Monday, September 24, 2018

Valleys and peaks

After a night of working on deadline, I managed to sleep between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Wednesday before stumbling out of Zinal's blinding sunlight. This morning brought troubles finding Beat's snacks — the village grocery store was closed, and two convenience stores on the highway only had the low-quality, triangle-shaped sandwiches, and no chocolate milk or Apfelschorle. Driving through the busy hub city of Sion, GPS became confused, or I became confused, but I ended up stuck in a long tunnel that spit me out who knows where, and then I drove in the wrong direction for 20 minutes before seeing a road sign that I recognized. I thought I wouldn't make it to the next life base in time. My heart raced with out-of-control stress. 

Despite the setbacks, I managed to arrive at the Grande Dixence dam about ten minutes before Beat woke up from his nap there — I'd negotiated not being at the life base when he arrived so I could grab that two hours of sleep. It sounds silly now that I was so stressed about meeting him simply to deliver sandwiches and words of encouragement, but he had issues with the food offered by the race organization, and inability to take in any of the available foods can have a large negative impact on one's race. I thought it was important to be there for Beat, and he thought it was important too, although I never let on how much I was struggling with all of it. The sleep deprivation and cortisol had gotten to me.

My thoughts began to scramble in disconcerting ways. I couldn't piece together the simple multiplications for Beat's arrival times. Road signs that I had taken the time to Google and learn once again made no sense to me. I drove a fair distance up the no-public-access dam road before realizing my mistake and retreating with my heart racing yet again, terrified because I'd broken a rule in Switzerland. The only available public parking was a full 400 vertical feet below the hotel that hosted the life base — an impressive 10-story building in the shadow of the tallest dam in Europe, 935 feet of concrete grandeur. I lugged a huge duffel of supplies up the steep path to the hotel, hoping I didn't forget anything, because any return trip to the car involved a 30-minute hike.

Beat was still in impressively good shape at kilometer 200, although he complained of nagging knee pain, sleepiness because there weren't many spots to nap outside of the life bases, and then there was the issue with the unappetizing food that limited his energy intake. He was still traveling with Dmitry, and they seemed to have formed a good partnership. It appeared that they were swiftly moving up in the ranks, although it was impossible to know, since the only rankings the Swiss Peaks organization posted — screen shots of a spreadsheet on Facebook — were unreliable. They had several people listed as dropped who were not, including Beat at one point, and often had him listed last because he had the second-highest race number. Completely useless. There were a lot of things the Swiss Peaks organization did well, but where it mattered to me — a crew person — they were not all that helpful.

There were some fantastic kilometers in the Swiss Peaks 360. Beat can report that it was not all wonderful — there were a lot of excessively steep and loose, overgrown, eroded and poorly defined trails on that course. I was lucky to cherry-pick some of the best sections, including Col de Praflueri, one of the highest points in the race at nearly 3,000 meters.

I hiked to this col about an hour behind Beat and Dmitry, after I lugged the big bag of supplies down to the car and picnicked with a triangle sandwich that Beat had rejected, and delicious fresh fruit and bell peppers that I bought from one of the convenience stores. I was feeling worn out from all of the running around that morning, and hiking was my best way to re-energize. The setting was spectacular, with torrents and glaciers and fiercely jagged peaks knifing through a vast landscape that photographs never adequately depict. Hiking was always the best part of this week. Amid the stress and fatigue, whenever I was hiking, I never felt tired.

Marching up to the col, I encountered a number of Swiss Peaks runners who looked justifiably weathered, gazing back at me with their thousand-yard stares. Along this steep and rocky ascent I was listening to Twenty-One Pilots on my iPod, and adopted "March to the Sea" as my theme song for the week. I think this song is meant to be a metaphor for life's rat race, but taken more literally, the lyrics fit well with some of the worst elements of mountain endurance racing.

There's miles of land in front of us 
And we're dying with every step we take 
We're dying with every breath we make 
And I'll fall in line. 

A stranger's back is all I see
He's only a few feet in front of me 
And I'll look left and right sometimes 
But I'll fall in line. 

No one looks up anymore 
Cause you might get a raindrop in your eye 
And heaven forbid they see you cry 
As we fall in line. 

And about this time of every year 
The line will go to the ocean pier 
And walk right off into the sea 
And then we fall asleep.

After Col de Praflueri I made a weird choice to not descend the way I came, but instead cross a somewhat sketchy waterfall and pick my way across a steep boulder field to traverse over to another pass, Col des Roux. This afforded lovely views of Lac des Dix, a pale turquoise body of water beneath sheer cliffs, all above 2,000 meters. 

I scrolled through the map to see if there was a way to loop this hike, and noticed a trail descending to the lake perimeter, lined by a secondary dirt road (the red-colored roads on the map were usually quite rugged.) The map showed a quarter-mile-long tunnel near the dam, and I wondered if it was pedestrian accessible or could be bypassed. There would be a long, long backtrack if it wasn't, but hiking is better than driving.

The tunnel carved right through impressive cliffs, absolutely not bypassable. The tunnel itself looked open to hikers, but it wasn't lit. Sections of the tunnel opened up, so it wasn't a quarter mile of darkness, but there was one long section where I could not see the other side. Again I was stupidly not traveling with a headlamp (I nearly always do, and seem to only neglect to do so when I actually need one.) If I was smart I would have remembered that my phone can operate as a flashlight, but I was not smart on this day. I was actually quite addled, so much so that my plan to walk in a straight line and feel out the ground with my trekking poles crumbled as soon as I bashed into the side of the tunnel with my shoulder. Then I hit the other side of the tunnel, and then I ran into a wall head-on. The total darkness was deeply disorienting, and I realized that I could be turned around. I wouldn't even know. I could just keep walking in circles indefinitely and never escape this tunnel.

This realization prompted a real claustrophobic panic that would be quite funny if you weren't the one experiencing it. From this panic came a decision to walk with one hand pressed against the wall, hoping that if I came out on the wrong side of the tunnel, I'd know, and if I tripped over something, oh well. Finally I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Just as I was about to emerge, another group of pedestrians approached and flipped a switch near the entrance. Overhead lights flickered to life. Oh. I see. Those exist. Well, duh.

Again I slept terribly on Wednesday night. In writing this blog post, it took me a while to piece together where I even stayed. All I remember is sleeping in dreadful fits where I woke up a number of times having drenched myself and bed sheets in sweat, then tossing for hours. This all happened during the time I unintentionally forgot to take my thyroid meds, which makes me wonder if some of these typical hyperthyroid symptoms were a result of this. But now I had insomnia on top of my other issues, and the whole world was looking more abstract every morning.

At some point before dawn I drove, thankfully without issue, to Champex. I actually managed to find good sandwiches along the way, although I have no memory of stopping anywhere. This life base was staged inside of drafty UTMB tents, still in place two weeks after UTMB. A cold morning wind rattled the plastic walls, and the interior temperature couldn't have been higher than 50 degrees. I wandered off to a nearby hotel and found a nice Swiss lady to make me a coffee, the first I'd had in at least three days — to-go coffee is not a common thing in rural Switzerland, and this was the first I'd taken time to just sit down with it.

For Thursday, I'd made plans to meet up with my friend Jenn and hike in Champery, the location of Beat's next life base. Jenn is an archivist from Whitehorse, Yukon, who is currently working on contract for the United Nations and living in Geneva. She just happened to have Thursday off for a Swiss national holiday, and her timing could not have been more serendipitous for me. Spending an afternoon speaking English with another person while doing normal and relaxing activities was everything I needed to get out of my own addled head and not go completely nuts. I picked Jenn up at the train station at Saint Maurice. We enjoyed pretzel sandwiches and another coffee (two in one day!), then toured a centuries-old abbey before continuing on to Champery.

The weather closed in and it began to rain, which prompted my deepest apologies (it's been beautiful all week!) I wasn't planning much of anything ahead at this point, and hadn't found a good trail to hike in Champery. The tourism office was closed, so we ended up buying a round-trip ticket for the tram to save 3,000 feet of climbing, then took a trail recommendation from a mountain biker. The biker's recommendation was of course a mountain bike trail, which turned out to be incredibly steep and slicked with mud (rated black diamond on a trail map we looked at later.) This was less than ideal and by far my worst hike all week, for which I also apologized to Jenn. She took it in good humor. We were just out for a jaunt and the scenery was still beautiful. We gazed up at narrow, jagged ridges and commented on the weird rock formations that looked just like cows. As it turned out, they were actual cows. Ah, Switzerland.

We managed to reach Grand Conche — a peak on the border with France — then descended the horrific mud-slide of a mountain bike trail. A particularly scary section prompted me to duck under an electric cattle fence and cut across the grass. Believing the fence wasn't activated, I grabbed the cable with my wet hand and received a harsh electric shock, rippling through my arm and leaving a dull pain in my wrist for the rest of the day. Ouch. But, on the plus side, that was the most awake I felt all week.

Sadly, Jenn had to return to work on Friday, so she left on the last train out of Champery on Thursday night. I wished she could have stayed with me. I didn't want to go back to the unpleasant emotions of my own company. Despite a more relaxing day, a good meal (all-you-can-eat pizza and DJ night at an Italian restaurant), and the best cheap hotel room yet, I still didn't sleep well Thursday night. I was glad Champery was the final life base before the finish. At least there was light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Beat arrived at the Champery life base around 6 a.m. (luckily a reminder from Jenn gave me the foresight to purchase sandwiches from the closed-until-noon grocery store the previous evening.) He left at 10 a.m., having again rejected my four-blocks-away hotel bed for a cot in the sports center. But he managed to sleep well in that short time, and seemed to be in good spirits.

For most of the morning, my muddled brain continued to wallow in confusion. The hotel offered a breakfast, and I froze with minutes of indecision before a spread that included the extensive choices of bread and cheese or cereal and granola. I tried to plan my schedule for the next two days, and spent several hours believing there was another full day before Beat's finish, when really it would happen in the next 18 hours. Eventually I penciled out an o'dark-thirty Saturday morning finish for Beat, so I had a little more time to hike on Friday afternoon.

For this hike, I made the correct decision to follow the Swiss Peaks course backward toward Col de Susanfe. Although it had rained off and on throughout the night, the storm was beginning to clear, leaving a stunning backdrop of fog and filtered sunlight along the cliffs. From what I gathered from Beat and others, this was probably the most technical segment of the course, cut into the cliffs with sections of scrambling beside sheer drop-offs.

I'd felt out-of-sorts and groggy for the initial slog, but the technical segments woke me up. There wasn't necessarily a lot of danger if one was careful, but there were high costs for mistakes, and the bit of twine strung up along the ledges was not going to save anyone who actually fell. So I took my time, and enjoyed watching the antics of Swiss Peaks runners as they grappled with descending the obstacles as I climbed.

More than 5,000 feet of climbing in six miles brought me to the moonscape col, smothered with fog that was streaming like a freight train through the fierce wind. It was a cold, harsh, lifeless place, and fog-rain cut like cold needles into the exposed skin on my face. I pulled a buff over my forehead and plopped down on the scree to eat a leisurely lunch of crackers and weird tuna pâté. There wasn't much in the way of views, the wind was chilling, my hands were numb, my shoulders were beginning to tremble, and I did not care. This place was real. This place shook my muddled brain from its stupor. I liked this place. 

Before I headed down, the fog cleared oh-so-briefly for some views through the sucker hole into the valley below. It was a remote and beautiful place that I would have liked to explore, but probably not enough to ever actually sign up for Swiss Peaks.

While descending through the cliffs, I encountered a rescue operation for a man who I'm almost certain was a Swiss Peaks racer, although I never found any more information about what happened. They had the man on a covered backboard near the top of the cliffy section, and were administering an IV. Just ahead there was a domesticated goat who appeared to be guarding the operation. I don't normally take voyeuristic photos such as this, but the guard goat was too cute to pass up.

Shortly after I passed, the helicopter arrived. With stunningly fast turnover, they hoisted the injured man into a sky with a rescuer in tow, legs dangling off the basket. Swiss Peaks never posted anything about this, so I don't know what happened or the outcome, but I hope this man is okay.

That evening, I drove all the way into Geneva to meet Jenn at her apartment. Beat and I planned stay at her place after the race until we left for Berlin on Sunday morning. Since Jenn had plans to go to Chamonix for the weekend, I needed to grab they key before she left Saturday morning. The race finished at Le Bouveret, on the other end of Lake Geneva, so the city was more than an hour out of the way, through a fair amount of traffic in the early evening. To top it off, I was completely perplexed about the mixed traffic signals and one-way streets in the city. I did *really* poorly with this navigation. I'm glad no one was there to witness such ineptitude, and amazed I didn't get pulled over by the police. Finally I found the parking garage next to Jenn's place, and was able to grab an inadequate but better-than-nothing two hours of sleep before Beat's text from the final pass came in, around 1 a.m.

The text gave me two hours to reach Le Bouveret. Google maps informed me that the freeway was closed for repairs overnight, so I'd have to take the slow way around the lake, through France. Estimated driving time was one hour and 25 minutes. With big bags in tow, I sprinted a half kilometer from Jenn's apartment to the parking garage, where the entrance I used to exit the building was locked. Swiss parking garages have automatic doors at the car entrances, so I couldn't enter this way either. I raced around to the next entrance, only to find it too was locked. Maybe they lock the garages overnight? A week's worth of accumulated stress and anxiety boiled to the surface, igniting a panic attack. My heart was pounding, my pulse was racing, my hands were trembling and I began hyperventilating until I had to drop onto the ground and put my head between my knees, because I wasn't breathing. Then I stood up and ran around some more, trying every entrance over two city blocks, crying, panicking, feeling as though I was trapped underwater, sinking.

I'm not sure exactly how long this episode lasted. Probably only ten or 15 minutes, although it felt like hours. Any security camera footage must have been quite funny, as this single white woman with a bunch of bags sprinted from entrance to entrance and pounded on doors. Finally, somehow, I figured out that the payment machines included a section to enter an access code, which was printed on my ticket. The access code automatically opened the entrance door. It was oh so simple and obvious, and I immediately felt deep shame about my freak-out. When I finally exited the parking garage, the adrenaline faded and I felt the crushing weight of a fatigue more pronounced than most I've experienced before. I wondered how I'd find the energy to keep turning the steering wheel or pressing the gas. I couldn't understand the city lights or streets at all. Luckily it was 1:30 a.m. and I was more or less alone in the world.

I thought about anxiety, the kind of unjustified and over-exaggerated terror that I experienced at the parking garage. I thought about the way these emotions crept around the periphery when I was a child and young adult. I thought about the reasons I started seeking physical efforts in the outdoors, and later hard efforts through endurance racing, which kept the monster at bay. I thought about all of the ways I've run toward my fears, and time and again proved to myself that fear didn't have to rule my life, that I could be the one in control. I thought about how this strategy has allowed me to ride a bicycle across the Alaska wilderness, in the winter, all alone. And yet I'm still not in control. I can still be utterly flattened by a locked door at a parking garage.

Beat and Dmitry finished the Swiss Peaks 360 just after 3 a.m., for a finishing time of 134 hours and 9 minutes — a solid time for a 232-mile race with nearly 90,000 feet of climbing (as per Beat's Strava track.) I missed seeing them walk across the finish line by five minutes. The race expo looked like an abandoned seaside fairground, with tents and flags everywhere, water glistening next to a pier, and nobody around. A soft breeze was the only sound. I found Beat sipping a Rivella inside the checker's tent. Most of the conversation was with the checker, who was incredulous that we were driving all the way back to Geneva that night. In Switzerland, an hour and a half is as good as a full day's drive. Dmitry was already booking tickets out of there. He was done. Beat was tired but justifiably giddy. He didn't seem to mind that I missed the finish. I tried to hide how upset I was feeling, but didn't do a very good job of it, as I nearly started crying when he teased me about racing the Tor des Geants next year.

I am glad the race went so well for Beat. I actually wish I could have been more help, even though I expended so much energy to do what I did. I will admit to feeling hurt when Beat innocently talked of a Canadian runner whose boyfriend met her at nearly every aid station large and small, and would have doubtlessly had to drive at least 6 hours each day and wait countless more, sleeping in the car to do so. It's not easy, any of this. I do think, in some ways, it would be easier to just run the race, although I'll actually have to finish one of these to weigh in honestly about that. Maybe someday I'll have my chance. But right now I feel so turned off by the thought of another Alpine foot race that it certainly won't be a temptation anytime soon. Of course, I'll probably end up here either way. As Twenty One Pilots sings:

Take me up, seal the door 
I don't want to march here anymore 
I realize that this line is dead 
So I'll follow you instead. 

Then you put me back in my place 
So I might start another day 
And once again I will be 
In a march to the sea.


  1. The whole ordeal sounds so stressful. I think most people would be a mess with dealing with driving in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, no idea where your runner is at and lack of sleep on top of it all. Tell Beat that I say he is very lucky to even have you consider crewing for him during something like this. It does not sound fun. And I know that Eric would NOT crew for me if I wanted to do something like this. Well, maybe once but never again! Don't be so hard on yourself. I would have totally had several melt downs if I was in your shoes, too.

    1. I managed to crew Beat at six Tor des Geants, which involves a similar amount of driving and time commitment, without melting down so spectacularly. The reasons behind my difficulties are unknown to me, but I really think they're on me.

    2. Being locked out of a garage in the middle of the night, having had little sleep, carrying heavy bags, on a tight timeline, in a foreign country, with, I assume, the access instructions in Swiss...and who reads the fine print on a parking receipt? No, I don't think the stress was "on you!"

      Add in the other stuff, including the tunnel lights--probably would have been better if you'd never known!--I think you should be very pleased with how you handled it all, and followed your priority of getting out into the mountains regardless. Regardless of so much!


  2. I'd like to say I'd do this for my husband, but the reality is, I am just too selfish. I can't survive on such little sleep and driving stresses me out. So I'd say, you did pretty well overall.

    1. Ha! It's important to me to be as honest as I can on my blog, but this is one of the more embarrassing stories I've shared, and one of the rare experiences where I thought "maybe I should just gloss over all of the dumb decisions and freak-outs and just caption photos." But thank you.

  3. Oh the joys of international travel. Thanks for the reminders of traffic, unintelligible road signs, bad food choices, etc.. Now I love my Rockies even more :).
    Still, Congrats to Beat for finishing such an extreme endeavor...and to you for doing your best to support him in spite of all the confusion and lack of sleep and darkness and locked doors and....
    so on and so on. After reading this I feel like I need a nap :(.
    Box Canyon

    1. Thank you! It was an incredible performance for Beat, and I hope he'll share his own story about the experience. (He threatened to write his own blog report, but I will believe it when I see it.)

  4. Reading your account left me exhausted too! Seriously, it sounds like you did a great job of taking care of Beat (despite the lack of help from the race organization in terms of tracking) and of keeping yourself sane by finding fun hikes to do. I am not exaggerating when I say that I think that I would have collapsed from exhaustion way before the race was over if I were trying to do all that you did... I know that it was very upsetting but your description of the locked doors of the parking garage finally made me laugh when you mentioned the security cam footage of you ;) Great job by both you and Beat!

  5. I appreciate you being real. It's way too easy to pretend that things are perfect when the reality is almost always different than that. I enjoy crewing, but that's just been on a very small scale. I'm pretty sure I'd work up some spectacular meltdowns in the kind of circumstances you were in the midst of. And my husband would never consider crewing for me, so I vicariously appreciate your efforts.

  6. Jill, your story reminds me of so many difficult adjustments and embarrassing stories, when I came to the US 26 years ago, pretty much right from behind the iron curtain, with barely any prior international travel experience. Walking out of a coffee shop with a styrofoam cup of coffee in your hand? Door locks mounted upside down? Insane... It's amazing how young people (including my 30-something children) are at home anywhere these days. All I can say to any American is go live abroad for at least a year. Or twenty five.

  7. It was such a great pleasure for me to be able to go for a short hike with you, Jill, even if we didn’t find the most spectacular of routes that day. Even though I feel okay with my French here, it is so nice to just relax and be somewhere with a Fellow North American. It is just easier. I don’t always want easy and we both know that growth comes through challenges but.... I guess I just wanted to say it was super fun to visit with you on this side of the pond.

    I hope you are feeling fully recovered from your adventure (Beat too!!) and I hope we get a chance to connect again in 2019, whether that’s in Switzerland, Canada or the USA.

  8. Wow, I can't imagine running that race or trying to make all the checkpoints as a support person, both sound incredibly difficult.

    I'm sorry I had to laugh when the other hikers just turned on the light in the tunnel. How frustrating, but how would you know there were lights. I would never have even thought to look.

    I hope you are able to get better sleep once you get home but what a beautiful place to experience!

  9. The guard goat reminded me of this story:



Feedback is always appreciated!