On Thursday I planned to drive into Italy to catch up with Beat and Pieter in Étroubles. I almost got an early start, but my friend Roger had a few hours to spare amid his own whirlwind UTMB preparations, and invited me to "the best bakery ever." I ordered a ham sandwich at 8 a.m. and struggled to speak in full sentences. I'd slept poorly again — jet lag, perhaps — and couldn't get my head together. Roger chastised me for not ordering bakery food and added an Italian blueberry tart to the order. I was grateful for the treat, but didn't tell him that these blueberry tarts remind me of some of my more nauseating moments in races like UTMB and the Tor des Geants. I still ate the tart and the rest of my ham sandwich five hours later, while sitting in the hot sun minutes before hiking another 5,000 feet up a mountain. Suffice to say I still don't have a great association with Italian blueberry tarts.
I enjoyed seeing Roger, but didn't arrive in Étroubles until 20 minutes after Beat and Pieter left. Driving through the Mont Blanc tunnel isn't cheap, and I was bummed about the missed opportunity. I figured I could catch them in Morgex later that night, until I learned the checkpoint was 40 kilometers away — which, converted to PTL miles, means 20+ hours. I did have a chance to catch up with my other friends in the PTL — Uwe from Germany, Chris from Switzerland, and Dima the Russian Bostonian — as they inhaled a massive lunch in the thin shade. Temperatures were again north of 30 degrees, which I'm told is in the 80s Fahrenheit but somehow feels like 100 in these mountains. My own breakfast-leftover-lunch wasn't sitting well, and I searched for excuses to retreat back to Chamonix. But I did pay 50 Euros to drive through that tunnel, so ...
I didn't take any photos of the lower part of the route, but much of it was a near-direct line up a steep grassy slope that was slippery when dry. No doubt it would have been an ordeal in wet conditions — the kind where you wish you had an ice ax and crampons for your summer hike. I know from experience that this kind of terrain is typical for the PTL. This is Europe, these mountains are riddled with well-traveled trails, and somehow the race organizers manage to connect the most obscure lines possible. Beat jokes that they take 60-year-old maps and base the route solely on those.
The upper part of the route joined the Tor des Geants trail, returning to stress-free travel where I could daydream about running the TDG again someday. My track record with European mountain races is awful, and that may haunt me forever if I don't finish one of them eventually. For all of its flaws, I'd actually love to run UTMB again, but qualifying and getting through the lottery pose a significant roadblock. The Tor des Geants is considerably more difficult, but it might be the race that best suits a better-trained me. When I attempted it in 2014, I was actually having a decent run up until I slipped, twisted my left knee, and sustained a partial LCL tear. That 200-mile journey still calls to me, but I have a lot more respect for the distance, and vowed that I wouldn't come back until I can figure out my breathing issues and put in a solid four months of real mountain training — which I can do now that I live in Colorado. Someday.
Speaking of breathing issues, I've had absolutely none since I arrived in Europe. I was able to engage some good, hard efforts climbing these mountains, even up at 8,000 and 9,000 feet — not all that high, but definitely within my problem zone at home. Either the medications I recently started taking are kicking in ... or I'm specifically allergic to Colorado. I did experience other allergy symptoms on the Italian side of Mont Blanc — sneezing and watery eyes — but grass seems to be more prominent there. My efforts also felt tougher when symptoms kicked in. I was thrilled to connect some of these dots, because I feel like I'm closer to figuring this out.
I climbed to Col Champillon, sat on a boulder in the slightly-less-hot-sun at 9,000 feet, and watched PTL teams pass by.
PTL teams making their way down from Col Champillon.
Looking back toward Étroubles.
I hiked back the long way on the Tor des Geants route, because I could. Screw butt-sliding down rock-strewn grassy slopes, when I can enjoy fireweed blooms and enough solid footing to look up at the scenery occasionally. I did encounter two PTL teams who took a wrong turn and descended more than a thousand feet before they realized it. They did not look happy.
I finally caught up with Beat and Pieter on Friday morning in Morgex. It did indeed take them 20 hours to travel the 40 kilometers from Étroubles, and they moved continuously during that long, difficult night. The route included a long traverse of a jagged ridge with a lot of exposure, where the supposed safe route was not obvious in the dark. Beat had a GPS track telling him one thing and sporadic PTL-placed markings telling him another, and it all looked precarious at best. They picked their way along the death ridge and then had to traverse more 50-degree grassy slopes with hardly a goat trail to place their feet. Beat edged the side of his Hokas in the loose dirt and hoped for the best. It sounded like a long, long night.
Our friend Uwe took a fall on that ridge and sustained a deep laceration near his shin. It was still bleeding hours later, and he looked quite pale. Still, he was determined to go on — this was his fourth PTL attempt, and he had yet to finish a course. This year he finally had a strong team and had already come a long way — 220 kilometers over four nearly sleepless days. One of the PTL participants at the checkpoint was a French doctor who offered to look at the wound, and used an emergency kit to stitch it up. It wasn't just a cut, it was a gaping wound, and the grabbing and stretching of remaining skin to sew it together looked incredibly painful. The stitch job didn't hold and the wound continued to bleed. It's gory, but worth documenting. This is the battle-zone spirt of PTL — a runner was moderately injured, the only person who came to his aid was another competitor, and no one was attempting to talk this sleep-deprived, effort-addled runner into making the wise decision to stop. I was a strong advocate of stopping, but only added quiet arguments. Gratefully, sanity prevailed and Uwe took up my offer to drive him to a bus station in Courmayeur while his teammates continued. I really empathize with him. Failures do haunt you, no matter how much you already accomplished, and how necessary they are.
From Courmayeur, I trudged up Mont Cormet — just a little 5,000-foot climb and descent to connect two neighboring towns all the way down in that valley. A thermometer in town registered 33 degrees — 91F — and the grass was pumping out sneeze fumes as little flies buzzed about and I ascended 3,000 feet in two miles, with the last half mile up a 40-percent grade. I'm told the Courmayeur side of the climb is completely tame compared to the Morgex side, which apparently traces one of those 60-year-old, now-nonexistent trails through steep brush. Beat and Pieter were still moving well and seemed surprisingly chipper. I guess there must be some reason Beat keeps coming back to PTL in particular. And I keep tracking them, trying to figure out what that reason is.