How Jill got her groove back
I typed that sentence somewhere in a document shortly after UTMB, but ultimately scrubbed it from the detritus of post-race stream-of-consciousness. Still I continued to squint into the murky flow, trying to make sense of why I seek challenges that are well beyond my pay grade, throw aside all the medals and patches and belt buckles when I succeed, and yet feel so bewildered and unmoored when I fail.
"Four failures in the Alps. Four!" I came to UTMB in 2012 well-prepared and well-trained, only to be thrown into a shortened, dramatically different race when a snowstorm forced a major reroute at the last minute. I finished the 110K, but it's always felt like a failure. I signed up for Petite Trotte à Léon in 2013 because I really had no idea what I was getting into, but that challenge sounded so much more adventurous than UTMB. PTL was a mistake from the get-go — negotiating frequent scrambling, navigation and tricky route-finding with limited mountaineering experience, a shaky sense of balance, communication difficulties with my teammates, and extreme sleep deprivation. I held on for four days until my vision was blurry and I'd effectively lost my mind to stress and fear, and then I timed out at 200K. Terrible. Worst thing I've ever done to myself. And still ...
I came to the Tor des Geants in 2014 because it seemed like a much nicer event than PTL, and it was. TDG was hard — far more difficult than I anticipated even after watching Beat make his way around the Aosta Valley for three years. But the race was fun, and I was doing okay until I slipped, wrenched my knee, tore a ligament, and had to crawl out from a remote ridge so I could drop out of that race at 200K. After eight weeks of recovery, frustrated that I'd failed yet again, I made the decision to sign up for UTMB in 2015.
Argh, why did I have to start that thing? But UTMB was so beautiful, with indigo shadows and intensely bright moonlight. The day was so colorful and hot, the mountains so much bigger than I remembered. Even though I was nauseated and bleeding in places that you really don't want to be bleeding, I drew some incredible experiences from the endeavor. But why did I have to fail, two thirds through the race, yet again? Suddenly these vibrant memories have this gray shade drawn over them. "You failed, you accomplished nothing."
Who's telling me this? But this is the message I receive.
The musings keep spiraling out from there, but it all winds back to being a sad sack for the better part of a week. I tried to push the Eeyore rain cloud aside because I wanted to be positive and supportive for Beat and other friends battling out the difficult conditions in the Tor des Geants, and because damn it, I was on holiday in the Italian Alps! But denying and berating yourself for emotions doesn't make them any less effecting. I would lie awake at night, and sometimes drop a few tears while driving through the tunnels of the A1. Even that one thing that always makes me happy — hiking in the mountains — proved discouraging. My inner critic was constantly nudging me: "You're terrible at this. You're never going to be good enough."
After cramming down most of a grilled vegetable pizza that was the size of an end table, I waddled outside to see sunlight streaming through a break in the clouds. Beat and Miles were heading home to take naps. "It looks like it's starting to get nice out," I said. "I think I'll go for a hike."
People poke fun at Strava, but one thing I really like about the software is the way it allows me to quantify my efforts and analyze how realities match my perceptions. I felt great, but was I really moving any better than normal? Strava confirmed solid stats for the 1.25-mile, 2,000-foot climb to Bertoni: Just under 40 minutes, which is a full 10 minutes faster than my previous best — when I was in decent running shape in 2012 — and 25 minutes faster than my slog up the hill during UTMB three weeks earlier. Seventh out of 61 women, with the QOM owned by Stephanie Howe. Only 2 minutes slower than Julien Chorier's best Strava time (the runner who won Hardrock in 2011.) Not bad!
I kept looking at my watch, because I'd told Beat I'd be back before 7:30 — about two and a half hours after I started my hike. Even if I deferred that promise, I'd still be racing daylight, so I had to make the best use of my time. I vowed to turn back after an hour and a half, but as I jogged along the ridge, I was getting so close to Testa Bernarda. The 2,500-meter peak would make such a nice destination for this fantastic outing. Could it be done?
At the time my iPod was playing "Read My Mind," by the Killers, which is a song I once posted on a poorly made (pre-GoPro) video about my first good bike ride after recovering from frostbite in 2009 (link here.) I still associate it this song with the sensation of breaking free, overcoming setbacks, and feeling strong again. With 1:25 on the watch, I turned off the trail and onto the grassy face of Testa Bernarda, flipped the Shuffle back to the beginning of the song, and absolutely redlined. The fuzzy tunnel around my vision narrowed, thoughts disintegrated to gasps and groans, lungs and legs seared with hot acid, but they were working. I was working! The snow-dusted cliffs of Grandes Jorasses came into view, my feet touched a bump that went no higher, and the Killers came roaring back into my oxygen-depleted mind:
"I wanna breathe that fire again!"
I raised both arms into the air and pumped my fists, almost involuntarily. Wow. This is it, right here. The edge of livability. The fullness of experience.
This flood of optimism carried me all the way down the mountain, brimming with possibilities.