Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How Jill got her groove back

"Accomplishments are ultimately meaningless. Experience is what matters."

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.

So I've had a bad year on the accomplishment front. I admit it's gotten me down. This is how these emotions start, and then negativity gloms onto negativity, and soon I'm mired in despair about California wildfires and drought, the Syrian refugee crisis, the prospect of a winterless winter in Alaska, and missing my cat (long story, but I recently gave away my cat of 11 years to the woman who takes care of her while we're out of town, for the cat's welfare and also for our friend's happiness. It was the right decision, but it broke my heart.) And what's up with my respiratory system? Do I have asthma? How do I even begin to address that? Does it take this long to recover from pneumonia? Is it Overtraining Syndrome? That vague phrase that effectively means "I'm an active person who doesn't feel well and I don't know why." It's become this catch-all explanation that no longer describes anything. People don't get sick for five years because of "overtraining." I'm sorry, no.

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."

On Thursday the Tor des Geants was cancelled due to poor weather, and it continued to rain hard all morning. Beat returned to Courmayeur on the bus around noon. We spread his soggy gear all over the apartment, and then bundled up to walk into town and have pizza with Miles. Both Beat and Miles were chipper and upbeat (they'd had a full night of sleep at the life base while the race was on pause for 12 hours.) I was probably more bummed about the race cancellation than they were; I just remember how disappointed I was about shortened UTMB in 2012. They reasoned that they'd had fun while it lasted, and both will probably be back for more soon enough (Beat almost certainly will.)

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."

The quickest, best way to reach views from Courmayeur is the TMB trail to Rifugio Bertoni, which is part of both the UTMB and TDG courses. Keep marching up the ridge and you can gain 3,000 feet altitude in two miles — quite some bang for the buck. Clouds cleared rapidly as I climbed, until the sky was bright and blue. Mist rose from the saturated trail and wet grass, and the late-afternoon sun cast a rich glow on the glaciers and cliffs of the Mont Blanc massif. The air was infused with autumn-like crispness, and the effect seemed to open my lungs. I haven't been able to go all that hard since my Tour Divide illness, but for the first time since June, I found myself flirting with high intensity without experiencing the sensation that my airways were constricting. My heart rate shot skyward, so I took quick, satisfying breaths and marched faster.

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 crested the ridge a thousand feet above Bertoni and broke into a jog. All of the mountains were out, the air was crisp but warm, and even though the trail was a swamp, it was fun to splash through the mud as sheep bleated at me. I was grooving to my 2009 Tour Divide playlist — I'd recently rescued the files from an old, dead mP3 player and moved the whole group onto an iPod shuffle. There was a lot of music I hadn't listened to since, and I was filled with nostalgia about the good old days, when I took on challenges that were way above my pay grade, and succeeded all the same.

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?

With 1:19 on the watch, I was still three quarters of a mile and 700 feet below the top. The peak looked like it was right there, but that annoying inner critic crunched the numbers and told me it was time to turn around. Finally, the voice of enthusiasm and optimism who had been so quiet all week piped in and said, "Run!" So I broke into a run, weaving around the bleating sheep and clawing through the mud and grass as the grade steepened. My heart was pounding and I was positive I hadn't reached this level of intensity in months, but my airways were clear. I ran harder.

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.

Not an accomplishment, not really, but a moment I sorely needed, all the same. I bounded down the hill, wondering if I could turn this victory into a quick descent. Fears of slippery surfaces and falling on my face fought back with equally empowered ferocity. Still, I thought, maybe my lungs are just fine, or at least on the upswing. Maybe someday I will find my groove for running in the mountains, and I'll no longer be too slow or clumsy to finish a big race in the Alps. Maybe it will snow in Alaska this winter, and remain cold but not too cold for good trails and incredible experiences. Maybe California will get some rain. Maybe Syria will, too.

This flood of optimism carried me all the way down the mountain, brimming with possibilities. 


  1. Pizza! The nutritional cornerstone of any training plan. It does it every time!

  2. Well, I'm glad that post ended on a high note, but, dang Jill, you've got to work on your definitions. Most notably: failure. I mean, finishing a shortened race is a failure? Dropping out due to injury is a failure? Sheesh.

    Also work on your definition of accomplishment. (In my mind, cresting that peak was an accomplishment, yes, really.) You've achieved some incredible accomplishments even if you didn't cross the finish line. All races have arbitrary starting and ending points set by someone else (unless you're the race director). Why are you so hard on yourself based on someone else's standard?

    I'll flip it around. I entered a 50-mile race this summer and got pulled at mile 42 because I missed the time cut-off by 5 minutes. Disappointed? A little. But I ran farther than I had ever run before. I feel great about that. Or am I wrong? Did I not really accomplish anything? Should I consider myself a failure? If you tell me yes, then fine. But if you tell me no, that I didn't fail, then why should it be any different for you?

    1. Eric: Of course I think running 42 miles is a major achievement. (And really enjoyed your report in the News-Miner by the way.) I'm impressed by anyone who pushes their boundaries, whether it's an elite runner taking on a wholly different challenge (Joe Grant and the Colorado Trail Race), Corrine completing a difficult multi-day bikepacking race on her first try, or a person who's never before been active committing to a couch-to-5K program and seeing it through.

      This post is about addressing my own inner critic, with whom I (often) wildly disagree. If I'm going to tell a story about how bummed out I was during that week, I need to be honest about the reasons why. I'm not proud of those reasons, but that was the root of it: I felt like a failure.

      Of course all of my Alpine excursions have been incredible experiences. I even value PTL, even though it was largely a experience I hated, because I learned so much, and gained so much insight. I truly believe that finishing any one of these races wouldn't have actually made that much of a difference in how I view the experience in hindsight — and yet I have to admit I'm angry about not finishing. I continue to ask myself why. Just like Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

      Someday I *will* return — probably to TDG — and prove my inner hater wrong. Until then, I'm really stoked on how great I've felt since this run. I've been worried about my respiratory health, and realize I'm not out from under water just yet, but I'm feeling hopeful.

    2. Point taken, Jill. You're not defending your inner critic, you're just being honest about it. Next time I feel like going on a rant, I'll address it to "Jill's inner critic."

      Have you ever read "The Inner Game of Tennis"? It's about tennis, but it's been referred to by many people outside of tennis and even sports. The book's main focus is about dealing with the inner critic.

      Anyway, I'm glad you're feeling great again.

      P.S. Rather than "proving" your inner hater wrong, consider just trying to ignore it. When I was young I used to love to taunt my little sister. The reactions were loud and priceless. When she finally figured out that she just had to ignore me, I eventually gave up taunting her.

  3. Congrats on getting your groove(y) back.

    All the cool kids dumped Strava and are using Maprika.

    I think I can hear your bike calling.......

  4. I think of the enjoyment of the experience as a reward for the achievements for which you've sacrificed. Go with it.

  5. "It's become this catch-all explanation that no longer describes anything. People don't get sick for five years because of 'overtraining.' I'm sorry, no."

    Well, yes. That's how it works. You beat the shit out of your body long enough and you lose the ability to feel good anymore. Then you start doing irrational things like extreme diets or more exercise or crazy gear fads to feel "better" while not cutting down on activity and that doesn't really work so then you do more and more and more and then you're broken down, forever. It's really been pretty well documented at this point.

  6. Jill, I absolutely love reading your posts and your adventures and have done for years. I am equally delighted that you have got your groove back - I know how that feels.

    However I am also interested to see Eric & Jill (HG)'s posts above. I think they make valid points. As someone who has been through multiple lurgies ending up with a long-term (but manageable) medical condition due to overtraining while ill & stressed, I wouldn't discount it as a possibility for anyone, particularly people who push themselves beyond their limits and have high expectations of their bodies.

    You may be lucky to escape it, you may not.

    Patience, experimenting, self-kindness & learning to read my warning signs has been the only way back (I'm nearly there).

    But that said, do keep writing from your heart, because it's always fascinating and beautiful.

    1. Jo — thanks for your feedback. I'm sorry to hear you're going through this. I didn't mean to discount anyone's experience, I only think it's important that people cast a critical eye on any condition that isn't well understood. I've heard of several cases of athletic people who self-diagnosed themselves with OS, only to learn later that they had an aggressive cancer, high blood pressure, and other conditions that are rather unlikely to be related to physical activity, but need to be treated immediately. Asthma, too, is a serious condition that won't go away by simply "resting."

      I realize that stress, both physical and mental, have an impact on a person's well-being. Overtraining Syndrome has come into vogue right now with more evidence of long-term burn-out at the elite end of the spectrum. I was quite sick in June, and no doubt made it much worse by continuing to overtrain (by continuing to ride in the Tour Divide.) OS would be the tidy explanation for me, since it implies that my breathing difficulties are my fault, and all I need to do is rest more to get better. But this may not be the case. Asthma is a chronic condition and effectively a loss in the genetic lottery (meaning it's likely there was never anything I could have done to avoid it, maybe short of not growing up and living in smoggy cities.) I continue to consider both (and conditions I haven't even yet realized) as possibilities.

  7. Great write up Jill. I never really comment, but I've followed your writing for years. It is good to hear you upbeat. Maybe it was your lack of a predetermined goal that created the wonderful hike/run. In any case, I hope you're able to continue to recover physically and get that groove back for good.

  8. Jill, I too went through the same breathing problems about a year and a half ago. I have raced bike for a few years and was feeling pretty good up until the point of my attack. I thought it may have been asthma as well but it turned out to be the beginning of allergies. I took Allegra D for a few weeks straight. Now I take it only when I feel the need, have had no attacks since.

  9. I wrote this before but I don't know if you check older posts but I suggest looking into ameobas and parasites.I had these kind of symptoms that you describe in Mexico and I didn't think that coughing, shortness of breath,low energy was part of the digestive problems I had that are usually a sign of parasites etc.. I went to a doctor in Oaxaca, after suffering for a month until it became really serious(I felt like I was dying) and she gave me some medication and I was as good as new within three days.She gave me some probiotics too after I did what she gave me. You've ingested some questionable water and food on your trips soooo.I would improve your diet too as has been suggested. Sugar feeds those little buggers.Go to a naturopath for that but please have them test you for these exotic critters. Contact a doctor in Mexico because the medical establishment here in N.America doesn't think about this or acknowledge it and usually won't test for it..Also , we can't run away from our pain but our souls demand inner journeys , otherwise it will create ways for us to stop and deal with our feelings and what we need to learn.I hope you can listen to the suggestions and not take it as advice...ha Many blessings.


Feedback is always appreciated!