Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tor des Geants, day two

Beat all but told me that he didn't expect to make it beyond kilometer fifty in the Tor des Geants, so I packed his flip flops and a change of clothes before I drove out to meet him at Valgrisenche. He arrived twelve hours into the race, just after 10 p.m., with a slight hobble and a despondent look on his face. "Just say the word," I said without adding any sugar-coated but ultimately empty words of encouragement. "You don't have to do this." 

As lightning streaked through the night sky, he paused for several seconds and gazed resolutely toward a black wall of mountains. "I can probably do one more section."

 Beat told me if I did anything in the Aosta Valley this week, I should climb Col Loson from the west slope. I intended to start in Eaux Rousses before he reached the village and stay ahead of him, but I slept too late. It sounds lazy next to what Beat is doing, but I discovered amid crewing this race that there will usually be time for hiking, but sleeping will be more rare. I sometimes have to meet him at checkpoints at odd hours, and they're all at least an hour of driving away, some nearly two, even between each other. Driving in the Aosta Valley is an endurance sport of its own — all of the roads are nearly too narrow for two cars to pass, marked with warnings I don't understand, are surrounded either by stone walls or sheer drop-offs, are sometimes incredibly steep, and are crowded with local Italian drivers who tear down the winding pavement at breathtaking speeds. I can't adequately convey just how much driving in the Aosta Valley stresses me out. The driving here is more physically taxing than the hiking. Perhaps I would feel differently if I had to hike 330 kilometers — but three to four hours of driving per day, plus two to three hours of crewing, plus five to seven hours of hiking, equals one tired Jill. But I can't complain, because it's not like I'm racing the Tor des Geants.

 Anyway, Beat checked out of Eaux Rousses started up Col Loson about an hour before I did. I knew I'd need to go hard to bank enough time to climb to the top and back, then drive around to the next life base, Conge (32 kilometers by foot, 75 minutes by car.) I made the mistake of dressing too much like a "runner" (gray running skirt, UTMB tech shirt, and Salomon calf sleeves), which resulted in looks of surprise and suspicion as I passed TDG racers. From now on I'm going to try to dress more like a "hiker" so already demoralized runners know that I'm fresh and rested and not playing a fair game. It is a fun way to watch the race, though. I get to meet and cheer on dozens of runners.

But already these runners have been going so hard, for so long, that they're largely desensitized to all but their most basic functions and immediate surroundings. This makes them do funny and awkward things, like collapse on a grassy slope with their head downhill and their limbs splayed out. Should I check to make sure he's still breathing? If this were the normal world, I would, but this is the Tor des Geants. Eh, he's fine.

 Beat was right about the valley below Col Loson — simply amazing.

I caught up to Beat near the base of Col. I expected to see him in much worse shape, but he was climbing strong and smiling. He said his feet still hurt, but the cramping in his legs had mostly subsided. And the fact was, he was making good time — only a few hours behind where he was at that point last year. He excitedly told stories about his night as we marched up the rocky trail.

 He was in a surprisingly good mood. Beat does love Col Loson.

 The trail to this pass just climbs and climbs and climbs. The village of Eaux Rousses is down at 5,400 feet and the col is 10,830. So for a single pass, he had to log a vertical mile not even factoring multiple drops and climbs along the mountainside. Near the top, the wind was brisk and fresh snow covered the rocks. We saw a couple of racers who were suffering from altitude sickness.

 At the col, we shared a brief goodbye before Beat began the endless descent to Cogne. The Tor des Geants has so many huge passes that they just have to take them all in stride.

 On my way back to Eaux Rousses, I encountered my friend Ana Sebastian, a Spanish runner who I met last year in Nepal. Ana planned to run UTMB last week, but couldn't start because of a grade three sprained ankle. I had lunch in Chamonix with her the day before the race, and she was still having trouble walking down the street. We joked about me taking her bib and giving TDG a shot if only I could fool the passport checkers into believing I was a Spanish woman with short brown hair. But Ana, being the kind of person who signs up for races like the Tor des Geants one week after UTMB, decided to start anyway. Interestingly, her ankle wasn't giving her too many problems, but her knees were sore and swollen. I could tell she was in pain and torturing herself in the same ways Beat has been, but I was still terribly excited to see her there. Ana is the kind of person I feel closely connected to, even though we don't know each other well and struggle to communicate with each other (although her English is fairly good, it's limited, and my Spanish is nonexistent.) Still, there are some people you just "get." If she finishes the race, I promised Ana I'll eat a liter of gelato with her at a place in Courmayeur that serves gelato by the liter. I really hope she finishes.

I did a fair bit of running down to Eaux Rousses to make up for lost time, but my shins were unhappy and I had a strange tweak in my right knee. I can already tell I'm going to be managing some post-UTMB stuff until I take a proper rest. But I think it's manageable, and I'll stop if it increases. Still, I hate to waste any opportunity to go into these mountains. And it's not like I'm running the TDG or anything.

Eaux Rousse to Col Loson, round trip: 16.5 miles.
Total climbing: 6,434 feet
Total time: 5:54

 It's worth it. It seems Beat would agree. He's still going.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Onto the Tor des Geants

Beat and I spent the past week in Germany visiting his mom. It was a quiet five days of refueling with delicious German bread and yogurt, and getting the tiniest bit of work done. Beat's feet were shredded after the PTL — the entire pad of his right foot was a giant blister — so he refrained from even walking down the street. I felt good after UTMB; as soon as I caught up on sleep and the soreness in my left knee subsided, I would go so far as to say I felt the same as I did before the race. It's strange, because when I ran the Laurel Highlands 70-miler in June, I felt so much more muscle soreness and overall fatigue. UTMB was undoubtedly tougher than that, and yet I emerged from it as though I'd just gone out for a casual weekend run. I think it's a statement about how much my mind is directing this little hobby of mine, and my body is simply along for the ride. Because I braced myself for 45 hours at the limits of my abilities, 23 hours of mud management felt relatively minimal.

So while Beat soaked his feet, I got in a few hours of trail running on the Hermannsweg in Bielefeld. This trail system reminds me of lush forest paths in the eastern United States, and makes for relaxing and enjoyable running. Although I tried to keep it dialed back and lower intensity in the interest of remaining healthy for the following week, I still logged 33 miles over four days. On Thursday I did one harder (for me) twelve-mile run (9:45-minute-mile pace on a route with 2,300 feet of climbing.) While I was blissfully loping through the forest, I hardly noticed the effort. But as soon as I set foot back in the house, all of my UTMB fatigue came flooding back into my bloodstream in a rush of lactic acid and light-headedness. I was shattered for the rest of the day; I couldn't even focus on an article I was working on. It seems my body has a say in this after all.

On Saturday, we returned to the Alps for part two of Beat's glorious mountain beat-down. There isn't time in this blog post to go into the analysis of why he's like this, but he loves look for the next hardest challenge in organized events. When he found out the PTL (290 kilometers, 22,000 meters of climbing) was just one week before the Tor des Geants (330 kilometers, 24,000 meters of climbing) he just had to do them both. Oy. Although he was genuinely excited about the soul-crushing fatigue of such a challenge, I don't think he was expecting PTL to wreck his feet the way it had. He fretted about it all week in Germany, but decided to start the TDG anyway.

Beat at the starting line in the town center of Courmayeur, Italy, just before 10 a.m. Sunday. He doesn't normally like to wear Hoka One Ones (the padded clown shoes that I love) but decided his feet needed all the help they could get. He packed his gear loosely in a Raidlight 30-liter pack because it helped alleviate some tension on his shoulders and back. He was surprisingly calm all day Saturday and Sunday morning; his lack of angst revealed the ways in which his heart just isn't in it this year. But we both agreed that all he's doing is going to spend some time in the mountains until he doesn't feel like doing that anymore, and then he'll stop. Time will tell whether his stubbornness sees this sentiment through to the finish.

The race start was fun and exciting, as traditional Italian dancers pranced down the streets of Courmayeur, remote-control helicopters with cameras buzzed around, and a crowd 600 runners and hundreds more spectators hummed with nervous energy. Six hundred is still a lot of runners, but it just feels like a more appropriate scale for such an event than UTMB. It's large enough to be a grand exit, but still intimate enough that you feel like you're a part of it, rather than a distant spectator squinting at a screen.

I was planning to meet Beat at the first life base and 50-kilometer mark later that evening. After getting some errands done, I figured I had four hours to complete a hike of my own. I'd forgotten just how much time crewing for TDG demands; last year I had to go hard to squeeze in a few hours to myself during the day. It seems this year will be no exception.

I picked the Col Licony trail because it's a place in Courmayeur that I never visited last year. The trail was runnable in the marginal way a trail that gains an average of 1,200 feet per mile can be runnable — that is to say, it's still faster for a person like me to power-hike. My legs kept a great pace until mile four or so, when I started to experience sharp cramps in my calves. Beat, unsurprisingly, has been enduring even worse cramping in the TDG. My determination had to surrender to my tired muscles, and I slowed my pace. Still, the last two miles were comically steep, in such a way that I was often using my hands to scramble up the rock steps along the trail. Even at 30-minute-mile pace, I began seeing stars.

What I appreciate about trail signs in the Alps is that they never tell you how far away something is, only how long it will take to get there. This is probably because most hikers would see three kilometers and not expect that it would take them more than an hour to cover that distance. So these signs tell the hard truth, but it's also fun to see how well I can beat the projected times. I can sometimes halve them when hiking hard uphill, but my downhill times are usually closer to projections.

The trail took me all the way to Bivacco Pascal, a stone hut at a point on the ridge at 9,630 feet elevation. Even though it had been 28 degrees C in Courmayeur, a chilled wind blew along the high ridge and it felt significantly colder. All of the sweat I generated from hiking in the heat seemed to flash-freeze to my skin. This is a good place for a mountain shelter.

The views from Bivacco Pascal. It certainly wouldn't be a bad place to spend a night. 

Courmayeur is such a great mountain town. The village is relatively small, the food is wonderful (mmm, Italian) and the mountain access is almost unparalleled. It's always fun to walk out of a hotel room and score 6,000 feet of vertical relief in an afternoon. The views of the Aosta Valley, more the a vertical mile below, were stunning.

Courmayuer to Bivacco Pascal, distance round-trip: 12.5 miles
Total climbing: 6,643 feet
Time: 4:14

I'm stoked to be back in these mountains. 
Friday, September 07, 2012

Little Leon Trot

Eight hours after completing Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, I returned to the finishing chute. With a pronounced limp in my sore left knee, I took stiff steps, zombie-like, down the empty corridor. Half-detached banners fluttered in the wind, adding a ghostly ambiance to the quiet streets of downtown Chamonix. It was 2:16 a.m. I rounded the corner to the finish line — brightly lit and deserted, as though a crowd of party-goers left in a hurry and forgot to turn out the lights. I leaned against a street lamp and eventually slid to the sidewalk, too exhausted to stand.

Fifteen minutes passed in this trance-like state, the eerie ghost-town silence, and the wind amplifying the 38-degree temperature. Finally, two figures approached — one wearing a dim headlamp, the other with a familiar profile also strolling with a pronounced limp. I pulled myself to my feet and waved my arms weakly as Daniel and Beat rounded the final corner. Just eight hours earlier, when I finished my 110-kilometer, 23-hour run of UTMB, thousands stood in the square to cheer for runners. There were hundreds of waving banners, live images on a huge screen, and motivational slogans shouted over loudspeakers. Now, after 290 kilometers and 125 hours of La Petite Trotte Leon, I was the only person left to cheer for team "Too Dumb To Quit." After they crossed the finish line, I held up my camera and Beat turned to face me with a glazed smile. Given the places they'd traveled, the challenges they faced, and the mountains they'd climbed in the past five days, it seemed fitting that their event should end so quietly. If UTMB is the charismatic star of European trail running, PTL is the genius older brother who goes about inventing mad schemes in the attic — brilliantly brutal schemes.

Beat is working on typing his own story about PTL, so I won't blather too much about it here. But I do need to admit a little lingering jealousy about their experience. When I saw photos of the mountain vistas they saw, the refuges they visited, the vertigo-inducing ridges they traversed, the streams they crossed, and they snowy peaks they tracked over, I believe my first words were "I picked the wrong race!" Not that I'm a strong enough "runner" for the PTL, not yet. I believe it would take at least a couple more years of building my base, toughening my feet, and improving my technical skills before I can even dream about tackling a challenge like the PTL, which is unsupported, full of class-four and even class-five scrambling, and includes 22,000 meters of overall climbing to boot. Beat and Daniel, and also our Bay-area friends Steve and Harry, completed the course this year. I'm in awe.

This brings me to some final thoughts about UTMB. It was an event unlike anything I've experienced, and that was exactly my aim in participating. As much as I admittedly envied the quiet mountain run Beat and Daniel experienced, that's certainly not what I was expecting from UTMB. I knew it would be a crowded, loud affair. I knew, based on weather-related changes and cancellations in past years, that there was a strong chance the event would be disrupted. I knew my chances of finishing (the full event) were fairly slim. My journey to UTMB started out as a bit of a light-hearted joke when I threw my name into the lottery in January. I was shocked to learn I even qualified, and since Beat was planning to race PTL anyway, I figured I had nothing to lose. I didn't even tell Beat I was entering the UTMB lottery. I was embarrassed, admittedly — not only because I felt vastly underqualified, but because I also knew UTMB wasn't really "my kind of event." Lots of people. Lots of hype. Lots of running.

So I didn't belong. But that, in a way, was its own appeal. As a runner, I'm undoubtedly still a beginner. I still feel awkward and uncomfortable in my movements any time I exceed eight-minute miles on pavement. All through UTMB, my left elbow throbbed with pain — a reminder of the two silly crashes in routine training situations that happened just weeks earlier. I have remnants of shin splints that cropped up while I was hiking. And UTMB is effectively the World Cup of trail running.  What beginner wouldn't be excited about an invitation to an event like that? I felt like a Little League kid invited to step up to the plate at the World Series. And while I certainly didn't smack the ball out of the park, I feel like I landed a solid base hit. Who wouldn't be thrilled about that? Who wouldn't feel encouraged to continue pursuing this worthy hobby?

As for experience itself, I think my race report made it sound more unfun than it actually was. I had my frustrations that I wrote about, but for much of the time I truly was enjoying myself, especially the parts when we were higher on the mountains at night (my favorite parts of the race tended to be others' least favorite, go figure.) There were a few genuine jerks on the trail, especially that guy who simply jumped over the woman who fell into the mud (I offered a hand when I approached, but she was standing by that point.) But a large majority of the two thousand runners on the trail were courteous, which was good for me, as my pace rarely matches those around me. Alongside others who are moving my "speed," I tend to be faster uphill and much slower downhill, and this results in my trying to pass others during climbs and subsequently getting passed a lot while I'm moving downhill. Most people are likely able to maintain a more even paceline. So my experiences with "jostling for position" were likely more pronounced than others'. Even still, many people actually moved over for me while climbing or waited for an opening to pass on the descents. So yes, there were a lot of people, and yes, the trail felt overcrowded — but really, that's all part of the "UTMB experience." It was intriguing and motivating in its own way.

I think the mistake I made in my own mindset was getting too hung up on the "mountain adventure" before the race. It set me up for huge disappointment when the plans changed, even though I do believe these changes were necessary given the scale and liability involved. "Mountain adventures" are self-contained, and races are races. I should have accepted that I was at the "World Cup of Ultrarunning" and focused on that aspect of the experience. I should have run the first half harder. :)

Would I go back to UTMB? It's tough to say. I think it's a grand stage, but I'd rather wait until I am a stronger and more assured runner, should that day ever come. I would love to circumnavigate the Tour du Mont Blanc independently, and I might get my chance just yet. Until then, I wanted to post a few of Beat's pictures from the grand mountain adventure of the PTL.