After Mont Cormet, I tracked down Beat and Pieter at a grocery store on the outskirts of Courmayeur. The scene was very "Tour Divide" — they were sprawled out on the hot concrete in front of the store and devouring a spread of chips, ice cream bars, and various cold drinks, including large cans of beer. I asked Beat if beer was such a good idea in this heat, just before embarking on the climb up Mont Chetif — a via ferrata route with chains and cables assisting class-four terrain. Beat just shrugged. Pieter said he was culture-shocked by all of the people in Courmayeur. I pointed out that it was 6 p.m., and at that very moment 2,700 runners were pouring out of Chamonix for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I'd intended to hike out the river trail and watch runners and friends pass, but I wasn't disappointed that I'd gotten hung up in Italy instead.
Les Contamines was the last place to stalk Beat, and I headed out there sometime on Saturday. It was all becoming a blur, even for me. I caught up to them and another team coming down from Col d'Enclave. We only got about three sentences in, as Beat was trying to keep up with the group, but I surmised that Friday night went well for them. "We survived the descent!" Beat proclaimed, as though this was a surprise. He didn't clarify which descent he was referring to, and there were a large number of them between here and Morgex.
I climbed up to Lac Jovet and contemplated a swim, but chickened out.
Instead I descended back to the TMB route to climb Col Bonhomme. This climb was my favorite part of UTMB, marching up the rocky trail well after midnight, with the full moon casting eerie shadows as a string of lights ascended thousands of feet into a starry sky. I wanted to see these mountains in daylight, even though I suspected the scenery wouldn't be nearly as interesting.
Shortly after I returned to Les Contamines, dark clouds sank into the valley and unloaded a week's worth of missed thunderstorms. After six days of sunny skies and hot temperatures, rain and hail slammed into the streets with impressive violence. It had seemed like Beat had finally reached the homestretch, but of course there's no such thing in the PTL. They still had two more passes to ascend, including one over 9,000 feet with steep talus and boulder scrambling that was no doubt being pounded with hail and ice.
I went to bed fretting about their prospects on this pass, but the PTL organization ultimately re-routed them and all following teams to a lower trail. As it turned out conditions were extremely dangerous, with several inches of hail freezing hard to the rocks. I suppose the organization isn't completely sadistic, although Beat was disappointed that they were denied a "full" PTL experience by one measly (horrific) pass. They ran under the arch in Chamonix just after 7 a.m. Sunday, the 12th team across the finish line out of 115 starters and 48 finishers, covering ~190 miles of horizontal distance with 87,000 feet of climbing in 142 hours and 8 minutes.
Pieter and Beat limped back to the apartment to crash, and I gave them some peace and quiet by embarking on my final hike for the week — the steep climb to Col Brevent. It's a scenic little stroll that gains 5,500 feet in five miles, and my plan was to hike uphill only and take the cable car down. I admit that a little of this was a desire to pad my week's numbers to 35,000 feet of climbing in 75 miles — so, about 40 percent of a heavily cherry-picked PTL.
I also was going to test my breathing by pushing the pace, and hoped to reach the top in two hours. But about a mile into the climb I wandered off my planned trail onto the vertical kilometer route that includes a half mile of cables and ladders. There seems to be a perfect grade for gaining elevation fast, and after that the tipping point of steepness causes slower ascents in shorter distances. Oh well. This wrong turn deflated my resolve to push hard.
It also didn't help that it was the Sunday of UTMB week, and the trails were crowded. Fast ascents don't happen when you have to wait in lines. I shared much of the vertical kilometer climb with two British guys who were going to the first cable car at Planpraz, and were super impressed that I planned to ascend all the way to Brevent. "It's only 600 more meters," I told the guys.
"You're American. Do you know what a meter is?" one guy joked.
Nearing the top. I was already thinking I should bite the bullet and run down, but this 2.5-hour ascent was far too slow, and I would be late for lunch, and I had these 16 Euros for the cable car burning a hole in my pocket.
Goodbye to another UTMB week — Beat's fifth completion of PTL since he first ventured into this madness in 2012. Every single time I saw him during this year's race, he swore "never again." But I never believe him, and he's already talking about next year. We go to Europe to see his family, so this is a bit like finding activities to do near your parents' home at Christmas. But I'm still angling for a different summer adventure. Maybe a backpacking trip in Alaska's Brooks Range, although I'm much more terrified of crossing rivers than I am of grizzly bears. But it will be good for me to face these fears.
Just over two weeks ago, I was having dinner with friends in Fairbanks a few hours before heading to the airport. We were at a Thai restaurant with harsh lighting, and I was describing my exercise woes to friends I hadn't seen in a while. The quick explanation is: "I can't breathe when I exert myself, really, at all. It doesn't take much before I start gasping and become dizzy, and sometimes I have to sit down. I used to be able to run entire 50Ks with an average heart rate in the 160s, and now I rarely hit that number before I'm breathless." Corrine, who is a family doctor, looked over at me and said, "You know, your thyroid looks enlarged."
That set off a series of medical visits, and the latest was to an endocrinologist today. I'm very lucky to have good health insurance (thanks Beat!) and medical providers who sympathize with my desire to participate in the ITI, so they fast-tracked me through several tests ahead of the race. This much now …
My physical self has become a stranger to me recently; I don't really "know" my body anymore. I've mentioned the energy rollercoaster, the good days and bad, not quite knowing how much of this is adjusting to thyroid medications, how much is fluctuations of hormones, how much is psychosomatic, how much is just "me."
On one hand, I've struggled with real fatigue — feeling more sluggish in my daily routine, blinking against sleepiness at 3 p.m., sneaking off to take actual naps, and setting an alarm so I don't pass out for hours. This happens despite full nights of sleep and better morning alertness. I've learned that if I want to accomplish something mentally taxing, I'm better off attempting it before lunch. Jill one year ago would give a side-eye to this zonked-out person I'm becoming.
There have been other symptoms that one might ascribe to an underactive thyroid — I'm often cold in the afternoon and have to wrap up in my down com…
Simplicity. To pare life down to its basic necessities. This is the very reason I love backpacking and bicycle touring so much. And, paradoxically, it's also my largest obstacle to embarking on overnight and multiday excursions. I don't particularly enjoy poring over gear options and I'm especially resistant to the planning part of any trip. In my perfect world, a backpack full of gear and food would materialize and I would just pick it up and wander off into the mountains with no clue where I was or where I was going. Of course, if you want to return in good condition or at least alive, a plan-free trip is simply not realistic. But on Monday morning, as I tapped away at my computer and contemplated a hiking binge week, I wondered about the real possibility of an overnight, nearly-plan-free backpacking trip.
Keep it simple. I wrapped up my work and went to my gear closet to pull out my summer sleeping bag (down, rated to 20 degrees), Thermarest and bivy sack. A down coat, h…