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|
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.
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.