Thursday, September 03, 2015

Hard-fought failures

I spent the summer assuring myself, and everyone who asked, that I wasn't going to start the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. "I gave that up when I decided to race the Tour Divide," I'd say. Then I got bronchitis, or pneumonia, or whatever completely derailed my health in June. Fewer than six weeks before UTMB, I started running again — six miles here, eight miles there, struggling for 11-minute-mile pace on a trail loop I can usually breeze through at 9:30 average. Shortness of breath accompanied any flirtations with higher intensities. During a backpacking trip in Wyoming, it also became glaringly apparent that my descending abilities — as meager as they always are — had entirely withered. I was slow on the uphills, drastically awkward on the downs, and UTMB is 104 miles with 66,000 feet of elevation change. I'd failed at two of my last three major races, not to mention my Alaska coast shakedown tour in March, and more failure would surely shatter my already weakened confidence ahead of the one athletic endeavor that really matters to me right now — the 2016 Iditarod. 

Skeptical old-timey mountaineer is skeptical
Yes, I do understand the concept of a bad idea. But a bad-idea adventure is still an adventure. I'd paid my money for UTMB, and a long hike over many mountains with regular water stops and French pastries started to sound like a fantastic idea. Without scrutinizing the cut-offs or doing any actual math, I thought, "They give you 46 hours, which is like two miles an hour. I can probably manage that without taxing my lungs too badly. Legs will be sore. It's going to be great."

My parents, who had come to the Alps on a hiking vacation that Beat's and my races undoubtedly overshadowed, were surprisingly supportive. After all, they watched me struggle to crawl out of bed and walk across a parking lot in July. But they know me too well. They'd already rescued me once this summer, and I really didn't want to call them out to some tiny mountain town again. I knew failure was likely, and yet I berated any thoughts of dropping out early. I'm far from one of those "death before DNF" people, but I also value the intellectual challenge of mind over (admittedly sickish and undertrained) matter. "You have too many fails. This time you have to make it," I scolded myself.

For anyone used to the low-key trail-racing events of North America, UTMB is utterly surreal. A wilderness adventure it is not. It is, however, an intriguing cultural endeavor. 2,500 runners from all over the world gather in downtown Chamonix to race around Mont Blanc through communities where people come out of their houses to ring cowbells in the middle of the night night. Qualifying standards have become stiff over the years, and it's humbling to witness the upper-level fierceness displayed by nearly everybody at the starting line. As my dad continually exclaimed over the week, "They all just look so fit." In all honesty I'm most comfortable with the happy-go-lucky bumblers of trail running, and they're nowhere to be seen in UTMB.

There's a lot of pomp at the starting line. Even though I find it equally amusing and tiresome, I admit to getting sucked in to the swelling excitement. The guy in front of me was sporting a beret and two feet of baguette. It's fun to start a race in France.

There's always at least a little weather gloom and doom accompanying UTMB, and this year's warning was thus far unprecedented: Extreme heat. At the 6 p.m. start, temperatures were a toasty 28C (82F.) Forecasts were calling for upwards of 35C (95F) the following day. I'd be lucky if I had to put on a jacket overnight. In a race with ten huge, steep climbs, this warmth is hardly welcome. I had some heat training in California, but I still struggle mightily in warm weather.

Out of Chamonix, UTMB follows a wide dirt path along L'Arve River, rolling but runnable. I vowed not to sprint off the start with everybody else, but even back with the 10-minute-mile joggers, my stomach lurched and groaned. Was it that huge sandwich I had for lunch? Nerves? Sweat poured down my face and back, but I was giddy. The impossibly white crown of Mont Blanc glistened overhead and an intoxicating energy surged through the crowd.

By Les Houches — mile 6 — the giddiness had turned to nausea. I only took a few sips of sparkling water as I shuffled through town and started up the first 3,000-foot climb (one of many — so many — to come.) I hiked with a man from Tucson, Arizona, who was equally happy to meet a fellow English speaker. He also said he was happy about the heat, as he felt he now had a real advantage in the race. I knew I needed to make time on the steep climbs — arguably my only remotely adequate strength in mountain running — so I marched ahead, breathing just under the upper limit of my comfort zone. Glaciers were bathed in scarlet light and cowbell-clanging fans lined the steep path, but nausea was beginning to overshadow my excitement. By the top I'd developed a case of the runner's trots. I managed to hold off for the entire 3,000-foot descent to the nearest toilet, but in the process developed a wicked case of chaffing. I didn't address it as I rushed to the bathroom, and by St. Grevais much of the skin between my cheeks had been rubbed raw. Blood was involved. It was amazingly painful. Worse than the worst saddle sores I've experienced. I think it's fair to call it an ass-tastrophe. I was 13 miles into a 104-mile race.

In the bathroom, used a couple of antibacterial wet wipes to clean the now-open sores, inciting a blinding sting. I nearly passed out. Oof, this was bad. The waves of vomit-inducing pain also didn't help with the original nausea, and I shuffled out of the aid station feeling dizzy. The trail contoured around cattle pastures, and eau de bovine filled the humid air. Darkness had descended at this point. A full moon rose over the black peaks towering overhead. I was still mostly running and many other runners were nearby, so I figured I was doing okay in the race, all things considered.

After a couple of eternal hours of climbing the narrow valley, I staggered into Les Contamines, utterly out of steam. I hadn't managed to eat anything since the race started some six hours earlier. My stomach was lurching, and I was desperate to acquire some broth and lay down for a while. I had just removed my shoes and sprawled out on a bench when a woman came up to me, speaking sternly in French and pointing at her watch. Just as she was doing this, the voice over the intercom finally switched to English: "We remind you that you must leave the station by twelve o'clock." I looked at my phone. It was 11:55.

I was at the cut-off? Already? My Garmin eTrex indicated I'd traveled almost 22 miles, with 5,500 feet of climbing, in five hours and 55 minutes. It's not quick by any means, but I've certainly moved slower in the first fifth of hundred-mile races and still finished ahead of 36 hours. "It's already the cut-off? I can't eat my soup?" The French lady continued to point at her watch sternly. I put my shoes back on, threw my soup in the trash, and lumbered with a John Wayne gait out of the aid station. The white-hot pain of Satan was searing my ass, and I was devastated.

From Les Contamines, we began a 4,000-foot ascent to Croix du Bonhomme. Since I didn't get soup, I resorted to cramming down a couple packets of fruit snacks from my stash. They seemed to help. I still felt like I might vomit, and hoped I would, but of course the stomach reset never comes when you want it to. The full moon blazed overhead as the hot night bore down.

Now I'm 25 miles into a race I've told myself I can't fail, suffering mightily but not in a way that threatens long-term injury or illness, and worst of all, I'm chasing cut-offs. Chasing cut-offs means calculating how much it's worth to bend down and tighten your shoelaces when you feel a hot spot on your toe. It means waiting until the last possible minute to rush into the woods to pee, and multi-tasking the excruciating chore of disinfecting and re-lubing open wounds in sensitive spots. It means marching, marching, marching, and calculating where you can push the pace without falling irrevocably into a pit of bonked despair. It means running faster than you normally would on rocky descents, rolling your ankles and catching your toes on boulders, wondering if this is going to be the time you finally smash your head open on a rock. It means absorbing increasingly unbearable stress, because humans are funny animals and we react to self-imposed pressure with the same chemicals that would flood our systems if we were being chased by wolves. What, oh what have I gotten myself into this time?

Humans are funny animals, and chemicals that respond to sickness and stress also fill our bodies with wonder and elation. The trail rose into the alpine tundra, where the full moon cast cliffs and glaciers in luminescent shades of silver. The landscape was unnervingly beautiful, with shadowy contrasts so deep they hinted at a fourth dimension. An string of lights snaked up a black wall — the unbroken procession of runners on the col. Those who believe you miss all the scenery by running through the night, or ruin the mystery by running with 2,500 others, are discounting a truly unique experience. Here was an after-world, where heaven's forgotten souls had been forced to march into oblivion. It was so dystopically beautiful.

The aid station at Les Champieux was brimming with carnage — people sprawled on the concrete, vomiting impressive quantities of liquid into bushes, and hunched over tables with heads in hands. There were about 25 minutes before the cut-off and I was determined to get soup this time. My stomach was still a mess and I'd barely managed to take in 320 calories of fruit snacks in 33 brutal mountain miles. I also ate plain French bread, and retreated to the bathroom for more disinfecting torture. Again I mopped up a fair amount of blood and nearly passed out from the stinging pain. I wondered if my sister the nurse would be proud. No, probably not.

There was a long, slightly more gradual climb to Col de la Seigne that was quite enjoyable. I felt better than I had all evening, and again attempted running. Pain from the ass-tastrophe was always pretty bad for the first twenty minutes after stopping, but would sort of settle as long as I kept my stride exactly the same — which was at least motivation to keep jogging. I could feel my IT band burning and my right knee ached, which was to be expected after running fewer than 300 training miles since May. Dawn broke and the sun cast its first orange rays on the slopes just as we crossed into Italy. The illuminated mountain was the other side of Mont Blanc. We'd already come so far.

Still, how could it be daytime? Already? It seemed like the next cut-off had to be soon, although I'd forgotten to check at the last aid station. UTMB threw another wrench in the gears with a new, superfluous climb up Col des Pyramides Calcaires. It was a boulder field. Dizzy from lack of calories and also sleep deprivation, I stumbled along the rocks, daydreaming about flight. If a fitness fairy came and offered to grant me one exceptional human ability, I would not choose speed or strength. I'd choose grace. The runners who can dance over these mountains and finish UTMB in 22 hours boggle comprehension. My own tentative awkwardness causes me no end of frustration. I acknowledge I could work harder, and train better, to improve on my own abilities. But I don't live in the mountains. Some people are naturally graceful and don't require constant practice, but I do. I'm the tone-deaf musician who doesn't own a piano, but loves to play, all the same.

Descents remained especially stressful because the clock was ticking, everyone around me moved faster downhill, and it ate up precious seconds to let them all pass. This was the game of leap-frog I continued to play with my fellow back-of-packers. I'd charge past them on the climbs, then feel the pressure of runners barreling toward me on the brutally steep descents. My IT band had taken on a searing pain, and I don't think I could have bombed downhill even if I really wanted to, which I did. Still, I made a concentrated effort to prance down the rocks, assuring my nervous self-preservation reflex that it was better to take technical terrain quickly and not think about it too much.

After pulling over to let another long string of runners past, I sped up to stay with the group. Of course I caught my foot on a boulder at moderate speed and went airborne where all landings ended in sharp rocks. The fall caught me completely off guard, and my limbs were already loose with fatigue, so instead of slapping the ground like a dead fish, I touched down with my right shoulder and then tumbled a few times before landing more or less on my feet. It was perhaps the most graceful fall I've ever taken, and allowed me to stand up from a spectacular crash with nothing more than a lightly bruised shoulder and hip. Still, I was shaken, and would not be taking any more downhill risks.

I blew through Lago Combal without so much as pausing to fill my cup with Coke, and left the checkpoint with fists full of bread. Now on the Italian side of the mountain, the aid station bread had transitioned from soft French loafs to these thick, crusty rolls. I gnawed on one until my tongue was bleeding, and then started up the tiny little 2,000-foot climb to Mont Favre.

The heat of the day was breaking open. My stomach, which had been okay through the warm night, started to lurch again. It was the same old ultra conundrum — I could probably improve my condition by laying down for a while and taking in salt and calories, which would help me move faster. But I was too close to the cut-offs to spend that time. So I marched, surging past people on the climbs, shuffling the descents, and sharing pacing positions with a French woman while losing nearly 2,000 feet in one mile on a knee-crushing trail into Courmayeur. Working together, we managed to only get passed by a handful of runners. "Bon rythme!" she exclaimed and patted me on the back.

It felt like it was a hundred degrees in Courmayeur. One thermometer read 36 degrees, so it actually was close to 100F. The checkpoint was staged in a large sports center, which was overflowing with runners and their crews. It was probably 140 degrees in the building, and difficult to walk without feeling faint. There was a line out the door for the pasta dinner, which I hardly had time for anyway. I had important chores that I'd been thinking about since morning — change my socks, underwear and tights, lube up my entire body, restock my fruit snacks — which, besides white bread and broth, was the only thing I could stomach — and take in as water as I could fit in my belly and hydration bladder. I wrestled through the crowd and plopped down on the hot concrete floor against folded-up bleachers. It's never tempting to quit at these large race checkpoints, as they are sad and uncomfortable places. No matter how sick or sore I feel, I'd can't wait to get out of these hellholes.

I was out the door ten minutes before the 1 p.m. cutoff, slogging through the city streets as lovely Italians showered me with applause I did not deserve. Directly out of town, the route climbs 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles, and there was a thick conga line of many dozens of runners who were racing the sharp edge of the cut-off. There was no way around the crowds, and I was so nauseated and overheated that surging probably wouldn't have benefitted me anyway.

Meanwhile, the broad massif of Mont Blanc loomed. The trail reached a crest at Rifugio Bertoni, and afterward there were six miles of traversing along a grassy contour with huge views of the mountain. It's an incredible run if you can run it. Even shuffling along with searing pains from various body parts, I felt content. "This is such a gift," I thought. "This is why I need to finish. So I don't miss anything."

I blew through Rifugio Bonatti with more fists full of bread, but accidentally dropped most of it when I tripped on a cattle fence. I battled my sore knee for a reasonable pace on the descent into Arnuova, and everyone around me looked like they were still running pretty well. Outside these Alpine races I haven't spent much time in the very back of a pack, but even people in mid-packs rarely look this strong and determined. When I signed up for UTMB last December, I maintained an opinion that this is a "nicer" race than other Alpine ultras. Not so much. Sure, UTMB is well-supported and utilizes good trails, but the cut-offs are brutal. Mile for mile, UTMB felt harder than the Tor des Geants, where I managed to stay comfortably ahead of cut-offs at a much easier pace (until I fell and tore a ligament in my left knee.) Sure, I was in better shape last year, and this summer's respiratory illness has taken more out of me than I'm still willing to acknowledge. But even for good, healthy runners, this race is really hard. What was I thinking when I decided I could tour my way through UTMB? I deserved a sufferfest.

The next pass brought the full, crushing weight of my decisions. I'd developed some wheezing and congestion before Courmayeur, but that's to be expected during a long day of hard breathing. I left Arnuova 15 minutes before the cut-off, determined to make up minutes on the climb now that the crowds had thinned out. After just a few minutes of pushing the pace, my airways tightened and I struggled to breathe. The shortness of breath that has shadowed my efforts since the Tour Divide had returned. I stopped to take hits from my inhaler, but the effects of the medication were short-lived, and gasping returned shortly after I started climbing again. This may have been inevitable, or maybe not. A lot of conditions can cause shortness of breath, including psychosomatic reactions to anxiety. Bronchitis/pneumonia isn't exactly fast-healing, but I had issues before June that have led me to suspect I may be developing a more chronic respiratory condition, perhaps asthma. More rest and recovery is the easy, hopeful solution, but it's also too simplistic. If this is asthma, it's not going to go away. If this is my body's reaction to my lifestyle, then I'll have to accept the long-term solutions for that, too. If this is psychological, then I may never find a solution. If this is just the remnants of pneumonia — which is what I hope it is — then all I have to do is admit I'm impatient and an idiot. So many possibilities, so few certainties. But humans are funny animals, and we like to pretend we can control a lot of things we just can't control.

It's funny though, the eccentricities of human psychology. There I was, in a race I knew I shouldn't have started, with the sensation of a red-hot iron between my butt cheeks, sharp pains in my knee, exhausted and hungry, frightened because I could no longer breathe very well — and my mind was fixated on the prospect of not finishing. I was quite upset about it. Where does this stuff come from? Finishing UTMB doesn't matter to anyone but me. Therefore, it shouldn't matter. I was angry at myself for believing it did, even as I desperately battled to maintain a hopeful pace.

Thick thunderheads enveloped Mont Blanc, which the setting sun painted in pastel shades. I thought about riding my bike across Wyoming in June, after I'd been so sick for so many days, and the way I would just stare into the horizon without thought or emotion. This disturbing apathy lingered even after I'd returned home to my regular life and recovery. Here, on the slopes on Grand col Ferret, I finally let myself be sad about it — about failing in the Tour Divide. Regret welled up in my gut, and I turned my iPod to music by Of Monsters and Men — "Organs" — to give voice to the emotions that were streaming out in gasps and tears.

So I take off my face 
Because it reminds me of how it all went wrong 
And I pull out my tongue 
Because it reminds me of how of it all went wrong 
And I cough up my lungs 
Because they remind me of how it all went wrong 
But I leave in my heart 
Because I don't want to stay in the dark

A refreshingly cold wind whisked along the col as I crossed into Switzerland. It was time to be truthful. I stooped beside a boulder and e-mailed my parents from my phone: "Having a lot of trouble breathing. It's not likely I'll make the next cutoff. I might, but either way continuing probably isn't a good idea. Do you think you can meet me in La Fouly?"

There. It was done. I instantly regretted it, but refrained from a "Ha ha, just kidding" follow-up e-mail. Still, I wondered — what if I felt markedly better once I returned to lower elevations? My silly brain was still churning up delusions. My parents had very limited connectivity and might not even see the e-mail. Maybe I could still make that cut-off. I lumbered down the steep trail, knee nearly locked, determined to "run."

The racers around me were now down to the final stragglers. As night settled it was eerily quiet. The narrow trail traversed above a black abyss of a canyon, climbing and descending endless drainages. I limped and shuffled as time lost all definition. There was no longer reason to obsess about the clock — it wasn't going to change anything. My breaths were shallow but calm. I actually felt pretty good. Not good enough to sprint, but good enough to feel grateful for the place I occupied in the world — beneath peaks drenched in silver moonlight, the piercing emptiness of the sky, and this incredible privilege to travel 70 tough miles in the mountains with my own feet, in one go, even if I wasn't the most graceful or fit.

I reached La Fouly at 10:44 — 14 minutes too late. Volunteers were already clearing out the checkpoint. A man walked up to me and made a slashing motion across his neck.

"You finish," he said in English.

"I know," I said. He took his scissors and cut up my bib, which I know is necessary to keep people from sneaking back into the race, but it's terribly demoralizing. Then he pointed me to a place where I could catch the last bus to Chamonix, but I misunderstood him amid the language barrier, and missed the bus. My parents were actually in La Fouly, but I didn't know it at the time and we hadn't connected yet. All I understood was that I was stranded and alone. I curled up on a bench and let that reality settle. I didn't want to spend the night on that bench. Instead, I thought, I should get back up and continue down the trail. Who's going to stop me? Maybe I'll walk myself into Chamonix after all. I smiled and closed my eyes, knowing this would remain a beautiful dream. 


  1. Jill I can understand your sense of defeat, but you definitely never 'fail'.
    It is incomprehensible to me that your 'ass-tastrophe' didn't stop you sooner.
    Fabulous photos taken amidst the pain.

  2. What an adventure. If we're not willing to risk failure, then we don't get to have adventures like you do! I'm actually amazed that your body endured everything for so far. This is an incredible post, both in terms of the beautiful writing and photos.

  3. Reading your post, I can't help myself but think "why would anyone do this to themselves while visiting the most beautiful mountains in the world?". On another level I think I understand a little bit. Does not matter what you call a failure or not failure, I would be curious where do you draw the line between "still enjoying myself" and "this is too much"?

  4. Oh, Jill, what a disappointment. And yet, maybe an odd blessing, too. I've heard so many stories of runners who raced while sick and fried their immune systems. Glad that's not going to happen to you. Sounds as if you had a great race and hung in there on grit and guts--good for you. P.S. I recently raced a 50K while sick and had to drop out at mile 25, so damned near and yet so damned far from the finish line. Cheers and take care of yourself.

  5. Jill, I've read and listened to many UTMB reports and yours wins best in show--such great writing. Just amazing that you made it 70 miles with all the pain you were experiencing! I was especially moved by your descriptions of feeling gratitude-enjoyment admidst all the discomfort.

    Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us and I hope your body heals soon.


  6. Really enjoyed reading, as always, thanks for the effort of writing these posts!

    I kind of identify with the sentence:

    I'm the tone-deaf musician who doesn't own a piano, but loves to play, all the same.

  7. Have been following your posts for a while now - this is my favorite. Keep on keeping on, Jill.

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  9. Jill: consider eliminating wheat/gluten, dairy, and sugar from your diet. You will see amazing improvements and healing of your asthma. Thanks for the great report and beautiful photos.

  10. Thanks for the post. Incredible pictures and fascinating race report. I don't remember your previous years UTMB posts sounding like "a long hike over many mountains with regular water stops and French pastries". But it won't surprise me if that is how you rembember this year come next year. :-)

  11. re: eBooks vs. paperback

    This was on public radio Monday. --Tom, Fairbanks

    "E-book sales declined 7.5 percent in the first quarter of 2015, while sales of paperbacks went up 8.6 percent, according to The Association of American Publishers. Amazon set consumer expectations that ebooks would be priced at $9.99 or below, and publishers are finding it difficult to reset those expectations, Kirsch says."


Feedback is always appreciated!