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."
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.
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.
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.