Sunday, June 17, 2018

The scars we keep

With Katie Monaco and Lael Wilcox in Banff before the start of the 2015 Tour Divide

The other night I had that dream again: It's night on the unknown mountain. I'm clinging to clumps of grass on a steep shale slope. I can hear pebbles clinking down the face; they sound like marbles on glass. Rain pelts my face, a tumultuous stream reflected by my headlamp. I'm facing the wall, paralyzed by fear, because I can feel pebbles pressing into the soft rubber of my shoes. Unknowingly I'd scrambled up a rock face wearing roller skates, until it became too steep to manage. Now if I budge an inch, the pebbles will slip and I'll plummet down a wet chute into certain oblivion. My grip is weakening. I slowly turn my chin upward. In my dim and chaotic spotlight, I see the edge of a man's shoes — bright yellow Hokas, caked in mud. He's skirting along a narrow ledge about a foot above my head. His headlamp beam meets my face. With little faith in this stranger whose situation can't be much more secure than mine, I slowly release a neoprene-gloved hand from its grassy hold and stretch it toward him.

This is the part of the dream that startles me awake, although sometimes I reach the part where the benevolent stranger pulls me to safety. This time, the dream went dark too soon. I awoke drenched in sweat, sometime after 2 a.m. on Wednesday night. I kicked off the covers and walked to the kitchen to fill a glass with water. The thermometer beside the sink said it was 81 degrees inside the house. I took a single sip and held the glass to my forehead. A smirk curled around my lips. "I can't believe I'm still having the PTL dream."

"The PTL dream" is a replay of something that actually happened to me, or at least it's the way I remember the experience now. The stranger who pulled me by one arm to the ledge was a fellow competitor in the Petite Trotte à Léon, an extremely ill-advised 300-kilometer mountain race in France that I attempted in 2013. My race was a classic horror show — waltzed into a technical challenge far beyond my experience level and skill set, had some close calls, became so steeped in anxiety and paranoia that my strained eyesight remained blurry for six months, didn't sleep for four days straight, had what I think can accurately be described as a nervous breakdown, sprinted blindly through the woods and later through dangerous road tunnels, and was "rescued" by race personnel while catatonic on a bus bench. The short version makes it sound even worse than it was — clearly there are worse things, and there were good moments to break up the drama. But five years later, memories of the experience still cause me to break out in night sweats.

I'm hesitant to use the term PTSD to describe my voluntary participation in a recreational activity. But the bad dreams ... the visceral reactions to vivid memories ... the way I still shy away from mountain adventures where I can't guarantee myself a high level of control ... these are real symptoms. Recently, I've been thinking about the little traumas that accumulate in our psyche over the years, as real and permanent as the scars stretched across our skin. A recent acquaintance, another one of those crazies who thinks it's fun to run 100 miles in Alaska in the winter, posted a confession about racing that drove home some of my disconnected thoughts.

 He wrote: "Why the trauma? I realized what wasn't there was the weeks of nightmares and whirlwind of feelings that followed. The report didn't show the fear, the disappointment and embarrassment. (The race) left a scar, one that is still healing and worse yet it took away something I loved, something I was good at. I've continued to challenge myself physically and pursue adventure. But the game has changed. And I sit wishing my change wasn't so defined by this one race."

He was describing an incredibly difficult race that he finished, also five years ago. By anyone's standards, it was a huge success. But successes can't mask distress and heartache, emotional upheaval and paralyzing fear. We choose to participate in these events for their incredible rewards, but there's a dark side as well. Emotional highs and lows last long after muscles have recovered and injuries have healed.

Outside Whitefish, Montana, during the 2015 Tour Divide
I didn't start writing this post to rehash PTL or abiding phobias. But my bad dream and my friend's confession prompted thoughts about more subtle psychological strain and my complicated feelings about the Tour Divide. Since this year's Divide race started on June 8, I've been wholly distracted by it — following friends and also the race leaders along the map, visualizing the mountain passes they're climbing, imagining the places they stop to camp for the night, trying to remember where I was "on this day" in 2009 or 2015, dreaming up strategies "for next year." Next year? Am I really thinking about it that seriously? I've already mentioned it here once or twice, so I suppose I am.

But whenever I give more thought to racing the Divide "next year," the darker moments from 2015 creep in: The way my lungs filled with dust and yellow crud, until every cough felt like like shards of glass ripping through my airways. The way every breath felt and tasted like drawing air through a thick rubber mask. The overwhelming dizziness near the top of most climbs. The way mosquitoes would swarm as I lay in the dirt just off the road, crushed by weakness and unsure whether I could muster the stamina to move another thousand feet, let alone a thousand miles. The way the sun boiled my skin after I started taking antibiotics, and then boiled my brain when the fever set in. The way I could continue to turn pedals while staring into the horizon with such supreme indifference that I wondered if this was what it felt like, to lose the will to live. That sounds overdramatic, I know. It's an incomplete but succinct way to describe a complex experience — becoming sick, losing physical capacities, and the mental coping mechanisms that followed.

Why didn't I just quit? Or at least, quit sooner, since I was doomed to fail anyway? Similar to PTL, it was always a decision, and not one I can justify now. Hindsight is 20-20. It wasn't that I was trying to be tough or brave, or prove anything, really. I suppose I naively held onto hope that things would get better, strength would return, joy would intensify, and I'd feel whole again. It's difficult to let go of stories I've already told myself, to admit that I'll never be in control. But my hubris turned what had been an incredible life experience into something sour, something that turns my stomach when I think about it, makes me taste all over again the sickly sweetness of the hot blueberry Odwalla juice that I forced down when I could eat nothing else, makes me feel the bile that gurgled in my stomach as I plodded — on foot and pushing my bike — up the gentle incline of Ute Pass in Colorado. I finally shut down later that day in Silverthorne. I've regretted most of the 2015 Tour Divide ever since.

Looking healthy and chipper during the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Perhaps this is why I want to go back — I want to take a sour life experience and turn it into something incredible again. I want to reclaim the strength that's been compromised ever since 2015, and reignite the fire. I want to train hard, dance along the edge, feel fierce, and finish strong. But there's also a part of me that wonders whether it's a delusional pipe dream, because my potential has faded for good. Even if I regain all of my past physical stamina, perhaps my psyche is too scarred to prop up my weaknesses.

My experience on the Iditarod Trail this past March leaves me with these questions. Amid my ongoing health rollercoaster whose timing rarely fits my agenda, I had to start the ITI while I wasn't fully healthy or strong. A relapse of breathing difficulty was just one problem — there were others — and I barely muddled through it for days. Similar to past experiences where I went too far or pushed myself too hard, what kept me going was faith that the best was still to come, and incredible joy could still follow. Then the weather just kept getting worse, the effort more taxing, until I was spent. Utterly spent.

Then, on the final day, a small miracle materialized out of the depths of my weakness, and I found incredible strength. This ignited a high that I've only felt on these extreme margins, a beautiful state of bliss that I would battle to the ends of Earth to experience. Recently, most of my writing efforts have turned toward recounting my 2018 adventures in Alaska — yet another Iditarod race report, after I promised myself no more — just because I want to reconstruct the experience, if only for myself. Trying to construct an intelligible narrative hasn't been straightforward or easy. A lot of what happened makes no sense to me. Immediately after I experienced this incredible burst of energy and bliss — and accomplished my goal of finishing the 350-mile walk to McGrath — I went back to Anchorage and more or less cried for a week. This strange sadness is not something I'm sure I can or even want to process. Like my bout of strength, it materialized out of seemingly nowhere. The sadness left just as abruptly, and hasn't come back. I've been fine since we returned to Colorado. And yet, I suspect the scars remain.

Still, scars are not a reason to shirk away from the incredible potential and intensity of life. I used to say that if some kind of selective brain scan could completely remove my PTL experience from my memory, I would take that option. Now, I'm not so sure. The way that trauma still resonates has become meaningful — a kind of visceral jolt that breaks through doldrums. I may even value my bad dreams, which only seem to return when I'm anxious about something else ... perhaps too much obsessing about the Tour Divide.

Interesting that this is what I think about during a quiet week away from adventure. A boost in pollen followed by wildfire smoke from the west sparked some asthma reactions, and I avoided exerting myself outside this week. I did brave a couple of runs, where I felt wobbly and slow, somewhat wheezy and drenched in sweat. When I decided on a racing "hiatus" for the summer at least, I resolved to avoid my usual training traps — stubbornly adhering to plans or mileage goals among them. If I wasn't feeling it, I wouldn't push myself. Now that the rain has returned and my lungs have cleared, I'm sleepily blogging away a Sunday afternoon ... thinking I'll venture out for another slow run, in an hour or two, just to get outdoors for a couple of hours and breathe that clear, cool air before summer returns.

As much as I loved my long rides in recent weeks, I suspect I'm also capable of evolving into a mellow, mostly non-adventurous person — perhaps even happy that way. Should I extend my racing hiatus indefinitely? Walk away? The scabs from my Bryce Canyon crash a couple of weeks ago are sloughing away, leaving behind fresh pink scars. I look at them and smile, so perhaps I have my answer. 


  1. I drove through Lincoln this weekend on my way to and from Great Falls and saw signs for TD support and started crying. I think of the ride in '15 often and am still confused about my feelings about it, during the ride and since the ride... the farther I get from it, the more sour the memories seem. During my ride I was mostly uninspired and full of dread, but there were some good times mixed in there... but there is something in me, also, that wants to correct the experience... I think about doing it again, but not as part of the race, or at least not starting with the grand depart, and doing it as an ITI. The point was never to be recognized for doing the ride, so I think I was being contradictory by doing it as part of a race, which might be why I dislike the state I was in while I was riding... I will say, one of the fond memories I have is of my time in Banff before the start when we got to hang out a little bit. Thanks for reaching out and inviting me to hang out. You are like a big sister that I never get to hang out with; hopefully sometime our paths will cross again. I still love you and your blog after all these years; if I ever come to Colorado I am hitting you up!!!!

    1. Aw, good to hear from you, Katie! I can empathize with your conflicted feelings as well. I too remember feeling somewhat resentful about my decision to start with the 2015 Grand Depart. No matter what your goals might be, it's inevitable that you begin to externalize your decisions toward how they might look to the unseen "audience." There is a lot of appeal to a quietly executed ITT. However, the camaraderie and energy of the group is also so enjoyable. I met lots of great people in 2015 (and had so much fun hanging out with you, Lael, and other friends before the start.) It's a huge part of the experience that I would miss.

      Definitely keep in touch if you visit Colorado. And join me in Banff in 2019! ;-)

  2. Always work within the boundaries of whats enjoyable, if the enjoyment is not there then change what you do so that the enjoyment returns.

    1. I agree. But I also think it's important to pursue what we find meaningful in life. Enjoyable and meaningful don't always line up. I value the range of emotions, as well as the perspectives I've gained over years of endurance pursuits. I do ponder whether I could find something similar from reading and meditation. But since I enjoy outdoor pursuits so much, I continue to follow these paths in pursuit of perspective.

  3. I don't think you will ever be a mellow, non adventurous person, at least not by most peoples' standards. But I do think it's not all or nothing.

    1. Of course it's all relative. By "non-adventurous" I meant spending more weeks like this one ... mellow outings on local, familiar trails, enjoying time at home, not obsessing about some future adventure (which I did do this week anyway.) I still want to travel in this hypothetical future, of course, so non-adventurous is not exactly the right phrase to use.

  4. Maybe your next adventure is something completely different?

    I have always loved your writing because it is so introspective and your willingness to challenge yourself beyond where most of us would go is inspiring.

    Yes, scars stick with us a very long time. Sometimes they do change how enjoyable something can be going forward. Personally I at least always find that they teach me something. I think they give us all depth that we otherwise would not have.

    1. It is interesting how experience reverberates. I agree that we are always learning and expanding, and if we're not, that's the moment that we should reassess our lives.

      Believe me, I do consider the potential of trying something completely new. But I never land on anything that breaks the mold and also holds my interest. It always comes back to variations of long walk, long ride in big empty spaces without many people. Perhaps someday I'll make good on long-standing dreams to ride across Mongolia or visit Baffin Island. Until then, baby steps ... I'm trying to take up new hobbies. Just acquired a bunch of colored pencils, and I'm dabbling with drawing again.

  5. So much of what you write here resonates and helps me process my own traumas. I think what I'm learning here is that we will never become unbroken, and we will never fully be in control. All we can do is relentlessly pursue meaningful life and muddle through.

    I'm currently trying out trauma therapy (with much reluctance - therapy is so not my style). Google "EMDR" if you're interested - it's a way of re-processing and moving through traumas. The goal is definitely NOT to erase or eliminate the bad experience from your life, but to weave it into your identity and mental landscape, to make sense of it, have it be a source of strength and meaning instead of fear and confusion.

    Incidentally, my reaction to my most recent trauma (almost dying while giving birth) is to try to get pregnant again. It's not a crazy way to try to heal!

    I say go for the TD 2019, if the spirit moves you! If the alternative is to quiet your spirit and tell it to shut up, that could be tough. I've tried to convince myself to love things I did not love. It did not go well.

    Can't wait to read more, whatever you decide!

    1. Thank you for your comment. I hoped my post wouldn't offend people who are coping with true traumas ... as I mentioned, I try to keep perspective about my voluntary participation in recreational activities. But I acknowledge that I am carrying baggage from some of the choices I've made.

      I will look up this therapy. Since my little rafting trip earlier this month, I've realized that I potentially could benefit in more ways than one my moving past my water traumas, if it's at all possible. I've dismissed this and other issues for years because they mostly relate to recreation, but my anxieties reverberate in other ways. The process you mention sounds liberating.

      Hope everything goes well with your healing! Thanks again.

  6. These tasks we set ourselves are like Wittgenstein's ladder. You climb up using them, then discard them once they are no longer useful.

    Whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.

  7. Eight years ago a friend & co-adventurer of mine got tired of living with chronic pain and not being able to participate in extreme sports anymore. On one of his last mountain bike rides he became so uncomfortable he threw his bike off the trail in frustration. He took his life a couple of weeks later.
    Often, on a mellow, but beautiful hike or even a gentle stroll with the dog, I think of him and wish he could have adapted. Sometimes I am amazed by my enjoyment of the extraordinary beauty in God's creation during such seemingly ordinary pursuits. Whereas during my former adrenaline fueled efforts I would have considered such boring activity as a why bother. Some of my middle-aged athlete friends and I call it our "new normal" finding satisfaction without the recklessness. Now our endeavors are tempered with restraint such as a two hour mtb ride instead of riding all day. My husband & I call it fitness preservation and we are often pleasantly surprised at how much stronger & more pain free we have become. Best wishes for your future pursuits & thanks for your thoughtful blogs!

  8. Jill, thanks for continuing to reflect and share how complex we humans are; regardless of your choices and future experiences your observations are a window for our own reflections. Personally I think you have many miles and many adventures, as well as races in you. When I think back to you walking down the street in Banff the day before the start in 2015, I recall smiles and excitement dominating any tension you had. From the sidelines, as a blog reader I would say your best moments in life still come when you put yourself outside and engage "Adventure Jill". I suspect you will continue to embrace that approach for all those moments it brings, and as a balance for life's inevitable lows. I look forward to your continuing adventures.


Feedback is always appreciated!