challenge where we were climbing stuff this steep with bikes. Okay, maybe not ropes-and-rebar steep. But I maintain that scrambling is a lot more fun without a bike.

I stopped for ten minutes at the top to dry my feet and enjoy a snack of Knoppers and strange-tasting cheesy crackers that I'd been packing around since my hikes in France.

Then there was a long, long descent to the next valley. The grade wasn't too steep so I alternated running and hiking, but soon became overcome with nausea. The mid-morning sun was bearing down and I blamed the heat for my sickness — not only the boiling-over sensation in my head, but also the fact that this overheated feeling combined with a dry throat probably prompted me to drink too much water, evidenced by the sloshing in my stomach. I went from strong to a wreck in less than a mile, and it was a long, long descent into the next valley.

 Temperatures in the valley felt like they were approaching 100 degrees (realistically, it was probably in the high 70s), and with about 1,000 feet left to descend through the humid forest, my body finally relieved me of the painful sloshing by purging the contents of my stomach. The satisfaction of vomiting is always short-lived, for it doesn't take long for the relief to fade into the reality of a fast-approaching bonk. I finally reached Eaux Rousses, determined to take a long break, and encountered Devrim, who told me he had twisted his ankle and could no longer keep pace with Beat and Eric. I didn't expect to see Beat in the TDG again. That was okay, though, I still had time. I sat for nearly thirty minutes to drink broth and finally stuff down pieces of plain white bread. And of course dry, examine, and re-lube my feet. I got a little over-obsessive about my feet during this race.

 Then it's a long, long climb up to Col Loson, another 6,000 feet to the 3,300-meter pass. 11,000 feet is just high enough that the elevation starts to affect most people, but I was doing markedly worse down lower, in the hot humid forest with nausea still mounting despite the rest in Eaux Rousses. If I had to pinpoint a moment where the absurdity of it all really started to set in, it was Col Loson. "So I slept 90 minutes last night, and then I did a 4,500-foot climb followed by a 5,000-foot climb, and now there's this 6,000 foot climb and it's not even close to the finish. Hmmmm."

There was a small rifugio halfway up the pass where I stopped to douse my head in cold water and drink from the fountain. The act of doing this set off my gag reflex and I stood there doubled over in front of hikers who were just trying to enjoy afternoon tea — which prompted me to try my hardest not to vomit again. I succeeded, then skulked down to a small glacier-carved valley for the long, long climb that still remained. As soon as I crossed 8,000 feet elevation, a slight breeze escaped through the wall of unbearable heat and I finally started to feel a little better. I still stopped every 500 feet or so to lay in the grass with my hat over my face until the pounding in my head quieted some. At 10,000 feet there was no more grass and the rocky slope was too steep to lie down, so I just trudged at snail pace to the top, still passing a surprising number of altitude-affected runners in the process.

What goes up ... aw, damn it. I crested the col without so much as pausing, and marched along a narrow notch in the cliff without acknowledging the high exposure. After that, alpine tundra fell away beneath my feet in a sort of half-time slow motion. Nausea had gotten the best of me and the bonk took over. As I trundled down the mountain, stones caught the edge of my shoes and every grassy patch looked like a solid spot for a nap. "You don't need sleep, you need food," I reminded myself, but it's one thing to believe something and another thing to act on it. Time started to flicker ... first moments, then long minutes disappeared into the vacuum of oblivion. Gold saturated the slopes and long shadows crept up from behind. "Is it evening already? What time is it?"

At Rifugio Sella I managed to cram down a few spoonfuls of couscous doused in broth. This weak shot of energy was just enough to rouse me from my stupor into the uncomfortable state that lies just above stupor — the one that seems to run on pure, concentrated emotion. Suddenly I was desperately lonely and astonished at the beauty of the glaciated peaks in the distance. I was addled with silliness, missed Beat fiercely, and could scarcely contain my rage as the trail tumbled into near-vertical chute of couch-sized boulders, tree roots, and mud. In this section the route loses a thousand feet in what must be less than half a mile. I knew this steep descent was coming — having hiked this side of Col Loson before, twice — and thought it would feel like nothing in the context of the whole race. But I should have known better; in the big picture, every brush stroke matters. To backpackers making their way up the trail, I must have looked rather pathetic, trying to mask angry tears as I shambled through a vertical maze of angled rocks. The rational side of my brain realized these tears were a large overreaction and begged me to eat a Twix bar. I could only force down two or three small bites of candy before nausea took over. But a few minutes later, a sugary miracle would interrupt the downward spiral and I'd feel like my semi-normal, mild-mannered self again until the sugar wore off, and then there were more tears. That, too, must have been quite the spectacle for the backpackers — a tear-stained, mud-smeared hiker clutching a half-crushed candy bar and taking tiny bites until she stopped crying, only to repeat the cycle all over again minutes later. I wish I had this scene on GoPro.

When I finally reached the bottom of the mountain, another small miracle took place. I'd had my iPod on ever since Rifugio Sella, really only half listening because I was so bonked. Back in California, while I was making my playlists, I remembered a story Beat had told me about being boosted by angry music — specifically, the Foo Fighters' "White Limo" — during his 2012 TDG run, and this made me think I should put some angry music on my iPod. There was some newer hardcore and a few metal songs in the mix, but I made a point to download Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" ... why? At the time, I never had a specific reason for downloading this specific song. But the Shuffle picked this precise moment to turn it on, just as I was nursing a cocktail of angry tears of Twix, and facing five flat kilometers along the river into the village of Cogne.

It all came back so quickly, those streaks of red paint slashed across memories nearly two decades old, still glistening and wet. The basement of Club DV8, a musty dungeon in downtown Salt Lake City, dripping with condensation and clouds of breath because the basement wasn't heated, even in the winter. It wasn't even Rage Against the Machine; it was a bad cover from some no-name punk band, but when you're 16 those details don't really matter. I was a timid teenager but with a rebellious streak that sometimes landed me in places like the basement of Club DV8. Still, I usually hung back, protecting my personal space while the crowd thrashed near the stage. On this winter day all those years ago, my hands were numb from the cold and my feelings were hurt — I don't remember why — but I do remember hearing the intro to "Killing in the Name" and feeling an overwhelming desire to rush the crowd. Eighteen years later and I could still feel the hot breaths on my neck, the jolts of shoulders and elbows slamming into my back and stomach, the sweat smears on my arms, the enraged thrashing after an errant fist coldcocked my cheekbone. All of these memories came rushing back in a blast of red, and just like that I was right back in that mosh pit, violently battling the emotional eruption.

I started running. Fast. And it was amazing. My feet didn't hurt anymore, my legs weren't tired, my nausea was gone and I was filled with an overabundance of rage-fueled energy that could only be quelled by sprinting. I tore past other runners who passed me on the descent and must have thought I had completely lost my mind. Dusk faded into twilight; I leapt over roots and rocks blindly, long after they disappeared into the shadows. I dashed up small hills and bounded down, jumped off the ground and thrusted both poles in the air with the chorus called for it, and seethed with open-mouth gulps while reciting lyrics out loud ... "F&@* you I won't do what you tell me."

It was so ridiculous ... and it was, quite honestly, my favorite five kilometers of the race. It proved to me that my body was fine, that everything that was going wrong was happening inside of my head. I covered that entire segment in fewer than four repeats of the "Killing in the Name." It was probably faster than I would run a 5K at home, well-rested, without a pack, and not at the bottom of three enormous climbs and descents.

 There's a reason it pays to sometimes paint in red. Ask me what else I remember so vividly about being 16.

The drawback is I arrived at Cogne with an adrenaline surge that was already washing back into an ocean of exhaustion. My little temper tantrum, while hugely cathartic, had drained what seemed like the last of my reserves. Beat was still at the life base, but he had napped already and was planning to leave soon. Part of me wanted to go with him, but I knew I needed to take some time and eat a real meal, and I'd promised myself two hours of sleep. Also, I'd lost enough time on him in the last section to admit that our paces didn't align. I didn't want to drag him down with me. So I said goodbye and settled in on a cot in a cold gymnasium, listening to the echoes of others snoring and rifling through their stuff. A Japanese woman on the cot next to me was giving an interview to a cameraman with a bright spotlight, which made me incredulous enough to turn over and say — loudly enough to have it picked up on audio — "Really. I mean really?" I felt far too amped up to rest but desperate for sleep at the same time.


  1. Jill, your vivid descriptions bring back such memories!

  2. Perfect song for that situation....thanks for telling the story..

  3. OK...I'll bite...what else do you remember so vividly about being 16?

    1. I suppose there are a few other moments as well. :) I meant this as more of a rhetorical question, referring to the idea that intense experiences have a much longer shelf life than superficial experiences, and my belief that happiness and satisfaction hinge on risks taken and a few intense experiences, not comfort and the hundreds of superficial experiences that float through our lives. Thanks for checking in.

  4. "really? i mean really." i burst into laughter when i read that... you are awesone


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