Monday, September 19, 2016

More days of Tor

My usual mode of operations for the Tor des Geants is to drive to each of the six life bases — generally hitting one per day — bring Beat some dry, clean clothing and other supplies, wait for him to sleep a few hours, fetch beer and espresso, and provide back scratches and moral support. He doesn't really need all this, but I value the overall experience of the "crew-person." This year the task was difficult for me, for personal and other reasons unrelated to the race. I spent much of the week feeling stressed or sad, as well as guilty for feeling this way when I was on holiday in one of the most wonderful places in the world, the Italian Alps. But this is life — we can't always control how or what emotions affect us, no matter how much we want to. 

Let's get the most embarrassing emotion out of the way first: Confronting past failures. I tried and failed to finish the TDG in 2014, after falling and injuring myself in a way that seems almost inevitable, because I'm clumsy and slow and useless. Yes, continuously confronting past failures is bad for self-esteem, and I've currently reached a new low in how I view myself as an athlete. Meanwhile, Beat was running his seventh Tor as one of eleven runners who have finished all of them. I realized that in the many dozens of races he's run since I met him six years ago, there's only one he didn't finish: the 2015 Iditarod, which both of us believe isn't a real DNF. So even my moral support seemed a bit useless. But I still made an effort to drive those narrow, winding, often single-lane Aosta Valley roads with stone walls on both sides and oncoming trucks barreling down at full speed because they don't care, and apparently have a refined spatial awareness that I completely lack. Thus, "driving stress" built up early and strong this year.

On Monday I headed out to Cogne in the morning — partly to avoid the worst of traffic by hitting the streets early, and partly to give myself time to hike before Beat arrived at the life base in the early evening. I mapped out a col that looked doable but different from the standard TDG route, which generally links the most doable high routes in the region (meaning routes that are simply steep class-2 terrain and not full scrambles.) It wasn't until I strapped on my pack and started walking that I realized my quads were almost completely shot from Sunday's adventure on Mont Chetif. Apparently crawling up an endless series of waist-high rock steps while clinging to cables with weak arms and pumping out exhaustive quantities of adrenaline will do that. My quads have not been that sore in a long, long time.

At 10,300 feet — a 5,000-foot climb in six miles — Colle della Rossa is not a small effort. The weather was already beginning to turn with rain, wind, and temperatures in the high 40s. My quads were screaming at times, but I have become pretty good at that "shut up legs" routine — especially when it comes to quads, which are huge muscles that can take a lot more abuse than they'd let you believe.

Looking back at Col Loson, the highest pass on the TDG route at 10,800 feet. I watched runners bounding down the zig-zagging trail and was envious of their downhill speed. My quads were definitely not going to tolerate running, and I hadn't even done the 60 miles of hard terrain they'd already completed. More evidence that I'm clumsy and slow and useless.

I was sitting above the col eating cashews when the fog finally moved in, which sent me scrambling to get down as quickly my quads would allow. The loose scree trail was just tricky enough that I didn't want to have to negotiate it in zero visibility.

On Tuesday I headed out to Donnas and failed to take any photographs of Beat or that beautiful, old village. My quads had recovered a lot during the day, so I embarked on a quick run up to Refugio Bertoni in the evening to spur some energy before I worked through the night. I will be grateful to be back in a North American time zone.

On Wednesday Beat hit Gressoney in the middle of the day, and because I slept through the morning, I didn't have an opportunity to hike. He was moving well but predictably tired at this point. The weather was becoming worse, with colder temperatures, more rain, and sleet and snow on the higher passes. It had gotten to the point where I was hand-washing and drying three to four pairs of socks per day (drying out clothing is probably the most useful thing I did for Beat during the Tor.) It was always fun to see him.

Thursday morning, I was already a bit stressed when I set out for Valtournenche in the morning — the result of a few work issues, and falling behind my own self-imposed deadlines. Driving up the canyon, there were a couple of heart-rate-spiking incidents with big trucks, and then I accidentally overshot the parking lot to the life base. I continued to drive up the winding road until I reached what I thought was a spot with enough visibility to make a U-turn, and pulled over. I checked the mirrors and pulled out, but didn't have quite enough room to make the turn. So I put the car in reverse and began backing out when a white SUV swung around the corner at high speed. I saw the vehicle, but I was unfortunately sideways and blocking much of the road in my mid-turn attempt. I'm sure the driver didn't see me at all until the last second, when he swerved dramatically to the left as I slammed the gas in a desperate reverse toward my original pull-out spot, convinced I was about to be T-boned. The driver stopped and got out of his car, and I did too because I wasn't sure we hadn't collided. He was screaming at full volume, of course in Italian so I couldn't understand what he was saying, and I was shaking and mumbling "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He continued screaming as he walked toward me, and this made me believe he was going to hit me. I'm not sure why I believed this, but instinct urged me strongly to turn and sprint away because violence was clearly imminent.

Instead, he stopped less than a foot away, still too close for comfort, as I stood frozen like a deer in headlights. He screamed for a few more seconds in rapid Italian before stomping back to his vehicle and screeching away. I slunk back to my car, pulled it back into the driveway where I'd first stopped, and broke down. Suddenly I was very frightened and very upset. I think these emotions were an accumulation of driving-related stressors as well as the encounter with a stranger who appeared incredibly angry, which triggered a visceral reaction. Since I couldn't understand his words, he might as well have been saying, "I'm going to kill you." On a primitive level I believed this, and even though he was gone, all of the bad adrenaline continued flooding into my system.

I sat in the car for at least twenty minutes crying and shaking before I put myself together and drove back to Valtournenche. Beat arrived about twenty minutes later. I thought I was over the road-rage incident at that point, but as soon as Beat asked me how it was going, I melted down all over again. It's interesting to experience this reaction, as objectively nothing happened. I've been lucky in my life so far to have not become a victim of violence, and this brief brush with the possibility drove home just how deeply affecting it can be. Just being screamed at by a stranger completely ruined my day, and even after Beat left Valtournenche, I continued to cower in the car and wonder whether I'd find the courage to drive back to Courmayeur.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I defiantly turned up the canyon and headed toward Cervinia. The village is only about six miles from Valtournenche, and I've long wanted to visit and see the Matterhorn. I'd already considered coming here this year, but the terrible weather thwarted my plans. Now I just didn't care that it was 35 degrees, windy, and heavily sleeting. In fact, I was glad conditions were so rough. This weather was perfect for angry hiking.

The view was like this most of the time. I climbed up to 9,800 feet, at which point the route I was tracing became a full scramble on boulders coated in thick verglas. I was angry, not suicidal, so I turned around. Later, looking at a map, I realized this route was an approach on the ridge of the actual Matterhorn (which Italians call Monte Cervino.) For some reason this knowledge made me feel better. Actually, the whole hike made me feel better — pushing a hard pace on my still-sore quads and breathing through a soaked buff as slush slammed into my face and a frigid wind knifed through my jacket. I didn't see another person for four hours, and worked out a lot of the bad energy and malaise.

I decided that if Beat decides to return in 2017 for an eighth Tor, I'll just try to sign up again. I may be clumsy and slow and useless, but I'm still better at this than I am at driving. 


  1. I'm a chicken when it comes to driving overseas. No way could I do what you are doing.

  2. I just want to say that I always enjoy your writing. It's thoughtful, personal, engaging, and sometimes kind of technical. I love following along on your adventures.

  3. This is really interesting. I remember some of your blog posts years ago from this race and they were pretty terrifying. Sometimes your body does weird things and you just don't know what's going on with it. I guess I like confronting past failures, I've heard of people going back to terrifying places to replace their bad memories with good ones (like this glacier bear attack story If you do it again, you have the benefit of everything you learned about yourself and your physical health the first time, and what training weaknesses that you have to work on. Sleep deprivation would be a big one for me.

    1. My memories of the 2014 Tor des Geants are actually very good, right up until the fall. Crawling 14km in 9 hours with a torn LCL was one of the more difficult days of my life, and what I learned is that even a minor injury in the mountains can be a very big deal, possibly life or death in unsupported circumstances. I've also learned over the years that my natural spatial awareness and proprioception don't quite cut it for a mountain athlete, and I'm not convinced I can ever train away my balance issues. And yet I love this kind of stuff ... it's difficult to reconcile.

      Sleep deprivation is manageable in the TDG, as long as you can move quickly enough to stay well ahead of the fairly generous cut-offs. I don't view the TDG as terrifying, but it is an intense physical challenge. The PTL, on the other hand, is both terrifying and brutal. These two races aren't even in the same league, in my opinion.

  4. It sounds like it was a tumultuous time. However, when you say that you have reached a low in how you view yourself as an athlete, may I remind you that you hold the women's record for riding to Nome? Keep remembering that. You've encountered some "failures" because you're willing to push outside your comfort zone by trying things like insane ultra races on foot. Most people wouldn't even try that - they'd stick to what they know that they're good at. Try to remind yourself of your amazing successes too!

    1. I forgot to mention how amazing the photos are! Dramatic!!!!

    2. Thanks! I do appreciate the support. Sometimes issues seem to pile on and I find myself thinking, "everything will be better when 2016 is over." I'm sure you can relate. I hope your pups are feeling better.

  5. Sorry to hear about the road rage episode. It obviously does not help when one may already be in a low mood. I have similar experiences from Alagna. But the cultural perspective is that an Italian guy would never hit a woman (they are the best in the world in screaming) whereas you may get shot in similar situation in Colorado or California with incomparably higher probability. Nice photos!

    1. I thought about this, but I've made my share of driving mistakes in the U.S. and never had anywhere near this strong of a reaction from another driver. I love the Aosta Valley but I'd never make it as a cyclist in that region (and I have my suspicions why you don't see many.)


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